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

The Best Writing by Diplomats from China – Don’t expect anything recent

Posted: April 21st, 2015 | No Comments »

51cYViS2VtL._AA160_Reading Kerry Brown’s recent short, but measured, Penguin Special on the parlous state of diplomacy when it comes to China I couldn’t help pondering one of the problems that Brown posits with tact but I’ll mention with none – the generally poor state of most western nations diplomatic staff in China. Britain in particular has not had anyone able to offer much thought on China for some time now in Beijing. But once diplomats in China were fun, fascinating and all-round intellectuals, scholars and poets. Blandness is today’s key to being a top diplomat in China it seems – say nothing, do less, hold no opinions. It wasn’t always like that and the books below prove it…books we will never see the like of again now the age of the diplomat-scholar and diplomat-poet is long past….

indexPaul S Reinsch, An American Diplomat in China (1922). Reinsch was an early China Hugger who had the temerity to like China and the Chinese and actually believe in promoting the Open Door Policy, Wilson’s 14 Points and agenda for smaller, less powerful nations and had to resign after the First World War when Washington turned its back on all that. He was attacked for being soft on China, and for having a German surname, but he was a great American Ambassador and wrote a considered and affectionate book about his time in Peking. In An American Diplomat Reinsch fought back and defended his position and the Chinese – not a likely thing to appear on bookshelves these days from an Ambassador to the PRC.

1401976315MLM_1Daniele Vare’s The Maker of Heavenly Trousers (1935) is the best of several books Vare wrote while an Italian diplomat in Peking. He was urbane, stylish, extremely well read and very popular. A modern day diplomat would find wandering the hutongs for chance conversations with interesting merchants a bit tricky – they’re pretty much all bulldozed and somehow the tale of a walk round a Carrefour and a chat with the staff at a new Subway Sandwiches franchise is just not as charming.

indexReginald Johnston was a British diplomat in Hong Kong and Weihaiwei and, of course, tutor to Pu Yi. Twilight in the Forbidden City (1934) is the story of that experience and the old Forbidden City. One imagines that the tutors of some horrid Red Prince at Harvard won’t get quite the same lush source material.


Saint-John Perse’s Anabasis is a wonderful poem written in 1924 and then translated by none other than TS Eliot in 1930 (any diplomat poetry worthy of an Eliot translation currently!). Perse was actually Alexis Leger, the press attache at the French Legation in Peking between 1916 and 1921. While in Peking he wrote Anabasis and so it is suffused with imagery from China and Asia.  It is simply beyond comprehension to imagine a diplomat in Beijing doing such a thing now!

indexThe marvelously named Count Damien de Martel and Baron Leon Viktorovich de Hoyer wrote Silhouettes of Peking in 1920 something or other – it was mildly scandalous at the time recounting various love affairs and infidelities. De Martel served as Chargé d’Affaires in the 1910s and Foreign Minister in the 1920s; De Hoyer was the Russian head of the Russo-Asiatic Bank’s Peking branch. Imagine the British Ambassador and the head of Standard Chartered in Beijing writing a racy, scandalous and immensely evocative book of the city after the fall of the Qing nowadays!

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Very Special RAS Shanghai Event – A Screening of The Shanghai Document—‘Shanhkayskiy Dokument’ from 1928 – 23/4/15

Posted: April 20th, 2015 | No Comments »

RAS Documentary Group

Wednesday 22nd April 2015
Melange Oasis, Jiashan Market

The Shanghai Document—‘Shanhkayskiy Dokument’

Yakov Bliokh
1928 shanghai document yakov bliokh
The Shanghai Document (Russian: Шанхайский документ) is an early documentary film. This silent film was directed by Yakov Bliokh (Яков Блиох, 1895-1957) and was released in the USSR in 1928.
The film portrays Shanghai, China in the early 1920s. It shows the contrasts between the world of Western expatriates (including Britons, Americans, New Zealanders, Australians, and Danes) who live in the luxurious Shanghai International Settlement, and that of the Shanghainese inhabitants, who spend their days laboring.
The events that inspired the film revolve around the Chinese nationalist revolution (1925–27), including the May Thirtieth Movement, and the First United Front of the Chinese Communist Party, and the Nationalists (the Kuomintang), and its collapse in February 1927 when Chiang Kai-shek ordered a purge of the Communists in Shanghai and in other cities held by the revolutionaries
Limited space. For reservations email bookings@royalasiaticsociety.org
ENTRANCE:  Members 20 RMB – Nonmembers 50 RMB. The venue requests that participants buy a drink to cover their costs.
BOOKINGS: bookings@royalasiaticsociety.org.cn
WEBSITE:  www.royalasiaticsociety.org.cn
MEMBERSHIP: Membership renewals and applications will be available at the front desk


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Ghost Cities of China – London launch with Wade Shepherd & Owen Hatherley, Waterstone’s, Piccadilly – 20/4/15

Posted: April 12th, 2015 | No Comments »

I’ll be launching the latest book in my Asian Arguments series for Zed Books at Waterstone’s on Piccadilly (a lovely, lovely big bookstore if you’ve never been inside and a wonderful piece of architecture itself) on April 20th with a round table discussion on China’s Ghost Cities with the author Wade Shepard and Owen Hatherley, author of A Guide to The New Ruins of Great Britain and Militant Modernism.

