Guest blog: Nadine Attewell on Refocusing the Gaze: Leisure, Power, and Women’s Work in Interwar Hong Kong

Our guest writer today is Nadine Attewell, Associate Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies atSimon Fraser University, and director of the undergraduate program in Global Asia. She is the author of Better Britons: Reproduction, National Identity, and the Afterlife of Empire (2014), and is currently at work on a second book entitled Archives of Intimacy: Racial Mixing and Asian Lives in the Colonial Port City.

Hong Kong Aida Rosie Weiwing-lox(?) Annie’ng(?) Ssǔ-hing(?) R.F.C.H. A. Gardiner: R.F.C. Hedgland Collection He02-017 © 2007 SOAS

Taken in the aftermath of some sumptuous meal, the photograph is badly cropped and over-exposed. Of the people in it, only one, the Chinese woman leaning forward with her head in her hand, emerges with any clarity: she looks pensive, or perhaps bored. The clean-shaven white man who can just barely be seen around the other side of the table, hand casually draped over his neighbour’s shoulder, is Chinese Maritime Customs employee Reginald Hedgeland, who preserved the photograph for posterity. According to the caption, which dates the photograph to 1920, the dinner took place in Hong Kong, where Hedgeland often traveled for work and pleasure from his post in Nanning. Hedgeland recedes into the background of the photograph, and he is likewise not my focus here. In my work on Chinese practices of interracial intimacy and multiracial community under British colonial rule, photographs have consistently opened up perspectives not usually prioritized by the colonial archive. This photograph functions similarly: I have learned so much through allowing myself to wonder about the Chinese women who feature in it.

Tennis at Hong Kong, Oct., 1920. Annie / Aida / Rosie / Weiwing-Lox / R.F.C.H. / Barbara / Mr. Chan / Sir William Shenton: R.F.C. Hedgland Collection He02-018 © 2007 SOAS

Although Hedgeland did not usually identify his Chinese photographic subjects, the wealthy men and women with whom he socialized in Hong Kong are another story. Hedgeland’s captions tell us that he was joined at dinner by A. F. Gardiner, banker and tennis star Wei Wing-lok, Wei’s wife Annie (née Ng Quinn), and her sisters Ada and Rosie. Annie, Ada, Rosie, and Wei also feature in another of Hedgeland’s photographs, of a tennis party Hedgeland attended during the same trip. As the son of Wei Yuk, a businessmen who served on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, Wei Wing-lok was born into the ranks of Hong Kong’s Chinese élite. Unlike his British-educated father, however, Wing-lok studied engineering at MIT, joining a cadre of American-educated ethnic Chinese men born in and around the Pacific who played important roles in early-twentieth-century Chinese politics and economic development, like Ada Ng Quinn’s engineer husband Morrison Yung; Rosie Ng Quinn’s husband Bang How, who was friends with Mei-ling and T. V. Soong; and Bang How’s brother-in-law (and future Chinese finance minister) Huang Han-liang.[1]

I tracked down much of this information on websites devoted to genealogical research and university alumni history; as well as in recent scholarship about Chinese students and their transpacific itineraries. In this way, the photographs reward a methodology that attends to the intersections between the archives of (informal) empire and Chinese migration. But they also unsettle the androcentrism of such materials and accounts. I haven’t been able to learn much about the educational careers or professional aspirations of the Chinese Australian Ng Quinn sisters, who linked Wei Wing-lok, Morrison Yung, and Huang Han-liang as kin. Nevertheless, the looks, touches, and convivial fixtures that animate photographs like Hedgeland’s testify to their relational labour (and that of the absented staff on whom they relied). As one of my graduate students recently observed, the genealogical gossip historians encounter in the archive isn’t just a source of useful information about people in the past; it is also a trace of the gendered, racialized, and classed labour of social reproduction.[2]

Certainly, genealogical gossip can work to shore up heteropatriarchical power. Still, we shouldn’t assume that the relation work of élite women like the Ng Quinns always served the interests of their male kin, or of the white men who came to their homes to be entertained. In the photograph of the tennis party, the woman on the right side-eyes the camera, lips parted, posture confident, her arms stretched casually, almost possessively, around Hedgeland and his companion. This could be the “Barbara” Hedgeland names in his caption, but I want to explore another possibility. Around this time, the eldest Ng Quinn sister, Violet Lucy Chan, moved into a large house on Po Shan Road with extensive grounds that could well have accommodated a lawn tennis match or two. Violet’s life trajectory followed that of her sisters, at least up to a point. Like them, she married into a transpacific Chinese family, the Chans (or Chuns) of Hawai‘i, who accumulated enormous wealth and political power in both Hawai‘i and Guangdong, where Violet’s husband’s uncle Chun Chik-yu briefly served as governor.[3] During the 1910s, however, she left Chan and re-established herself in Hong Kong as a vibrant figure about town. In his autobiography, Percy Chen, the son of Sun Yat-sen’s Chinese Trinidadian ally Eugene Chen, recalls Violet Chan regularly holding court at the Hong Kong Hotel during the 1930s, when he worked as a barrister in the colony.[4] Might Violet Chan have hosted the tennis party? Could she be the woman Hedgeland identifies as “Barbara”?

According to Violet’s great-nephew Michael Ng-Quinn, after the breakdown of her marriage, Violet became intimately involved with a British lawyer who sponsored not only her lavish residence but her younger brother Sydney’s entry into the legal profession as well.[5] Whatever the truth of this piece of genealogical gossip, she appears to have been close to British solicitor George Hall Brutton, who was Sydney’s employer when he qualified as a solicitor in 1935[6]: in 1943, British intelligence sources reported that Brutton had been released from the civilian internment camp at Stanley – on guarantees provided by one Violet Chan.[7] The intelligence report containing this nugget jocularly describes Violet as “Auntie V of ARP fame,” a reference to her role in Wing-Commander Horace Steele-Perkins’s colony-wide plans for air-raid precautions, which became mired in allegations of corruption. During a public enquiry in late 1941, Steele-Perkins explained that he and his wife had recruited Violet, whom he visited regularly at 6 Po Shan Road, to assist with ARP outreach amongst Chinese Hong Kongers.[8] Although Steele-Perkins’s relationship with Mrs. Chan attracted less salacious attention than some of his other entanglements, it was tarred with the same insinuating brush.

Violet’s relationships with men like Brutton or Steele-Perkins may or may not have adhered to norms of respectable Chinese femininity; neither she nor her sisters need rescuing from such insinuations and the expectations that undergirded them, which they likely also confronted in everyday life. What matters is that Violet found ways of using such relationships to pursue the projects that mattered to her – and vice versa. Her kin remember Auntie Vi with appreciation, testifying to the care that her wealth and connections enabled her to provide for them, including during the Second World War, when several of Violet’s siblings and their children took shelter at the property on Po Shan Road.[9] After the war, recalls Michael Ng-Quinn, she permitted refugees from the Chinese mainland to settle there too.

My account here is speculative. Still, the broader point stands: how would our accounts of early-twentieth-century Chinese social and political landscapes change if we attended to the labour not just of white men (like Hedgeland), entrepreneurial Chinese middlemen (like Wei Yuk), or their credentialed sons (like Wei Wing-lok), but of the Asian women, including amahs, mistresses, and sex workers as well as wives, aunties, sisters, and daughters, alongside whom they lived, worked, and played? What political possibilities might inhere in Rosie Ng Quinn’s bored, offstage stare or the jaunty confidence of “Barbara’s” embrace?


[1] For more on the connections between the Ng Quinn, Bang, and Huang families, including a photograph of Rosie’s wedding to Bang How, see

[2] I am grateful to Adrianna Michell for her thoughtful reflections on genealogical gossip, a term used by Esselyn/Chumash writer Deborah Miranda in her family memoir Bad Indians (Heyday, 2013), 67.

[3] For more on Violet’s marriage to Chun Wing-on, see Robert Dye, “Merchant Prince: Chun Afong in Hawai‘i, 1849-90,” Chinese America: History & Perspectives (2010): 33.

[4] Percy Chen, China Called Me: My Life Inside the Chinese Revolution (Little, Brown, 1979), 277.

[5] Interview with Michael Ng-Quinn, September – November 2010, sponsored by the Research and Educational Center for China Studies and Cross Taiwan-Strait Relations, Department of Political Science, National Taiwan University,

[6] “New Local Solicitor: Mr. Sydney Ng Quinn,” Hongkong Telegraph, August 23 1936.

[7] Kweilin Intelligence Report No. 27, December 30 1943, PR82/068 Box 10 Folder 7, Lindsay Tasman Ride Collection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, ACT, Australia.

[8] “Queries on Construction of Stores for ARP Dept.,” Hongkong Telegraph, September 30 1941.

[9] Loretta NgQuinn Slaton, We Walked to Freedom (iUniverse, 2007), 3-5; interview with Michael Ng-Quinn.

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HPC: A Change of Pace

It is 15 years since the launch of Historical Photographs of China. In that decade and a half we have copied about 170 mostly privately-held collections of photographs, which has generated just over 62,000 unique images in our databank, and published over 22,000 of them on our platform (and its mirror site in China), under a Creative Commons license which allows non-commercial reuse (with attribution). While something like 7000 came to us digitally, in the main we have taken loose prints, photograph albums, negatives, magic lantern slides, real photo postcards and transparencies (35mm slides), ranging in date from the late 1850s to the late 1960s, and copied them here in Bristol, or on site.

In recent months we have been preparing our digital holdings for transfer into the University of Bristol’s new Digital Assets Management System (DAMS), which will ensure very long term preservation of these records of China’s history. This has always been our long-term goal.

