Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Recognising the Academics of the Republican Era

An interesting piece in the China Daily on the top ten trends in Chinese publishing in 2008 - why would anyone buy stock picking tip books, Olympics books, Obamania etc, etc. But perhaps the most interesting 'trend' they note is:

'3. Academic books published during the Republic of China years are being "re-discovered" en masse, ranging from literature, history and all branches of social sciences. This represents a restoration of the missing link caused by political and cultural schism.'

What are they inferring? Are they admitting that the Great Communist Party Myth of the pre-1949 era is true and that Republican China, notwithstanding plenty of nepotism, corruption and political errors, was indeed a pretty vibrant place for academics, writers, artists and thinkers; that China's academics engaged seriously with the world in a way that is not even possible now with so many subjects 'off limits' and so many Chinese academics hopelessly academically and politically compromised; and that indeed it was the communist take over in 1949 that led to the cessation of this flourishing and marked a deadening hand on the process?

Probably that's not quite what they mean but it's an interesting choice of trend anyway. So while we're at it let's plug once again the best China history book of 2008 - it's small, concise and lays the Great Communist Party Myth to rest - Frank Dikotter's The Age of Openness: China Before Mao.

EXPO Dreamers – Be Careful What You Wish For - It Can Backfire

A few historians have been piling in on the Shanghai 2010 EXPO issue and looking back to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, remembered in London these days for having giving us Crystal Palace (left), a name then appropriated by a crap South London football team. Behind the scenes EXPO 2010 is in disarray - at the moment the whole thing looks like being paid for by the Shanghai government as one big lump of ‘stimulus’ – the Americans are on the verge of pulling out due to lack of cash and sponsors (they apparently have a very sensible law that no public money can go into funding their stand at EXPO); the UK has singularly failed to interest anyone and raise more than a bit of loose change (though the government can, if it chooses, just pay for the lot) and other countries are less than keen given the financial situation.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a great historian of China and, for an academic, fortunately has the knack of writing in a way normal people who don’t spend all the day in the stacks can read after a day’s work. He recently wrote an interesting piece on history, Shanghai, his new book Global Shanghai 1850-2010 and muses on the EXPO from a historian’s perspective. Well worth a read – click here.

Wasserstrom is also a ‘sunny side up’ kind of guy in that all-American way – he invariably sees the good side of things. Of the first EXPO (the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London) he notes, ‘the “First World’s Fair,” that 1851 London event had the goal of giving visitors an increased appreciation of the international dimensions of the present and the technological possibilities of the future.’ Very upbeat and surely it did – but it’s worth remembering that one man’s idea of the future is another man’s nightmare and that 1851 was a bit of a cock up for the Yanks. So let’s remember that, as it’s not mentioned much these days.

The Americans came to London in 1851 keen to inspire old Europe with all their new world energy. As the centrepiece of their exhibition space they displayed a statue - Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave (left). It portrays a Greek girl (Christian we assume) captured by the Turks (Muslim naturally) and put up for sale in a Middle Eastern slave market (where of course bad things happen to good Greek girls). It attracted a lot of attention, not least because she had her tits out which will always appeal to a British audience even if The Sun hadn't conceived the notion of their Page 3 daily nudie quite yet. The art critic Robert Hughes argues that: 'By the 1840s Powers was incontestably the most famous sculptor America had yet produced.'It was pure Americana in many ways - the triumph of Christian virtue over sin aimed point-blank at those Puritan sensibilities that did then, and still do, weigh large in American culture. It worked so well that American Clergymen urged their congregations to go and see The Greek Slave.

However, like many American ideas, it didn’t translate in Europe quite the way they hoped. Supposedly reflecting America and Christian virtue, Punch was quick to remind readers of the actual fact of American slavery with a parody piece The Viginian Slave (below left). Remember that in 1851 America was yet to outlaw slavery, the Civil War was yet to be fought – America looked somewhat less than progressive and cutting edge in many British eyes.

Some Americans used the gaff to try and raise the issue – Frederick Douglas and Lucy Stone pointed out that the statue represented little about sin and virtue and a lot about the degradation of the enslavement of women – something American should think upon as they were busy doing it. The black activist William Wells Brown staged an anti-slavery demonstration at the Crystal Palace declaring, ‘As an American fugitive slave, I place this “Virginian Slave” by the side of the “Greek Slave” as its most fitting companion.’ For the rest of the Exhibition demonstrations by abolitionists continued around the statue until the American officials finally took it away, hopefully shamefacedly but probably not.

