Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flags of British Weihaiwei

Posting about British rule in Weihaiwei yesterday led me to come across the old flags of Weihaiwei during the British years. I’d never thought about Weihaiwei having a flag before, but they did.

From 1899 to 1902 they used the so-called flag of the Commissioner of Liu Kung Tau/Weihaiwei (above) and blue ensign version (left) for shipping.

Then in 1902 a purely Civil Commissioner, J.H. Stewart Lockhart, was appointed who wrote to London declaring, “The design of the flag hitherto used by the Commissioner of this Dependency is a dragon on the Union Jack and is in my opinion quite unsuitable. I have therefore to request that the Crown Agents may be instructed to have made for the use of the Commissioner two new flags, the device of the Mandarin Duck being substituted for the Dragon, which is as you are aware the national emblem of China and not appropriate in the case of a British Dependency.”

The Mandarin Duck design (they are both ducks), which was part of the Seal, was approved by King Edward VII at some time in 1903. Apparently reflecting native wildlife to that area.

So then they appear to have used the flag left and the blue ensign version for shipping.

All quite confusing so I might have got this a bit wrong. If anyone knows better do let me know.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Weihaiwei – The British, Kangaroo Courts and the Llandudno of China!

Weihaiwei, now more simply Weihai, seems to be very popular at the moment with any number of books and papers appearing on the place. Fair enough as it is an interesting place given that it was neither a full colony or a treaty port but rather a leased piece of land – the lease lasted as long as the Russians were in Port Arthur to maintain the balance of Great Power influence (the Americans were very keen for the British to be stationed at Weihaiwei) though China never surrendered sovereignty on the land. Britain then left and returned control in 1930 as part of the deal to extend the lease on the Hong Kong New Territories. The map below shows how the British were able to balance Russian naval power around the Gulf of Chihli.

The administration of Weihaiwei involved several interesting characters including Reginald Johnston (Pu Yi’sold tutor) and JH Stewart Lockhart. Weihaiwei’s legal system including some interesting murder cases is the subject of a new book by Carol Tan of SOAS called British Rule in China: Law and Justice in Weihaiwei: Law and Justice in Weihaiwei 1898 – 1930. Sadly it’s a bit expensive and in hardback only so hopefully you’ve got a decent library near you. Carol also gave an interesting talk to the Royal Asiatic Society in Shanghai recently.

However, I personally wasn’t convinced that anything like an even negligibly acceptable level of justice was available in British Weihaiwei – the jury pool was tiny and meant both the same people constantly being on juries and, inevitably, defendants being known to jurors while lawyers were sparse. Even worse we are presented with the joke of the horrendously self-important Reginald Johnston believing none of this was a problem as he had some sort of Confucian ability to adjudicate without legal training, being a local or any decent juries. Academics are nice people who don’t like to judge – even when looking at history – but of course there is no other conclusion than that the legal system and the British courts in Weihaiwei were nothing more than kangaroo courts and merely devices for maintaining British rule.

One interesting thing I didn’t know was the silly comparisons people made with Weihaiwei. I’ve noted daft foreigners comparing places in China to European locations before in a post and Weihaiwei’s a good addition. Apparently some touted Weihaiwei as China’s Biarritz or Naples –which isn’t too bad. But then others, apparently with straight faces and thinking it might attract people, compared Weihaiwei to Llandudno and Ostend!! Great – not sure the current tourism authorities in Weihai will be keen to make the claim to rival either of those places!

Flags of British Weihaiwei

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Junk Sunk

A shame to see that the replica 16th Century Chinese junk, the Princess Taiping, has sunk off Taiwan, one day short of completing its epic voyage to America and back. The Ming dynasty-style Princess Taiping was trying to prove that China's admiral, Zheng He, could have reached North America 600 years ago a la the claims in Gavin Menzies's much talked about 1421. While the claims in 1421 may or may not be accurate (and most people I talk to think it not likely except the Chinese government who love the idea) the Princess Taiping would have been an interesting experiment.
Indeed it still is as it did survive several storms during its 10-month voyage and was only sunk after being broken in two after it was rammed by a freighter just off Taiwan's coast. Given that there weren’t any large metal freighters around during the Ming Dynasty we can assume Zheng He didn’t worry about them too much or collide with too many. Of course the Princess Taiping has slightly better maps, technology etc.

