Guest blog: Alex Thompson on British Law and Governance in Treaty Port China

Our latest blog comes from Dr Alex Thompson who studied Chinese at the University of Leeds and in Beijing. He has worked for the British government in China and also as a legal professional in the UK. He obtained his PhD in History from the University of Bristol in 2018. His book British Law and Governance in Treaty Port China 1842-1927:Consuls, Courts and Colonial Subjects will be published shortly by Amsterdam University Press.

Empire Day Parade, British Consulate General, Shanghai, 1926. Photograph Eugene Kobza, Archibald Lang Collection, HPC AL-s45

This photograph from the HPC collection, shown on the cover of my forthcoming book, was published in the North-China Herald (a Shanghai newspaper) in June 1926. We might wonder what a reader leafing through the paper would have made of the scene, which shows the British Consul-General for Shanghai, Sir Sidney Barton, inspecting a detachment from the Sikh Branch, Shanghai Municipal Police, at the combined Empire Day and King’s Birthday Parade held in the grounds of the British Consulate-General in Shanghai in 1926. The answer, I suspect, is not much: this was a very typical scene of British ceremonial, showing just one event from a calendar of celebrations and parades repeated year after year by the British at Shanghai in the period covered in my book.

But the photograph does show something that might surprise and interest us: we see an employee of the British state in China inspecting not a detachment of British marines, but a group of employees of the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC), the ‘international’ body that governed the Shanghai International Settlement. The picture portrays quite neatly the particular way that power was exercised in Shanghai, by what I describe as a hybrid colonial state, in which the British state and the SMC were the key players. The SMC may have been the Shanghai International Settlement’s governing body in most areas, but it relied very heavily, as I show in my book, on the British state to perform its functions.

British consuls and British judges exercised jurisdiction in legal matters over British subjects in China, and British consuls also sat as assessors (effectively judges) in mixed courts, such as at Shanghai, which dealt with cases involving Chinese at the treaty ports. These British officials used their powers in a variety of ways to assist the SMC in governing Shanghai, ensuring that Sikh policemen were kept in line, that the Mixed Court handed down judgements supportive of SMC objectives and that a legal framework existed which facilitated the huge levels of investment of foreign and Chinese capital in Shanghai.

British officials and SMC leaders did not always agree on every issue. For example, the SMC wanted a Mixed Court over which it would effectively exercise judicial control, whereas the British Consul at Shanghai at the time the Court was created (Harry Parkes) insisted that a foreign consular official (usually British) play that role. There were also serious disagreements over whether the Chinese government should be able to tax Chinese residents of the International Settlement. But in the case of the latter question, while the Consul strenuously opposed the SMC having control over such matters, the British judge (Edmund Hornby) was supportive of the Council.

In return for its support of the SMC, the British state gained enormous influence over the way Shanghai was governed and British official and commercial interests alike benefitted from the infrastructure the SMC provided. And as the photo shows, both British officials and the SMC certainly appear to have been in agreement over the benefit of deploying their resources towards displays of British power and prestige at Shanghai.

‘Mr Barton inspecting the troops [sic] in the King’s Birthday parade at the Consulate’, North-China Herald, 12 June 1926, p. 468. As the accompanying article made clear, these were police, not soldiers.

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Guest blog: Andrew Hillier on Armistice Day and its Aftermath in Treaty Port China

As we approach the 105th anniversary of Armistice Day, Andrew Hillier considers the significance of the ceremony in treaty port China and for Chinese people today.

Held at the Cenotaph in Victoria Park, Tianjin (Tientsin), the Armistice Day parade was ‘the most impressive’ of the imperial celebrations to take place in the treaty port, recalled Brian Power in his memoir of his early life in China. Modelled on the service in Whitehall, London, the Consul-General (William Pollock Ker) took the place of the King alongside members of the British Municipal Council and behind them, foreign military guests in a variety of uniforms, the French in blue-grey steel helmets, Italians with bright blue sashes and gold epaulettes, Americans with wide-brimmed Stetson hats, and the Japanese with long curved swords. On the other three sides,

a company of British soldiers, sailors from HMS Hollyhock, the Volunteer Corps, members of the British Legion and the Boy Scouts were drawn up … British families, well wrapped up in furs against the cold weather, gathered behind the soldiers, while crowds of curious Chinese watched from outside the railings. [1]

A similar ceremony took place each year in Shanghai, as we see in this image.

Dignitaries at War Memorial, Armistice Day, 1925, Shanghai, Archibald Lang Collection, AL-s24.

The previous year, a special parade had been held in the grounds of the British Consulate, Shanghai, in which the Boy Scouts and Wolf Cubs were inspected by Sir Skinner Turner, as President of the Boy Scouts Association of Shanghai, and Consul-General Sir John Pratt.[2]

Boy Scouts Parade at the British Consulate, Shanghai, on Armistice Day 1924. Left to right: Sir John Thomas Pratt (1876-1970), British Consul-General, Shanghai – Unidentified Royal Navy commander – Sir Skinner Turner (1868-1935), Chief Judge of the British Supreme Court for China from 1921 to 1927 – Sir John Fitzgerald Brenan (1883-1953), British Consul-General, Canton. Archibald Lang Collection, AL-s14.

In Hong Kong, a replica cenotaph was also erected.

Unveiling of the Cenotaph, Statue Square, Hong Kong on Empire Day, 24 May 1923. Billie Love Historical Collection, BL-s012.

Laying wreaths at the Cenotaph, Hong Kong. Jamie Carstairs Collection, JC01-02.

An important event in the imperial calendar, each year, the ceremony would implicitly validate the western presence in China. For the ‘crowds of curious Chinese’, however, it came with a bitter taste. As Robert Bickers says, ‘The Allies would soon start to forget that China had been on their side in the Great War’ and, by November 1919, it was clear that they were not going to honour the undertaking that, in return for providing the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) for the Western Front, Shandong would be restored to China. Instead, Japan was allowed to occupy the province as a zone of influence. On 4 May, 1919, a mass demonstration of students took place in Peking to protest at the failure of China’s officials at Versailles to secure compliance with the wartime undertaking. What became known as the May Fourth Movement launched ‘a nationwide assault on imperialism and on China’s prevailing culture’ and its anniversary became an important event in China’s narrative of the western presence.[3]

June 3 1919, YMCA Student demonstration, Beijing. Sidney D. Gamble Photographs Collection, Duke Digital Collections.

And so, for the remainder of that presence, two ceremonies would take place each year in China, one commemorating the Allies’ victory and the ensuing Armistice, the other commemorating the failure of the Allies to honour their commitment and China’s first steps towards ending that imperial presence.

But, despite the contribution of the CLC, it went unrecognised during the Armistice ceremony. And, still today there is no memorial in Great Britain honouring the thousands of CLC workers who died, save for five white Commonwealth War Graves in Anfield Cemetery, Liverpool, where members of the CLC, who died in Liverpool in 1917 and 1918, are buried. Elsewhere, in addition to their gravestones, a number of memorials honouring the contribution of the CLC have been erected.[4] In November 2017, a plaque was unveiled in Belgium near the village of Busseboom, Poperinge.  In December 2018, the British Chargé d’Affaires unveiled a memorial plaque which the British government had presented to the Qingdao Museum of the First World War.[5] And in May this year, a ceremony took place at Saint-Etienne- au-Mont Communal Cemetery marking the restoration of the Chinese memorial to the CLC.

Thanks to the efforts of Ensuring We Remember, there are now plans to erect a similar memorial in this country.[6] And, as has happened each year since 2017, this Armistice Day, a wreath honouring the contribution of the CLC will be placed at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

Andrew Hillier, The Alcock Album: Scenes of China Consular Life will be published later this year.


[1] Brian Power, The Ford of Heaven: A Childhood in Tianjin, China (Oxford: Signal Books, 2005), pp.110-112.

[2] See an account of the day published in the North-China Herald, 15 November 1924, p274.

[3] Robert Bickers, Out of China, How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (London: Allen Lane, 2017), pp.1- 5 and 26-34.

[4] See, for example, the gravestones at the Chinese Cemetery, Noyelles-sur-Mer, Picardy .

[5]  See also The government post states that there is already a commemorative memorial in London but it is unclear to what this refers.

[6] A memorial has been constructed in China but there is uncertainty where it is to be erected – see this South China Morning Post story.

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Guest blog: Kaori Abe on the Abe Naoko Collection –– a glimpse of a Japanese family’s life in Shanghai, c.1927-c.1934

Kaori Abe, who has written the post below, is a historian specialising in the history of Hong Kong and port cities in East Asia. The author of Chinese Middlemen in Hong Kong’s Colonial Economy, 1830-1890 (Routledge, 2017), she has worked in Singapore, the UK, and Switzerland and holds a PhD in History from the University of Bristol.

A decade ago, my grandmother, Abe Naoko (阿部 直子 née Futakami 二神), passed down to me her collection of old family photos of Shanghai and postcards of Hong Kong, which together make up the Abe Naoko Collection. What makes this collection unique is its portrayal of the lives of Japanese women within the Japanese community in the international settlement of Shanghai. In this post, I will explain the background and key photos from the collection, based on Naoko’s letter about her childhood life in Shanghai, my interviews with relatives, and consultation of primary and secondary sources.

