By Anton Graham
The myth of old Shanghai is constantly referenced in the Shanghai of today for commercial purposes, but amidst the art deco fonts and the faded fake posters, the “real” old Shanghai got lost somehow.
Robert Bickers retrieves it for us in this fascinating piece of historical detective work.
Bickers chooses one relatively obscure member of the Shanghai Municipal Police and digs as deep as he can go, gathering every scrap of information available to build a picture of what it was REALLY like to be an ordinary foreigner in the Shanghai of the glitzy and much romanticized 1920s and 1930s.
The forgotten individual chosen for this resurrection is Richard Maurice Tinkler, a native of Yorkshire in northern England. He arrived in Shanghai in 1919 at the age of 21, after having fought in France in the Great War, and died almost 20 years later, still in Shanghai, in violent circumstances. But it would be unfair to give too much of the story away.
The lives of Shanghai’s prominent foreigners such as Sir Victor Sassoon were not typical in any way of the lives of foreigners in Shanghai in those far-off decades, but it is all you read and hear about today. It is through the minutiae of Tinkler’s story that it is possible to feel the world of old Shanghai as it was. Its dazzle is balanced with darkness.
Tinkler spent much of his time in Shanghai as a policeman with the Shanghai Municipal Police. He was clearly an obnoxious, racist and violent man. But, as Bickers goes to great lengths to show, he was also a product of his age, the age of the British Empire. Shanghai, while never a colony, was an integral part of that world.
“This book is about empire,” says Bickers in the introduction, “and specifically about the ways in which it shaped and distorted twentieth-century British lives, about the experience of Britons living and working in a world of empire and then living in a post-imperial world.”
That’s true, and the book is very successful at reminding us that we are all touched by the British Empire in some way, directly or indirectly. The preface to the book, incidentally, is the most eloquent and incisive explanation of the condition of British empirehood that I have ever read.
But it is Shanghai itself that stands out. In fact, it is probably the best Old Shanghai book I have read. The question is: did Bickers choose the right title? If it were me, I would seriously consider re-issuing the book with the word “Shanghai” in the title.
Shanghai is hot once more, after all, while the concept of empire is less marketable.
Bickers relates how he came to choose to do a biography of Tinkler – he was handed a file full of letters while researching another book at a library in London – and became fascinated by the possibility of Tinkler being a tool to prise open an entire world.
This book is about an Englishman who becomes a policeman in the alien world of Shanghai and loses his way.
It is an exploration of the attitudes of foreign residents of old China, particularly policemen whose whole world was sliding towards war, while in China the Japanese were becoming more and more aggressive, starting with an attack in Shanghai in 1932.
“Tinkler would have approved wholeheartedly of the war in 1932; most Britons did,” says Bickers. “Here at last, went the club talk, somebody had the guts to give the bloody Chinese the bloody nose they deserved.
This is what they had expected the Shanghai Defence Force to do in 1927. The Shanghailander atmosphere stank in 1931. The summer floods on the Yangtze had prompted a nasty rash of letters to the North China Daily News (disowned by the paper itself) which argued that as China wanted to rid itself of foreign settlements, then it should shift for itself in times of trouble as foreign residents had too uncertain a future to allow them to worry about the ‘hostile’ Chinese.”
There is much more like this, incisive analysis of an era which still resonates strongly but with all the nuances stripped away. Bickers replaces them. To sum up: superb readable scholarship and a rare window on the world of old Shanghai as it really was.
Empire Made Me, An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, by Robert Bickers, Published by Penguin Books, Columbia University Press, ISBN: 0141011955; ￡8.99 paper at amazon.com.uk