Deviation Posting – Recession and 1945

Apologies for quick deviation into British history and politics today but I got a bit narked listening to the radio. The newspapers, radio and TV have quickly latched on to this idea that the recession is now the worst since World War Two in Britain. Maybe, maybe not. Politicians in the UK have decided that this means they can say that the economy (and by extension they claim life in general) is as bad as it was in 1945. This is of course nonsense and one of those arguments only possible in a world where people don’t read enough history.

Indeed to argue that anything now is like 1945 is so daft that any politician you hear mentioning this comparison should immediately have ensured you’ll never vote for them again. Just consider the picture of the Gorbals in Glasgow (which appears in David Kynaston’s excellent book noted below) above – now while the Gorbals is still far from paradise, whatever it is it isn’t anything like this anymore, the people who live there are different, the jobs they do (or don’t do) completely changed etc. In 1945 Britain was victorious but bombed out and knackered, rationing was in place, shortage widespread, the Treasury bust in a way it isn't now – to compare 2009 to 1945 is bizarre – sound bite politics I guess. Below I’ve noted a couple of books that describe that time excellently from David Kynaston and Maureen Waller that are well worth a read.

However, one thing about 1945 is instructive and we could learn from it. Right now it seems that we’re just going to let the same politicians and bankers that broke their own system put it back together way they like and that suits them best. This would be a tragedy. In 1945 Britain rejected the Tories as a party of the past (they were then, they are now) and elected a government that launched a programme of broadly socialist egalitarian ideas – the NHS, extensive nationalisation, education and housing. Politicians can try and score points by evoking images of 1945 and ruin; they might want to remember what arose from those ruins based on the idea of taking control of an economic system for the good of the many rather than just a financial elite. And, oh yeah, while I'm on a rant, bring back imperial measurements.

Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 - David Kynaston

London 1945 – Maureen Waller

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Few Posts on Keelung VI - Ershawan Fort

Just to quickly finish of my few posts on Keelung that kept getting interrupted I want to speedily note the remains of the Ershawan Fort (also known as the Haimen Tiansian) on the top of Ershawan Mountain (now a big park) overlooking the harbour of Keelung. There’s a few cannons and some remnant including a entry gate and steep steps to prevent attack (but my camera battery ran out at that point!).

The fort was specifically meant to repel any British invasion of the port around the time of the First Opium War which largely worked though the French took it in 1884.

As you can see it did offer a rather good view of the entrance of the harbour.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Empire of the Sun was Important

Since JG Ballard’s death recently I’ve heard a lot of people on the radio, in print and in casual conversations praise Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Perhaps the conversations are not that surprising as I’m in Shanghai so obviously the novel has a certain resonance for people here interested in the history of the pre-revolutionary Shanghailanders. So I’ll throw in my twopenny worth for what’s its worth.

Personally I’ve never actually thought Empire of the Sun was a great book – at least not within Ballard’s overall cannon which contains several more important and greater works notably Crash (1973) and his other dystopian novels of the British new wave (a wave he largely created).

In this sense Empire is an aberration rather than the norm in terms of Ballard’s work. A "novel",

though obviously based on Ballard’s own experiences, rather than an autobiography and not intended as a a reliable historical text. Indeed Ballard never claimed it should be used as such (when other internees disputed his book he had to point this out repeatedly to peopel who refused to see the word "novel" on the cover) and insisted the words ‘A Novel’ appeared on the cover. Of course Spielberg’s film (and it’s hard to imagine the Hollywood engendered Spielberg liking anything else of Ballard’s – surely he would have been put off by the "adultness" and remorseless downbeat nature of his fiction) further removed the book from any reality with the rather annoying insertion of several scenes not in the book that seem to add nothing except a certain late twentieth century political correctness Spielberg is of course noted for.