Futakami Norizo (二神 範蔵) (1895–1972), my grandmother’s father, took the most of photographs in the collection. After graduating from a university in Japan, Norizo embarked on his career in Shanghai, working for Mitsui Bussan, a Japanese trading firm. He married Futakami Chitose (二神   千歳 née Oshima 大島) (1902–1987), who was a sister of his colleague, Oshima Kiyoshi (大島 清) at Mitsui Bussan in Shanghai in the late 1920s. Chitose left Japan to marry Norizo in Shanghai, and their wedding ceremony took place in there. Subsequently, the couple had two children while residing in Shanghai, with Naoko being their second daughter.

Fig. 1 Futakami Chitose and Oshima Shizuko(大島 静子) with a man, Jessfield Park (兆豐公園), Shanghai (上海) Abe, Naoko Collection KA-s29

The photograph above shows Chitose (left) and Oshima Shizuko (right), the man in the middle is thought to be one of Shizuko’s brothers.

In 1931, Norizo resigned from his position at Mitsui Bussan, taking responsibility for an embezzlement incident that occurred that year, and the family returned to Tokyo for approximately six months. While in Tokyo, they welcomed a third child into their family. Following Norizo’s acquisition of a new position at Yamashita Kisen (山下汽船), a Japanese shipping company, the family promptly returned to Shanghai, where they resided until 1934.

After the January 28 incident (also known as the Shanghai Incident) in 1932, when Japanese and Chinese troops fought a bloody month-long battle in the north of the city, the anti-Japanese movement intensified in Shanghai. In this context, between 1934 and 1935, the Japanese population in Shanghai decreased by nearly 3,000. The Futakami family was among those Japanese who left Shanghai and returned Japan as a result.[1] Upon returning to Japan, Norizo selected photographs taken during their time in Shanghai, creating separate albums for each of his children. The photographs featured in the Abe Naoko Collection come from the album handed to Naoko.

Fig. 2 Group of women and children in front a company house for employees of Mitsui & Co. (三井物産), Shanghai (上海) Abe Naoko Collection KA-s36

Photograph 2 shows a group of women and children standing in front of a company-owned house by Mitsui Bussan in Shanghai. This photo is likely to have been taken when the Futakami family lived in their first residence in Hongkou (虹口) district before Norizo resigned from Mitsui Bussan in 1931. In 1930, approximately 24,182 Japanese lived in Shanghai, most in the northern part of the international settlement, specifically the Hongkou district. Of them, 11,170 were women, making up 46.2% of Shanghai’s Japanese population. [2]

Fig. 3 Two women with three children standing on the pavement in front of a house in North Sichuan Road, Shanghai (上海) Abe Naoko Collection KA-s17

The third photograph above shows Futakami’s second residence in Hongkou district, featuring Chitose, three children, including Naoko, and their amah. According to Naoko, the family employed one or two amahs during their entire stay in Shanghai. The Futakami family was relatively well-off in the Japanese community. Still, the prevalence of diseases like cholera and typhus in Shanghai meant that “they lived with a certain degree of caution and preparedness,” as Naoko recalled.

The Futakami’s first house was located at No. 4 Hengfengli (恒豊里), Scott Road (施高塔路, present-day Shannyin Lu 山陰路) and the second one was in Cherry Terrace (Qian’ai Li 千愛里 present Tianai Lu 甜愛路), North Sichuan Road (Beisihuan Lu 北四川路).

The first Google Map below indicates the location of Hongkou, while the second map illustrates the positions of Futakami’s first and second residences and their vicinity. I drew the second map by referencing a hand-drawn map and fragments of old Shanghai maps that Naoko and her family had crafted and gathered.

Fig. 4 Hongkou (Hongkew), Shanghai


Fig. 5 Map showing the locations of the first and second houses of the Futakami family in Shanghai

The Uchiyama Bookstore (内山書店), a Japanese bookstore and a cultural exchange point between Chinese and Japanese intellectuals in Shanghai, was a few minutes’ walk from both of their residences. Influenced by her mother, a voracious reader, Futakami Chitose loved books and frequently visited the bookstore. Chitose seemed to often interacted with Japanese women who were also partners of expatriate Japanese, as evidenced by several photos of her and other women in kimonos at company events and gatherings.

The Japanese public school on North Sichuan Road was near Futakami’s second house.[3] Among the few English words Naoko learned in Shanghai were “public school”, “chauffeur,” and “wardrobe,” which her parents frequently used in their daily conversations.

Fig. 6 A photo of Hengfengli or Qiangai’li in Shanghia, 1985

Image 6 showing houses in Hengfengli or Qiangai’li was taken by a relative of Chitose, in 1985. When Chitose knew that her relative made a business trip to Shanghai, she asked him to find her former residence in Hongkou.

Fig. 7 Tianai Lu, Shanghai, 2012.

In 2012, my family, including Naoko, visited the same location. It was the first time my grandmother had revisited her childhood place in Shanghai. Photograph 7 is one I took when we found the Futakami family’s former residence in Qianai’li, now called Tianai Lu 甜愛路. “Tianai” literally meant “sweet love”. When we visited the street, many teenagers bought sweets from stalls and hung out there.

These are the context and supplementary explanations of the Abe Naoko Collection and my grandmother’s early childhood in Shanghai. Naoko married a person from Kobe, one of Japan’s former treaty ports, and his family was also deeply involved in business with China. My grandparents always enjoyed toast with jam and tea for breakfast. They regularly played tennis, and both were fluent in English. As I studied the history of Shanghai and the treaty ports in East Asia and delved into my family history, I understood why they embraced such a lifestyle. East Asian treaty ports incubated them, and they lived within that world.


Thanks to Helena Lopes, Jamie Carstairs and Robert Bickers for making this collection available at Historical Photographs of China.

[1] Fujita Hiroyuki藤田 拓之, “”kokusaitoshi” shanhai ni okeru nihonjin kyoryūmin no ichi: sokai gyōsei tono kankei wo chūshin ni”「国際都市」上海における日本人居留民の位置 : 租界行政との関係を中心に” (Japanese residents in the Shanghai international settlement), Ritsumeikan gengobunka kenkyū 立命館言語文化研究, 21 (4), 121-134, March 2010, p. 122.

[2] Dai go hyō 第五表 (table 5),  Shina honbu narabi honkon, makao zairyū hōjin gaikokujin oyobi chūgokujin jinkō tōkei hyō 支那本部並香港、澳門在留本邦人外国人及中国人人口統計表 (The tables of  Japanese and foreign population in China, Hong Kong, Macao),  dai 23 kai第二十三回 (no. 23), Shōwa gonen junigatsu 昭和五年十二月(December 1930), A-15亜-15 (Gaimusho Gaikōshi Shiryōkan外務省外交史料館 Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan), Japan Center for Asian Historical Records (JACAR) <>.

[3] The Shanghai Directory 1930: City Supplementary Edition to hte North China Hong List, Revised and Corrected to July, 1930 (Shanghai: North-China Daily News & Herald Limited, 1930), p.84.

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Guest blog: Ghassan Moazzin on Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China

Ghassan Moazzin is an assistant professor in the School of Humanities and the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. His first monograph, Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China: Banking on the Chinese Frontier, 1870-1919, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2022. He now works on the history of the electrical and electronics industries in modern China.

Fig 1: Hankow Road (Hankou lu) photographed from the Bund. On the left: The Custom House. On the right: The German-Asiatic Bank
© 2012 Billie Love Historical Collection, BL02-024

Figure 1 shows the Bund in May 1911. On the right-hand side, we see the Shanghai branch of the Deutsch-Asiatische Bank (DAB) situated next to the building of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. While few know of this bank today, it was a leading player amongst foreign banks in China at the turn of the twentieth century and the main case study I focus on in my recent book Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China. My book explores the history of foreign banking in late nineteenth and early twentieth century China.

Fig 2: The Oriental Bank, Bund, Shanghai Helen Dhoot Collection HD-s22 © 2015 Helen Dhoot

Foreign banks entered China shortly after the end of the First Opium War. The first foreign bank that opened its doors in China was the Oriental Bank, which we can see in this picture from around 1870 tucked away behind some trees at the Bund. At first, foreign banking in China remained a largely British affair. However, starting from the 1890s, foreign banking became much more diverse with banks originating in many other countries also entering the scene. Apart from the DAB, which began business in Shanghai in 1890, another example of a new non-British bank that entered China after 1890 was the Japanese Bank of Taiwan.

