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

Saigon Preservation Battles #2 – The French Officers Club

Posted: December 15th, 2014 | No Comments »

Sadly the GMC building I posted about recently is not the only architectural relic from the French colonial period threatened with demolition in Saigon. The former French Officers’ Club (Cercle des Officiers), the oldest surviving French colonial building in the city, is also threatened. The building, 45-47 Le Duan, is now the home of the Ho Chi Minh City District 1 People’s Committee, which is proposing to knock it down and build themselves a new structure on the site 0- US$75.5 million has apparently been earmarked for the demolition and rebuilding project.

The colonial era structure was built in 1876 at the command of Rear Admiral-Governor Victor Guy Duperré (30 September 1874 – 30 January 1876) to provide social and recreational facilities for high-ranking members of the French armed forces. the plan now is to raise only part of the building the committee does not believe has much heritage value, but the demolition would destroy the original design of the building. The building is extremely spacious and has beautiful shuttered windows and cool verandas, typical of the period’s best architecture in French Indo-China. The French inhabited the building until the retreat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

the entire district in central Saigon is a tourist spot but has already seen a great deal of destruction. Close by a beautiful old art deco apartment building at 213 Dong Khoi Street has gone and another, that dates back to 1888, is threatened at 159-161 Ly Tu Trong Street.


The Cercle des Officiers as was originally….


2The still well preserved exterior that is now threatened…

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Royal Asiatic Society Shanghai Book Club – China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival – 18/12/14

Posted: December 15th, 2014 | No Comments »

RAS Book Club


Thursday, 18 December 2014, 7:00-9:00pm

 RAS Library

The Sino-British College, USST

1195 Fuxing Road Middle Road near South Shaanxi Road



China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

by Rana Mitter

Hosted by RAS members Christopher Murphy and Raymond Kolter

RSVP: to RAS Bookings at: bookevents@royalasiaticsociety.org.cn  or just Reply to this email.


ENTRANCE CONTRIBUTION: Members 20 RMB  Non-members 50 RMB. Those unable to make the donation but wishing to attend may contact us for exemption.

MEMBERSHIP applications and membership renewals will be available at this event.

RAS MONOGRAPHS – Series 1 & 2 will be available for sale at this event. 100 rmb each (cash sale only)

WEBSITE: www.royalasiaticsociety.org.cn

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Saigon Preservation Battles #1 – Les Grands Magasins Charner (Saigon Tax Trade Center)

Posted: December 13th, 2014 | No Comments »

The former Les Grands Magasins Charner, or simply GMC, in Saigon building may well go, if developers get their way and the public and preservationists are thwarted. Built in 1880, it was one of the finest examples of architecture from the French Indo-China colonial period left in the city. From the start the building always had slight Indo-Chinoiserie flourishes with a traditional western clock tower topped of by a pagoda-like structure. It was a retail architectural style familiar to the French of the grand magasin/Bon Marche type and stood on the corner of rue Bonard (the old name of Le Loi Street) and rue Charner (the old name of Nguyen Hue Street). In 1942 (when Saigon and Indo-China was run by a collaborationist Vichy French administration) the building was mucked about with a bit – the clock tower taken down and replaced with a GMC banner. In the 1960s it became a high end shopping centre in Communist Vietnam. Though the exterior changed and was further mucked about with the interior was still littered with French decorative touches, wonderful bannisters and French cockerel motifs. There was a campaign to save it, mostly from traders within the complex but it’s gone now – the site will become a skyscraper!



The original GMC – late nineteenth century

index1interior slightly later…

index2interior staircase…

txatax1_kybysurviving bannister iron work


GMC after adaptations to the exterior in 1942


a 1927 advertisement for GMC Saigon


Surviving cockerel bannister contour at GMC

txatax3_yioxSurviving flower bannister contour at GMC

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Jonathan Fenby on the 1914 Siege of Tsingtao – London 15/12

Posted: December 13th, 2014 | No Comments »

The Siege of Tsingtao – Jonathan Fenby

Monday 15 December 2014, 6.45pm

Swedenborg Hall

20-21 Bloomsbury Way

(Hall entrance on Barter St)

London WC1A 2TH

Free (Booking recommended)

Book online here


In 1914, Europe was not the only continent coming to terms with a new form of conflict. Through a mix of complex alliances and global ambition, the war had spread to northern China, where the German-held port of Tsingtao became a key battleground. To strike a blow at Kaiser Wilhelm’s naval forces, Britain and its ally Japan laid siege to the port during October and November of that year. In this lecture celebrated historian Jonathan Fenby will examine the causes of the battle, the ulterior motives for it, and the path on which it set East Asia for decades to come.