So be careful what you wish for – America in 1851 may have wanted to show the ‘technological possibilities of the future’ and the greatness of the USA- but they ended up showing themselves as a slave owning nation (Britain had ended slavery in 1833; the French just managed to look superior to America by abolishing it in 1848) who’s racism was so ingrained none of its officials could even see the irony of using the Greek Slave statue. And while hundreds of thousands filed past the ridiculous and insulting centrepiece of the American pavilion back home the black folks were given something else to look at (see left).

Chinese Pirate Flags - Goddesses and Bats

As mentioned before I’ve just finished a piece on pirates of the South China Seas for the excellent Asia Literary Review – so the last few months have been spent either researching the history of pirates across the region from China to Borneo, the Philippines to Malaysia and everywhere in between. One thing I’d never thought about before was what flag pirates sailed under back then – not the Jolly Roger (either as a skull and crossbones or skull and crossed swords) that’s for sure. So I thought worth a bit of investigation.

Actually they had a variety of flags and sometimes no flags – they were pirates after all so rules were a bit of an anathema to them in general. Most just used a colour to identify themselves to each other within a fleet. But one pirate Ching Yih – who died in 1807 by which time he’d built up a pretty impressive pirate armada of about 80,000 men and women comprising a fleet of 800 large ships and about 1,000 smaller boats - had an elaborate flag adorned with the mythical empress of heaven Tien Hou Sheng, the calmer of storms and a goddess to fishermen in southern China. The Goddess is surrounded by bats, a symbol of good luck.

It’s a very good flag – apparently one remains in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (one of the few good school day trips we used to get at my Comprehensive - miles better than going to crappy Chessington Zoo to get beaten up by South London schoolies or boring Calais to buy yet another flick knife and packets of bangers).

The Grand Hotel – Tsingtao

A contact in America was kind enough to send me some scans of various luggage labels recently from around Asia collected in the 1930s.The Grand Hotel Tsingtao (Qingdao) is a good one as I’m not sure it’s there anymore.

Here’s a picture of the hotel in its heyday.

Grand Hotels Ltd ran three hotels in Tsingtao as their flyer below shows. I don’t know much about the hotel except that it crops up in a lot of GI memoirs – American soldiers were apparently billeted there at the end of World War Two.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The highlight of my 2008? - Looking for Pirates in the South China Sea

Not a bad 2008 really. My highlight was taking a voyage on a VLCC oil tanker from Singapore to Mailiao in Taiwan with 180,000 tonnes of oil, a 22-man Indian crew and my mate Sam Chambers (who does a blog called Asia Scribbler).

6 days at sea on a 350 metre long boat, 3 square meals a day (our chef is below), plenty of time to write and lock down against pirate attacks in the evenings around, first the Riau Islands and then again up by Batan. I’ve written it all up and hopefully it’ll appear as a fairly long piece in Asia Literary Review next year.

After Singapore we headed out past the Riaus and then tracked the Vietnam coast up and then across the South China Sea up past Luzon and the Batan channel before entering the Taiwan Strait to the coast of Taiwan.

If you’re interested we uploaded a series of 6 podcasts from the ship about the voyage and various issues involved in shipping – pirates included. Click here

Carl Crow Confiscated and Banned

A couple of years after I published my ‘definitive’ (or so I hoped!) biography of Carl Crow. Nailed the guy, or so I thought. Now I stumble across a great nugget I would have loved to use to illustrate my point that Crow was not only a genius ad man and all round good egg but was quite correct about the roll out of Japanese aggression across China in the 1930s (despite being told to shut up by the US Diplomatic authorities in the name of a bit of trade) and knew that eventually Tokyo and Washington would go head to head in a hot war. Don’t you just hate it when that happens!!

Oh well, at least I get to a blog post out of it. Here’s the background:

1937 – Carl’s been in Shanghai since 1911 and has become a successful businessman as well as a highly vocal and influential critic of Japanese aggression towards China. Then the Japanese ratchet up their aggression, attack Shanghai and start their march across China – it’s total war – the Rape of Nanking, the fall back of the government towards their final base of Chongqing, Marco Polo Bridge and the Japanese take over of Peking.