Fig 3: Farewell dinner given by Manager of Bank of Taiwan, Swatow, 1913 Reginald Hedgeland Collection He03-022 © 2007 SOAS

Foreign banks could be found not only in Shanghai but also in other treaty ports. They became involved in a range of activities, including trade finance and the raising of capital on bond markets abroad for the Chinese government. In the Chinese banking sector, foreign banks interacted with Chinese bankers. At the same time, their representatives also came into contact with Chinese government officials during loan negotiations.[1]

In terms of the DAB, my book traces the fortunes of the bank from its establishment in 1889 and its beginnings in China in the 1890s through to its liquidation by the Chinese authorities during World War I following China’s siding with the Allies and declaration of war against Germany. I describe the early interactions of German bankers leading up to the DAB’s establishment; how the bank operated in the Chinese banking sector after 1890; how it became involved in the large loans China used to fund the repayment of the Japanese indemnity imposed after the Sino-Japanese War; what role German bankers played in the funding of the development of Chinese railways; how German and other foreign bankers and China’s international financial connections shaped the 1911 revolution and the triumph of Yuan Shikai; and how the DAB tried but eventually failed to use financial means to persuade China to maintain its neutrality in the First World War.

Fig 5: Yuan Shikai (袁世凯), the first President of the Republic of China, Beijing, 10 October 1913 William Cooper Collection WC01-197 © 2016 Historical Photographs of China

More broadly, Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China shows that foreign banks need to be seen as important intermediary institutions that aided China’s financial linking with the global economy. At the same time, my book highlights how important Chinese agency and cooperation with Chinese actors were for foreign banks.

[1] One such representative featured in my descriptions of loan negotiations with Chinese government officials in the book is the HSBC’s Edward Guy Hillier, who readers of this blog will be familiar with from two posts, here and here, by HPC Research Associate Dr. Andrew Hillier.

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Guest blog: Helena Lopes on A connected place: Macau in the Second World War

Dr Helena F. S. Lopes is Lecturer in Modern Asian History at Cardiff University. She was previously a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in History at the University of Bristol. Her book Neutrality and Collaboration in South China: Macau during the Second World War has recently been published by Cambridge University Press.

Nominally under Portuguese control since the sixteenth century until 1999, Macau has long been a territory shaped by regional and global connection and by the circulation of people, goods, and ideas. However, studies in the history of China’s foreign relations and European imperialism in China often ignore this small enclave. My book, Neutrality and Collaboration in South China, considers Macau in what were arguably the most dramatic years of its twentieth century history: 1937 to 1945. It reassesses the territory’s role in China’s War of Resistance against Japan, its links to neighbouring Hong Kong, and its importance to our understanding of neutrality in East Asia in the context of a global World War Two.

1 Junks in Macau harbour, c. 1910-1913. Henry Rue Collection. HPC ref: HR01-092

The photograph above showcases rather nicely the relevance of Macau’s maritime links. Although its land border with Guangdong province was also crucial during the war, many people reached the territory by boat during the conflict, and it was also by boat that several of them escaped, sometimes in hiding, to unoccupied China. Macau’s wartime experience had clear similarities to other territories under colonial rule in China that remained ‘neutral’ from 1937 until (at least) late 1941. This was the case of ‘lone island’ (孤島 gudao) Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhouwan. Their foreign jurisdictions made them attractive havens for many refugees and resistance activists, and also popular bases for those engaged in collaboration with Japan. Macau belonged to this connected network of neutral territories in China and outlived them all, remaining the only one that was not occupied by Japan during the war.

2 Refugees fleeing Shanghai, The Bund, 1937. Malcolm Rosholt Collection. HPC ref: Ro-n0032 (this photograph is reproduced in Chapter 3 of the book)

In the book, I argue that Macau’s neutrality generated overlapping layers of collaboration involving a range of actors with different interests, including Chinese Nationalists, Communists and collaborators with Japan, British and Japanese representatives, Portuguese colonial authorities and refugees of different nationalities. I highlight the importance of refugees as central to Macau’s experience during the war and consider the post-war implications of wartime neutrality.

Amongst those connected to Chinese resistance activities in Macau were some very important Nationalist figures, including Wu Tiecheng (on the left in Fig 3, below) who led Kuomintang activities in Hong Kong and Macau in the late 1930s. The family of diplomat Fu Bingchang (standing next to Wu in the photo) also stayed temporarily in Macau during the war.

3 Wu Tiecheng and Fu Bingchang in Shanghai, 1933. Fu Bingchang Collection. HPC ref: Fu02-019

The book also zooms in on the activities of Chinese diplomats in Portugal, providing a fresh look into the vitality of China’s wartime diplomacy by analysing relations with a small European power. Macau was a cosmopolitan place during the war and so was Lisbon, the distant capital where the territory was often a topic of discussion between Chinese diplomats and Portuguese officials. Both were sites of meetings, refuge, and gateways to somewhere else. Amongst those who passed through the Portuguese capital was the eminent Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo (Gu Weijun) – who served as ambassador in Paris and London during the war – and his wife Oei Hui-lan (Huang Huilan: Fig 4), the latter having sought temporary refuge in Portugal after fleeing occupied France.

4 Madame Wellington Koo (née Hui-lan Oei), 1943
Photograph by Bassano Ltd © National Portrait Gallery, London

Turning from international connections to events closer to Macau’s borders, the book also delves into the Portuguese failed attempts to occupy islands near the territory, including the one known then as Lappa (now part of Zhuhai). The Chinese Maritime Customs station at Lappa featured in some of the dramatic events. Historical Photographs of China holds several rare images of the Lappa Customs station in the early twentieth-century, such as the one below (Fig 5).

5 The Assistants’ House, Lappa Customs Station, Lappa Island, c. 1906-1909. Reginald Hedgeland Collection. HPC ref: He01-207

Thousands of Hongkongers moved to Macau during the war where they were involved in a range of activities, including in planning for a British return to Hong Kong (shown below in 1945). Exploring in detail the experience of Hong Kong refugees in Macau and the role of the British consulate headed by John Pownall Reeves, the book sheds light on overlooked features of Allied resistance in South China during the Japanese occupation of the British colony.

6 Hong Kong, 1945. Arthur Fiddament Collection. HPC ref: RB-t0872

Despite their differences, Macau and Hong Kong were deeply connected and those connections were embodied in the many people who moved between the two territories. Their post-war journeys would continue to have important, albeit understated, links. This is something I shall be exploring further in my next project.


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Andrew Hillier on Bessie Pirkis: A Renaissance Woman in Peking Part 2

Concluding his overview of the recently digitised Pirkis Collection, Dr Andrew Hillier digs further into these 400 cartes de visite to consider what the collection tells us about the legation world and the European presence in Peking more generally during the 1870s and early 1880s.

As we have seen, children in the Legation spent much of their time away from their parents. It seems from one of Bessie Pirkis’s paintings, that, by Christmas 1877, Amy and Georgie, now aged six and three, each had their own amah and this certainly will have given Bessie more time for her music and art. For Christmas 1877, she made sketches of a large number of the principal European figures in Peking. In addition to a self-portrait, the series comprised eight women and thirty-two men. Presumably, it was done by way of a Christmas gift for each of the sitters and, although identifying them has proved difficult, it most probably included all the officials in the British legation. At some point, perhaps before they were distributed, the individual images were assembled for the purpose of the photograph in Figure 1.

1. A photograph of portrait sketches of foreigners by Bessie L’Evesque Pirkis, Peking, 1877. HPC DH-s019. Bessie is three along four down, Albert is five along four down and Stephen Bushell may be two along four down. There is a photographic portrait in the bottom right-hand corner. Unknown photographer.[1] Save for those of Albert and Bessie, no individual sketches have been traced.

Bessie captured her subjects in a variety of poses but all in profile, some more formal than others – the women all seem to have had their hair carefully prepared and the men are smartly dressed but somewhat more casual with one reading a book.  It perhaps says something for Bessie’s standing that she was able to persuade all of them to sit for her – a lengthy process, given the care with which they have been executed – but, no doubt, they were delighted with the results.

Hart was not amongst the sitters – he was probably too busy and too impatient – but some Customs men and their wives may have been, as the photograph comes from the collection of David Marr Henderson (1840-1923), who as the Engineer -in-Chief in the Marine Department was responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of China’s developing network of light-houses from 1869 to 1898.[2] The fact that he presumably acquired the album at about this time raises a number of questions: how many copies of the photograph were made, to whom were they distributed and why would the photograph be of particular interest to him? Whatever the answers, we can be confident that the exercise will have established Bessie as a leading figure in Peking’s small ex-patriate world.

With Albert due a year’s furlough, once Christmas was over, the two of them began preparing for the family’s departure. They set off towards the end of March, full of excitement, but, on reaching Shanghai, were greeted by the tragic news that the Chinese Secretary, Frederick Mayers, who had arrived with his wife, Jeannie, and two children just days before them, had succumbed to what was described as ‘typhus fever’- a catch-all phrase for many illnesses but, in his case, one certainly exacerbated by over-work and Peking’s harsh climate.

2. Frederick Mayers. Undated. HPC PF-s0206

A stately funeral was organised, with the coffin being borne on a gun carriage through the International Settlement and, no doubt, it was attended by Bessie and Albert. Immediately afterwards, they, together with Jeannie and her two children, boarded the Messageries Maritimes Steamer, Anadyr and sailed for England.[3] Their journey took them through the Suez Canal to Marseilles, across France by train and thence to England. According to the passenger list, Bessie and Albert were accompanied by their amah, who will have shouldered the main work-load – she is unidentified but may have been called Li Ma (a name which appears in an earlier letter).[4] However, with Jeannie and her two boys in deep mourning, it will have been a melancholy voyage.