So if it’s not exactly a great book why is it important? It seems to me that Ballard’s stark dystopian literature, his nervousness of the culture of consumption and general social vacuity are best understood

through the prism of his wartime experiences. That’s why reading Empire (and his decidedly less commonly read, but arguably more revealing, follow up The Kindness of Women, published in 1991) is important – not to learn anything about Shanghai (which you won’t unless you know absolutely nothing about the place and time, in which case sue your history teachers) or particularly Ballard’s experiences or feelings at the time (Jim is not him he was always keen to point out and says little about the situation either personally or politically) but to better understand the roots of Ballard’s incredibly important fiction that he wrote after he returned to England.

I think Ballard himself saw Empire this way. In one of his last interviews with the BBC he discussed his youthful experiences. Ballard accepted that of course his fiction would have been totally different if he had not undergone the unpleasantness of inte rnment in Shanghai and of course it had changed and shaped him to a great extent. Ballard’s fiction often challenges the assumptions of the security of daily life we generally have and, of course, at a young age Ballard saw those illusions shattered completely.

In Shanghai Ballard learnt the essential surrealism of life – he remembers walking the previously neat and prosperous streets and seeing cars on their roofs (the bomb that fell outside the Cathay Hotel left), apartment buildings shattered to reveal their innards of 20 living rooms and 20 private lives that weren't meant to be on public display and of course dead bodies littering the pavement (both the starved and the bombed). Ballard believed that the war had made him nervous of bland reassurances that everything was all right and that when anyone told him everything was “all right”, it was invariably anything but. As he said, ‘reality is a stage set that can be swept aside, as I saw as a boy in Shanghai.’

Clearly that loss of one privileged life for another dystopian one is key as was (and noted in The Kindness of Women) the unexpected death of Ballard’s wife at a young age that left him a widower with three children to care for) proved to him the transient and temporary nature of everyday seemingly constant reality.

What else did he take from his Shanghai days? I think an instinctive distrust of uncircumscribed and rampant capitalism (though he was far from a revolutionary socialist) and a certain sense that anarchy can break out in a moment and things, however seemingly permanent, can be smashed to smithereens in the blink of eye (or the fall of a Japanese bomb on Shanghai Railway Station 1937 as left). I think he also learnt to appreciate the ridiculous lengths people go to protect themselves from perceived threats real and false,to insulate themselves. This comes out in numerous Ballard novels where people retreat behind walls they think can protect them - think of the horrendous gated communities of his 2000 novel Super-Cannes. Of course Ballard saw walls around everyone's properties in Shanghai in the 1930s - another tradition that continues today as everyone puts up walls, hires guards and puts bars on their windows to protect them from...what? Ultimately Ballard knew that once inside such supposedly secure and isolated places you then went basically nuts, became paranoid and broke down.

Interestingly I think one of the most important things he took from Shanghai that became a recurrent theme for him - the human struggle within a consumerist landscape – ended in 1937 but has come back to haunt the city as the post-1949 powers that be encourage consumption over spirituality and shopping as the great ideology-religion-culture to end all others and to negate opposition or disgruntlement with one's lot in life.

It was these experiences that shaped Ballard’s incredible fiction and therefore why reading Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women remains important. The interesting thing to ponder is quite how Ballard partly predicted the descent of Shanghai into a consumerist driven dystopia where briefs fads for fusion cuisine and competitive shopping replace thought and experience? There can be few more “Ballardian” spots on earth than the vacuous self styled “elite” crowds gathering on the balcony of 3 on the Bund, the oddly philistine speculators of Shanghai’s art scene or the injunction of the local government that to shop is patriotic; to question dissent – in this sense Ballard did come full circle whether he thought about modern Shanghai or not.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Remembering JG Ballard - Lunghua Airfield

As someone who hates gyms in all their incarnations and all forms of organised “games” I do still accept that I need some exercise. Walking, or occasionally a swim, suffices. Walking is also educational and instructive unlike time spent in a gym as well as having the added bonuses of seeing things (other than CCTV9 or CNN, neither of which interest me in the slightest) and of being able to wear normal clothes rather than the ridiculous outfits I see people “heading for the gym” wearing. Therefore an interest in psychogeography, I think, is the answer.