Fifteen years is a very long time for a standalone project to run, and the time has now come for a change. Although we have over that period been awarded something like half a million pounds of funding from a range of public and private sponsors – the British Academy, AHRC, ESRC, JISC, Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, John Swire & Sons – as well as a great deal of tangible in-kind support from the University of Bristol (not least the DAMS), it has never been easy to secure funding for a resource-building project like this.

From this month onwards, as our digital holdings are moved into the DAMS, which is hosted within the University Library’s Special Collections and Archives, ‘Historical Photographs of China’ has become one amongst other notable individual collections held within Special Collections. It will no longer have that separate identity as an active project, and will no longer be looking for new materials to digitize. The project has ended, but the collection will last.

My key ‘asset’ as project director has always been the project’s manager, Jamie Carstairs, who joined it in February 2006, and who has himself copied the greater part of our collection, added and checked a great deal of metadata, arranged the collection and return of materials, handled requests for publication and reuse, and spotted coincidences and connections across the materials (most wonderfully the fact that we had two photographers who actually stood side by side as they photographed the same group, and that we had shots across three separate collections of an impromptu football kickabout in the Jiangsu countryside). Jamie has over that period been supported by, in particular, Shannon Smith, and Alejandro Acin, and by others who worked on discrete collections or initiatives, by colleagues in the University of Bristol’s Research IT team who have worked our platform, and by Christian Henriot and Gerald Foliot who first provided a home for the project ‘in’ France.

Jamie has now moved to join the library’s Special Collections team full time, working on that team’s work. When time allows, we hope to publish new collections from our backlog, and some work continues on creating metadata for our unpublished holdings to support this. Queries about reuse of project materials will now be handled through the Special Collections mailbox. Over the years we have had several collections of original material donated to us, and these have been transferred from the project to Special Collections, and this remains an option for those who might be wishing to find a long-term home for such materials.

Green boxes of HPC materials in the Special Collections stacks, University of Bristol Arts and Social Sciences Library

As director, I am immensely grateful to Jamie for his work across the past decade and a half, which has taken him across the country, and of course to China, and during which he has learned a great deal more about the historical cityscapes and landscapes of China than he ever expected to back in 2006. Give Jamie an uncaptioned photograph of a bridge in Sichuan, and likely as not he’ll know where it is, or where to look to confirm a hunch. Without Jamie, none of what the project has achieved would have been possible, and that also includes our own exhibitions in London, Bristol, Bath and Durham, Nanjing, Chongqing, and Beijing, and contributions to other exhibitions and museum collections across China and Hong Kong, as well as our own publications — including this blog.

I am of course hugely grateful to all those who allowed us to copy their albums and photographs and to share them with the world. Mostly, people have proactively sought us out, having heard about us by word of mouth or having listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme about the project, or who have found us through internet searches. This is very much a project that has thrived because of the generosity and kindness of our community of donors, who have entrusted us with their albums and documents. We have had material sent to us from Asia, Australia, north America, the European continent, and of course from across Britain. In addition we have benefitted from partnerships with SOAS, the Cadbury Research Library (University of Birmingham), The National Archives, John Swire & Sons Ltd, the Needham Research Institute, Special Collections and Archives at Queen’s University Belfast, the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute, and Harvard-Yenching Library: these have helped enrich the collections enormously.

I am also grateful for the warm support (and corrections, and other details) that we have received from supporters of our work, which we know is widely used in teaching and in research presentations, and which has an audience of researchers, learners, family historians and the simply just interested, across the globe, and to colleagues at the University of Bristol (including the Dean who, in 2006, asked, ‘so, there are a lot of photographs out there: when will you know when to stop’). We are currently in the midst of refreshing the platform itself (for technical reasons due to the looming end of life of its underlying software) but it will not be vanishing, and we hope in the not-too-distant future to be able to publish a wonderful collection from a family who lived and worked in Hong Kong and in Shanghai, and a little later something quite different: a large collection from the heart of revolutionary China during the Second World War. More on those anon.

In the meantime, many thanks again for all your support, and please, keep using the photographs: that’s what they’re there for.

Robert Bickers
Director, Historical Photographs of China project

Fu Bingchang, with camera: Fu Bingchang Collection Fu-n174 © 2007 C. H. Foo and Y. W. Foo

As the caption says, that’s Fu Bingchang, whose photography has kept us busy: we copied some 2,500 photographs he took in China, the USSR (when ambassador there), and western Europe, with some 550 available on HPC. This was one of the early collections that we copied.

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Guest blog: Claire Lowrie on ‘Travelling Servants and Moving Images: A Photographic History of Chinese Domestic Workers’

Claire Lowrie is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She is the author of Masters and Servants: Cultures of Empire in the Tropics (Manchester University Press 2016) and the co-author of Colonialism and Male Domestic Service across the Asia Pacific (Bloomsbury 2019, paperback 2020) with Julia Martínez, Frances Steel and Victoria Haskins. Claire is currently undertaking a new research project titled ‘Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain 1780-1945’ with Victoria Haskins (University of Newcastle, Australia) and Swapna Banerjee (Brooklyn College, City University of New York). The project is funded by the Australian Research Council (DP200100375).

My research focuses on Chinese migrants, both men and women, who were employed as servants in colonial Southeast Asia and northern Australia. Domestic service is a challenging topic to research given that domestic workers have left behind almost no first-hand accounts. In order to access their stories, historians need to take a creative approach to our source material. Historians of domestic service are proficient in the art of critically analysing employers’ accounts to locate clues about servants’ perspectives. They collect precious fragments of servants’ lives located in government archives, such as court records. They also make use of sources of visual culture, including photographs.

The mass digitisation of archival records in the last twenty years or so has brought to light thousands of photographs of Chinese domestic workers, with more being archived and digitised each year. A simple key word search for ‘servant’ returns 128 results in the Historical Photographs of China (HPC) archive alone. Most of the HPC photographs include servants employed in British homes, particularly in Hong Kong and within the foreign concessions of Shanghai, Fuzhou and Tianjin. Images of male domestic servants, referred to by British colonists as ‘houseboys’ or ‘boys’, and images of amahs, nursemaids to children, recur. Figures 1 and 2 provide illustrative examples of the kinds of photographs contained in the collection.

Figure 1. ‘Hung – our “Boy”. A studio portrait. He was with my father before his (my father’s) marriage, c.1917, and stayed with him till 1944.’ Tianjin, circa 1915. Image courtesy of Sheila Bovell and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (HPC ref: SB-s08).

Figure 2. Gladys Hughes with her amah, Wuhu, circa 1886. Image courtesy of Colonel Leslie Addington and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (HPC ref: Hu01-001).

While photographs of domestic workers in British homes predominate, the HPC archive also contains images of Chinese servants employed in Chinese households and in the homes of other ethnic groups resident in China. Figure 3 is one of two photographs of a Chinese girl employed as an amah by a Sikh family in Shanghai. It is an unusual image not only in that it depicts a Chinese domestic worker in an Indian household but also in terms of the young age of the amah. She is a child herself responsible for the care of other children.

Figure 3. Sikh family group, with amah, in the Cardon photography studio, Shanghai, 1936. Image courtesy of Jaskaran Sangha and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (HPC ref: Jn-s20).

Photographs such as these can tell us a great deal about domestic workers. They provide insights into the materiality of workers’ lives, highlighting, for example, the black uniforms commonly donned by amahs as illustrated in Figure 2. In the rare examples where domestic workers are named in photographs, they allow opportunities for tracing the life histories of these workers. Photographs also provide insights into colonial power relations with domestic workers invariably depicted in poses that emphasise devoted servility. Yet, rather than a medium through which servants were simply dominated, it is possible to read workers’ constrained agency in relation to pose, expression, and attire.[1] Observe, for example, the way in which Hung in Figure 1 stares down the lens of the camera, self-confident and assertive despite the caption describing him as a ‘boy’.

The patterns of Chinese servitude in British homes in China were replicated in Southeast Asia. Chinese amahs and ‘houseboys’ were central figures in many colonial homes throughout the region. In Singapore and British Malaya, for example Chinese ‘houseboys’ and male cooks, mostly from the Hainanese dialect group, predominated in domestic service until the 1920s. They were employed not only in British homes but also in Chinese, Indian and Eurasian households. In households where children were present, Chinese, Indian and Malay nursemaids were also employed. They were variously referred to as amahs or ayahs. By the 1930s, the domestic workforce changed as large numbers of Chinese working-class women began migrating to Singapore. Chinese female servants called maijie gradually replaced the ‘houseboys’ of the previous era. They worked as nursemaids, cooks, and general servants not only in Singapore but in Malaya and Hong Kong. Maijie were known to the English as ‘black and white amahs’, in reference to the colours of their uniform. They were a highly organised group of workers who were members of spinster sisterhoods that had originated in Guangdong province.[2]

Strikingly similar images of those contained in the HPC archive – of the ‘houseboy’ standing to attention and the dutiful Chinese amah watching over her ward – were created in colonial Southeast Asia. Figures 4 and 5 are typical of such images. The repetition of this kind of iconography and the location of these photographs in archives all over the world reflect the ways in which images travelled – circulated in ethnographic books, exchanged as postcards and in letters home, or journeying within the personal albums of imperial families. Figure 4 is part of a pair of photographs depicting the same Chinese man in the same studio presumably on the same day. While Figure 4 made its way to the Netherlands, its twin is housed in the collections of the National Archives of Singapore.[3]

Figure 4. ‘301 – Chinese Boy on duty’. Photograph by Lambert and Co., Singapore, circa 1900. Image courtesy of University of Leiden, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies.

Figure 5. A Chinese ‘amah’ and a European baby, Singapore, circa 1880s. Photograph by Robert Lenz & Co., Singapore. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board.