Arriving in May, Bessie and Albert must have been keen to meet their respective families and show off the children. Whilst there will have been plenty of excitement, there was also sadness. Having returned to England, George Pirkis had recently lost his wife, Susan Maria (née Lyne), shortly after childbirth, leaving him with two children to care for. Of the  photographs which can be specifically attributed to the Pirkis’s time in London, the one taken of the children with their amah – fig. 3 – is particularly evocative.

3. Georgie and Amy Pirkis with their amah- un-named, but, possibly, Li Ma. Photographer, H. Daubray, 90, Westbourne Grove, London. Taken when the family was in London in 1878/1879, HPC PF-s0001

Unusual as it was for an amah to be included in a studio portrait, although she is not looking at the camera and may not have welcomed the attention, it indicates that she had built up a close relationship with Amy and Georgie and no doubt also with Bessie and Albert. Little is known about amahs when they came to England and it must have been an extraordinary and somewhat alarming experience for her to have been in London, given that she probably had no opportunity to meet any other Chinese-speaking people during this time. [5]

4. Bessie Pirkis. Studio portrait by Daubray,1878/1879. HPC PF-s0043. This has a different back to the photograph at fig 3. and must have been taken on another occasion. The two cartes no doubt found their way into many other similar collections.[6]

Refreshed after their year away, Bessie and Albert returned to China, leaving via Southampton and arriving in Shanghai on 27 May 1879. Although the amah is not mentioned in the passenger list, it was not unusual for ‘native servants’ to be omitted and she almost definitely accompanied them. On reaching Peking, they found that considerable changes had taken place. As a career diplomat, Hugh Fraser had only been due a short stint in China and, somewhat to the relief of his wife, Mary, they had left. He was succeeded as the Chargé d’Affaires by the Honourable Thomas George Grosvenor, who had been in Peking since the early 1870s. At some point, he met and then became engaged to Sophia Gardner Williams, the daughter of a medical missionary and Sinologue, Dr Samuel Wells Williams, and his wife, Sarah Simonds Williams (née Walworth). Samuel Williams had been in China since the early 1830s and in 1855 had been appointed the first Secretary of the United States Legation to China. Bessie and Sophia may have first met soon after Bessie’s arrival in Peking, but Sophia’s carte is dated 1876, and so was given shortly before she left for America. The wedding took place in Connecticut in April 1877, and this was possibly a parting gift before she returned as Sophia Grosvenor.

5. Sophia Williams , on the reverse of the photograph, it is inscribed ‘Mrs Pirkis with love from Sophia Williams 1876’. HPC PF-s0155

Soon after her return, she gave Bessie this picture, taken on her wedding day.

6. Sophia Grosvenor on her wedding day, 24 April 1877. HPC PF-s0793

With their immense wealth, deriving in part from London’s Grosvenor Estate, and having no children, the Grosvenors enjoyed a lifestyle very different from that to which the consular staff were normally accustomed. And it was not only wealth which set them apart. ‘Elegance and position’ were also key attributes in the diplomatic world, as Mary Fraser’s memoirs make clear, and, coming from modest backgrounds, Bessie and Albert might have found it difficult to adjust to their world.[7] However, Sophia’s family was deeply religious and this may well have been a strong bond between her and Bessie. It seems clear that the two couples got on well, with Thomas having been made godfather to Georgie. The humorous sketch by Bessie – see figure 7- is most probably of Grosvenor but it could be of Edward Malet, who was Chinese Secretary from 1871 to 1873, and, as is clear from his later letters, also a dear friend of Bessie. [8]

7. ‘The most elegant of attachés’. Sketch probably by Bessie Pirkis, photographed by Thomas Child, of Thomas Grosvenor soon after his arrival at the Legation alternatively of Edward Malet, Chinese Secretary, 1871 to 1873. Undated. HPC PF-s0016

8. Thomas Grosvenor. Undated HPC PF-s0158

In addition to the Williams family, Bessie enjoyed good relationships with the staff from other legations. The Dutch Minister, Jan Helenus Ferguson and his son, Constant, gave her cartes bearing the following inscriptions:

To A.E. Pirkis Esq. With kind regards and best wishes for the welfare of himself and his dear family 9th April 1880

Remembrance from Constant Ferguson to his dear kind friend, Mrs A.E. Pirkis, 9 April 1880.

11.Jan Helenus Ferguson, Dutch Minister. 1880 HPC PF-s0739

12. His son, J.C. Helenus Ferguson (aged 13 years). 1880. HPC PF-s0757

Whether Ferguson’s wife, Maria Eleanor (née Waymouth) was with her husband in Peking is unclear, but certainly they will not have had all thirteen of their children with them.[9]  Albert Edwin von Seckendorff, who was attached to the German Legation in the early 1880s, was another friend – see figure 13; in a later letter to Bessie, he talks about the many days he spent with them in Peking.

13. Carte inscribed, “Mr and Mrs Pirkis, as remembrance from their friend, Albert Baron von Seckendorff 28.9.1882”; possibly given on his departure for Tianjin to take up his appointment as vice-consul. HPC PF-s0128.

By the time of the Pirkis’s return from England, Wade was tiring of life in China and wished to spend more time with his books and his family. Although he would formally retire only two years later, in figure 14, we see him shortly before he left Peking, placing himself somewhat unassumingly in the back row and to the side.

14. Consular staff and interpreters. Wade is standing second from the left. Walter Hillier is seated second from left and Pirkis is seated on the far right. C. 1879/1880. Hi-s023. A copy is also in the Pirkis Collection HPC PF-s1018

Following Wade’s departure, Grosvenor took over as Chargé d’Affaires, pending the arrival of Harry Parkes as the new Minister. With his easy-going approach, this was a convivial time and may well have been when the photograph in figure 15 was taken, showing Albert relaxing with the Student Interpreters.

15. Uncaptioned and undated but this would seem to be a photograph of the Student Interpreters with Pirkis reclining beside the ever-present dog. PF-s0630.

Although they would not leave for another twelve months, in October 1882, the Grosvenors held their farewell dinner, an evening which Hart described as ‘the brightest, best, gayest, and pleasantest … we have ever yet had at the British Legation’. [10]  The following year, Walter Hillier (elder brother of Harry, who had played with Bessie at Hart’s musical evenings) returned to the legation as Chinese Secretary with his wife, Clare and in July, 1883, they added another baby, Florrie, to the crop of legation children. Extrovert and vivacious, Clare was soon at the heart of legation life, and getting on well with Bessie and Albert who already knew Walter well from his earlier days in Peking.[11]

A keen Sinologist, like Mayers, Hillier was a demanding teacher but he had a lighter side. At some point, he gave the Pirkis’s a photograph of himself as Mother Goose – see figure 16- knowing how much they both enjoyed Amateur Dramatics, which was also a popular aspect of Legation life. Bessie and Clare Hillier both appeared in the Legation’s Christmas play in 1884, an evening which the Minister, Harry Parkes, much enjoyed, as he told his daughter, Marion:

It was a great success; Mrs Pirkis played to great perfection. She got herself up as a most attractive young girl and looked so pretty and acted ravishingly well. Mrs Hillier also did excellently but her part was a more staid one. After the performance the whole house which was crowded came over to me to dance and to sup as last year.[12]

16. Walter Hillier as Mother Goose; inscribed on the back, ‘Canton, 21.1.74’. HPC PF-s0022.

Bessie seems to have been one of the few who were able to get on with Parkes on a personal level. Having lost his wife, Fanny, in 1879, he was extremely dependent on his two daughters, Marion (‘Minnie’) and Mabel, both of whom came with him to Peking. The earnest tone he introduced is palpable in the carte in figure 17 – one of the last photographs to be taken of him – which will have been duly presented to Bessie soon after their arrival.

17. Mabel Desborough Parkes (later Levett), Marion (Minnie) Parkes (later Keswick) and Sir Harry Parkes. Undated. HPC PF-s0786

A year later, in October 1884, Minnie married James Keswick, a partner in Jardines, and left  for Shanghai. Parkes was bereft, as he told his daughter, ‘We have had no events of any kind and I am afraid the Legation is much duller than before’.[13] Not known for relaxation or conviviality, he drove himself as hard as he drove his staff, and six months later he was dead. However, Bessie seems to have established reasonably good relations with the two Parkes sisters and, despite their father’s gloomy account, continued to enjoy herself. [14]

Music was her real passion. She had performed professionally before coming out to China and, having published some songs, she helped Hart with his own compositions, with a view, to producing, he told Campbell, ‘ten songs, ten drawing-room pieces and perhaps ten sonatas …’.[15] Also taking part in Hart’s musical evenings was J.A. van Aalst, a Belgian, who had arrived in Peking in January 1883 having been appointed Postal Clerk.[16] An extremely junior position, it is nonetheless clear that Hart was keen to support this young man because, as he told Campbell, ‘he had made his way up from nothing’ and, more important, was ‘a fine musician’,

With him on the flute, Mrs Pirkis at Piano, Scherzer at harmonium, Lyall on violin and myself on ‘cello, we have considerable music every Saturday evening.[17]

Despatching van Aalst to England the following year to deliver lectures on Chinese music during the Fisheries Exhibition, Hart warned Campbell that he was inclined to be ‘morose and bad-tempered’, a prediction which turned out to be all too well-founded, when Campbell had to be retrained from dismissing him because of his arrogant behaviour. [18]  However, picking up his music when he returned to Peking, van Aalst made friends with Bessie and presented her with the carte at figure 18.

