Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Few Random Posts on Seoul II - Seoul Railway Station

It appears that the old railway station in Seoul, which is adjacent to the new and more modern one, is undergoing a refurbishment at the moment. It’s a classic piece of Japanese-style imperial architecture that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere else in the former Japanese empire such as Dalian (see earlier posts and pics). It was originally built to serve the line between Seoul and Uiju and Seoul and Wonsan and had a strategic use – i.e. to ferry troops towards the invasion of China.

Construction of the two storey station (there’s also a floor below ground too) designed by Tsukamoto Yasushi of Tokyo Imperial University began in 1922 of mixed stone and brick and was finally completed in 1925. It was originally known as the Keijo Station Building and renamed Seoul Station in 1947.

The pictures here show the station as it would have originally appeared although later northern and southern terminals were added in the 1960s to allow for additional capacity. This is apparently the oldest surviving railway station in Korea.

Before this building there had been a previous station which opened in 1900 as Gyeongseong Station and was renamed Namdaemun Station in 1905, due to its proximity to the Namdaemun Gate.

In 1910, the name of the city (Seoul) was changed from Hanseong to Gyeongseong (Keijo in Japanese) by the Japanese imperialists. The station reverted to the name Gyeongseong Station in 1915.

There is a small museum and gallery attached but both it and the rest of the building was closed last weekend when I visited for what appears to be a general tarting up.

A Few Random Posts on Seoul I - The Dongdaemun Gate

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Few Random Posts on Seoul I - The Dongdaemun Gate

I know this blog is called China Rhyming and not Korea Rhyming but I just spent a few days in Seoul, mostly eating, and so a few Seoul Posts will follow like it or not. I’m a Seoul fan – particularly of the restaurants and street food - but haven’t had an excuse to visit for a few years so it was nice to reacquaint myself over the weekend.Sadly, since I last visited the Namdaemun gate in the centre of the city has burnt down - spectacularly in a 2008 arson attack - and remains shrouded in hoardings so I assume restoration is still ongoing.

However, the Dongdaemun (Great East Gate) still stands (above) and is worth a note. Originally called Heung-injimun (“Gate of Uplifting Mercy” or “Benevolence”), it once served as the main eastern gate in the wall surrounding Seoul. First built in 1397, renovated in 1453 and was rebuilt in 1869 in its present form. Most people probably don’t make a visit to the Dongdaemun but probably stumble across it after visiting the extensive Dongdaemun Market. It’s now in the middle of a roundabout but still fairly imposing and worth a stroll to see.

A Few Random Posts on Seoul II - Seoul Train Station

A Few Random Posts on Seoul III - Insadong

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Lure of China

It would be remiss of me not to give a quick plug for Frances Wood’s new book The Lure of China: Writers From Marco Polo to JG Ballard. It’s another in the rather lovely and nicely illustrated Catalpa Series (“China in the West: The West in China”) jointly published by Yale University Press and Joint Publishing HK Co. The series is edited by Lynn Pan who’s own Shanghai Style is also one of the series.

I’m assuming that anyone reading this blog will have read at least one or more of Frances’s books – No Dogs and Not Many Chinese: Treaty Port Life in China is just one stand out title from her among several. In The Lure of China Wood segues neatly between Marco to the Jesuits; the diplomat-scholars to Malraux and Somerset Maugham and takes in the lady travel writers, old Etonians, Bloomsbury types and the hacks that covered China.

Though there are numerous pen portraits of writers on China - some familiar; some less so. My own favourite, for what it’s worth, was Paul Claudel (left) who I knew nothing about. Claudel wrote a number of scintillating titles such as The Olive Oil Business in Fuzhou (1896) and The Packaging of Biscuits for Export (1901) which sound like my day job! But he also wrote plays, had a succession of affairs and wrote great prose – at which points our lives depart!!

I missed Frances when she spoke recently at the Shanghai International Literary Festival at M on the Bund but the good people at City Weekend magazine recorded it and uploaded it – listen here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

China Cuckoo Live in Shanghai

China Cuckoo author Mark Kitto is talking to the Shanghai FCC next Wednesday - it's a great book about the old Zhejiang hill resort of Moganshan and he should be an entertaining speaker - see my earlier post reviewing the book.

