“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

Posted: December 22nd, 2014 | No Comments »

Jie Li’s Shanghai Homes looks like a useful read and remiss of me not to have mentioned it previously – just made the Guardian’s Top Ten City Books for 2014….


In the dazzling global metropolis of Shanghai, what has it meant to call this city home? In this account — part microhistory, part memoir — Jie Li salvages intimate recollections by successive generations of inhabitants of two vibrant, culturally mixed Shanghai alleyways from the Republican, Maoist, and post-Mao eras. Exploring three dimensions of private life — territories, artifacts, and gossip — Li re-creates the sounds, smells, look, and feel of home over a tumultuous century. First built by British and Japanese companies in 1915 and 1927, the two homes at the center of this narrative were located in an industrial part of the former “International Settlement.” Before their recent demolition, they were nestled in Shanghai’s labyrinthine alleyways, which housed more than half of the city’s population from the Sino-Japanese War to the Cultural Revolution. Through interviews with her own family members as well as their neighbors, classmates, and co-workers, Li weaves a complex social tapestry reflecting the lived experiences of ordinary people struggling to absorb and adapt to major historical change. These voices include workers, intellectuals, Communists, Nationalists, foreigners, compradors, wives, concubines, and children who all fought for a foothold and haven in this city, witnessing spectacles so full of farce and pathos they could only be whispered as secret histories.


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Street Photographer Bon Wen Captures the Sad and Sorry Demise of the old Jiangwan Shanghai Library

Posted: December 21st, 2014 | No Comments »

Thanks to Shanghai street photographer Bon Wen for sending me a link to his excellent photos of the old Shanghai library – not the better known old race course building (on the corner of Nanjing West Road and Huangpi Road), which was, for a long time, the Shanghai library, or the monstrosity they built on Huai Hai Road which resembles a courthouse-cum-maxi-prison and is largely designed to discourage anyone wandering in and looking for a book. No, this is the Shanghai library in Jiangwan, built in 1934-35, and part of the futuristic planned civic centre for China-administered Shanghai. If you’ve not been (and surprisingly few people do) then go immediately – subway line 10 to Jiangwan Stadium.

Now the inevitable sad story of the building – first a library built by the Nationalist government and stocked full of books – good thing. Then the communists took out all the books (too many they disagreed with) and turned it into Tongji Middle School – shame about the books but worse things than a school. Then the post-communist leaders of today’s philistines threw the school out and let the building rot.

Click here to see Bon Wen’s photographs of the dereliction of the once fine structure and some images of the original (as below)…a real shame.


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How Shirley Temple Helped Pioneer Mandarin

Posted: December 20th, 2014 | No Comments »

There was a time (the 1930s) when cinema audiences queued around the block to see a new Shirley Temple movie. There was also a time (also the 1930s) when the Chinese Nationalist Government launched a concerted effort to make Mandarin, the language of the Peking court, the national language. Interestingly the Nationalists in China roped in little Shirley Temple in Hollywood to help their cause. I blogged earlier this year, noting her death in February, about Shirley Temple’s one cinematic outing to China – the 1936 movie Stowaway in which she played Barbara “Ching Ching” Stewart, an orphan stranded in China. She is saved from bandits and taken to Shanghai where she meets a rich American playboy wasting his time in the city’s nightclubs and stows away aboard his ship back to America. In the film she has a pet Pekingese dog, Mr Woo, which Temple later kept for herself as a pet renaming it “Ching Ching”.

So here’s how she was roped in to promote Mandarin. Hewaring of the movie (filmed entirely in Hollywood of course), the Nationalists dispatched a certain Paul Fong, originally from Canton (Guangzhou) but a Mandarin speaker (and University of Missouri graduate – China’s history is littered with them!) to California as a Chines language expert to 20th Century Fox. The studio agreed to use Mandarin in the movie, but had a problem as the vast majority of the Chinese extras they regularly used in such movies were native Cantonese speakers and spoke little to no Mandarin. So, organised by Fong, Shirley started Chinese classes alongside the extras who also needed to learn Mandarin. In the movie she uses about 400 words of Mandarin and sings a little song in Chinese too. All thanks to Fong who hired Bessie Nyi, a Shanghainese in LA who had studied at the University of Southern California, to teach Shirley while he himself taught the extras – 900 of them in all. It was a dedicated process and Mandarin is spoken even in several scenes set in Hong Kong!

And so America got to hear Shirley speak Mandarin and the movie got released in China to encourage kids to learn Mandarin too. Seems everyone was happy, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for Sunday, December 20th, 1936.






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The Penguin China World War One Series is Complete – It’s over by Christmas!!

Posted: December 19th, 2014 | No Comments »

The Penguin China WW1 series is complete and now available as e-books – unlike the actual First World War the series is over by Christmas and all are now out….available on amazon.co.uk, amazon.com and good bookshops in Hong Kong, China and Australia (paperbacks in those places)….