18. Inscribed on the reverse ‘J.A. van Aalst, Peking, 29 April 1885’. PF-s0703.

Given what we know about him, it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to be photographed looking somewhat arrogant in the robes of a Chinese official. If this was principally to show those at home that he had truly ‘arrived’, as we see from the accompanying letter to Bessie, it had a different purpose. Albert’s health was failing and the Pirkis’s were already packing up to return to England for a period of recuperation. Enclosing the scores of two songs, “Sublime Lesson” and “Goodbye, dear friend”, van Aalst told Bessie that the latter composition, made up from various verses he had found, was offered as a ‘souvenir’ and a ‘tribute of [his] esteem and respect’.[19]

Four weeks later, Albert and Bessie sailed for home with the children. It is clear from their letters that this was an anxious time and Amy and Georgie were sent to stay with cousins, whilst Albert searched for a cure. Sadly, he had left it too late and died on 7 July just one month after their arrival. The news will have come as a terrible shock for those who had known him so well in Peking, for, as the North China Herald observed, ‘a kinder or more genial man, there never was’.[20] Bessie would live on for another fifteen years, bringing up the two children and surrounded by mementoes of their years in China, including her paintings and, of course, her photographs. She and Albert were buried side by side in Kensal Green Cemetery, with Albert’s head-stone bearing a Chinese character meaning ‘love’– see fig. 19.

19. Kensal Green Cemetery. The gravestones of Albert (on the left) and Bessie Pirkis, 2023. Courtesy, Nicola Pirkis. With the Chinese inscription, Britain in China was transposed into a London cemetery.

If the dominant image of Legation and Consular life in China is that of patriarchal figures, heavily bearded, with the women in the shadows, the photographs in the Pirkis Collection provide a very different picture. Whilst only a few can be included in this blog, taken together they show that Bessie had a wide range of friends both inside and beyond the legation. Although often over-looked, this sort of intimacy underpinned Legation life, softening its edges and humanising it. This was important for all those engaged in that world, not least the Student Interpreters, who, away from home for the first time and struggling to learn Chinese, were still highly impressionable. The presence of women and children was key to creating a familial atmosphere in what was otherwise an unfamiliar world and Bessie played an important part in that process, as well as being at the centre of legation life.  Cartes could be exchanged not only as tokens of affection but also to keep alive the memory of those friendships, when lengthy separations were about to take place. They could also help to maintain links between Peking and Europe – we can, for example, imagine van Aalst’s family, proudly showing his portrait to their friends and relations at home.

For the legation children, this was also a formative stage in their lives. Save for the year they spent in London, Amy and Georgie had known only the legation world. Returning to England, aged thirteen and ten, they would maintain contact with many of those they had known and pass on their memories of those years to the next generation, no doubt, drawing on these photographs to remind them of this world.[21]


Andrew Hillier’s The Alcock Album: Scenes of China Consular Life, 1843-1853, will be published by City University Press, Hong Kong, later this year. Click here for more details and updates.

[1] The surviving individual images of Bessie and Albert measure 18 x 16.5 cms and are slightly different from those in the photograph. This could indicate that in some cases Bessie made a number of copies. It is also possible that one set of originals was retained together as we see in the photograph.

[2] Bickers, Robert, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (London: Allen Lane, 2011), pp. 266 and 268-9;

[3] North China Herald, 28 March 1878, p.322.

[4] Li Ma’s name appears in a letter from Sophia Grosvenor to Bessie, dated 11 June, which must have been written in 1883, since it refers to the Hilliers, who had only arrived earlier that year – by then, Walter’s wife, Clare, was seven months pregnant. It appears Bessie was on holiday in Yokohama at the time. There is also mention in the same letter of Shing-erh, who may have been Li Ma’s daughter, in which case, it would show how much amahs were part of the family.

[5] Cf.

[6] See also a photograph of Albert taken by the London Photographic Company during this trip, PF-s0034.

[7] Cf. Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p.13

[8] For similar use of the term, see A.B. Freeman-Mitford, The Attaché at Peking (London: Macmillan and Co., 1900), a volume of letters written by a young diplomat whilst serving in the legation in the mid-1860s.

[9] Married in 1859, when she was aged fifteen, Maria died aged 46.

[10] Letter, Hart to Campbell, 6 October 1882, no. 379, John K. Fairbank, Katherine Frost Bruner, Elizabeth Macleod Matheson (eds), The I.G. in Peking: Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975).

[11] See fig.4 in Part 1.  and Andrew Hillier, Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817-1927 (Folkestone: Renaissance Books, 2020), pp. 120-129 and 199-201.

[12] Undated letter, Stanley Lane-Poole, The Life of Sir Harry Parkes, Sometime Her Majesty’s Minister to China & Japan (London: Macmillan, 1894), vol.2, p.421; see also a review of a later play in North China Herald, 18 March 1885, p.313.

[13] Letter, November 1884, Lane-Poole, Harry Parkes, II, p.416. Hart’s wife, Hester, and their three children were back in England.

[14] Lane-Poole, Harry Parkes, II, pp. 415 and 426-7.

[15] Letter, Hart to Campbell, 21 January 1884, 460; see also, 10 June 1884, 484, Fairbank, The I.G. in Peking.

[16] Born in 1858, according to the CMC Service List, 1881, he joined the Customs that year although his official service record gives the date of his first appointment as 1 April 1883, . Certainly, he was in Peking by January 1883; see letter, Hart to Campbell, 7 January 1883, 395, Fairbank, The I.G. in Peking.

[17] Letter, Hart to Campbell, 11 August 1883, no. 429, Fairbank, The I.G. in Peking.

[18]  See letters, Hart to Campbell, 14 January 1884, 458, 23 March 1884, 470 (for the quote), 21 June 1884, 487 and 5 December 1884, 507, Fairbank, The I.G. in Peking.

[19] Letter, van Aalst to Bessie Pirkis, 29 April 1885 (Private Collection). Although he was promoted, he continued to have a chequered career and ‘ran off the lines’, having to be replaced as Postal Secretary (see letter Hart to Campbell, 12 October 1901, 1218, and later, 9 July 1905, 1382, Fairbank, The I.G. in Peking), but rose to the rank of Commissioner and retired in 1914. He became the leading authority on Chinese music, publishing a learned treatise on it- see Han Kuo-huang, ‘J. A. Van Aalst and His Chinese Music’, Asian Music ,19 (1988), pp. 127-130. For two photographs of him with his wife in Xiamen in 1904, see Queens University, Belfast Special Collections, MS 15.6.2A.076 and 077,

[20] NCH, 28 August 1885. The news seems to have taken longer to reach Peking and a poignant note is struck by   a letter from Hart written on 29 August asking Campbell to forward to Bessie a parcel containing a small violin which he had procured for Georgie; letter, 29 August 1885, 536.

[21] Amy would never marry and it is possible that it was who captioned the photographs, a way of treasuring the memory of those years.

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Guest blog: Rachel Meller on Uncovering the story of Shanghai’s Second World War Jewish refugees

In this post, author Rachel Meller introduces her newly published book, and discusses some of the documents and photographs that prompted it. These formed a small collection but, like many that HPC has seen, a complex story was waiting to be  discovered within. Rachel grew up near London, the middle of three daughters of Austrian refugees. After studying Neurobiology at the University of Sussex, followed by research into hormones and behaviour at Cambridge University, she became a writer in a communication consultancy. The Box with the Sunflower Clasp is her first book.

My aunt Lisbeth, who lived in San Francisco for the whole time I knew her, owned an attractive oriental-style cabinet. She knew I’d always admired this piece of furniture (made in the ’50s, she’d told me, no valuable antique), and, on her death in 1996, I discovered that she had bequeathed it to me. What I had not expected was what lay inside it, pushed to the back of one of its shelves.  Wrapped in yellowing newspaper was a heavy wooden box, mysterious-looking people in Chinese-looking robes and hair-dos, and exotic plants, carved into its sides and lid. The box had a metal clasp shaped like a sunflower. It was full of documents, photographs, postcards and other memorabilia that my aunt must have treasured for decades. Most of the items dated from the 1930s through to the mid-1950s, but one sepia postcard showed a man in World War I uniform. I would later find out his significance.