The Shanghai Foreign Correspondents' Club Presents:

China Cuckoo
Mark Kitto

The Mix at Mesa

Wednesday, April 1st, 7pm (talk starts at 7.30pm)

A legend in Shanghai as the founder of that’s Shanghai and its sister publications, Mark Kitto saw his business empire crumble around him in traumatic circumstances in 2004. Yet rather than giving up on China, he decided to plunge even deeper into local life, eventually moving with his family to Moganshan, the once famous mountain retreat in Zhejiang which he has now helped to revive, running a coffee house in an old hotel, and writing regular columns on life there for the British magazine Prospect. His experiences in Shanghai, the story of that’s, and the history of Moganshan, are vividly described in his entertaining new book, China Cuckoo. Mark will discuss the highs and lows of doing business in China, and the different challenges of life with the wild boars, retired4G military officers and would-be real estate developers of Moganshan.

Venue details: The Mix, 1/F, Mesa, 748 Julu Lu, near Fumin Lu (6289 9108)

Admission: Members free; Non-members 50 RMB.

RSVP: https://mail.google.com/mail/h/v3jwiqh7j7p7/?v=b&cs=wh&to=fcc.sfcc@gmail.com by March 31st

About the Speaker:
Mark Kitto studied Chinese, served as a captain in the Welsh Guards, and worked as a metals trader in London and China before moving into magazine publishing. After a brief flirtation with Clueless in Guangzhou, in 1998 he set up that’s Shanghai with his business partner Kathleen Lau, later launching similar publications in both Guangzhou and Beijing. After losing control of the business to an official publisher in 2004, he moved to Moganshan, where he and his wife now run a coffee shop. His book ‘China Cuckoo: How I lost a fortune and found a life in China’ has just been published by Constable.

Carl Crow’s Very Particular Chinese Customers

The other day someone asked me to dig out a couple of old case studies from Shanghai about the problems with designing products that appealed to the rather particular Chinese consumer and some rather disastrous attempts from the old days. Naturally I fell back to my old standard – Carl Crow’s 400 Million Customers (now reprinted and available here) and came up with the following two examples – fags and soap. Of course if you find Mr Crow interesting then someone not a million miles away from writing this blog did indeed do a highly praised biography of him, which you can also buy (click here). As you can see said biographer continues to milk the Carl Crow cow dry!!

Carl Crow’s Very Particular Chinese Customers

Marketing disasters, products nobody wants and sales falling short of exaggerated expectations in China is nothing new. Products, brands and manufacturers struggling to find Chinese customers today are merely repeating the efforts of their fathers, grandfathers and even great grandfathers.

Carl Crow, a Missourian, arrived in Shanghai in 1911 as a journalist but soon swapped over to running an advertising agency deciding that’s where the money was to be made. His agency, Carl Crow Inc., dominated the advertising and marketing of foreign brands in Shanghai and throughout China for the next 20 years. In 1937 he wrote a best selling book – 400 Million Customers: The Experiences – Some Happy, Some Sad of an American in China, and What They Taught Him. It instantly became a classic.

Carl’s major point in his book was that few foreign brands took the time to understand the peculiarities of the Chinese consumer – they simply assumed he or she would like their product and instantly drop brands they knew well for these new arrivals – it didn’t quite work like that then; it doesn’t quite work like that now. Carl wrote in the foreword to 400 Million Customers:

“Not only do Chinese have very decided ideas as to what they like and dislike , but once they have become accustomed to a certain brand, no matter whether it be cigarettes, soap or toothpaste, they are the world’s most loyal consumers, and will support a brand with a degree of unanimity and faithfulness which should bring tears of joy to the eyes of the manufacturer.”

If only you can persuade them to change! Carl gave two initial examples of disasters – cigarettes and soap.