Just as images of domestic servants travelled, so too did the workers themselves. I am currently embarking on a research project, led by Victoria Haskins with Swapna Banerjee as a co-investigator, that seeks to trace the mobility of Chinese and Indian women who worked as nursemaids to children and travelled to Britain and Australia. A range of historians and public history practitioners have brought to light the stories of travelling Indian ayahs in Britain.[4] Much less is known about the Chinese amahs that travelled with employer families to Britain. The stories of Chinese amahs and Indian ayahs who travelled to Australia (even after the passing of the infamous White Australia Policy in 1901) also remain largely unknown. Our project seeks to uncover those histories and to analyse Indian ayahs and Chinese amahs side-by-side.

If you have stories of Chinese amahs or Indian ayahs that travelled to Britain or Australia, we would love to hear from you. Please use the Contact Us link on our project website or email me directly. We would also be interested in images of amahs or ayahs.

Ayahs and Amahs Project website:



[1] Claire Lowrie, 2018. “What a picture can do”: Contests of colonial mastery in photographs of Asian ‘houseboys’ from Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, 1880s-1920s, Modern Asian Studies 52(4): 1279-1315.

[2] Claire Lowrie, 2016. Masters and Servants: Cultures of Empire in the Tropics, Manchester University Press, 2016, 30-32.

[3] For more discussion of the mobility of domestic worker iconography see Julia Martínez, Claire Lowrie, Frances Steel and Victoria Haskins. 2019. Colonialism & Domestic Service across the Asia Pacific, Bloomsbury: 104-136.

[4] For foundational academic work see: Rozina Visram, 1986. Ayahs, Lascars and Princes:  The story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947. Pluto Press. In terms of a public history initiative, and one that draws on domestic worker iconography, see the campaign for a Blue Plaque for the Hackney Ayahs Home and associated Instagram account.

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Guest blog: The Cercle Sportif Français: Elite cosmopolitanism in Shanghai’s Former French Concession.

Lauren Walden is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary Chinese Art at Birmingham City University. Her PhD in Art History from Coventry University explored the global expanse of Surrealism in relation to cosmopolitan theory, including the advent of Surrealism in China. In 2018, she was awarded the Gary Metz fellowship to conduct research on Mexican Surrealist Lola Alvarez Bravo at the Centre for Creative Photography in Arizona, and was also recipient of a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Henry Moore Foundation in Leeds (2019) for research on to the Surrealist reception of African art. Lauren is currently working on a short book project with the Fondation Giacometti in Paris which investigates Surrealism in Shanghai’s former French Concession.

Emblematic of Shanghai’s elite cosmopolitanism during the modern era, the Cercle Sportif Français (CSF) became the first foreign-owned club to admit women, Chinese and other nationalities into its highly select coterie, provided the necessary status or financial means were at one’s disposal.[1] Founded in 1905, the club’s original premises rapidly became too small for its burgeoning membership. In 1920, the club’s President Henri Madier, asked the French Concessions’ municipal administration for permission to construct a new building on parkland in an area known as the Jardin de Verdun.[2] Whilst the CSF was, for all intents and purposes, a private members club, it nevertheless received substantial financial support from the Municipal Council of the French Concession.

After three years of contractual negotiations, the club and the municipal administration agreed to the following terms: The municipal administration bought the CSF’s original premises for 170,000 taels on the Route Vallon and ceded its own municipal land on the Jardin de Verdun for just 2000 taels per mou (665 m²).[3] Fredet notes that the club building was constructed on 4200 m² of terrain, approximately 6 mou. Although the total surface area of the Jardin de Verdun came to 45,000 m² or approximately 60 mou, the contract stipulates that land beyond the club building itself remained municipal property but would be rented to the CSF for a token sum of 1 tael per year.[4]  The total expenses accrued for the construction and interior design of the new club came to 700,000 taels.[5] In spite of these favourable conditions, the municipal administration required that the CSF’s committee must remain French or they would have the right to forcibly repurchase their land.[6]  Whilst the club’s admissions policy was more open than its other imperialist counterparts, it is clear that the French Concession municipal council was prepared to leverage financial expenditure in order to enrich the symbolic economy of French colonialism and its patriotic rayonnement to Shanghai’s numerous communities. In a sense, the CSF was France’s unofficial consulate in Shanghai, certainly in terms of propagating ‘soft power’ in an attempt to legitimise the French colonial presence in the city.[7]

Figure 1. Cercle Sportif Français, Shanghai, circa 1926. Image reproduced in ‘Shanghai of Today: a Souvenir Album of Thirty-eight Vandyke Prints of ‘The Model Settlement’’ (A. S. Watson & Company, Shanghai, 1927), plate 37. Image courtesy of Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (HPC ref: Bk46-37).

The contract was signed on the 21 November 1923 and Shanghai-based French Architects Leonard and Veysseyre constructed the new building between 1924 and 1926 (Figure 1). The building was inaugurated on the 30 January 1926, an event parodied by Russian cartoonist Sapajou, himself a member of the club, in the North-China Daily News (Figure 2). It seems that on the opening night the CSF’s pretence towards grandeur and civility quickly declined into an immense melee, China Press reporting circa 1,200 guests in attendance.[8] Andrew Field notes ‘the dignity of the club and the French Nationalist sentiments that it attempted to project could not match the Jazz Age nightlife culture that Shanghai had adopted during the 1920s’.[9] Arguably, it was precisely the simultaneous combination of decorum and decadence that cemented the club’s success, hedonistic pursuits subsumed by the opulent splendour of the club’s grounds. Moreover, the French consul general, M. Meyrier indirectly invoked the goal of ‘soft power’ at the heart of the CSF’s conception. His speech at the inaugural reception affirmed that the CSF: ‘has provided for the French and Foreign communities the means of a most amiable understanding, social intercourse, and that atmosphere of charm which Talleyrand said was the secret of all diplomacy’.[10] Therefore, we can perhaps surmise that inculcating a cosmopolitan, jazz-age environment at the CSF actually served to further the goals of French nationalism, distinguishing its ‘brand’ of colonialism from the British-dominated international concession.

Figure 2. ‘Opening the Cercle Sportif — Anticipation and Reality’ by Sapajou, reproduced in Richard Rigby ‘Sapajou’s Shanghai’ China Heritage Quarterly, 2015.

Within the Historical Photographs of China collections, a photograph in the collection of British-American Tobacco graphic artist Jack Ephgrave preserves the dignified aspect of the club, depicting the grandeur of its neo-classical façade and expansive grounds, mainly used for tennis, through an aerial shot in 1927 (Figure 3). A second photograph, likely taken by Ephgrave himself, captures the Olympic size swimming pool measuring 54 x 10 metres, flanked by many spectators (Figure 4). Born in 1914, Ephgrave photographed many exclusive sights in Shanghai emphasising the cultural mobility of his family within the cityscape. Interestingly, despite his clear association with Britain, Ephgrave does not photograph the rival British Shanghai Club which had a highly restrictive admissions policy and more austere atmosphere, the CSF was more family-orientated than its British counterpart.

Figure 3. Aerial View of the Cercle Sportif Français (French Club) Shanghai, 1927. Image courtesy of Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder, Irene Brien and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (HPC ref: Ep01-006).

Figure 4. Swimming Pool, Cercle Sportif Français (French Club), Shanghai, 1929. Photograph attributed to Jack Ephgrave. Image courtesy of Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder, Irene Brien and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (HPC ref: Ep01-193).

Beyond the grounds and swimming pool photographed by Ephgrave, whether or not the club was truly ‘sportif’ in nature is highly questionable. Other facilities included a billiard room, reading room, canteen, restaurant, ballroom, tea room, card room, private salons, bars and a roof terrace. The neo-classical exterior of the CSF is somewhat offset by its more hybrid interior where art deco style dominates, interspersed with neo-classical touches. The dichotomy of style between the interior and exterior of the building appears symptomatic of the French art and architectural scene at the time, torn between recourse to ancient Greco-Roman civilisation and the geometric simplification of form characteristic of art deco.  Tess Johnston draws attention to the ‘plasterwork friezes of statuesque nudes’ which populate modernist columns in the entrance hall.[11] The nude here is identified by Fredet as a caryatid, a voluptuous female figure serving as the support for a column in ancient Greece (Figure 5).[12] In contrast, a cubist-inspired frieze of a sojourning nude modern girl with a flapper haircut and geometricized anatomy also adorns the ballroom, the interior design of the CSF undoubtedly commingled the ancient and the modern (Figure 6).

Figure 5. Interior columns in the CSF, 2015. Photograph by David Thompson.

Figure 6. Frieze in the CSF, 2015. Image courtesy of Tina Kanagaratnam, Shanghai Art Deco Society.

Further to this, the ballroom boasts an iconic, multicoloured stained-glass light, an original feature cited by Fredet in 1926.[13] Light refracting through the prism of this elliptical feature would dazzle on the ballroom floor (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Stained Glass light in the Ballroom of the CSF, 2015. Photograph by
David Thompson.

The symbolic value of the club was employed in the French metropole as a justification of nation’s ‘mission civilisatrice’ (civilising mission) in its colonial territories. One bizarre article dominating the front page of French paper Le Journal in February 1927 laments that the ongoing conflict in Shanghai relating to workers strikes and the rise of the communist party would negatively affect the club.[14] The headline translates as ‘The admirable effort of France is in grave danger in Shanghai’ with a picture of the CSF underneath (Figure 8). The reporter Pierre Benoit, having visited the club states: ‘Parisian newspapers have long been predicting the imminent fall of Shanghai, an event with incalculable consequences, the hardest hit for a long time against European prestige’.[15] A potted history of the Shanghai French concession then ensues with the CSF being presented as France’s latest undertaking in Shanghai. As such, the CSF is portrayed as the apotheosis of all of France’s achievements in the city.