For those not au fait with psychogeography it’s basically a strategy for exploring cities in such a way that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape. Perhaps Will Self is the most famous practitioner of the discipline at the moment – walking to Heathrow while of course the novelist Ian Sinclair experienced the outer rim of London anew by walking the M25. I’ve decided to coin the term psychohistoricalgeography and so my Saturday…

This weekend I was struck with the idea of two things – the need for fresh air and wanting to commemorate the sad passing of JG Ballard in some way. Actually I live just round the corner from Ballard’s old family home on Shanghai’s former Amherst Avenue and do occasionally eat in the restaurant that now inhabits the former Ballard residence – not much good but a nice house. Architecture trumps cuisine anyday, and anyway James Fallows’ on his excellent blog has already posted photos of the interior and exterior of the former residence.

So here was my solution – Ballard, as everyone knows from Empire of the Sun, was interned in the Lunghua (Loonghwa) Civilian Assembly Centre on the outskirts of Shanghai and which abutted the Lunghua Airfield and was close to the Lunghua Pagoda – all are shown in the film and described in the book. He was interned in 1943 with his parents and younger sister, spending over two years, the remainder of World War Two, in the camp. His family lived in a small area in G block, a two-story residence for 40 families. He attended school in the camp, the teachers being inmates from a number of professions. I’m not sure if JG himself had to walk to the Camp but many internees did – I did the walk on a breezy, sunny Saturday morning without a suitcase containing my most precious belongings and without any Japanese guards shouting at me to hurry up. I’m also a reasonably fit 42. Many of the internees were much older, unwell and had to make the walk in either far colder or far hotter weather depending on when they were interned.

So I walked from Ballard’s childhood home on Amherst Avenue to Lunghua Airfield, or what’s left of it. This is not an overly long walk – tales about 90 minutes at most out from the former Western Roads Settlement (where Ballard’s family house was and not the French Concession as so often written) along the old Siccawei Road (now Huashan Road) through Siccawei itself (now the Xujiahui shopping district) out past the sports stadium, past the Lunghua Revolutionary Martyrs memorial and to the Lunghua Pagoda (which is these days adjacent to a Tesco supermarket for those that like to make points about that sort of contrast). Continue slightly further along and you’ll reach the rather grand edifice of the old modernist-style air terminal, with its sweeping observation deck and control tower still reasonably intact. Inside are a reasonable Shanghainese restaurant where I lunched and a KTV joint.

In the film, if I remember correctly, you see the Japanese planes fly over the terminal building with the Pagoda (which is obviously still a major tourist attraction) in the background sans Tesco. There is still some original tiling left in the building and it does rather have the aura of old time air travel. The area is a striking image in the book and also in the film – and if you get into the right psychohistoricalgeographist mindset still quite atmospheric.

Here’s remembering the great JG once again

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Few Posts on Keelung III – The Monument to Prince Kitashirakawa

Before moving on to other things a couple of posts about a recent trip to Keelung in Taiwan to get out of the way. Today the small monument to the Japanese Prince Kitashirakawa. It’s hidden just slightly back from the road that runs around the base of the old Ershawan Fort.

Kitshirakawa (1847-1895) was the 2nd head of a collateral branch of the Japanese imperial family and a professional soldier who had been trained in Germany. After the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, he was transferred to the elite IJA 1st Division and participated in the Taiwan Expedition of 1874. During the invasion, he contracted malaria and died outside of Tainan. This meant that Prince Kitashirakawa was the first member of the Japanese imperial family known to have died outside of Japan, and the first (in modern times) to have died in war.

The monument itself was erected in 1933 by the Japanese to commemorate their “conquest of Taiwan”. It has been restored now and has some pretty complete guides placed alongside to explain its history. It seems (understandably perhaps being in an obscure location and being Japanese) rarely visited now but remains in a small garden. To be honest I stumbled across it walking from the French Cemetery mentioned the other day back into town.