In Shanghai the Japanese issue a list of 100 or so senior foreigners they want to ‘question’ – everyone knows what that means (they got one –J.B. Powell – and ‘questioned’ him using torture). Carl gets an evacuation ship out of China in late 1937. At the same time his book 400 Million Customers was a best seller globally (the Hungarian edition is below). As soon as he gets back to America he starts writing books against Japanese aggression and arguing for greater support for China in the war – Tokyo is of course furious.

What I didn’t know was that was that in mid-1938 as the Japanese were driving up the Yangtze to Hankou Time Magazine reported that in Shanghai the Japanese Army were ordered to seize pro-Chinese books by US authors including Carl Crow, Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, two issues of the New York Times, one issue of Time. They were all deemed too pro-Chinese, too anti-Japanese and too effective as anti-Axis propaganda.

I wish I’d come across that report in Time when I was researching the book. Ho Hum, that’s the way it goes I suppose. Anyway, the whole Time article is now online as part of their digitised archive – click here

Christmas in Taiwan VII - Aletheia Univesity

While in Danshui the other day I wandered over to have lunch with an academic friend of mine who teaches at Aletheia University. Aletheia (Greek for truth) is, like many of Taiwan’s universities I’ve found, a really nice place to hang out.

It was founded the Presbyterian Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay who is much celebrated in these parts. I think I’m right in saying that Aletheia is the oldest institution of higher-learning in Taiwan.

Anyway, much of the campus is new or newish but I was delighted that when we went to the college canteens for lunch they were housed in a much older part of the buildings, parts of which go back to 1882. They’ve been converted to refectories with all the usual student mess and noise but outside they’ve been nicely maintained with the brickwork looked after. Inside the original staircases have been restored too.

By the way as you approach the university you first see Oxford College, the name given to part of the college by Mackay – but it’s not, as I initially assumed, a tribute to the English university but named after Mackay’s home area of Oxford County in Ontario.

Christmas in Taiwan VI - Tamsui Customs Officer’s Residence

Danshui (or alternatively Tamsui or Danshuei) is just north of Taipei where the Danshui River empties into the Taiwan Strait. It was the former centre of shipping and commerce in northern Taiwan in the 19th century. Danshui was the largest port in Taiwan by the 19th century and became one of two treaty ports in Taiwan in 1858 (the other being the old capital of Tainan in the south of the island).

The Tamsui Customs Officer’s Residence was built between 1869 and 1876 and nicknamed the ‘Little White House’ because, eeerrr, it is white and a house. Though the Qing Dynasty first collected the customs taxes they handed over to the China Imperial Maritime Customs service and foreigners collected the taxes on behalf of the Qing under the organisation headed by the famous Inspector General Robert Hart. Herbert E. Hobson was Vice Chief of Tamsui Customs and lived in the house for a time. After the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 Taiwan was governed by the Japanese who occupied the property.

It’s well preserved and looked after and you can wander around the house and grounds for a NT$40 entrance fee. As you can probably see from the rather gloomy photos it was raining when I visited so the chalked colonial veranda architecture looks a little depressed due to the weather – but on a sunny day it would have been a marvellous view down to the Customs Jetty and pretty cool inside the airy, well ventilated rooms and wide verandas.

Up the road is the old Foreigners' Cemetery at Tamsui, which was unfortunately closed when I was there but appears well tended and looked after. Close by is the Fort San Domingo originally built by the Spanish and briefly the British Consulate before they built an impressive building next door…more on that tomorrow.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Enos in old Shanghai - Preparing for New Years Hangovers

Saw a piece in the newspaper today that said that good old reliable Enos was the best hangover cure you could find this coming New Years. Certainly in the past I've found that Enos can make a hangover slightly less painful but 'cure' might be stretching it.

Still Enos is truly a brand of the British Empire and those parts (like old Shanghai) where British influence reached in various ways (apparently the internet tells me, Americans don't really know Enos powders). Shanghai loved the stuff in the early 1930s - well, it's a tonic, claims to cure just about everything - they'd still love it; a Naobaijin for the thirties.

We used to call it Beecham's Powders when I was a kid - somehow GlaxoSmithkline Powders (the currrent brand owners) sounds like some evil corporate plot to take over the world (and if any evil corporates were still in a financial position to do that GSK would have to be high up the list!). For the record Enos is a mix of Sodium Bicarbonate (46.4%), Citric Acid (43.6%), Sodium Carbonate (10%) and often referred to, so the internet tells me, as 'fruit salt' - didn't know that, but the old Shanghai ad describes Enos as a 'health giving' 'fruit salt'.