The Siege of Tsingtao was to be the only armed clash of the First World War in East Asia, and – involving 32,000 troops, a death toll of less than 500, and fewer than 2,000 wounded – was a tiny affair compared to the conflict being fought in Europe. But, coming at a time of retreat in Europe it was a tonic from afar, described at the time by the British cabinet as ‘the heaviest blow delivered at German world-power’. Indeed, the victory ensured that the First World War would not extend in the region beyond 1914, as Germany’s naval squadron was deprived of an operational base in East Asia and was subsequently destroyed by the British as it tried to return to Europe.

Following Japan’s victory in Russia in 1904-05, this second triumph over a European adversary also marked a fresh advance for the rising regional nation. Japan was to reap the rewards of declaring war against Germany when, at the Treaty of Versailles, they were granted concession over Tsingtao, sparking tensions with China that were to have significant long-term ramifications.

Jonathan Fenby, a former editor of the Observer and South China Morning Post, is editor in chief of the information website, Trusted Sources.

He has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Economist and Reuters and held senior editorial positions at the Guardian and the Independent in Britain. He contributes to publications, broadcasting stations and websites in the UK, Europe, the United States and the Far East.

He has written books on France (On The Brink), Hong Kong (Dealing with the Dragon) and the unreported story of the deadliest British naval disaster (The Sinking of the Lancastria). In 2007 Jonathan published Alliance; the Inside Story of how Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill won one war & began another (Simon & Schuster) which the Guardian review described as “the best sort of history”. He is an author of several popular books on China, including the acclaimed Tiger Head, Snake Tails, The Penguin History of Modern China, Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost, and Will China Dominate the 21st Century. His latest book, The Siege of Tsingtao: China Penguin Specials, was published in 2014 as part of a series marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

He is on the board of the European Journalism Centre and is a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University.

To reserve your place, please call the Japan Society office on 020 3075 1996 or email events@japansociety.org.uk or submit the online booking form.

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Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations

Posted: December 12th, 2014 | No Comments »

Joshua Fogel’s Maiden Voyage is a new story to me and looks fascinating….


After centuries of virtual isolation, during which time international sea travel was forbidden outside of Japan’s immediate fishing shores, Japanese shogunal authorities in 1862 made the unprecedented decision to launch an official delegation to China by sea. Concerned by the fast-changing global environment, they had witnessed the ever-increasing number of incursions into Asia by European powers – not the least of which was Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan in 1853-54 and the forced opening of a handful of Japanese ports at the end of the decade. The Japanese reasoned that it was only a matter of time before they too encountered the same unfortunate fate as China; their hope was to learn from the Chinese experience and to keep foreign powers at bay. They dispatched the Senzaimaru to Shanghai with the purpose of investigating contemporary conditions of trade and diplomacy in the international city. Japanese from varied domains, as well as shogunal officials, Nagasaki merchants, and an assortment of deck hands, made the voyage along with a British crew, spending a total of ten weeks observing and interacting with the Chinese and with a handful of Westerners. Roughly a dozen Japanese narratives of the voyage were produced at the time, recounting personal impressions and experiences in Shanghai. The Japanese emissaries had the distinct advantage of being able to communicate with their Chinese hosts by means of the “brush conversation” (written exchanges in literary Chinese). For their part, the Chinese authorities also created a paper trail of reports and memorials concerning the Japanese visitors, which worked its way up and down the bureaucratic chain of command. This was the first official meeting of Chinese and Japanese in several centuries. Although the Chinese authorities agreed to few of the Japanese requests for trade relations and a consulate, nine years later China and Japan would sign the first bilateral treaty of amity in their history, a completely equal treaty. East Asia – and the diplomatic and trade relations between the region’s two major players in the modern era – would never be the same.

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Leo Itkis in Shanghai, 1941 – “A Particularly Good Musician”

Posted: December 11th, 2014 | No Comments »

Back in 2009 I posted an old advert from Shanghai’s Park Hotel (still there on Nanjing West Road) from 1941. Although it was late 1941, Shanghai was the “solitary island” and Pearl Harbor was but months away Shanghai still swung, with a tea dance from 5-7pm anyway. Providing the music was Leo Itkis and his orchestra. SAdly I knew nothing else about Mr Itkis. Well, now I know a little more courtesy of some of his descendents and a bit of research.