Penguin China WW1 boxset

Here they are in a kind of order….








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Rangoon’s Architectural Heritage – the Saddest Picture anyone who cares about Preservation in Asia Will See Today

Posted: December 19th, 2014 | No Comments »

Burmese preservation activist Thant Myint-U posted this sad, sad picture from Rangoon of a lost house, destroyed to provide parking….


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Shanghai’s Metropole Hotel & Hamilton House Remembered

Posted: December 18th, 2014 | No Comments »

I recently contributed a small piece to the Visualising China blog on Sir Victor Sassoon’s Metropole Hotel in Shanghai (the one constructed in the 1930s on Kiangse Road (Jiangxi Road), rather than the older, decidedly more notorious, Metropole Hotel that stood on the Bubbling Well Road by the racecourse and was long gone by then. The Metropole, scarily about to get “Refurbished” (and China Rhymers will know why that should fear into their hearts) is adjacent to Hamilton House and I do note some of the varied businesses that rented office space there over the years – here then are some ads for those businesses….




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A Few Suggested China Rhyming Christmas Reads….

Posted: December 17th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

And so it’s the Christmas reading selection again which, as usual, includes no books published by me or written by me and only ones that impressed. Not much of a year for non-fiction I thought as nothing grabbed me especially and there didn’t seem to be much for those of us who exist between the exalted academic tome and the perfunctory Stations of the Cross China book. Still, a few interesting fictional outings I thought….

41Cvwzs64FL._AA160_Lawrence Osbourne’s The Ballad of a Small Player was without doubt the stand out novel of the year that dealt with a China theme…and the China reading/Sinology crowd almost entirely missed it!! An amazing portrait of contemporary Macao and the peculiarities of losing your wallet and your mind in this Chinese gambling mecca. Osbourne writes like a demon possessed and has an uncanny eye for the small stuff that elevates a novel to greatness…and he, unlike few other novelists these days, doesn’t suffer from verbal diarrhea, but rather keeps it tight, taut and concise. It’s been a while since we had a great novel about contemporary China by a non-Chinese – this is it – it may take a while before another comes along I fear.

51-95zmsq-L._AA160_Susan Barker’s The Incarnations was also an amazing piece of work combining deep research, great writing and genre-bending styles across the story of a Beijing cabbie and his previous lives through Chinese history. Like Osbourne, Barker hasn’t really had quite the level of attention she should have and there have been a few snide and stupid reviews that reflect poorly on the reviewers (OK – this one had some cheap shots) but hopefully this is a book that will build a fan base over the long term. I’m pretty convinced it’ll come to be seen as a great book in time as it grows on people and word spreads.


41PGyHV4GdL._AA160_Edward Wilson’s The Whitehall Mandarin was a Le Carre-esque romp through the 1960s and 70s from British spies to the jungles of Vietnam – however, there’s a Chinese twist which makes this worth reading. Wilson is probably the best espionage writer pumping out great books at the moment and this is a good way in….




51fAguPgn8L._AA160_James Ellroy’s Perfidia was always going to be a must read as soon as it came out – it’s a wild and crazy romp from the noir master set on the eve and aftermath of Pearl Harbor with plenty on the fallout in LA Chinatown….




And, for those who thought it might appear, there will be no recommendation of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, despite the literary establishment fawning over it – Flanagan’s Japanese characters are straight out of a 1950s B movie, lack any nuance and are stereotypical. Very, very disappointing. Surely, long after we’ve shown many sides of the German war experience, we can do better representations of the Japanese and their various motivations and experiences – but reading Flanagan, it appears not! Mini-rant over. Merry Christmas.



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Negotiating China’s Destiny in World War II

Posted: December 17th, 2014 | No Comments »

A new collection of essays on China at the end of World War Two with some notable contributors….


Negotiating China’s Destiny explains how China developed from a country that hardly mattered internationally into the important world power it is today. Before World War II, China had suffered through five wars with European powers as well as American imperial policies resulting in economic, military and political domination. This shifted dramatically during WWII, when alliances needed to be realigned, resulting in the evolution of China’s relationships with the USSR, the U.S., Britain, France, India, and Japan. Based on key historical archives, memoirs, and periodicals from across East Asia and the West, this book explains how China was able to become one of the Allies with a seat on the Security Council, thus changing the course of its future. Breaking with U.S.-centered analyses which stressed the incompetence of Chinese Nationalist diplomacy, Negotiating China’s Destiny makes the first sustained use of the diaries of Chiang Kai-shek (which have only become available in the last few years) and who is revealed as instrumental in asserting China’s claims at this pivotal point. Negotiating China’s Destiny demonstrates that China’s concerns were far broader than previously acknowledged and that despite the country’s military weakness, it pursued its policy of enhancing its international stature, recovering control over borderlands it had lost to European imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and becoming recognized as an important allied power with determination and success.


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