Figure 8. Le cercle sportif français de Changhai, ‘Le Journal’, 21 February 1927.

In terms of French soft power, the most important event of the club’s social calendar was undoubtedly le quatorze juillet or Bastille day celebrating the French Revolution of 1789. Festivities commenced from 1pm in the afternoon late into the night. The reception at the CSF was reported on an annual basis in the francophone language newspaper Le Journal de Shanghai (a newspaper also subsidised by the French Municipal administration). The French consul or vice-consul would usually attend the reception and the club president would give a speech particularly addressed to predominantly non-French club members in attendance. In 1933, Le Journal de Shanghai published an image of the reception at the club, the tricolore adorning the hall (Figure 9). The reporter emphasises both the cosmopolitan nature of the guests alongside the efforts made to promote French soft power: ‘A veritable cornucopia of all races, people came from all four quarters of the world to celebrate bastille day … Once again the French concession has worked hard to maintain and further promote the prestige of France’.[16] Whether or not the club could truly purport to host a cornucopia of races in 1933 is highly questionable. Glaise, who has consulted a file on the CSF at the Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes has revealed that in 1933 the club had 1,098 male members and 729 female. In terms of nationality, Glaise reports the following breakdown:

164 French, 490 English, 168 Americans, 27 Italians, 40 Dutch, 50 Danish, 10 Swedish, 11 Norwegian, 15 Belgian, 41 Russian, 7 Hungarian, 2 Syrian, 1 Turkish, 5 Austrian, 1 Cuban, 1 Romanian, 13 Swiss, 4 Portuguese, 3 Latvian, 3 Polish, 6 Spanish, 4 Finnish, 3 Greek, 2 German, 9 Japanese, 16 Czechoslovakian, 1 Bulgarian.[17]

Whilst the club did transcend both gender and national boundaries, a notable omission is a lack of Chinese citizens being recorded on the club’s roster. Hence, it seems that more of a theoretical rather than empirical cosmopolitanism prevailed with regards to the club’s host nation.

Figure 9. La Réception au Cercle Sportif Français, Le Journal de Shanghai, 16 July 1933.

Interestingly, reporting of the annual reception became more prominent after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese war when the foreign concessions entered their 孤岛 or ‘lone island’ phase, shielded from the conflict. In a large spread in 1939, an avant-garde artwork adorns the wall in one photograph, revellers with their glasses raised. The newspaper reported 800 people attending.[18] If we cross reference the avant-garde murals in the bottom left photograph (Figure 10) with the architect’s image (Figure 11) we can deduce that this was the card games room of the circle. Katya Knyazeva reveals that a large proportion of the CSF’s interior design can be attributed to Shanghai’s Russian diaspora, many of whom resided in the French concession: ‘V. Podgoursky designed coloured glass windows in some of the rooms; M. Stupin painted modernist murals; V. Shibaeff created the sculptures above the fireplace in the library.’[19] Granted the North-China Daily Herald also describes Stupin’s murals as modernist, it is most likely he is responsible for those in the card room.[20] It appears that the avant-garde work incorporating fragments of playing cards, was deliberately chosen to reflect an atmosphere predicated on chance, luck and enjoyment, also populated by the leitmotiv of masks.

On Bastille day in 1939, during the club’s president’s annual speech M. Bouvier, invoked ideas of universalism:

We can affirm without fear that in these troubled times we are living through, this celebration assumes a symbolic character, rallying people from all nations who wish to live in freedom and safeguard the dignity of the human being, rallying all those who believe that all nations, all mankind has the right to liberty, rallying all those who wish to base the progress of the human condition on universal cooperation.[21]

This speech was of course given before the Nazi invasion of France and the takeover of Shanghai’s French municipal council by the Collaborator Vichy regime.

Figure 10. La Réception au Cercle Sportif Français, Le Journal de Shanghai, 16 July 1939.

Figure 11. Card Room, Cercle Sportif Français, circa 1925. Image courtesy of Tess Johnston, reproduced in Johnston, Tess, and Deke Erh ‘Frenchtown Shanghai: western architecture in Shanghai’s old French concession’ (Old China Hand Press, Hong Kong, 2000), p.104.

Indeed, the fate of the club was inextricably linked to that of the French Concession during World War Two, its enviable soft power unable to save it from military occupation by the Japanese in December 1941. After the liberation in 1949, the CSF first became a People’s palace and was subsequently used as a private guesthouse by Mao Zedong, the nude figures populating its interior ‘all covered with plywood during the cultural revolution’.[22] Whilst the CSF clearly transcended many colonial antinomies in terms of both national and ethnic divisions, the relentlessly hierarchical admissions policy coupled with the extreme gap between Shanghai’s rich and poor during the Republican era ensured that its soft power amongst the elites of the city equally epitomised everything the Communists despised about Shanghai . It is clearly not a coincidence that this building was symbolically re-appropriated into a people’s palace which would, like its predecessor, operate a restrictive admissions policy. Model workers became the new Shanghai elite with exclusive access to the club.

The former CSF is now the Okura Hotel owned by a Japanese company which has preserved many of its original features. In terms of the club’s cultural memory, today it is not so much remembered as a bastion of imperialism, although this was clearly what the French municipal council intended, but rather for its innovative art deco interiors which been safeguarded as an important piece of cultural heritage. As such, the legacy of soft power enjoyed by the former Cercle Sportif Français continues to this day.

[1] Women were first admitted to the club in 1907. See ‘Inaugural Ceremonies of New French Club Held’ The China Press, 31 January 1926, p.7.
[2] Compte rendu de la gestion pour l’exercice 1920 – Budget 1921 – Conseil d’administration municipale de la Concession française, p.70.
[3] Compte rendu de la gestion pour l’exercice 1923 – Budget 1924 – Conseil d’administration municipale de la Concession française, p.248-249.
[4] Jean Fredet ‘Le Cercle Sportif de Changhai’ L’Illustration, 30 October 1926, p.476; Compte rendu de la gestion pour l’exercice 1923 – Budget 1924 – Conseil d’administration municipale de la Concession française, p. 249.
[5] Jean Fredet ‘Le Cercle Sportif de Changhai’ L’Illustration, 30 October 1926, p.476.
[6] Compte rendu de la gestion pour l’exercice 1923 – Budget 1924 – Conseil d’administration municipale de la Concession française, p. 249.
[7] Joseph Nye explains ‘Soft Power’ in the following terms: ‘Soft co-optive power is just as important as hard command power. If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes. If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow. If it can establish international norms consistent with its society, it is less likely to have to change. If it can support institutions that make other states wish to channel or limit their activities in ways the dominant state prefers, it may be spared the costly exercise of coercive or hard power’:  Nye, Joseph S. “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy, no. 80 (1990): 153-71.
[8] ‘Inaugural Ceremonies of New French Club Held’, The China Press, 31 January 1926, p.7.
[9] Field, Andrew. 2010. Shanghai’s dancing world: cabaret culture and urban politics, 1919-1954. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. p.33.
[10] ‘Inaugural Ceremonies of New French Club Held’, The China Press, 31 January 1926, p.7.
[11] Johnston, Tess, and Deke Erh. 1998. A Last Look: Western architecture in old Shanghai. Hong Kong: Old China Hand Press. p.38.
[12] Jean Fredet ‘Le Cercle Sportif de Changhai’ L’Illustration, 30 October 1926, p.477.
[13] Jean Fredet ‘Le Cercle Sportif de Changhai’ L’Illustration, 30 October 1926, p.477.
[14] The Communists would be brutally purged from the city under the orders of Nationalist party leader Chiang Kai-Shek two months later in collusion with the administration of Shanghai’s international settlement, prompting their ruralisation.
[15] Pierre Benoit ‘L’admirable effort de la France est en grand péril à Changhai’, Le Journal, 21 February 1927, p.1.
[16] L.C ‘Le Quatorze Julliet à Shanghai;’ Le Journal de Shanghai: organe des intérêts français en Extrême Orient, 16 July 1933, p.8.
[17] Glaise, Anne Frédérique. 2005. L’évolution sanitaire et médicale de la concession française de Shanghai entre 1850 et 1950. Thèse de doctorat: Histoire: Lyon 2: 2005. p.133 It would appear that this breakdown of nationality only appears to correspond to the number of male members.
[18] ‘Le Bal au Cercle Sportif Français’, Le Journal de Shanghai: organe des intérêts français en Extrême Orient, p.7.
[19] Katya Knyazeva, 2020. ‘Building Russian Shanghai: The Architectural Legacy of the Diaspora’ The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society China, 80:1 p.175.
[20] ‘Opening of the New French Club’, North-China Herald, 6 February 1926, p. 236.
[21] ‘Au Cercle Sportif Français’, Le Journal de Shanghai: organe des intérêts français en Extrême Orient, 16 July 1939, p.12.
[22] Johnston, Tess, and Deke Erh. 2000. Frenchtown Shanghai: western architecture in Shanghai’s old French concession. Hong Kong: Old China Hand Press. p.105.

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Black and white Hong Kong transformed by ‘OldHKinColour’

The Instagram page OldHKinColour features vintage images of Hong Kong which have been colourised, or colourised and animated, with a view to promoting public education. HPC invited the team running the project, which has used some of our images, to provide an introduction to their methods and objectives.

OldHKinColour promotes the culture of Hong Kong with colourised images/animations, presented with bilingual descriptions. The Instagram page began in late 2019 and is managed by a Hong Kong-based research team specialising in cultural history, digital humanities, artificial intelligence and intersemiotic translation.

Pedder Street and the Clock Tower, Hong Kong, c.1869. Photograph by John Thomson.

Pedder Street and the Clock Tower, Hong Kong, c.1869. Photograph by John Thomson. Colourised by OldHKinColour, bringing out the differentiating colour of clothing and the pastel coloured buildings.