The Very Particular Chinese Customer I - Cigarettes

"I had not been conducting my advertising agency many months before a visiting manufacturer who was looking for trade opportunities in China said to me: “I suppose the Chinese will buy anything, provided the price is cheap enough.” That is an idea held by most people, even by some foreigners who live in China and should know better. In fact, I remember that I agreed with this manufacturer. It is easy to see how one might come to that conclusion. No one gets more enjoyment out of a bargain than the Chinese, or will search further or haggle more ardently to get one, but, on the other hand, no one will more stubbornly and successfully resist attempts to sell him something he does not want, no matter what the price may be. Mere cheapness is not enough to make him change his tastes or forget his prejudices. The widely prevailing demand for a distinct type of cigarette affords a good example of this and taught me my first lesson about the fixed tastes of the Chinese consumer who has for years smoked the British-style aromatic blends of Virginia and Turkish tobacco rather than American-style Virginia and Burley blended tobaccos.

One of our clients…felt so sure he was right about Chinese consumers that we undertook his blended cigarette advertising with a good deal more than the usual enthusiasm inspired by a new and potentially large advertising account. Nothing was overlooked in launching the venture. Salesmen got the brand stocked everywhere, and it was advertised by every approved method we or the manufacturers could think of. They were so certain of success that they were willing to let next year’s business pay for this year’s advertising, and they were generous in their anticipation of what future profits would be. Thanks to the assistance given by their New York advertising agency, one of the best in America, the campaign we put on in China was far better than anything that had ever been seen there before. But in spite of all that we could do, the cigarettes remained on the dealers’ shelves. Maybe the hypothesis that anyone who changed to a blended cigarette would smoke that kind ever after really would prove correct in China, if given a fair trial. But we were never able to prove it. So far as we could discover, w never succeeded in getting a single Chinese to become a smoker of our brand of blended cigarettes, and so couldn’t tell whether or not he would become a regular consumer once he got used to them.

Any number tried to smoke them, but, after a few puffs, they found the taste both strange and odious and would not buy a second packet. The Chinese sales fell back to the zero point from which they had started, and the advertising campaign was dropped by common consent of everyone who had anything to do with it. The only satisfaction we got out of the experience was that everyone praised the advertising."

The Very Particular Chinese Customer II – Soap

"In a recent very comprehensive market survey we found that a world famous British household soap enjoys such popularity in parts of North China that nine out of ten shops which sell soap do not stock any other brand, though dozens of cheaper competing soaps are on sale in this territory and a few manufactured locally. Once in a while, when there has been a flood, or a drought, and the purchasing power of the local resident falls even lower than usual, he will buy a cheaper soap; but that is a temporary expedient, and with the return of a reasonable degree of prosperity he goes back to his old favorite brand, which was also the favorite of his grandfather. A big and apparently impregnable market like this is just the sort of thing other manufacturers like to train their heavy batteries on, and many of them have made used up a lot of ammunition and made a lot of noise, but without results.

No doubt many of them have made a soap practically as good and offered it at a cheaper price, but not one of them has ever built up a volume of sales big enough to let our clients know that there is any serious competition in the field. The consumer who occasionally tries the competing soap because of its cheaper price may fully appreciate its good qualities, but he is not sure the next cake will be so good. He has been fooled before by manufacturers who do not maintain the quality of their products, and is therefore suspicious. On the other hand, he has full confidence in the old brand. He has used it for years, his father and his grandfather used it, and it has always been the same.

The satisfactory domination of the North China market by this brand has a sound merchandising basis ands is due to the high quality of the soap in a very difficult field. Most of the water in North China is extremely hard, and cheap soaps, which will produce a satisfactory lather in the soft rainwater of the Yangtsze Valley, curdle in this water, which comes from springs and wells and is full of alkali."

(From Carl Crow’s 400 Million Customers: The Experiences – Some Happy, Some Sad of an American in China, and What They Taught Him, 1937)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hamilton House Shanghai

I popped in for dinner the other night at the relatively new done up Hamilton House on the junction of Fuzhou Lu and Jiangxi Lu. If nothing else the restaurant affords a view of the Fuzhou/Jiangxi intersections which has to be one of the most beautiful, impressive and (after about 7pm) deserted major circuses in any city. The former Shanghai Municipal Council building, the Central Police Station and the Metropole Hotel are all viewable while eating.

Ill leave someone more knowledgeable than me to comment of the food which Im told is French in the traditional way but I wouldnt know about any of that. Tasted all right to me.