A Few Posts on Keelung I - The Keelung Harbour Integrated Administration Building

A Few Posts on Keelung II – The Cimetière Française de Kilung
A Few Posts on Keelung VI - Ershawan Fort

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Today is World Book Day

In most of the world today is World Book Day. The date of April 23rd is apparently the selected date due to the (contested) fact that Shakespeare died on on April 23, 1616. Or if you like his birth which is widely assumed to have been on April 23, 1564 (and also happens to Nabokov’s birthday too). Interestingly Miguel de Cervantes also died on April 23rd. (actually their deaths were ten days apart as Spain had already switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, while England, ever the contrarian nation, didn’t switch to the Julian calendar until 1752.

And talking of British contrarianism - in the UK, birthplace obviously of Shakespeare, World Book Day is held on March 5th! I love being a Brit sometimes. You see there’s a clash as April 23 is already taken by England’s patron saint, St. George.

Anyway – World Book Day seems like a good idea to me whether in March or April or any month – so go buy a book. If you can’t think of one to buy look down the left hand column of this blog for possible inspiration!. In Taiwan the Japanese book chain Kinokuniya issued this rather nice card to celebrate the event.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Deviation Posting – Probably the Best Cast Ever – Probably the Worst Film Ever

Imagine this – a film with the following cast of amazing actors:

Kenneth Branagh

Bill Nighy

Tom Wilkinson

Terence Stamp

Eddie Izzard

Kevin McNally

Tom Hollander

Kenneth Cranham

David Bamber

Bernard Hill

And not forgetting the fantastic Dutch actress from Black Book - Carice van Houten

That is one of the best cast lists any film could have

But then they got Tom Cruise and make Valkyrie

Trains of the Kowloon-Canton Railway

While in Tai Po last weekend (see previous post) I couldn’t of course resist a trip to the (free!!) Hong Kong Railway Museum. The museum is home to the original Tai Po Market train station which was a stop on the Kowloon-Canton Railway that obviously ran from Guangzhou right down the harbour at Tsim Tsa Choi originally.

The station house is excellent with some old signalling gear, the train masters office and the old ticket booth with a display of old KCR tickets. The building is marvellous and typical of the old KCR stations. Inside are some nice exhibits including an old KCR poster (which I’d really like – very annoying they weren’t selling reprints) and some old black and white pictures of crowds at the station.

There’s also a few oddities like an old trolley (left) which looks fun. There’s an old puffer that ran on the line in the 1920s (middle), a more recent (1950s) diesel (right) and a couple of old carriages you can stroll through.

A nice fast visit. Strangely the place was mostly full of happy young newly weds having their wedding photos taken next to old diesel trains and in front of the current lines of the KCR train sweeping past from the border at Lo Wu down to Tsim Sha Choi East. Takes all sorts I suppose.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Few Posts on Keelung II – The Cimetière Française de Kilung

One of the more interesting sites in Keelung is the Cimetière Française de Kilung. The French cemetery is a reminder of the Sino-French War of 1884 to 1885 (see my other posts on this war as related to Danshui) located on a plot hemmed in by apartment buildings near the ruins of the old Ershawan Fort.

Actually this is not the original French cemetery, which was moved from a seaside location in 1909. It is reasonably well maintained though, unlike the foreigners’ cemetery in Danshui, the site has not been designated a national relic, though is open to the public. Two obelisks stand at opposite ends of the plot - one in French is dedicated to soldiers and sailors; the other, in both French and Chinese, is dedicated to officers as well. Ranks and officers kept apart in death too it seems!

The total number of French soldiers and sailors buried in Keelung is unknown, though the most common figure cited in 600 French officers, soldiers, and sailors. Approximately 120 of them were killed in battle, while 150 died later of their wounds. The majority succumbed to malaria, cholera, dysentery, or other maladies. More than a fifth of the French force never returned home.

The French cemetery is the subject of a book by Christophe Rouil titled Formosa: Some Nearly-Forgotten Battles, (or at least Formose, des Batailles Presque Oubliées – I’m not sure if there’s an English version or not) which took the author a year and a half to research and write. Rouil notes that after World War II the cemetery fell into disrepair. In 1947, M. Bayens, a French diplomat based in Shanghai, reported to his superiors that the graveyard was in a terrible state. Rather than wait for instructions from Paris, he spent around US$100 of his own money (which was later reimbursed by France's foreign ministry) to have the cemetery fixed up.