Our criteria for the selection of images are that they should demonstrate the traditions and customs of Hong Kong, and/or reveal everyday life, and/or reflect the aesthetics of the city. Our team is particularly fond of photographs by Harrison Forman (1904-1978) and John Thomson (1837-1921), from which we can catch a glimpse of the early days of Hong Kong.

Stewart Lockhart and Wang Cunshan (王存善) fixing the first boundary mark on the shore at Stanley Inlet, Hong Kong, 1898. HPC ref: NA22-01.

Stewart Lockhart and Wang Cunshan (王存善) fixing the first boundary mark on the shore at Stanley Inlet, Hong Kong, 1898. HPC ref: NA22-01. Colourised by OldHKinColour.

The OldHKinColour team consider AI-based learning to be a significant and innovative pedagogy for students of history. Traditionally, textual resources, including newspapers and official documents, are the primary sources for studying history. Some people may find text resources dull and lose interest. Visual technology, including AI-driven image restoration and 3D rendering of historical photographs has developed rapidly in recent years. We can apply these developments to the teaching of arts subjects, including the history of Hong Kong, in order to enhance the effectiveness of public education in traditional culture.

Chinese New Year Fair, Hong Kong, c.1924. Photograph by Denis H. Hazell. Source: ‘Picturesque Hong Kong’ (Ye Olde Printerie Ltd., Hong Kong, c.1925). HPC ref: Bk09-30.

Chinese New Year Fair, Hong Kong, c.1924. Photograph by Denis H. Hazell. Source: ‘Picturesque Hong Kong’ (Ye Olde Printerie Ltd., Hong Kong, c.1925). HPC ref: Bk09-30. Colourised by OldHKinColour, which is informative as it draws attention to the plants.

The process of image colourisation generally consists of three major steps: data gathering, pre-processing and post-editing.

Data gathering

First, we collect digital copies of original monochrome photographs, sourced mainly from online archives and academic institutions, such as Historical Photographs of China, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries Digital Collections and Harvard-Yenching Library. Most of these images of Victoria City (Central Hong Kong) date from the late 1860s to the 1950s.


We enhance the image quality and resolution with the latest technology of machine learning and the application of artificial neural networks.


We colourise the pre-processed images manually by referring to a wide variety of historical sources, such as newspapers, magazines, official documents, memoirs and film recordings, with a view to restoring the original colours as accurately as possible. This procedure usually takes more than an hour to complete.

Pottinger Street, Hong Kong, c.1955-56. Photograph by Harrison Forman. Source: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Digital ID: fr301598.

Pottinger Street, Hong Kong, c.1955-56. Photograph by Harrison Forman. Source: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Digital ID: fr301598. Colourised by OldHKinColour, the woman’s red jacket providing a compositional anchor not obvious in the original black and white.

The colourised images of urban life in Hong Kong in the 1940s/50s, show the architecture of Victoria City was undoubtedly magnificent and breathtaking. However, many people suffered from poor living conditions and struggled for their livelihoods with indomitable spirit. There are some incredible stories behind the historic images and buildings, and we have been introducing them via IG stories and quizzes. We will continue to design a wide spectrum of activities with these channels to cultivate instagrammers’ interest in learning history and preserving cultural heritage.

Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong, 1950s. Photograph by Harrison Forman. Source: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Digital ID: fr301598.

Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong, 1950s. Photograph by Harrison Forman. Source: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Digital ID: fr301598. Colourised by OldHKinColour, the signboards in colour enlivening the view.

Our plans for the future include further promoting the above techniques and developing new educational tools which can be used in other disciplines. More research projects on digital history will be launched, aiming to foster heritage conservation. We also plan to offer complimentary short courses on the history of Hong Kong and on image restoration through IG Live.

A food store at the junction of Des Voeux Road Central and Douglas Road, Hong Kong, c.1941. Photograph by Harrison Forman. Source: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Digital ID: fr200235.

A food store at the junction of Des Voeux Road Central and Douglas Road, Hong Kong, c.1941. Photograph by Harrison Forman. Source: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Digital ID: fr200235. Colourised by OldHKinColour.


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The Five Faces of Dr Walter Medhurst, D.D.

Andrew Hillier considers how five portraits of the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionary, Walter H. Medhurst (1796-1857), one of which can be found on HPC, made over the course of his career, were used to maintain connections and promote the missionary cause. 

Devout evangelical though he was, Walter Henry Medhurst was not above a touch of vanity, particularly when it came to sitting for his likeness. At least five examples survive today, together with a number of contemporary copies. Between them, they show how he and the LMS attached importance to the image, both for the purpose of promoting the missionary cause and as part of the LMS archive. With his forty-year career coinciding with the birth of photography, they also demonstrate the increasing importance of that new medium for such exercises.[1]

Appointed as a missionary printer to the newly established station at Malacca, on 30 August 1816, aged just twenty, Medhurst, set off on the first leg of his journey to Madras. Before doing so, the LMS commissioned the miniaturist, William Thomas Strutt (1770-1850), to make a portrait of its latest recruit, to form part of its growing collection.[2]  Wearing attire chosen to match the age of elegance, Medhurst comes across as more Regency buck than zealous missionary. No doubt it was this and a dogged persistence, that would become legendary, that persuaded his future wife, Betty Braune, to accept his proposal of marriage shortly before he was due to leave Madras. The following day, with the formalities completed, the happy couple set sail.[3]

Fig. 1. One of two identical portraits in Archives and Special Collections, SOAS, the first with just 'Mr Medhurst' written on it and this one, with 'Mr Medhurst Java' added at a later date. The portrait was done by W.T. Strutt before Medhurst left England in 1816. Archives and Special Collections, SOAS ref: CWM/LMS/Home/Miniature Portraits/Box 11 (CWM/LMS/01/09/01/05A).

Fig. 1. One of two identical portraits in Archives and Special Collections, SOAS, the first with just ‘Mr Medhurst’ written on it and this one, with ‘Mr Medhurst Java’ added at a later date. The portrait was done by W.T. Strutt before Medhurst left England in 1816. Archives and Special Collections, SOAS ref: CWM/LMS/Home/Miniature Portraits/Box 11 (CWM/LMS/01/09/01/05A).

After five somewhat turbulent years in Malacca and, briefly, Penang, Medhurst was dispatched to Batavia, Java. There he spent the next twenty years, travelling far and wide, and, having mastered a number of dialects, preaching to the expatriate Chinese in preparation for entering the country itself. Although he achieved few converts, during a two month expedition up the China coast in 1835 he convinced himself that, despite fierce official opposition, the country was ‘ready for the Gospel’ and, the following year, he returned to England to publicise the cause. Over the next two years, Medhurst toured the country, addressing packed meetings and raising substantial funds for the intended conversion of China’s many millions.

Finding that little was known about the country, Medhurst completed this undertaking by writing China: Its State and Prospects, a lengthy treatise summarising its history and culture, his journeys and efforts to date and what needed to be done to make progress.[4] The well-known frontispiece comprises a coloured engraving, based on an oil painting done by the artist and printer, George Baxter (1804-1867). Commissioned by Jemima Luke, as a gift for her father, Thomas Thompson, a wealthy philanthropist and prominent member of the LMS, the painting was later presented to the Society and retained in its Collection.

Fig. 2. Watercolour by George Baxter of ‘Rev. W. H. Medhurst D. D. China, with Pundit and a Malay Boy’. Archives and Special Collections, SOAS ref: CWM/LMS/Home/China Pictures/12 (CWM/LMS/01/09/05/08/12).

Fig. 3. Frontispiece to China: Its State and Prospects, by Walter H. Medhurst © The Trustees of the British Museum

Medhurst is here depicted as the Western sage dictating to his Chinese assistant, Chooh-Tih-Lang (Chu Tak-leung), against an oriental background. Once again elegantly attired, but lean and scholarly, he comes across as intensely serious and, without any religious frills, the sort of man to whom non-conformists ought to be happy to entrust their subscriptions.  Inside the book, along with a number of illustrations depicting the ‘heathen’ practices of the Chinese, is a picture of Medhurst and his fellow missionary, Edwin Stevens, being rowed ashore at Woosung (Wusong). Complete with top hats, they are projected as emblems of western civilisation. The image has been through an interesting process of transmission and multi-national composition. The Chinese characters in the couplet in Figure 2 were clearly the work of a Chinese writer, whereas those in Figure 3 are crude approximations, made by a foreign copyist, with the strokes bent out of shape.[5]

Fig. 4. Landing at Woosung. From 'China: Its State and Prospects', plate opposite p.446.

Fig. 4. Landing at Woosung. From China: Its State and Prospects, plate opposite p. 446.

How much the missionaries impliedly validated Britain’s unwelcome entry into China, following the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842, is a moot point but, once achieved, Medhurst lost no time in opening a mission station in the newly-established treaty port of Shanghai. Arriving in December 1843, he would spend the next twelve years there, building a congregation, a hospital, with his medical colleague, Dr William Lockhart, and establishing a thriving press, which published both secular and religious works, including a new translation of the Bible into Chinese, the Delegates’ Version, which Medhurst had co-ordinated. With ferocious energy, he preached and travelled, making one lengthy trip in Chinese disguise, for which he was heavily criticised, as it grossly violated the permitted limit of one day’s journey, and, narrowly avoiding severe injury when he and two colleagues were set upon during another expedition – experiences, which he recorded in detail, both in published works and in his reports to the LMS in London.[6]

Unable to visit England, Medhurst saw the importance of maintaining contact, not just through the written word, but through images. When his daughter, Martha, was setting off from Shanghai with her husband, Powell Saul, he entrusted her with a portrait of himself to be presented to the LMS.  As he informed the Directors, it had been ‘taken by a Chinese artist [and] is said to be a good likeness though roughly finished’.[7] Although we cannot be sure, it most probably formed the basis for the engraving made by John Cochran (1803-1865) for the front page of the Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle for 1852. Again, it depicts him as intensely serious and dispels any notion that he might be simply a Bible-thumping eccentric in danger of ‘going native’.