Aunt Lisbeth’s box

I knew very little of my aunt’s or my mother’s history. Lisbeth was always an uncommunicative, and outwardly emotionless, woman, while my mother Ilse died a few months after my birth. The sisters had been born in Vienna, in 1922 and 1918 respectively, to secular Jewish parents. The Epsteins, despite being patriots and barely practising Jews, were forced to flee Nazi-run Austria after the Anschluss in March 1938. My mother came to England via Paris, while my aunt and grandparents found refuge in Shanghai. An unlikely destination, you might think. But in June 1938, when most countries’ doors were being slammed in their faces, the Reich’s Jews heard of a loophole that could let them slip into the Chinese city. Following the bloody Battle of Shanghai in 1937, much of the municipality was in the hands of the Japanese. The ensuing lawlessness and chaos meant that no one checked the papers or visas of those landing at the port. By August 1939, almost 20,000 Europeans had used this escape route from Nazism, greatly helped by Vienna’s compassionate Chinese consul, Ho Feng-Shan.

Lisbeth told me nothing of this intriguing chapter of her life, or of her and my mother’s Viennese youth. (Although I did grow up hearing rumours of a serious accident she had suffered as a teenager, and of a tragedy during her time in China.) So I was amazed to discover that my silent aunt had told much of her story to an American Holocaust historian, Steve Hochstadt, who had interviewed her (along with a dozen other Shanghai refugees) for his book, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of escape from the Third Reich (2012).

I was given Steve’s book in 2012. This drew me back to the contents of the box, which I’d only glanced at occasionally over the years. I decided that at some point I should try to piece together Lisbeth’s story – using the historian’s interview material and the documents and photographs she had left me. The romantic part of me almost wondered if Lisbeth had wanted me to unearth her story using what she had left me, a story she had been unable to talk of while alive.

I began my research in January 2016. The result is The Box with the Sunflower Clasp, published by Icon Books on May 18 2023. While a number of personal memoirs have been written by refugees describing their childhoods and youth in wartime Shanghai, I know of no other researched by one of these refugee’s descendants. And I soon learned that remarkably few Jews outside the US, Canada or Australia (where many of Shanghai’s refugees settled after the war) know of this aspect of the Jewish diaspora.

The Box with the Sunflower Clasp tells the story of a middle-class European community displaced to an alien environment halfway across the world. Men and women forced to abandon their (pre-Nazi) home comforts for whatever lodgings they could rent in the city in which they now found themselves. Shanghai – although a sanctuary – was riddled with risks of its own. It was a city of contrasts: abject beggars lying in the doorways of grand buildings owned by wealthy entrepreneurs and taipans; bone-chilling winters and insufferably hot humid summers; and metropolitan streets regularly flooded with knee-high dirty Huangpu river water. Many refugees had to get used to Shanghai’s infamous ‘honey buckets’ instead of Western plumbing’s flushing toilets. These doubtless helped spread the city’s prevalent infectious diseases, like cholera and typhoid, previously unknown to the Europeans.

City of contrasts: Shanghai street scene, photographed by Malcolm Rosholt, Rosholt Collection, Ro-n0297 © 2012 Mei-Fei Elrick and Tess Johnston

Despite all these challenges, the enterprising German- and Yiddish-speaking immigrants generally  settled in well. I was amazed to learn how quickly they created their own ‘Little Vienna’ in the poorest, most overcrowded part of the city. Hongkew, north of Soochow Creek, had been heavily damaged by Japanese bombs; it became home to many who had fled Europe empty-handed. The refugees rebuilt Hongkew’s rubble-strewn streets, setting up German-style cafés, bars and restaurants. Using makeshift ingredients, they offered strudels, sausage, and ‘rye’ bread, along with other dishes from home; actors, writers and singers amongst them put on plays and operas to keep spirits up. A group of Polish yeshiva students – still wearing traditional beards, dark hats and sidelocks – recreated their shul to continue their religious studies. And a Jew from Berlin opened the first lending library, offering reading matter in both German and English: he plays a key role in my book, and was the mystery man in uniform.

Amongst the 20,000 refugees who found work in Shanghai was my grandfather, Arnold Epstein. In Vienna he had been a wholesaler and retailer of soaps, perfumes, and pharmacy goods; in Shanghai he worked as a history teacher in the city’s Jewish Youth Association School. A photograph in Lisbeth’s box with the sunflower clasp shows him surrounded by his class of German-speaking pupils. The SJYA School was later called the Kadoorie School, after Horace Kadoorie. This philanthropic Shanghailander (the name Western residents gave themselves) came from a wealthy Sephardi family long-established in the city. His money and drive provided the school for Shanghai’s refugee children.

My grandfather, Arnold Epstein, surrounded by his pupils at the SJYA School in Kinchow Road, Hongkew

The Jewish immigrants lived harmoniously alongside their Chinese neighbours. Friendships – even marriages – occurred between them, and their lives felt relatively free. Until December 1941, when everything changed. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, entering World War II on the side of the Nazis. Shanghai’s European refugees were threatened again, as the Japanese now controlled the whole city. The Jews’ lives were in the hands of Hitler’s allies.

Japanese parade in Shanghai to celebrate the fall of Singapore, February 1942

It was soon rumoured that Europe’s Nazis wanted Shanghai’s Japanese rulers to rid the city of its Jewish population. Instead, in February 1943, the Japanese authorities issued a Proclamation confining all the ‘stateless refugees’ into a ‘designated area’ in Hongkew. Although neither the word ‘Jew’ nor the word ‘ghetto’ was used, everyone soon called the bleak square mile into which the Jews were forced ‘the ghetto’. It was possible to leave the area for reasons of work or medical need, but only if the capriciously violent Japanese official, Kanoh Ghoya, stamped a refugee’s pass. Such a pass is shown below, above a photo of Ghoya.

Jewish refugees confined to the Honkew ghetto queue up to receive special passes to leave the restricted zone from Ghoya, a Japanese official from the Bureau for Stateless Refugees. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ernest G. Heppner

I was fascinated to learn of how the Jewish refugees survived in the ghetto alongside 100,000 of the city’s poorest Chinese. My research has taken me far, both emotionally and geographically. I’ve been moved by exhibits in the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, and seen the transformation of the city’s streets since my aunt’s time there. I’ve visited a nonagenarian German-born Jew living in Australia, hearing first-hand of his years as a teenager in Shanghai. And I’ve gained more empathy with my aunt’s silent nature. Her life in wartime China, and before, was threaded with tragedy, but ultimately her resilience shines through. Her story, and the wider one of refugee survival, is set out in The Box with the Sunflower Clasp.

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Andrew Hillier on Bessie Pirkis: A Renaissance Woman in Peking

A recent approach to HPC revealed a treasure trove of material relating to life in the British Legation, Peking, in the 1870s and early 1880s, but, as Dr Andrew Hillier explains, making sense of the photographs can be a challenge. 

We keep up our music here …. Every Saturday I have a musical dinner party, Mrs Pirkis, Scherzer, Lyall (violin), Van Aalst (flute), + self … The first three are fine performers … [1]

So wrote the Inspector-General of Customs, Robert Hart, to his subordinate, Harry Hillier, but, until recently, little seemed to be known about ‘Mrs Pirkis’ or her husband, Albert, save that she was, as Hart said, ‘a fine performer’ and that he had served as the Accountant to the British Legation in Peking from 1870  to 1885.[2] However,  just over a year ago, a family descendant approached HPC with a treasure trove of material relating to the Pirkis’s years in Peking – photographs, letters and, perhaps most fascinating of all, paintings, both oil and water-colours. From this, it soon became clear that Elizabeth (Bessie) Levesque Pirkis was truly a Renaissance woman in this intensely masculine world.[3]  But if the letters and paintings are to some extent self-explanatory, the photographs present more of a challenge, given that there are several hundred of them and many are without captions.  This is not unusual with this sort of ‘shoebox-collection’, a large number of which have been generously deposited with Historical Photographs of China for digitising over the years.[4]  Whilst placing a single photograph on-line can trigger unexpected responses and leads, it can be more difficult to make sense of a large Collection of such images.[5]  However, although we must avoid  ‘wrenching them out of their frames and context’, in  this two-part blog, I want to explore not only how the images ‘once lived as objects’ but also what, taken together and filling in the gaps where I can, they may tell us about legation life at this time. [6]

None of the photographs, it seems, were taken by Bessie or Albert. This is not surprising given that the hand-held Kodak was yet to arrive and there was no possibility of taking quick snaps.[7] However, there were already professional and semi-professional photographers in Peking and the Pirkis’s compiled an album containing a large number of pictures of the city and its surroundings. Whilst these are of interest, it is the loose photographs, collected piecemeal during their time in Peking, on which I want to focus. The collection must have started on Bessie’s side of the family because a number predate her arrival. We can begin with one which was taken before her wedding but which she may well have given or sent to Albert before or at the time of their engagement – see figure 1.

Figure 1: Bessie L’Evesque. It is captioned ‘Heartease’ on its reverse, the common name for a wild pansy and the name by which she was usually called by her family and, perhaps, also by Albert, and the flower which she is wearing. HPC PF-s0037.