Still the building was a Sir Victor Sassoon property and designed by the well known and prolific (in Shanghai) architects Turner & Palmer. It was completed in 1934 and is a fine art-deco property. Im pretty sure the American Consulate had offices here for some time and many Japanese and other international companies. Theres some penthouse apartments and a rooftop garden though of course, like everywhere, else it was wildly subdivided after 1949 and has around 1,500 people living in it for many years and plenty are still there.

Of course they push the old remember the glamour of 1930s Shanghai line (it has a vague 30s feel but, of course, like so much retro-Shanghai, it's a contemporary take on the 30s and feels more 1980s wine bar than authentically 1930s). So a recreation of the 30s it only vaguely is, and then through a 21st century prism but it is a nice location and worth a visit.

Hamilton House

137 Fuzhou Lu,

near Jiangxi Lu


Stop the destruction of Staunton, Wing Lee and Bridges Street TODAY

I posted only recently about the uncertain fate of Hong Kong’s Central Police Station and it seems that the horrific combination of Hong Kong’s philistine government and rapacious nasty land developers are back in action destroying whatever they can get their hands on. Honestly, hanging, drawing and quartering is too good for them.

The immediate threat is to Staunton Street, Wing Lee Street and Bridges Street which are all key to retaining the ambience of the old Central and mid-levels district. These threatened streets are just behind the Hollywood Road Police Quarters and compose largely low-rise properties running between the Central Police Station and Tai Ping Shan. Bridges Street is also home to the old YMCA building (left).

Arguably Wing Lee Street is the most beautiful of the three with its row of tong laus, the tenement building design that was developed from the late 19th Century to the 1960s and is unique to Hong Kong and southern China encompassing a mix of Chinese and European architectural features. Tong laus have traditionally been shop houses (see left on Staunton Street) with the commercial premises on the ground floor and living accommodation above and often open and airy roof spaces. Many have traditional Canton floor tiles, the original wooden floors and joists and many unique decorative features.

Many of the tong laus around the area under threat have been restored and well looked after (by their owners rather than the philisitines in the government) – to show how well they can be restored see the picture above of the recently renovated tong lau on Johnston Street in Wan Chai.

The current plans are:
Site A (Wing Lee Street): a row of 6-storey low-rise (9 of the original 12 tong laus will be demolished, only 3 will be kept);
Site B (88-90 Staunton Street & 2-10 Shing Wong Street): an 8-13 storey building behind the tong lau in 88-90 Staunton Street;
Site C (60-66 Staunton Street, corner Aberdeen Street): 28-storey high-rise with podium.

The Central and Western District Concern Group's requests are:
1) The entire site should comprise only low-rise (less than 6 storey) buildings.
2) All the historic low-rise tong laus (tenement buildings) on Wing Lee Street should be preserved.
3) New developments should comprise only small land blocks, in keeping with the current characteristics of the area.
4) Bridges Street Market should be re-zoned (to GIC) for community use.
5) Current owners should be allowed to live in their already renovatedbuildings.

To OBJECT to the Urban Renewal Authority’s planned destruction project H19 and support The Central and Western District Concern Group's ideas the deadline for objections on the Town Planning Application A/H3/387 is TODAY, 24 March 2009, at midnight HK time. For more information click here or visit here. Or if you know how it works, you can send your OBJECTIONS directly to the Town Planning Board here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Boat Called Henry

You are one of the wealthy, mighty and seemingly all powerful Keswick family (so posh you pronounce your name with a silent 'w', "Kezzick") who control the Jardines empire. Known by all as the latest taipan of the Jardine Matheson empire built out of running dope into China in quantities the Medallin Cartel would envy, you pitch up in Hong Kong after a few years in Jardines’ New York office. You get to represent Hong Kong at the coronation of King George V in 1911 and then return in triumph in 1922 aboard your own yacht, the Cutty Sark, and then you remain a Director of Jardines until your death. That was Henry Keswick.

So how to honour such a great taipan who balances great wealth with great power and is a lynchpin in the British Empire east of Suez? Why surely there could be nothing better than having a “twin screw tug and salvage steamer” named after you!! What an honour – having perhaps one of the ugliest little craft to ever sail upon the seas named in your honour – not a cruise liner or a battleship but a dirty old tug!!