Place: Waterstone’s, Piccadilly

Time: 7pm

This event is free but booking your place is essential! Please contact: piccadilly@waterstones.com or 020 7851 2400





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Laowai Rampage in Shanghai – The Night Angry Italians Trashed the Isis Cinema in Hongkew

Posted: April 11th, 2015 | No Comments »

Years ago I came across a reference to the riot at the Isis Theatre (cinema) in Hongkew in February 1937. I thought it worth a little investigation. On a cold February night in 1937 200 Italians – Squadrini posted in Shanghai, Italian sailors on shore leave and some particularly nationalistic local Fascisti Shanghailanders descended upon the Isis Theatre (cinema) in Hongkew and trashed it. As you can see from the newspaper article below there was quite a fight and the Russian projectionists got done over. The interior of the cinema was wrecked and they stole the film. Why such a kerfuffle?

The film in question was a Soviet Russian made movie showing the atrocities committed by Italy in its invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) a year or two before. The Italians in Shanghai were obviously not happy at the film’s portrayal of their country and its empire building actions under Mussolini. The Nationalist Chinese government tried to get the film back, but I don’t think they ever did. The cinema did recover and resume screenings of other films.

The Isis was up on Boundary Road (now Tianmu Road), effectively the junction between the International Settlement in Hongkew (Hongkou) and the Northern External Roads in Chinese controlled Paoshan (Baoshan). The Laslo Hudec designed cinema was close by the North Szechuen Road (now Sichuan Road North) and not far from the heavily patronised Venus Cafe. The fighting spilled out of the cinema onto Boundary Road until a combined force of Shanghai Municipal Police, Japanese Gendarmes, Italian military police and the Chinese police turned up to sort it all out.




Szechuan Road North

The North Szechuen Road

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Kangzhan: Guide to Chinese Ground Forces 1937-1945

Posted: April 10th, 2015 | No Comments »

One for the specialists on WW2 in China I think….



Kangzhan: Guide to Chinese Ground Forces 1937 – 45 is the first ready reference to the organization and armament of Chinese ground forces during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 – 45. The work integrates Chinese, Japanese and Western sources to examine the details of the structure and weapons of the period. Recent scholarship has contributed greatly to our understanding of China’s role in the war, but this is the first book to deal with the bottom-level underpinnings of this massive army, crucial to an understanding of its tactical and operational utility. An introductory chapter discusses the military operations in China, often given short shrift in World War II histories. The work then traces the evolution of the national army’s organizational structure from the end of the Northern Expedition to the conclusion of World War II. Included are tables of organization and strength reports for the wartime period. The armament section illustrates and details not only the characteristics of the many and varied weapons used in China, many seen nowhere else, but also their acquisition and such local production as was undertaken. This is complemented by a chapter on the arsenals and their evolution and production programs. The Chinese army was one of the largest of the war and it, and Japan’s, fought longer than any other. It faced unique challenges, including fragmented loyalties, huge expanses of territory, poor logistics networks, inadequate arms supplies, and, often, incompetence and corruption. Nevertheless, they fought bravely in major battles through 1941 and were able to counterpunch effectively in important regions through the rest of the war. Aimed at both military historians and wargamers, this work fills an important gap in our understanding of this, the most under-appreciated army of the war.

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Shock Horror – Yankee Strippers in Shanghai (1937)

Posted: April 9th, 2015 | No Comments »

Well actually there weren’t any. What there were were Chinese knock-offs of the famous (infamous) Sally Rand and her fan dances and balloon bubble dances which wowed ’em at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 where she twirled, not quite showing all thanks to the delicately placed fans and balloons, to Claire de Lune. She was once arrested four times in one day for nudity. It didn’t take long for Shanghai to get in on the act and for local dancers to start waving fans and bouncing balloons on stage.

Of course a little later real strip acts came to the nightclubs of the Shanghai Badlands, but that’s another story…..


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Shanghai to New York in 34 Days Courtesy of Barber-Wilhelmsen

Posted: April 8th, 2015 | No Comments »

The Barber-Wilhelmsen shipping line was actually Norwegian I think – this add is from 1940 and offered a 34 day service to New York from Shanghai. Dodwell’s, a leading British Hong in Shanghai (and Hong Kong) were their agents from their offices on Canton Road (now Guangdong Road)….

Barber Wilhemson Line ad 1940

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China Silly Season Stories? Nothing New – A 1937 Chinese Nudist Colony Revealed

Posted: April 7th, 2015 | No Comments »

Anyone reading a daily newspaper will know that China is a very popular source for silly season stories of bizarre goings-on that may or may not be true, may or may not be quite accurate, but are amusing…well, nothing’s changed. Here an intriguing, though informationally scant, article from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern on May 7th, 1937. Sadly the island is not identified and rather a lot exist north of Shanghai. Perhaps there are still naked fishermen wandering the shores of such a fabled island…or perhaps not…..


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