North Korea: A Shameless Plug - That Won't Happen Too Often

OK, I don’t this all that often – plugging my books – but I will for a moment, so please forgive. I just got referred to a review of the second edition of my book North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula. A Modern History in the journal Acta Koreana and by Leonid Petrov. Naturally I’m happy as Acta Koreana is the journal of the Academia Koreana at Keimyung University while Petrov, a graduate of St. Petersburg State University and now teaching at the Australian National University in Canberra, is someone I have long read and admired on Korea.

Sorry to plug – it won’t happen too often – but this one cheered me up on a rainy day.

North Korea: A Prisoner of Its Own History – Click here

Maugham and Sadie II - Sadie in Samoa

Sadie Thompson, who I mentioned yesterday, deserves a bit more of a plug as I’ve been re-reading W Somerset Maugham’s short story Miss Thompson (or Rain) for a piece of writing on famous American Madams of the Orient. Maugham wrote the story after leaving Hawaii with Sadie Thompson, a notorious prostitute and madam who’d been expelled. They were both sailing to Samoa where she launched another brothel which included, handily, a laundry (pictured left in 1928).

Maugham described her boarding of his ship, the Sonoma, as a “blond runaway” from the Iwelei Stockade, Honolulu’s red light district, running up the gangplank at the last moment before departure. Sadie is later recorded in Pago Pago, Samoa, as “running a House of Prostitution” catering to U.S. sailors. Maugham claimed Sadie's shipboard antics with her Samoan lover kept him up nights - which must have meant he was pretty tired when he got to Somoa - as you can see it's a hell of schlep across the Pacific.

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that you can’t stay at Maugham’s hotel in Honolulu, the Alexander Young Hotel, as it was demolished in the 80s and is now a characterless condo. The good news is that you can stay in Sadie’s old bordello in Pago Pago which is now the Sadie Thompson Inn - So if you’re in Pago Pago don’t pass up the chance to stay in a bordello.

Incidentally Sadie has made it to the silver screen several times most notably in 1928 in a silent starring Gloria Swanson;

then in 1932 with Joan Crawford;

and in 1953 with Rita Hayworth which gives me an excuse to

put some women on my blog for a change.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Maugham and Sadie I - The Lost Alexander Young Hotel of Honolulu

Passing time over the holidays re-reading some of W Somerset Maugham’s short stories and remembering how good his story Miss Thompson (sometimes known as Rain) was. It tells the story of Maugham’s (left, and rather youngish) voyage around 1917 from Honolulu to Samoa on a boat among some missionaries and the most notorious American brothel madam in Hawaii, Sadie Thompson. Maugham, Thompson and American prostitutes in Hawaii before 1916 (when there was a legal purge of the girls) are another post though.

What interested me was that Maugham stayed at the Alexander Young Hotel in Honolulu. I noted thiscarefully as when visiting Asian cities in Maugham’s footsteps it’s always nice to stay (or invariably due to the fact that Maugham stayed in expensive hotels) just wander around hotels where he put up for a while.

Sadly though the Alexander Young Hotel is gone – demolished in 1981 during the demolition and rebuilding craze in Honolulu that rendered it as bland as most other North American cities. They replaced the hotel with a bland condominium. Still there’s a picture of the building from a postcard and you can see the architectural design for the expansive lobby by clicking here.

The hotel was built in 1901 by (surprise, surprise) Alexander Young, a Scottish-born Honolulu businessman who had made a packet in sugar mills and as the General Manager of the Honolulu Iron Works. The hotel opened for business in 1903 with 300-rooms at Bishop and Hotel Streets in downtown Honolulu. Maugham stayed there for about 3 weeks while visiting Hawaii. Sadly you cannot.

The Voyage East II - Port Said

As a long term project I've been working on recreating a voyage to Shanghai from London as it would have been undertaken around the turn of the century (1900 that is). I posted previously on the state of the old Port of London departure dock for passenger liners to the east - Gallion's Reach - previously. Boats also sailed from Liverpool and Glasgow.