Still, someone at the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Co. Ltd., must have thought it a good idea – they even ran this ad in the North-China Daily News in 1904 showing the horrid little thing chugging away like an emphysema ridden pensioner. Sadly old Henry Kezzick’s reaction to this honour remains unrecorded. We expect he emitted a mighty harrumph.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Musings on Early China Photography III – Lai Fong

Many of the Chinese who worked as assistants to the early European and American photographers in China naturally learnt a lot and ultimately decided to set up shop as photographers themselves. Among them, the best known was probably Lai Fong.

I don’t know much (actually nothing really) about Lai Fong except that I think he had learnt from one of the early photographers – someone once told me its Felix Beato but it might have been either Milton Miller or John Thomson…or someone else. So any biographical details much appreciated.

Anyway, came across this advertisement for Lai Fong’s Shanghai studio the other day – it’s from the North-China Daily News in 1904. Seems he took portraits, painted portraits, did silk screening and sold his own photos too. We can assume it was a pretty solid business as he’s got a good address on Nanking Road. I wonder if the prices really were “moderate”?

Musings on Early China Photography I - Beijing to Get a John Thomson Exhibition

Musings on Early China Photography II - What Herbert Ponting Did Before the South Pole

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Happy Shanghai Day - March 21

March 21st 1937 that is…

In 1937 Shanghai Mayor Wu Te-chen (left) suggested that the city hold an official Shanghai Day. The aim was to boost pride and the prosperity of the city – “one day in which people from all walks of life will be given a chance to forget daily toil and gather together at various celebrations in a spirit of informality and gaiety” Li Ta-chan, Sectional Chief of the City Government told JB Powell’s China Weekly Review.

Apparently it happened and events were attended by representatives of over 20 public organisations and everything was presided over by Sectional Chief Li who ensured informality and gaiety were forthcoming. The plan was for Shanghai Day to become an annual event but the Japanese spoiled the party - in August the bombs fell on the city and by March 1938 China was at war with Japan and nobody felt very gay.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Who Doesn’t Like Immoral Women?

Linda Jaivin, a writer of erotic fiction and a Sinologist (a combination not as rare as you might think actually), has written a new book, A Most Immoral Woman. I’m quite excited to read this book as Linda knows her stuff and the book is based on her findings about the real-life love affair between The Times of London Peking correspondent George (“Morrison of Peking”) Morrison and Mae Ruth Perkins, nympho daughter of an American millionaire. Morrison was captivated by her, a lot of sex ensued and all against the backdrop of 1904 when Japanese and Russian forces were closing in on China's Northeast. So China, history and a lot of sex, which I believe covers all the bases of Jaivin’s interests.

I must confess to knowing Linda a little bit – we had a dinner in Shanghai a while back when she was finishing the book off. Now, I generally like to consider myself a relatively unshockable man of the world but when Linda outlined some of the details I was embarrassingly reduced to a stupid, blushing British schoolboy! Ozzie frankness combined with the details being lavishly laid out before me saw me retreat swiftly to my closeted English socio-cultural roots.

I have a slightly different take on Morrison (as outlined in my forthcoming book Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao – a seamless plug I’m sure you’ll agree) to Linda – not that that detracts from enjoying her story of GE and Mae Ruth one bit. I think Linda rather likes him whereas I’ve always been sure he was a pompous, arrogant and hugely overrated bore who trod on anyone who got in his way, never gave proper credit to those who made him appear knowledgeable and got just about everything about China wrong from the Boxers to Yuan Shih-kai. Still, I’m sure Linda will outsell me by miles – and I can’t promise any sex in my book unless you include a description of Emily Hahn’s pet gibbon Mr. Mills masturbating furiously at a posh Shanghai dinner party (there’s a niche market for everything I’m told).

Can’t say much more as I haven’t been able to get a copy of the book yet. Still you can hear a highly entertaining interview with Linda about the book on ABC Radio’s excellent The Book Show by clicking here – and you can read an excerpt from the book on Danwei by clicking here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This Weekend at the China Literary Festivals – Weekend III

The final weekend and another year draws to a close and just about all the remaining action is in Shanghai.