To get there just follow the harbour road around the port past the hilly park that houses the Ershawan Fort and you’ll find it on the left hand side.

A Few Posts on Keelung I - The Keelung Harbour Integrated Administration Building

A Few Posts on Keelung III – The Monument to Prince Kitashirakawa

A Few Posts on Keelung VI - Ershawan Fort

Monday, April 20, 2009

JG Ballard – 1930-2009

After a long illness JG Ballard died yesterday. He will be truly missed.

Of course he was one of Britain’s greatest modern writers but will be remembered by many for Empire of the Sun, the fictionalized account of his own childhood in a Shanghai (Lunghwa) internment camp. Steven Spielberg turned the novel into a 1987 film, which was nominated for six Oscars, and as far as movie versions of books go wasn’t bad at all.

Born in Shanghai on November 15, 1930, Ballard was the son of a British executive. He was growing up in the city’s privileged expatriate community when the Japanese invaded. At the age of 12, he was interned with his mother and father in a camp where he would spend two and a half years.

Recently Ballard had written again about Shanghai in his autobiography Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton.

For those interested the former Ballard family still stands and is now a restaurant on Panyu Lu near the corner with Xinhua Road. I can’t recommend the food but a stroll by to doff your cap in respect is in order if in you are in the area.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tai Po - The Old District Office North

Found myself with a blessedly work and interruption free day in Hong Kong last weekend so decided to head out to Tai Po where I’d never been before. The main object of a quick look-see was the old District Office North, the earliest remaining seat of the British civil administration after the lease of the New Territories. The building dates from around 1907.

The building was the centre for administration, legislation and land regulation for the area that lies to the north of what is now Tseun Wan. The building was also a planning centre – where the first modern roads, electricity systems and rail lines in the New Territories were planned out. Until 1961 the building housed the Magistrate’s Court for the local area. Obviously responsibilities were handed over in1997 though the building remained in use as a government centre till the mid-1980s and now seems to be mostly occupied by the Boy Scout movement.

The building is a typical colonial-style structure typical of the 20th century. It’s sited at the top of a hill up a path from Wan Tau Street just round the corner from Tai Po Market train station (on the East Kowloon Railway line). These sort of colonial buildings were often at the top of hills for obvious imperialist reasons. It’s a typical red brick structure building that hasn’t been mucked about much and even still has the original fireplaces.

It’s nice to see such a well preserved building though of Hong Kong’s record is extremely patchy at preservation – as I’ll note later in the week.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Few Posts on Keelung I - The Keelung Harbour Integrated Administration Building

Passed through the Taiwan port city of Keelung (Jilong) over Easter. As a port Keelung is on the decline though the city, a 40 minute train ride from Taipei, remains a bustling and crowded place. The area behind the train station is particularly tight knit. So I’m going to post about a few interesting places and buildings in Keelung.

Keelung is nicknamed the Rainy Port - indeed it rained all day when I visited. The history is a mix of influences of those who've occupied the port over the centuries - the Spanish for a while and between 1642 to 1661 and then again between 1663-1668, the Dutch – they were ousted for a couple of years by the great Anti-Qing pirate Koxinga. The Keelung Campaign was an important subsidiary campaign in the Sino-French War (August 1884 to April 1885) and the French occupied the port from October 1884 to June 1885 and then after the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, which handed all Taiwan over to Tokyo, the Japanese ran the port.

And a building worth looking at if you visit is one of the structures the Japanese left behind - Keelung Harbour Integrated Administration Building – close to the train station on the harbour. It also includes what is now the main Post Office in Keelung (left). It was Japanese designed and built and was completed in 1934 as the headquarters of the Keelung Harbour Integrated Administration. Now the main building hosts a variety of firms as well as some of the present harbour authority’s offices and the aforementioned post office.

OK, so it’s not the most gorgeous building in the world – but is a pretty good example of Japanese modernist colonial architecture of the time – you see the same in Korea as well as parts of northern China and Manchuria, particularly Changchun. The interior seems fairly well preserved and actually the entrance lobby (left) is still rather nice though sadly a bit cluttered and not lit well.