I recently dug up this postcard (above) of Port-Said from around that time in a stall on London’s Portobello Road and just got around to scanning it in. This is the Quai François Joseph and you can see the Thomas Cook’s and the Eastern Telegraph companies offices advertising ‘Telegraph Anglais’

Ships stopped at different locations, the first being usually either Marseilles or Gibraltar and then often Malta. But most stopped at Port-Said in Egypt, more than 2,000 miles from London. Port-Said was definitely a sign you were moving east, as one traveller wrote in their diary in 1900 – ‘There we moored and visited the city of Cairo with its famous Kahn El-Khalili bazaar. Here was the Orient we had longed for: the cries of shopkeepers in enchanting tongues, the hammering of carpenters and cobblers, the exotic fragrance of spices, the smoke and the teas. Later, we mounted the electric tram along the Pyramid Road to Gizah. We climbed the first stone of the Great Pyramids and had tea at the Mena House.’

The Voyage East I - Gallions Reach: Where the Journey Began

The Voyage East III - Alexandria

The Voyage East IV - Through The Canal
The Voyage East V - Suakim, Port Sudan
The Voyage East VI - Resupply at Aden
The Voyage East VII - Gibraltar
The Voyage East VIII - Suez- You Rather Hoped Not

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas in Taiwan V - So Many Buildings but No Details

Whenever I stroll around central Taipei I see buildings that intrigue me, that have some how managed to escape redevelopment and look interesting. Yet, to date, I've not been able to find even a half decent guide (in either Chinese or English) to the buildings of Taipei that catalogues them in the way several very good books do now on Shanghai. Mainland China is actually quite good at cataloging buildings - I've picked up good guides in Dalian, Shenyang and other cities too. So I have no idea what any of these buildings were as additionally plaques are few and far between in Taipei too - none of them seem to be particularly preserved but they caught my eye anyway. If anyone knows a good buildings guide to Taipei please do let me know.

Things you Don't Expect - Orientalism and Lighthouses

I have an abiding interest in buildings in Britain (or anywhere in Europe really) influenced by Chinese or Oriental architecture – mostly follies or pagodas like the one at Kew or Chinese inspired gardens such as you find all over the place. Then reading the Economist’s Christmas Double Issue I came across an interesting piece on the history of the Fastnet Lighthouse in northern Ireland. The article also mentioned that the first Eddystone Lighthouse, near Plymouth had been an Oriental inspired design. This caught me short – Chinois lighthouses!! And it seems to be true – see the picture.

Apparently the architect of the first Eddystone Lighthouse was the eccentric Henry Winstanley. Amazingly during construction while he was out at Eddystone (9 miles off shore from Plymouth) a French privateer took Winstanley prisoner, causing Louis XIV to order his release with the words "France is at war with England, not with humanity".

The light was lit in 1698- though sadly it was completely destroyed in the Great Storm of 1703. Winstanley was at the lighthouse doing repairs – his body was never found. Sorry, I’m also not sure why he went for an orientalist design.

I’m glad the Economist put me on to that – though sadly they also report that all the UK’s lighthouses are now fully automated and so lighthousemen (and/or women) don’t exist anymore which is very sad – what a great job that would be, I’d have given my right arm to be a lighthouseman.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas in Taiwan IV - Indian Laurels

One of the nice things about Taipei is the Indian laurel fig tree, or Ficus microcarpa if you prefer, or perhaps more commonly banyan trees. They're still everywhere and in parts of the city provide lovely canopies along streets. Apparently they are officially the 'city tree' which is interesting as I didn’t know cities had official trees and to be honest I'm not quite sure why they should? I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about Indian laurel fig trees and their proliferation across Taipei except they make the city look nice!

Christmas in Taiwan III - The Red House

In a previous post I slagged of Taipei for seemingly letting the Tianmu White House start to fall apart while claiming it's an important historic building. So today an example of a nice piece of restoration in Taipei - The Red House Theatre in Taipei's Xinmending area (10 Chengdu Road).

The Red House was built during the first Japanese occupation of Taiwan after the Treaty of Shimonoseki following the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War. It was completed in 1908 and was designed by the architect Kondo Juro. Oringinally there were restaurants upstairs and shops selling luxury foreign goods - all owned by Japanese. There was also the Cross Building Market selling fruit and vegetables where many Taiwanese were shocked to find that Japanese customers didn't like haggling over prices.

After 1945 and the departure of the Japanese the Red House became a theatre. And now its been restored and when I visited today it was busy with curious Taiwanese out shopping who seemed to find the new collection of cafes, artists and small design shops far more interesting than the usual boring shopping mall. The second floor was closed of when I visited but apparently theatre performances are being staged there again. And as you can see there is a Christmas market going on too.