Originally Huguenots, Bessie’s family, the Levesques, or, as she liked to style herself, L’Evesque, had established themselves as ‘piano-forte makers’ and dealers in musical scores in East London. It is not clear when or how Bessie and Albert met – she was thirty-three and, unusually for the time, he was four years younger – but they may have been related through Bessie’s step-father, William, whose surname was also Edmeades. A piano-maker himself, for some time, he seems to have been in business with Bessie’s brother, Josiah. The engagement must have been sealed by an exchange of letters since the wedding took place in Shoreditch, London on 29 June 1869, soon after Albert’s return from Hong Kong, where he was serving in the Auditor-General’s Department. [8]  Setting off back to China ten months later, he and Bessie travelled through France and stayed in Paris, where they had their portrait, or ‘likeness’, as it was called, done before continuing on by train to Marseilles – see figure 2.

Figure 2: Albert and Bessie Pirkis. Photograph taken in a Paris studio in 1870 when they were on their way to Hong Kong. HPC PF-s0046.

From there, they caught the Messageries Maritimes steamer. The youngest of four sons, Albert had first arrived in Hong Kong in 1862, following in the wake of his eldest brother, George Ignatius Pirkis, who had joined the Army Commissariat in 1850 and had been posted to the colony two years later. After taking charge of the arsenal during the Second Opium War and later serving with the Ever Victorious Army, he returned to Hong Kong and would remain stationed there until 1875.[9] In 1866, the second eldest brother, Daniel, had followed George and Albert to take up an appointment as Consular Chaplain in the treaty port of Kiukiang (Jiujiang) [10]  – see the photograph at figure 3. Formally posed with George wearing the civilian uniform issued to Commissar staff, Daniel sporting a magnificent beard, which had recently become fashionable, and Albert looking self-important with cane and top hat, copies must surely have been sent home to the family in England for distribution to friends and relations.

Figure 3: Albert, Daniel and George Ignatius Pirkis. Undated but captioned in Albert’s writing, ‘The three China brothers…Dad, Dan & Al and my faithful dog, Hep’. HPC PF-s0007.

Soon after their arrival in Hong Kong, Albert was informed that the Audit Office had been transferred to Peking and in the autumn he and Bessie set off again, making their way by steamer to Shanghai and then on to Tientsin (Tianjin) from where they went by river-boat and then mule-cart to the capital.  Comprising a vast and picturesque palace with extensive grounds, the compound provided ample space for them to have their own separate accommodation.[11]  It was there that Albert, as Legation Accountant, and Bessie would spend the next fifteen years.

Their arrival coincided with Thomas Wade succeeding Sir Rutherford Alcock as Minister.[12] A very different character to his predecessor, Wade was a highly accomplished Sinologue and a somewhat unworldly figure. Recently married, during his twelve years in office, although prone to irascibility, he would be reasonably easy-going in managing the legation staff, which comprised two career diplomats and a small number of consular officials. Alongside them would be a cohort of young Student Interpreters, who would spend a rigorous two years learning Chinese with a ‘native’ teacher, culminating in an examination by the Chinese Secretary – at that time, the brilliant but unforgiving W.S. Frederick Mayers.

As is clear from the photograph at figure 4, the Interpreters could enjoy a much more relaxed relationship with Albert Pirkis, since they were not accountable to him.[13] We see him with his close friend, Dr Stephen Bushell, the Legation’s medical adviser, surrounded by students.  As usual, dogs are in evidence and the tone is informal, if self-conscious, with the students’ poses ranging from languid to earnest.

Figure 4: Student Interpreters with Albert Pirkis and Dr Stephen Bushell. Back row (standing, left to right): J.D. Crawford and W.S. Ayrton. Middle row (sitting, left to right): Walter C. Hillier, later to be Chinese Secretary, W.D. Spence, Albert Edmeades Pirkis, with his hat on his lap, Dr Stephen Wootton Bushell, (with a Pekingese on his lap), T. L. Bullock (also with a blurry dog on his lap), W. H. Young. Front row: a large dog called Jack; R. W. Mansfield, with his hat on his feet, W. R. Carles, with another Pekinese dog. Ayrton, Bullock, Carles, Hillier and Mansfield would all become Consuls. Albert’s beard has grown considerably since his arrival. 1870/1871. HPC, Hi-s022.[14]

If this, along with other similar images, conjures up an intensely masculine and somewhat laddish world, the collection brings out a very different aspect, one in which women and children helped to generate a familial atmosphere, which, although alluded to in some accounts, has not been reflected in photographs of this period.[15]

This atmosphere owed much to Wade’s wife, Amelia. The eighth of twelve children born to the famous astronomer, Sir John Herschel and his wife, Margaret, Amelia was said to be ‘everything that the wife of an official in the East should be, thoroughly and fundamentally British, cheery, kind, intelligent, a woman who never made a mistake’.[16]  In just over three years of marriage, she had borne Wade three children and would bear him three more over the next three years. [17]

Figure 5: Amelia Wade. Undated, HPC PF-s0721.

To add to this familial setting, Frederick Mayers, the Chinese Secretary, and his wife, Jeannie (née McKenna) – see figure 6 – had two young boys under the age of five.

Figure 6: Jeannie Mayers. Undated. HPC PF-s0209.

Following Bessie’s arrival, there will most probably have been an early exchange of the cartes de visite which we have seen at figures 1,2, 5 and 6. Although this sometimes occurred as a matter of formality, they were mainly used as ‘tokens of affection’ and a way of sharing images not dissimilar to today’s Facebook or Instagram. Although the above were all taken in England, a stock will have been retained for the purposes of later circulation. [18]  There is a large number of such cartes in the collection and, if many of the sitters cannot be identified, we can be reasonably sure that many relate to this time.[19]  Settling into this world, Bessie and Albert had two children, the first, Amy, arriving on 1 January 1872, and Albert George (always known as Georgie), three years later.

Given that portraits were generally executed in a studio, there are very few photographs of children at a young age and so the one we have at figure 7 is particularly unusual, being taken within the Legation.

Figure 7: Amy and Georgie Pirkis with an unidentified child on the left-hand side and a Chinese man, probably a servant, and three dogs. 1878? HPC PF-s0624.

Although the children appear to be dressed for the occasion, the setting is reasonably informal and can be contrasted with the carte which the Revd Burdon must have presented to Bessie showing himself and his family in a much less relaxed pose.

Figure 8: Revd John Burdon with his wife, Phoebe (née Esther) and their two children. HPC PF-s0179.

A fervent Sinophile, Burdon had spent ten years as a missionary teacher at the Tongwen guan, originally established as a Qing government language school in Beijing in 1862, before leaving in 1873 to take up his appointment as the Bishop of Hong Kong. A close friend of Bessie and Albert, strong religious beliefs will have been an important bond between them.

The picture of Amy and Georgie will almost certainly have been sent to friends and relations at home. That there are no surviving photographs of Albert and Bessie with the two children at this time may well have been because of the difficulty of obtaining formal studio pictures in Peking. However, the photograph at figure 9, taken a little later at one of Hart’s parties, conveys an atmosphere in which children could be both seen and heard, with their being given cart-rides under the careful attention of a Chinese servant:

Figure 9: Group of forty men, women and children, taken in the grounds of Robert Hart’s house. Amy is standing on the left of the four girls wearing a pale dress and hat, Georgie is on the far right, beside the cart. The other children have not been identified. Hart (on the right-hand-side in bowler hat) had a particular affection for Amy, to whom he wrote after the family left Peking, and Georgie, to whom he gave a valuable violin. Undated but probably c. 1880. Taken just before the arrival of the hand-held Kodak, all such photographs had to be formally posed. HPC PF-s0641. Compare with Ca02-100, possibly a more formal occasion, in which there is only one child.

Pidgin English was not spoken in Peking and, spending much time in the care of their amahs, the Legation children all learned some Chinese and, save when with their parents, ‘never spoke any other language among themselves or with anyone else till they were much bigger’. Visiting the Legation, Li Hongzhang (one of the Qing’s most powerful and intimidating officials) delighted to watch them and ‘listen to their fluent Chinese talk’. [20] However, this congenial atmosphere was shattered when, in March 1875, news arrived of the murder of Augustus Margary, a young consular official, whom Bessie and Albert will have known when they first arrived in Peking. Threatening Li with war if his demands were not met, Wade packed his wife and six children off to England in late April 1875, and, whilst Amelia would return, the children would not do so. However, he failed to persuade the other Legation wives to leave for Chefoo (Yantai).[21]

Although Sino-British relations would be extremely tense over the next eighteen months, this does not seem to have unduly affected the pace of legation life. Recently married and appointed First Secretary, Hugh Fraser had arrived in 1874 with his attractive and sophisticated wife, Lady Mary Crawford Fraser. The first of their two children were born the following year, a time when, as she recalled, Peking ‘was enduring the hottest summer on record’. [22]

Figure 10: Lady Mary Crawford Fraser. Taken in Rome, probably shortly before her marriage to Hugh Fraser, where he was Diplomatic Secretary in the British Embassy, before taking up his appointment in Peking. HPC PF-s0254.