A Few Posts on Keelung II – The Cimetière Française de Kilung

A Few Posts on Keelung III – The Monument to Prince Kitashirakawa

A Few Posts on Keelung VI - Ershawan Fort

John Thomson Exhibition Opens in Peking

I mentioned it previously in a post but it’s worth reminding the interested that the China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872 exhibition opens today at the Beijing World Art Museum – the show runs till 18th May.

If you want to know more about Thomson and his pioneering photographic work in China there’s a good discussion you can listen to or download the text of on the BBC web site – click here. There’s also a useful appraisal of the exhibition and Thomson on the Asian Art web site – click here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Maurice Bowra - A Footnote to the History of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs

This is a wee bit of an obscure posting but I know a lot of people are interested in the history and characters involved in the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs run for so long by Sir Robert Hart, the "IG". One of the fascinating things about the Maritime Customs administration is the number of serious scholars it produced – I posted about a new biography of one, Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor, a noted translator recently.

For those who like ephemera about the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs they may like to note that one person being remembered at the moment through a new biography was the son of a Maritime Customs administration official in China who rose to prominence in British academia between the wars – Maurice Bowra. Nowadays Bowra is pretty obscure though I seem to come across references to him regularly in the biographies and autobiographies of old Oxford types where he was a well known Don for decades. Last year I enjoyed reading AN Wilson’s biography of John Betjeman who was tutored by Bowra and who seemed to affect the young poet.

Bowra is also largely forgotten as he never really produced any seminal scholarly works (though did write a few understandable books about ancient Greece) and his famous bon-mots and supposedly cutting remarks don’t really translate to 2009, if they were ever funny outside of a bunch of public school boys – ‘a man more dined against than dining’ may have had the young fogies in stitches back in the 1930s but doesn’t mean much now. However, his remark (alluding to his rather mysterious sexuality) upon marrying a noted lesbian that, ‘My dear, buggers can’t be choosers’ is quite amusing.

He also wrote and apparently regularly recited some pretty bad poetry. Still, as an inspiration to a bunch of largely privileged boarding school boys embarking on university life he was influential. And to several generations too - he was Warden of Wadham College (left) from 1938 to 1970 and served as Vice-Chancellor of the Oxford from 1951 to 1954. If he has a lasting claim to fame it’s probably in his role as a defender of the university from the pernicious influences of politicians seeking to interfere and meddle with the place.

The point of this digression is that, as a footnote to a history of the impact of the Maritime Customs administration, Maurice Bowra’s father was Cecil Arthur Verner Bowra and Maurice was born in Jiujiang in 1898, then of course Kiukiang on the southern shores of the Yangtze River in northwest Jiangxi province. However, China doesn’t really seem to have had much effect on his life – at a young age he was sent to school at Cheltenham College and then New College, Oxford before serving in the First World War and then heading back to Oxford seemingly not leaving the place until he died. (the Kiukiang Bund early 20th century pictured opposite).

As I said it’s a small footnote in the history of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs. I know nothing else really about Bowra or his father in China though there is a new biography of him – Leslie Mitchell's Maurice Bowra: A Life – that seems to have been generally well reviewed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cultural Revolution Photos in Shanghai

An interesting exhibition in Shanghai at the moment - Beijing Sixty Six, featuring some amazing photographs of the Cultural Revolution by Solange Brand. What makes them startling is that they are mostly colour and for some reason (perhaps just in my mind’s eye) photos of the CR always seem black and white to me.

Solange Brand, then the Art Director for Le Monde Diplomatique visited China between 1966 to 1968, Some of the most interesting photos are around the journeys people made to the large rallies held in Beijing by the Red Guards. These were incredibly mass movements of people. In fact I can’t think of too many other great ideologically or religious motivated movements on the same scale with the exception of the Haj and the kumbh mela.

Anyway Beijing Sixty Six runs until May 22 at the Beaugeste Photo Gallery, Building 5 Space 519, Taikang Road Lane 210 – the supposed art space or something down where about 3,000 instant coffee and tat shops have opened.