Fig. 5. Revd. W. H. Medhurst D. D. From ‘Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle’, 1852. Archives & Special Collections, SOAS ref: CWM/LMS/Home/Missionary Portraits/Box 4 (CWM/LMS/01/09/02/01/346).

In letters to her sister, Martha, Medhurst’s daughter, Eliza Hillier refers to a number of ‘likenesses’ of her parents, telling her, on one occasion, not to ‘send them to Canton to be copied for me as I only wished for a daguerreotype copy and do not care for a Chinese one’.[8]  Sadly, none of the ‘likenesses’ of her mother, Betty Medhurst or copies made in Canton (Guangzhou), have survived and we have only a much later photograph of her.

However, there is a fine pastel portrait of Walter Medhurst, undated and unattributed, which has remained in the family. Most probably this is an artwork copy of a portrait photograph of Medhurst by Robert Sillar. It is more flattering than the photograph, more of an idealised or optimised portrait, ‘air-brushing’ out the, perhaps unwelcome, ‘warts and all’ nature’ of the photograph. Following his death, cartes de visite were made of the pastel portrait, by a Fleet Street studio, T. N. Fall, and circulated amongst family and friends.

Fig. 6. Pastel portrait of Walter Medhurst, by an unknown artist. Undated. Hillier collection.

By 1856, Medhurst, along with Dr Lockhart, was by far the longest-serving resident in Shanghai and one of its most well-known figures, not only as a missionary and Sinologue, but also as a founding member of the Shanghai Municipal Council. Not surprisingly, therefore, when the accomplished amateur photographer, Robert Sillar arrived in Shanghai, he asked Medhurst to sit for his portrait, shortly before Medhurst left for England.

Fig. 7. The Revd. Dr Walter Henry Medhurst, Shanghai, 1856. Photograph by Robert Sillar. Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution reference: L04357-003c. HPC ref: VH02-007.

Taken exactly forty years after the first portrait was done, the result is an outstanding picture, conveying all the gravitas of his years, but also the elegance to which Medhurst obviously still attached importance. It is not known how many prints of Sillar’s photograph have survived, other than the one in an album held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

A final twist to the story is that an enlarged but half-length, photomechanical print based on Sillar’s photograph, was made by the London photographer, Reginald Haines (1872-1942), seemingly at the request of the LMS, since it forms part of the Society’s collection.[9] This portrait is also flattering, presenting a seemingly younger man without wrinkles. When and why it was made in this way is not clear, but it may have been done when the Mission Museum closed in 1910 and the portrait archive was being re-organised. This means that there are now three known versions of the same image and it is just possible that a fourth one may still be found.

Fig. 8. Photomechanical print by Reginald Haines, undated, based on Sillar’s photograph. Archives & Special Collections, SOAS ref: CWM/LMS/Home/Oversize Portraits/8 (CWM/LMS/01/09/03/08).

Medhurst and his wife left Shanghai in September 1856 and, sailing via the Cape, they arrived in England in January 1857. But the years in the East had taken their toll and he died just a few days later on 24 January. He was buried in Abney Park Cemetery, London. In some ways, Medhurst was ahead of his times, understanding the importance of promoting the missionary cause, both in England and in China, through the use of images that would convey the seriousness of the message and, plainly, he took care when deciding how he should be portrayed. The four examples held by the LMS show how such pictures enabled contact to be maintained with outlying missionary stations and how, even after his death, they were treated as an important part of the LMS archive, powerfully evoking his and his colleagues’ early endeavours in the Ultra-Ganges Mission.

[1] I am very grateful to Joanne Ichimura, Archivist, at Special Collections, SOAS, London, for all her assistance and to Special Collections for permission to reproduce the images in this post.

[2] The picture was one of 165 miniatures dating from  around 1798 to 1844, primarily watercolour on ivory, with a small number being pencil on paper with some silhouettes and drawings, showing missionaries appointed to the London Missionary Society. A guide book, ‘London as it is to-day’(1851), refers to a number of portraits being exhibited in the London Missionary Museum, Blomfield Street, Finsbury, which had first opened in 1814 and which, with its large ethnographic collection of ‘idolatrous objects’, had become a popular attraction by the 1840s; see the Illustrated London News, 25 May 1843, p.342, and

[3] See Andrew Hillier, Mediating Empire: An English Family in China: 1817- 1927 (Folkestone: Renaissance Books, 2020), p.7 and for other aspects of his life referred to in this post, pp. 3-53.

[4] W.H. Medhurst, China: Its State and Prospects, with Especial Reference to the Spread of the Gospel (London: John Snow, 1838).

[5] The picture is an almost exact copy of one by William Alexander, entitled ‘Temporary Buildings at Tientsin’; see The Costumes of China (London: William Miller, 1805), plate 44. I am grateful to Jenny Huangfu Day for drawing this to my attention.

[6] W.H. Medhurst, A Glance at the Interior of China Obtained During a Journey through the Silk and Green Tea Districts, taken in 1845 (Shanghai: Mission Press, 1849 and London: John Snow, 1850), reprinted in part in Elizabeth H. Chang (ed.), British Travel Writing from China, 1798–1901, Vol. 2,  Mid-Century Explorations, 1843–1863 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010), pp. 51–146.

[7] Letter, Medhurst to Directors, LMS, 13 February 1851, SOAS, CWM/Central China/1843–1854.

[8] Letter, Eliza Hillier to Martha Saul, 31 March 1853, Andrew Hillier, My Dearest Martha: The Life and Letters of Eliza Hillier (Hong Kong: City University Hong Kong Press, forthcoming March 2021)

[9] Haines was a fashionable portrait photographer with a studio in Southampton Row; see

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Shanghai City Wall and Gates

Katya Knyazeva, from Novosibirsk, Russia, is a historian and a journalist whose work focuses on urban form, heritage preservation and the Russian diaspora in Shanghai. She is the author of the two-volume history and photographic atlas Shanghai Old Town – Topography of a Phantom City (Suzhou Creek Press, 2015 and 2018). Katya’s articles on history and architecture appear in international media and in her blog She is currently a research fellow at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy.

The birth of Shanghai is usually pinned to the year 1291, when a market town located near the confluence of two waterways, Huangpu and Wusong, was promoted to the status of a county, subordinate to the prefecture city of Songjiang. For the next 250 years Shanghai grew in size and population, but remained shapeless, until an invasion of coastal pirates, in spring 1553, prompted the construction of the defence wall around the city. The pirates, locally referred to as the ‘Japanese,’ were contraband traders and adventurers of various racial origins, who sailed the coast of China in defiance of Ming proscription, attacking rich settlements like Shanghai.[i]

According to the local gazetteers, it only took three months to build the wall and dig the defence moat next to it. The wall was between eight and ten meters high, made of tamped earth, flat on the top, and faced with black bricks on the outer side. There were 3,600 embrasures on the top edge, interspersed with several lookout platforms facing the bend of the Huangpu River, to allow early sighting of pirate ships. The moat was six meters deep and up to twenty meters wide in some places; it connected to the Huangpu River and the city waterways, and the drawbridges across it could be lifted at any moment.

After these fortifications were built, no force could take Shanghai by surprise. Any invader would have to raft across the moat or cross a drawbridge near one of the six city gates in full view of the armed soldiers stationed there. At eight in the evening, guards locked the city gates with huge wooden bolts. City dwellers who lingered in the riverside markets and failed to get back before curfew had to bribe the guards to crack open the gates or wait outside until sunrise, in the grim company of bamboo cages containing the decapitated heads of executed criminals, hanging from the embrasures.

Plan of Shanghai, c.1860, showing old gates in red, new gates in green, and water gates in blue. The Huangpu River is at the top right. Source: Wikipedia.

One of Shanghai nobles, Fan Lian, who partially sponsored the construction of the city wall, described its efficacy in 1556, when ‘Japanese’ pirates tried to rob Shanghai again:

During the day and into the night, the pirates hid at the foot of the wall. Then they put up ladders to come over. Fortunately, a brave, Yang Tian, shouted. One pirate, who had already climbed the wall, killed Yang Tian. Some of the local troops vigorously attacked, stabbing the invaders and sending them falling to the ground. The crowd picked up bricks and pushed stones over to drop on them and crush them. Then the tide came in and the pirates fled. Sixty-seven were drowned in the moat of the wall. As a result, the siege was broken. To this day sacrifices are offered in Shanghai to Yang Tian.[ii]

Initially, the city wall had six gates – four big and two small – to allow the passage of pedestrians and boats in and out of the city. In 1860, an extra north-facing gate was constructed to ease the access to the foreign settlements growing to the north of the Chinese City. In 1906, inner city creeks began to be filled and three new gates were cut through the wall, but they only lasted a few years, because in 1912 the wall started to be torn down, and the moat was filled and paved.

Foreigner on the city wall next to Phoenix Tower, Shanghai. Source unknown.

Foreigner on the city wall next to Phoenix Tower, Shanghai. Source unknown.