With Amy aged four and Georgie just one, it will have been a worrying time for Bessie. The only saving was the complex of Buddhist Temples in the Western Hills, known as Badachu, where Legation wives and children could get away from the heat, smell and noise of the city. Accompanied by the Student Interpreters, for whom studying in such conditions was unthinkable, they would be joined at week-ends by their husbands. [23]

With so many babies arriving and no trained mid-wife on hand, Stephen Bushell will have been responsible for superintending the births. Having then taken long leave, he had returned with his recently-married wife, Florence (née Mathews),‘a typical English girl’, who, according to Mary Fraser,  was in the process of ‘making her new home an exact copy of the Sydenham villa she had left behind her’. [24] Mary’s snobbishness probably did not worry Bessie, whose taste may have been no better than Florence’s. She is not mentioned in Mary’s memoir and, on this occasion, the exchange of cartes may have been more for form’s sake – see figure 10. However, with Pirkis forming a close friendship with Bushell – they were both keen collectors of porcelain – no, doubt, Bessie and Florence had plenty of time to spend together and their cartes will certainly have been exchanged as tokens of affection – see figure 11.[25]

Figure 11: Florence Jane Bushell. Undated. HPC PF-s0091.

Some, but by no means all, of the above images have appeared elsewhere but it is their presence within a single collection, along with all the other photographs, which gives them a particular significance, showing the importance of intimate relations within the formal legation world. After seven years, Bessie had become a leading figure in that world, and, with the children growing up, she was now able to make more of her talents, as we shall see in Part 2.

Andrew Hillier’s The Alcock Album: Scenes of China Consular Life, 1843-1853, will be published by City University Press, Hong Kong, later this year. Click here for more details and updates.


[1]  Letter, Hart, Inspector-General, Imperial Maritime Customs to Harry Hillier, 26 October 1883 (Private Collection).

[2] Cf.

[3]  I am extremely grateful to Nicola Pirkis for allowing me to draw on the Pirkis Collection, which has now been digitised by HPC, and for giving me the benefit of her research on the Pirkis and Levesque families. It was a particular pleasure working with Nicola as she is a great-great-granddaughter of Bessie and Albert, and Harry Hillier, who knew Bessie well and was the recipient of the letter from Hart, was my great-grandfather.

[4] Cf.

[5]   See, for example, It was wonderful: Lully Goon, aviatrix

[6] Robert Bickers, ‘The Lives and Deaths of Photographs in China’ in Christian Henriot and Wen-hsin Yeh (eds), Visualising China, 1845 -1965: Moving and Still Images in Historical Narratives (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp.3-38, quotes at p. 3.

[7] Cf.

[8] TNA FO 17/537, letter, Alcock to Auditor-General’s Department, 14 October 1868, 55, referring to Pirkis being granted one year’s leave. He did not leave Hong Kong until 9 March 1869, suggesting that Bessie took longer to accept the proposal than he anticipated or that the wedding had to be delayed for some reason. The journey will have taken about five weeks.

[9] Richmond & Twickenham Times, 12 July 1890.

[10] TNA FO  17/460, letter, Hammond to Daniel Pirkis, 28 February 1866, f.223 and following.

[11] J.E. Hoare, Embassies in the East, The Story of the British and their Embassies in China, Japan and Korea from 1859 to the Present (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999), pp. 21-23, HPC BL-n023.

[12]  Previously, Chargé d’ Affaires, Wade formally took up his position in July 1871.

[13]  For life as a Student Interpreter, see ‘Where Chineses Drive.’ English Student-Life at Peking (London: W.H. Allen, 1885), initially published anonymously, but later attributed to W.H. Wilkinson, who joined the Service in 1880 and will have known the Pirkis’s well; for a description of their house, see pp. 26-27; see also Cf. Andrew Hillier, ‘Bridging Cultures: The Forging of the China Consular Mind’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, (2019) 47, pp. 742-772 at pp. 748- 753.

[14] The same photograph is also in the Pirkis Collection, HPC PF-s1016; for legation staff, see PF-s0632 and PF-s0633.

[15] See Nick Pearce, ‘A Life in Peking: The Peabody Albums’, History of Photography, 31 (2007), pp. 276-293 and Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China: Western Photographs, 1861-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2010), p. 31-79.

[16]  Mrs Hugh Fraser, A Diplomatists’ Wife in Many Lands (London: Hutchinson, 1913), II, p.153.

[17] Letters, Hart to Campbell, 1 September 1871 (25), 21 November 1872 (45), 10 February 1875 (119), John K. Fairbank, Katherine Frost Bruner, Elizabeth Macleod Matheson (eds), The I.G. in Peking: Letters of Robert Hart, Chinese Maritime Customs, 1868-1907 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975).

[18] Cf. Bickers, Robert, ‘The Lives and Deaths of Photographs in China’ , pp.21-25, quote at p.24; see also

[19] See, especially those at HPC, PF-s0678 and PF-s0818.

[20] Fraser, A Diplomatist’s Wife in Many Lands, II, p.191.

[21] For Margary’s murder, see Robert Bickers, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (London: Allen Lane, 2011), pp. 258-261 and for reaction in the Legation, Fraser, A Diplomatist’s Wife in Many Lands, II, pp. 144-149.

[22] Fraser, A Diplomatist’s Wife in Many Lands, p.153; for the Frasers, see also Pearce, ‘A Life in Peking’, History of Photography, 31 (2007), pp. 276-293.

[23] Hoare, Embassies in the East, pp. 30-31; ‘Where Chineses Drive’, pp. 197-234; see, for example, Facade of Da xiong bao dian at Fa hai si, HPC, Hv13-13.

[24] Fraser, A Diplomatist’s Wife in Many Lands, II, p.148; cf. Helen McCarthy, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 26-7.

[25] Nick Pearce, “Collecting, Connoisseurship and Commerce: An Examination of the Life and Career of Stephen Wootton Bushell (1844–1908)”, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society. 70: 17–25.

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Need and opportunity: the new HPC website

Mike Jones, Research Software Engineer (RSE) in Research IT at the University of Bristol, describes some of the choices underpinning the development of the new ‘Historical Photos of China’ web application.

Moving the project’s digital assets into the custody of Special Collections – as discussed in the post ‘HPC: A Change of Pace’ – provided a need and opportunity to re-engineer the ‘Historical Photographs of China’ platform. Several considerations underpinned this development work:

  • The new application should have similar functionality to the old one. Even though regular site users will notice some minor visual differences, there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises.
  • Existing URLs to the collections and photographs should continue to work. Changes to software or rebrands to websites have a nasty habit of disregarding old URLs, resulting in stale and broken links. However, we wanted to be good ‘net citizens’, ensuring that publications and teaching material referencing the site weren’t now full of stale links.
  • The Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) will be the canonical source for metadata and images. The new system should automatically synchronise with the DAMS for changes to the images and their metadata.
  • The software should follow good engineering practices. For example, the code is underpinned by a suite of tests allowing for automated deployment to the servers. We can be confident that when we need to make changes, such as upgrading third-party software dependencies, the application will not break when deployed to the servers.

We decided to write a new application using the Python/Django web framework since this aligned with other projects and expertise in the team. We used Docker to create a discrete containerised environment that can be replicated on either the development machine of a software engineer or on a production server answering requests across the globe. The application is deployed to a Kubernetes cluster provided by a popular Cloud-provider, so we can scale resources if the site peaks in popularity.

From a personal perspective, this was a fun project to work on. I learned a lot about different technologies, particularly around the DAMS and deployment of containerised applications on Cloud platforms. It was also great to see the University acknowledge the importance of the project and allow us to develop the application in a manner that will allow for better support and maintenance into the future.

Robert Bickers adds: I am very grateful to Mike and colleagues for their work on this project, and to Mike for this discussion of what’s under the HPC bonnet. We now have a long-term sustainable platform, that is linked to the tens of thousands of digital images that we have made over the last sixteen years which are now housed in the University of Bristol’s Digital Assets Management System. Some 21,000 of these are online at present (with a big new collection of c.1,300 more being finalised for publication in the next month or so). This is the fifth different web application through which we have shared the fruits of that work …

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Everything’s changed, but everything’s still the same: HPC update

You might, from today, spot that Historical Photographs of China looks a little different in places. That’s because it is. Over the last two years our friends in the University of Bristol’s Research IT team have been rebuilding our platform in a new environment. 

And not only is the underlying environment a new one, a change driven by the fact that our last iteration (launched in January 2016) was built on software that is nearing the end of its life, it also works in a fundamentally different way. This will not be at all visible to users, but it makes the life of those working with the platform a great deal easier, and it completes our long-term objective to put our entire collection on a much more secure and sustainable footing. 

Extending this revision to the mirror site hosted by our friends at Shanghai Jiaotong University’s School of Humanities will take us a little longer, but this will also be relaunched on this new platform. 

All your old favourites are still here, not least the Lucky Dip, and c.21,300 images in total. We have streamlined some bits and pieces, and will shortly move our Links page permanently to the blog (at this page). Otherwise, what you saw, is what you will continue to get. And if you’re new here: Welcome! 欢迎!歡迎!Enjoy! 

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