Shanghai – M on the Bund

Friday, March 20 - Literary Lunch - 12.30pm - Stefan Schomann - Last Refuge in Shanghai – Of Love and War and Troubled Times, moderated by Tess Johnston

Friday, March 20 - 4.30 pm - Miriam Clifford, Cathy Giangrande – China: museums -afternoon tea and talk. A museum walk precedes the talk, open to those who purchase the book; spaces limited.

Saturday, March 21 - 10am - Cyril Cannon - The Life and Times of Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor - See my previous post on this book

Saturday, March 21 - 2pm - Stephen Mackinnon - Intrigue and Romance in the 1930s – Agnes Smedley’s Shanghai - personally I've never warmed to the severe, butch and rather odd Smedley (which was a common attitude to her at the time) but perhaps Mackinnon can convince me otherwise?

Sunday March 22 - 3pm - Pan Jian Feng, Ou Ning and Lynn Pan - The Look of the Book: Chinese Graphic Design and Typography, moderated by Defne Ayas

Chengdu – Chengdu Bookworm

Friday 20th March - 7:30pm - True Histories? With Mara Moustafine and Kate Grenville - Memoirist Mara Moustafine and novelist Kate Grenville discuss the different approaches in tackling historical writing. How do characters, truths and research combine to make a cracking yarn and when does a personal story become a public one and how does it intersect with capital H history.

Musings on Early China Photography II - What Herbert Ponting Did Before the South Pole

There is a wonderful new resource on the Internet called the Freeze Frame archive. The Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge holds a world-class collection of photographic negatives illustrating polar exploration from the nineteenth century onwards. Now most of these are online with detailed catalogue entries provided for each image. They are truly stunning. Do take a look.

The most amazing images are those by Herbert Ponting (above). Ponting (1870-1935) was a professional photographer and is best known as the expedition photographer and cinematographer for Scott's Terra Nova Expedition to the Ross Sea and South Pole (1910-1913). If you don’t know the history of that expedition then I’m not going to tell you – you clearly didn’t go to school.

On that expedition Ponting took incredible photos and was also one of the first men to use a portable movie camera in Antarctica. His images became known as “Pontings” as he always had to try to get people or objects to stand in the shot otherwise the vastness of the Antarctic was hard to convey. The other expedition members hated having to stand still for ages in the cold while Ponting got his shot. His image of the Terra Nova amid the ice is probably his best known work (above).

So why I am I going on about an Antarctic photographer on a China blog? Because, Ponting is less well known as one of the best early photographers of China too (as in his picture of the Great Wall left). Though his shots of China and Japan were among the best taken up till the time his best work was during the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Ponting was a great photographer remembered now almost exclusively for his work in Antarctica but he deserves to be remembered for his China photos too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

All the Tea in China, London and Munich

I’m a fan of all things tea – though growing up in London it was always called a cup of cha and now I’m in Shanghai and it’s a cup of cha once again! Happen to be reading Sarah Rose’s new book For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula of the World's Favourite Drink while having a cup of tea (M&S for the record).

Then came across this wonderful Art Nouveau poster advertising the Marco Polo Theesalon or Tea Salon in Burgstrasse in Munich. Of course Marco Polo famously made no mention of tea in his travels which some consider odd – though it was at the time a drink mostly consumed in southern China and Marco didn’t get down there much which might explain it. Still the esteemed house of Mariage Frères, founded 1660, still produces a Marco Polo Tea apparently.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Musings on Early China Photography I - Beijing to Get a John Thomson Exhibition

Excellent to see that the Beijing World Art Museum is to host the Wellcome Collection’s extensive collection of John Thomson’s (self-portrait left) nineteenth century photographs of China – even though in their advertising the Beijing World Art Museum has managed to spell his name wrong (there’s no ‘p’). The exhibition Through the Lens of John Thompson 1868-1872 (sic) will be on display at the museum between 16 April and 18 May.

The collection was wisely purchased by Henry Wellcome in 1921 and is held at the Library’s Euston Road library in London.

The Wellcome Library has digitised all 650 glass negatives in their collection – though I don’t know how many will be on show in Peking. All were taken by Thomson during his travels in the Far East in the 1860s and 70s. Thomson captured these rare scenes using the collodion process, a very early photographic technique and are generally clear and in very good condition.