While the city wall was still standing, many western travellers found it a fascinating structure, and the photographs in the collection of Historical Photographs of China are a great way to explore it. Taking a suggestion from Rev. C. E. Darwent, who proposed a walking route on top of the city wall in his Shanghai: a handbook for travellers and residents to the chief objects of interest in and around the foreign settlement and native city (1904), we begin at the Old North Gate and go clockwise around the city. The whole route, about 4 km long, would take about one hour – or ‘two hours and a half, if the temples en route are to be visited.’[iii]

The photograph below shows the Old North Gate (formally, Yanhaimen 宴海门) when it was Shanghai’s only north-facing gate. Built in 1553, it opened to a marshy and unpopulated country, dotted with graves. One of the few people brave enough to try living here was the young intellectual Wang Tao, who moved to Shanghai in 1848 and spent a few months in a cottage north of the city wall, where the endless ‘stretch of desolate grave mounds’ came close to his doorstep and ‘a dense clump of trees added to the eeriness of the place.’[iv] The photograph from 1858, below, shows this somber landscape; the decrepit pavilion perched on the city wall is one of the lookout towers, known as Zhenwutai (振武台):

North Gate, Shanghai, c.1850, later renamed Old North Gate. HPC ref: VH02-143.

North Gate, Shanghai, c.1850, later renamed Old North Gate. HPC ref: VH02-143.

Tree-graves near the north wall of the Chinese City, Shanghai, 1858. HPC ref: VH02-110.

Tree-graves near the north wall of the Chinese City, Shanghai, 1858. HPC ref: VH02-110.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the French Concession to the north of the walled city was growing fast and a number of its streets ended at the edge of the moat, which acted as the boundary between the two territories. Continuing to walk on top of the wall in the clockwise direction and passing the Zhenwutai fortress, one would stumble on an old British cannon – a reminder of the 1850s, when the city was preparing to reflect an attack by the Taipings.

British-made cannon on city walls, Shanghai, c.1905-1910. HPC ref: OH01-031.

British-made cannon on city walls, Shanghai, c.1905-1910. HPC ref: OH01-031.

The next gate on the itinerary is the New North Gate – formally called Zhangchuanmen (障川门) – which was added in 1860. Several years earlier, the French artillery had damaged the wall while trying to oust the Small Swords rebels, who had barricaded themselves inside the city. The New North Gate – or Porte Montauban – was the main portal between the Chinese City and the French Concession, always in heavy use. Darwent pointed out that

the entrances to the [gates] are very interesting – always crowded, always dirty, always littered up with lepers and with beggars advertising their self-made sores, always sloppy with the water spilt by the water-carriers, a wild jostle of coolies, silk-arrayed gentlemen, sedan-chairs, hobbling women, melancholy dogs, and all the flotsam and jetsam of a Chinese crowd. The photographer and seeker after the picturesque errs greatly if he misses these city gates.

The inner bailey, New North Gate, Old City, Shanghai, c.1902. HPC ref: Da01-05.

The inner bailey, New North Gate, Old City, Shanghai, c.1902. HPC ref: Da01-05.

Looking from the top of the New North Gate toward the French Concession, one saw crowded streets and endless rows of shops. Rickshaw drivers waited at the end of the bridge across the moat, ready to take passengers into the settlements. Manoeuvrable as they were, these vehicles could not navigate the narrow streets and stepped bridges of the Chinese City. By the late nineteenth century, even the most old-fashioned of residents usually needed to pass through the city gates at least twice a day, so the gate-closing curfew time was changed, to start at a later time of ten o’clock in the evening.

Shops, rickshaws and wheelbarrows outside the New North Gate, Shanghai, c.1890-1900. HPC ref: Wr-s019.

Shops, rickshaws and wheelbarrows outside the New North Gate, Shanghai, c.1890-1900. HPC ref: Wr-s019.

Continuing eastward on the wall, one approached a large pavilion – the Phoenix Tower (Danfenglou 丹凤楼) – built in 1584 on the initiative of the Imperial Censor Qin Jiaji who converted one of the lookout towers into a three-story temple dedicated to the goddess Tianhou and various Taoist gods. When the temple was consecrated, Qin bestowed an antique plaque spelling “Phoenix Tower” salvaged from the Temple of the Smooth Passage (Shunjimiao 顺济庙), which had occupied the same spot two centuries earlier. The plaque was hung over the entrance to the new temple, and couplets by the poet Yang Weizhen were inscribed on vertical strips by the door: “Past twelve bamboo curtains and one hundred steps, the phoenix rises to heaven…”[v]

The Phoenix Tower was the tallest structure in Ming and Qing Shanghai, offering spectacular panoramic views of the city within the walls and the bustling neighbourhood between the city and the river. The painter Cao Shiting depicted the Phoenix Tower (below) sometime after 1820, and his painting became the best-known image of Shanghai before the concession era.

View of the Phoenix Tower (上海丹凤楼胜景图), Shanghai, by Cao Shiting (曹史亭). Source: Shanghai Library Archive.

View of the Phoenix Tower (上海丹凤楼胜景图), Shanghai, by Cao Shiting (曹史亭). Source: Shanghai Library Archive.

The riverside suburb east of the city was set on fire and mostly destroyed in 1855, while joint Chinese and French forces were ousting out the Small Swords. Because of this accidental clearance, the photograph below shows an uninterrupted view north past the Phoenix Tower, all the way to the English Bund and the twin flagpoles of the Custom House.

Phoenix Tower on the east wall of Chinese City, looking towards the Bund, Shanghai, 1850s. Photograph by Robert Sillar. HPC ref: VH02-120.

Phoenix Tower on the east wall of Chinese City, looking towards the Bund, Shanghai, 1850s. Photograph by Robert Sillar. HPC ref: VH02-120.

On the northern wall, east of the New North Gate, looking east, toward the Huangpu River and French Concession, Shanghai, c.1902-1911. HPC ref: WG01-106

On the northern wall, east of the New North Gate, looking east, toward the Huangpu River and French Concession, Shanghai, c.1902-1911. HPC ref: WG01-106

To the south of the Phoenix Tower, in 1909, the New East Gate, or Fuyoumen (福佑门), was carved through the city wall; it only had a few years of life. The next gate on the route – the Little East Gate, formally called Treasure Belt Gate (Baodaimen 宝带门) – was popular with travellers, who were attracted to the vibrancy of this neighbourhood. The Little East Gate was the primary passage between the walled city and the port – the source of Shanghai’s wealth and its reason to be.

Little East Gate, Shanghai, c.1910. Source: Shanghai Library Archive.

Little East Gate, Shanghai, c.1910. Source: Shanghai Library Archive.

Travelling down the wall in the southern direction, one came next to the Big East Gate, or Chaozongmen (朝宗门). This had a water gate next to it, under which Zhaojia Creek passed into the city. The creek was always so crowded with stationary boats and barges that navigation was virtually impossible, and those travelling inland from the port avoided the walled city and its waterways. The illustration from Darwent’s Guide to Shanghai (below) portrays this congestion. A local gazetteer also observed that “in search of small profits, rich people build up the embankments and narrow the creeks. As a result, droughts make common folk cry from thirst, heavy rainfall overfills the gutters. Dirty water is one problem, fire hazard is another.”[vi]

Illustration from ‘Shanghai: a handbook for travellers and residents to the chief objects of interest in and around the foreign settlement and native city’ by C. E. Darwent (1904), p. 124.

Illustration from ‘Shanghai: a handbook for travellers and residents to the chief objects of interest in and around the foreign settlement and native city’ by C. E. Darwent (1904), p. 124.

The next gate on the route was the Little South Gate, made up of a big water gate and a small one for pedestrians; both connected the city with the bustling commercial suburb of Dongjiadu. These passages were well known to the American and French missionaries, who lived in this area and referred to it as Tunkadoo. After passing the ‘flourishing mission of the American Southern Presbyterians’ outside the city wall, one arrived at Shanghai’s southernmost gate – Big South Gate. It was the terminus of the only wide and straight avenue inside the walled city, which started at the magistrate’s yamen.

The county magistrate could assign punishments of great cruelty, but the death penalty required a special edict from the Imperial Board of Punishments and had to be carried out with byzantine official ceremony. On the day an execution was scheduled, a formal procession of officials from the office of the magistrate would parade on horseback and leave the walled city through the Big South Gate. The cavalcade would ride on a drawbridge across the defence moat, and the bridge would be immediately lifted behind them. By the testimony of W. MacFarlane, who attended an execution in the 1870s, ‘the mandarins and military officers […] generally number about twenty, all mounted on ponies, and they ride round in a circle making as much noise as they can by clattering of hoofs and tinkling of bells, until some small crackers are set off, at which signal the executioner cuts off the head of the prisoner with one fell swoop of his sword.’[vii]

Having walked around the southern curve of the city, one started a northward journey along the western wall. After 1909, one would pass over the Little West Gate, or Culture-Oriented Gate (Shangwenmen 尚文门), named thus for its proximity to the Confucian Temple (Wenmiao 文庙). The photograph below was taken from the city wall for, or by, the British officers temporarily stationed in the temple in 1863 in preparation for the Taiping invasion; the Confucian Temple is in the middle distance.

View of the Confucian Temple, Shanghai, 1863. HPC ref: RH01-19.

View of the Confucian Temple, Shanghai, 1863. HPC ref: RH01-19.

Continuing to walk along the western edge of the city, one saw few residences and many gardens. Darwent (1904) explained: ‘Walled cities always had to have open spaces in them, to grow as much food as possible in times of siege.’ George Smith, who had himself carried along the wall in a sedan chair in the late 1840s, found that the west of the walled city ‘presented a rural aspect, forming one succession of pleasant gardens, with only a few houses interspersed,’ and that ‘outside the wall there was scarcely a house to be seen.’[viii] Half a century later, the intramural area was still undeveloped, but the French Concession all around the walled city was built up with terraced houses (lilong). The image below shows the gardens in the walled city and the densely built French Concession beyond the wall.

View from the Dajing Pavilion over the western part of the walled city, Shanghai, c.1900. Source: Shanghai Library Archive.