As best I can make out Leo Itkis was a White Russian who, as a young man, became a pianist. He appears in 1926 in Singapore at the Victoria Theatre accompanying a number of Russian ballet stars on tour – though they were also White Russians from Harbin, Shanghai and Europe. They performed straight ballet, comedy numbers and a demonstration of the seriously modern Charleston for the audience. The Singapore Straits Times described Leo Itkis as “a nineteen year old pianist said to be a particularly good musician.”

Later Itkis must have settled in Shanghai and formed his own orchestra that eventually played at the Park in 1941. According to his relatives, who’ve done some research into his life, he sadly died in 1942 of post-operative shock from an operation to repair nerve damage in his neck. He left a widow and son. She later remarried a US Army Captain and went to America with him at the end of the war.

That’s all I know so far….but if you want to know what JG Ballard thought of the Park Hotel, about the time Leo Itkis was performing there then I blogged that before here



The wonderful Park Hotel on Bubbling Well Road, towering over the old race course, now the dreary Renmin Square


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England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War: A China Penguin WW1 Special

Posted: December 10th, 2014 | No Comments »

Anne Witchard’s England’s Yellow Peril rounds out the Penguin China World War One Series – all available as e-books globally and as paperbacks in Asia/Australia. Anne’s is available here on Amazon UK and here on Amazon US.



51kAK5DFAsL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_ As England suffered heavy casualties at the front during World War One, the nation closed ranks against outsiders at home. England sought to reaffirm its racial dominance at the heart of the empire, and the Chinese in London became the principal scapegoat for anti-foreign sentiment. A combination of propaganda and popular culture, from the daily paper to the latest theatre sensation, fanned the flames of national resentment into a raging Sinophobia. Opium smoking, gambling and interracial romance became synonymous with London’s Limehouse Chinatown, which was exoticised by Sax Rohmer’s evil mastermind Fu Manchu and Thomas Burke’s tales of lowlife love. England’s Yellow Peril exploded in the midst of a catastrophic war and defined the representation of Chinese abroad in the decades to come.

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Ellen La Motte’s Peking Dust 1916-1917 Memoirs Republished

Posted: December 9th, 2014 | No Comments »

Ellen Newbold La Motte is one of the early twentieth century’s most interesting, and yet mostly forgotten, China sojourners. La Motte started out as a nurse in Baltimore and, at the outbreak of WW1, signed up to be a nurse in Europe before America joined the war. Her diary of her time in Belgium, The Backwash of War, is a bitter indictment of the trenches. After her time in Europe La Motte travelled on to Asia, wanting to observe the pernicious effects of opium addiction. A number of books came out of this time, all worth reading, including Peking Dust, which is the most interesting book to be written by a foreigner on the effects on, and thinking in, China of World War One.

And, good news, it’s just been reissued in an annotated edition as an ebook by Camphor Press (or Amazon)

Camphor Press have also put an old Peking quiz onine – one for all wannabe China Hands and Would-be Sinologists to try…..click here



A hundred years ago few places on Earth were as captivating a destination as Peking. When American Ellen La Motte resided in the city in 1916–1917, she – like so many other Westerner travellers of the time – was smitten: “if you have ever stayed here long enough to fall under the charm and interest of this splendid barbaric capital, if you have once seen the temples and glorious monuments… all other parts of China seem dull and second rate.”

Peking was then the political capital, the military and cultural heart of China, a walled city of majestic palaces, intimate courtyard houses and elegant gardens, a city glittering with thousands of temples and shrines dedicated to a bewildering variety of deities – indeed, it was Asia’s greatest religious center.

During La Motte’s residence in Peking, she was witness to the wonderful mix of the medieval and modern – motorcars jostling with rickshaws and camel caravans in the narrow streets – and to the convulsions of great political change. The end of imperial dynastic rule in 1911 had ushered in a new uncertain republican era. First World War politics loomed large, too, with the various powers intriguing to have neutral China choose their side.

Ellen La Motte was a nurse, writer, and activist, an unconventional woman who immersed herself in the city’s politics, arts, and the opium trade (she would go on to be a leading international anti-opium advocate) and, likewise, her book is an unusual look at the ancient Chinese capital, combining the angry rants of a progressive campaigner and the upbeat impressions of a new arrival captivated by the sights and color.

This Camphor Press edition comes with a new introduction and explanatory notes.

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