I look forward to the exhibition and here’s hoping they get the man’s name right by April.

Musings on Early China Photography II - What Herbert Ponting Did Before the South Pole
Musings on Early China Photography III - Lai Fong

The Life and Times of Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor

As someone who wrote a biography of a great China Hand (Carl Crow) I'm interested in who other biographers choose. Isidore Cyril Cannon's new book Public Success, Private Sorrow is a biography of Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor (1857-1938) a veteran of the Boxers and the Siege of the Legations, a long serving China Customs Commissioner and a pioneering translator of Chinese texts into English.

Brewitt-Taylor had a distinguished career in the Chinese customs service, an important institution that mediated China's relationship with the outside world. During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 he was trapped inside the British Legation compound though survived the siege. But he was also a scholarly China Hand and undertook the first high-quality translation of the classic Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which made him an important interpreter of Chinese culture in the West.

Though these were the historical highlights of his life Cannon’s book is also fascinating in providing an insight into the experiences of those Britons who went abroad in the Victorian and Edwardian ages, particularly of course to China. Brewitt-Taylor was not just in large cities but often in remote outposts. He is also of interest to me in that he is a case study of the opportunities the Empire and foreign service gave to those of ordinary birth, or humble origins, to go East and make a career based on being smart and competent school without having to worry too much about all the what class are you?, where did you go to old boy? nonsense that the English upper classes revel in so drearily.

If you are in Shanghai this weekend you can hear Isidore Cyril Cannon speak on Brewitt-Taylor’s life and work and her book at the Shanghai International Literary Festival this Saturday morning:

Saturday, March 21


M on the Bund

The Life and Times of Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor

Isidore Cyril Cannon

More information click here

Monday, March 16, 2009

Shanghai Throat - Nothing New

Oddly I saw this advert from 1937 the other day when trawling through a bunch of old advertising from Shanghai. Then I walked into a few meetings in the last couple of days here in Shanghai where people have moaned about sore throats. The change in the weather?; pollution?; too many fake Marlboros? - who knows. What I do know is that (surprise, surprise) sore throats are nothing new. Not sure where you'd get a pack of Allenbury's Pastilles now though.

Michael Aldrich and Vanishing Beijing in Shanghai

I’m delighted to be chairing and introducing Michael Aldrich, the author of the excellent The Search for a Vanishing Beijing: A Guide to China's Capital Through the Ages (Hong Kong University Press, 2005) at this year’s Shanghai International Literary Festival at M on the Bund on March 19th (tickets and details click here).

Michael is a great raconteur and it’d be hard to find many others who know Peking’s history as well as he does. His book is a mix of essays and guides that forms a comprehensive narrative about the cultural mosaic of the capital of China - palaces, temples, back streets and markets. For me it’s become a reference guide that gets taken off the shelves with alarming regularity though it’s a great read from start to finish too. I’m looking forward to the 19th.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Deviation Posting – A Celebration of LT 's Artwork

Another in an occasional series of deviation postings that have absolutely nothing to do with China. This time it's about the art commissioned by London Underground between the wars which is currently enjoying an exhibition and a man who did more than most to influence the city - Frank Pick - the man who introduced the famous roundel logo of the Tube.

The artwork that was commissioned and used by London Transport – both the tube, the train and the buses, between the wars was quite stunning. It’s good to see that the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden is having an exhibition of some of the best artwork commissioned by LT and that there’s an accompanying book London Transport Posters: A Century of Art and Design. There’s also an excellent web site with a lot of history and art around LT’s famous posters and Frank Pick (left)

The hero of the whole story of these posters designed to boost use of the capital’s public transport and also show the wonders of London and the Home Counties (wonders I admit me and many other Londoners invariably need reminding of) were the brainchild of a great man – Frank Pick (1878-1941). Pick’s contribution to London was immense as Managing Director of the London Underground Group from 1928 and Chief Executive of the London Passenger Transport Board from its creation in 1933 until 1940. In these days of decline, the dreaded PPP schemes and so on it’s impossible to imagine a visionary and a cultured man like Pick even getting an interview at LT. He created LT’s strong visual style.

As well as the posters Pick was central to other wonderful gifts to London from LT – the extension of the Piccadilly Line northwards which gave us a series of wonderful art-deco stations, such as Southgate (my closest tube station when growing up and very influential personally on my tastes) and the HQ building for LT at 55 Broadway, St. James’s, completed in 1929 and for my money still one of the best buildings in London.

Do look at the posters (click here) and if you’re in London do go to the exhibition and if you’ve never wandered around 55 Broadway do go look at it. And then thank Frank Pick.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

East and West Criminal Minds

I've had a lot of fun the last two years moderating at the Beijing Bookworm International Literary Festival on crime writing. Last year we had a great session with Shanghai crime writer Qiu Xiaolong and Beijing based Catherine Sampson. This year Cathy was back again, this time with Ridley Pearson, a mystery and crime writer from America who sells fearsome amounts of books over there. Last year the subject was crime writing and place - China obviously given Qiu's Shanghai Inspector Chen series and Cathy's Beijing set books. This year the subject was the question of topicality and crime writing.

And thanks to a great question from the packed audience on Friday I think we've found our topic for round three in 2010 - Criminal Minds - or more specifically the idea that the criminal mindset in China might be different from that in the West giving us different sorts of crime in reality and in crime writing.

Ridley pointed out that (to paraphrase roughly) a psycho is a psycho is a pyscho and some criminals are just completely outside of normal moral and social boundaries and just don't care. But other factors are at play too - different understanding and interpretations of guilt and shame etc.

Chinese crime and crime writing is also fascinated by the opportunities for crime thrown up in current Chinese society with a still forming legal system, moral norms in a newly marketised economy and growing disparities in wealth - corruption, economically motivated revenge, issues around China's recent past are all popular themes in China set crime novels while serial killers and "traditional" crime books of the heist, bank robbery type so common in the West are still rare. It's also interesting to note that "policiers", police procedurals, are yet to become popular in China though of course are standard in the West - perhaps this represents the ambigious attitude of the public to their police in China? On the other hand the West has little that is similar to the judge-led books that have appeared in China for years (a genre that has has proved popular of course with the great Judge Dee series in the West from the old China Hand Robert van Gulik).

Ill-formed thoughts admittedly but hopefully they'll firm up over the next year and become crystallised by March 2010!

A Rarity - A Profound Thought on Chinese History

It's always good to hear a profound thought. Let's be honest they don't come along that often!

Last week I was in Hong Kong and went to a session of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival with Mara Moustafine, the author of The Harbin Files: Secrets and Spies which I've told you to buy before. Then this weekend I bumped into Mara again at the Shanghai International Literary Festival.

All week a comment she made has been buzzing around my head that relates to our understanding of Chinese history and if you read this blog and like it then it's pertinent.

Some time ago Mara took her parents back to Harbin where they'd lived and she was born. She commented that, "they see what what was there; we see what's left". Harbin - Shanghai- Peking - Wherever - makes you think about how we look at the these places. It's a useful mantra to keep in your head when you're visiting any of these cities or other places.

Think on!

Aye, There Be Pirates

At the start, don’t say I didn’t warn you this is a blatant act of self-promotion. The new issue of the Asian Literary Review includes a piece by me on the pirates of the South China Sea past and present.

The piece interweaves my experiences travelling across the South China Sea last year on an oil tanker with stories of the pirates of old across the region from Southern China to Vietnam and Borneo to the Riau Islands. The Asia Literary Review people have illustrated it nicely with some old maps and images of South China Sea pirates.

Even if you’re not interested in pirates there’s plenty in the new ALR to enjoy:

Fiction from Alice Nelson, Anna Jaquiery, O Thiam China, Qiu Xialong, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, Dipika Mukherjee and Tom Cho

Poetry from Margaret Atwood, Louise Ho, Thaddeus Rutkowski, Andrew Barker and Sally Dellow

An interview with Nadeem Aslam

An essay on writers on China from Frances Wood

Photography of the Mumbai bombings from Indranil Mukherjee

Details of how to get a copy from the ALR’s web site (Click here) or from bookshops in Hong Kong and selected other places (I’ve seen it in Daunts in Landon for instance).