View from the Dajing Pavilion over the western part of the walled city, Shanghai, c.1900. Source: Shanghai Library Archive.

With most of the population living in the city’s east, a single west-facing gate was sufficient. Officially named Ceremonial Phoenix Gate (Yifengmen 仪凤门), it was built in 1553, and according to existing photographs, it was quite substantial. As Macfarlane (1881) described it: ‘We pass through the first archway, the outer gate, and then are within the circular tower, with the sky for a roof, which is seen at all the city gates. In front of us is the watchmen’s house, and the guard […] is standing in the open front of the house, but not standing as a sentinel or watchman ought to stand; his favourite position most probably is lying down, with a hubble-bubble tobacco pipe to console himself and wile away the time.’[ix]

View from the city wall towards the West Gate, Shanghai. Photograph attributed to William Saunders or John Reddie Black. Published by John Reddie Black in ‘Far East’, January 1877.

View from the city wall towards the West Gate, Shanghai. Photograph attributed to William Saunders or John Reddie Black. Published by John Reddie Black in ‘Far East’, January 1877.

After 1909, the next landmark on the route would be the Little North Gate, or Gongchenmen (拱辰门). The postcard below shows that this section of the city wall was much lower than the eastern and southern sections, which were reinforced and augmented in different years. One instance was the disastrous flood in August 1680, when after a nightlong rainstorm, the rising waves from the Huangpu simply washed away the southern section of the city wall, toppling houses underneath it and killing several residents. The whole county was submerged in five feet of water, and ‘boats were crisscrossing Shanghai as if it was a lake.’[x] Such occasions prompted wealthy citizens to offer funds for the restoration and earn respectful nicknames, like ‘Half-the-City Pan.’

Dajing Pavilion, workshops and city wall, Shanghai, Shanghai, c.1905-1911. HPC ref: GJ01-028.

Dajing Pavilion, workshops and city wall, Shanghai, c.1905-1911. HPC ref: GJ01-028.

Next stop on the itinerary is the Dajing Pavilion (Dajingge 大境阁, or Guandimiao 关帝庙), known as ‘Piece-Goods Temple’ to the westerners who had noticed that ‘Chinese merchants who deal in Manchester piece-goods’ used it.[xi] Darwent’s introduction was: ‘After a quarter of a mile’s walk, we come to the Da Ching, once a guard-house or castle, now a temple. It is a very beautiful and picturesque building, and makes a splendid photograph from any point of view. Gardens and open spaces surround it; at one corner there is a pool. From that side, with the pool in the foreground, it makes a very beautiful picture.’ The photographer of the image here must have taken these instructions literally.

To complete the route and arrive back at the Old North Gate, one passed the Soldiers’ Cemetery on the outside of the city wall, which contained 305 graves of British nationals, who died in the 1860s during the defence of the foreign settlements from the Taiping uprising (most of these deaths were not battle casualties, but resulted from rampant cholera). Since 1887, the cemetery was virtually abandoned but three oblong memorial tablets remained embedded in the city wall until 1938, when the cemetery was finally closed and the graves relocated. The graveyard was quickly built up; new houses clung to the surviving section of the wall like barnacles and completely hid it from sight.

Soldiers Cemetery and city wall, Shanghai, c.1905-1915. HPC ref: OH01-022.

Soldiers Cemetery and city wall, Shanghai, c.1905-1915. HPC ref: OH01-022.

One of the commemorative plaques, Soldiers Cemetery, city wall, Shanghai, c.1905-1915. HPC ref OH02-15.

One of the commemorative plaques, Soldiers Cemetery, city wall, Shanghai, c.1905-1915. HPC ref OH02-15.

The city wall was torn down in the years 1912–1914, and Shanghai citizens volunteered to assist with its dismantling, salvaging the bricks to repair their houses. The earth from the rampart was used to fill the moat, and the ring road emerged in its place, with a tram running in the middle. The inner side of the ring was called Minkuo Road (Minguo Lu 民国路), and the outer, French, side was called Boulevard des deux Republiques. The subsequent editions of Darwent’s Handbook for Travellers acknowledged that the scenic walk on the rampart was no longer possible, and the temples recommended for visiting ‘have all disappeared with the walls,’ except for the picturesque Dajing Pavilion. It was rebuilt in the late 2000s to resemble the original structure and now serves as a museum of the walled city. It is surrounded by a replica wall made of black bricks, some of which were, indeed, taken from the original city wall.

Demolition of the city wall, Shanghai, c.1912. Source: Shanghai Library Archive.

Demolition of the city wall, Shanghai, c.1912. Source: Shanghai Library Archive.

The old city wall made a sudden comeback in 2006, thanks to the long-forgotten Soldiers’ Cemetery. During demolition works in this area, a seventy metre section of the original city wall was found hidden between the houses. Unwilling to change the construction agenda, the developers dismantled the discovery and only after some pressure from the municipal authorities rebuilt part of it as picaresque ruin in front of a new apartment complex.

[i] Jerry Dennerline, The Chia-ting loyalists: Confucian leadership and social change in seventeenth-century China (Yale, 1981), p. 127.

[ii] From the translation quoted in John Meskill, Gentlemanly Interests and Wealth on the Yangzi Delta (Ann Arbor, 1994), pp. 94–95.

[iii] Darwent, C. E., Shanghai: A handbook for travellers and residents… (Kelly and Walsh, 1904)

[iv] Henry McAleavy, Wang T’ao: Life and Writings of Displaced Person (London, 1953), p. 5.

[v] Yang Weizhen, Phoenix Tower Verse 丹凤楼诗 (undated).

[vi] Jiaqing Songjiang Prefecture Gazetteer 嘉庆松江府志, Vol. 10 (c. 1820).

[vii] W. Macfarlane, Sketches in the Foreign Settlements and Native City of Shanghai (Shanghai, 1881), p. 60.

[viii] George Smith, A Narrative of an Exploratory Visit to Each of the Consular Cities of China… (1847), p. 134.

[ix] Macfarlane, 1881, 28.

[x] Jiaqing Shanghai County Gazetteer 嘉庆上海县志, Vol. 19 (1814).

[xi] T. Hodgson Liddell, China, Its Marvel and Mystery (George Allen & Sons, 1909), p. 41.

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Visualizing Qing Diplomats in the West

Jenny Huangfu Day is the author of Qing Travelers to the Far West: Diplomacy and the Information Order in Late Imperial China(Cambridge University Press, 2018) and the editor of Letters from the Qing Legation in London [Wanqing Zhuying shiguan zhaohui dang’an] (Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2020). She teaches East Asian history at Skidmore College, New York. 

In the decade before the Qing established its first legations in Europe and the United States, it sent out a few investigatory missions staffed with mid-level officials to prepare for the dispatch of long-term resident ministers. The gentleman who led the first mission of 1866 was Binchun, a retired magistrate with personal connections to the Zongli Yamen, the newly created central office to handle foreign affairs. In Qing Travelers to the West, I wrote about how members of the Qing’s early missions imagined, poeticized, circulated, and consumed information about the West, and how these earlier strategies of conceptualizing the West changed when the permanent legations were established.

Figure 1: Cover image of 'Qing Travelers to the Far West'.

Figure 1: Cover image of ‘Qing Travelers to the Far West’.

Just as the Chinese used these travels to gather information about the West, Western depictions of these early missions – in sketches, photographs, watercolour paintings, and texts – made rounds in metropolitan and local newspapers and some were exchanged in private collections, making them excellent sources in what nineteenth-century Europeans considered important about the Chinese.

Before we examine some of these images and texts, it’s worth mentioning that Binchun and his colleagues were quite aware that they were being documented in Western media, even though they might not be clear just how they were being portrayed and why the Europeans held such a fascination with their images.

Binchun wrote in his journal: ‘Months before our arrival, newspapers of each country began making noises, and when we are here, many people ask to see us or make sketches of us. A few days ago when we were in Paris, merchants kept the films of our photographs and sold prints at fifteen silver dollar per portrait.’[1] His poems attributed the attention they received to his own charisma and the civilizing influence of Chinese culture, and he used the mission’s popularity to forge important personal connections. The Chinese were not being passively observed, but negotiated their appearances and to the extent possible, positioned themselves in ways to take advantage of it.[2]

British journalists subjected the mission to constant and minute scrutiny, but for quite different purposes from what Binchun seemed to think: it was important to know exactly what the ranks of the Chinese were in order to know what level of accommodation they were entitled to. According to the Birmingham Daily Post: ‘The study of buttons is essential to an accurate appreciation of Chinese life … We have scanned their costumes from their skull cap to their thick-soled shoes; and round the outside of their flowing robes, back and front, without being able to discover the all-important sign of rank about them.’ Speculations about the precise ranks of the commissioner and his suites occupied the British press in the few days, and the ‘great mystery’ was eventually solved after members of the mission made a formal appearance in official attires, complete peacock feathers and buttons.

Visual portrayals of the mission confirmed the anxiety about the status of the Chinese, highlighting the features mentioned in Birmingham Daily: notably, their officials robes, the peacock feathers and ‘button’ decorating the commissioner’s hat, the court beads, the embroidered symbol marking one’s place in the official hierarchy, the woven waist-sash. All members of the mission were depicted with their long, braided queues made emphatically visible.

Figure 2: Binchun and the Tongwenguan students at a French salon, 1866, Le Monde illustré, May 19, 1866.

Figure 2: Binchun and the Tongwenguan students at a French salon, 1866, Le Monde illustré, May 19, 1866.

Indeed, to have their peacock feathers shown, Qing commissioners were probably often asked to look sideways when being photographed in studios, instead of gazing directly into the camera and engaging the eyes of the beholder. This visual strategy can be seen in many well-publicized photographs the early missions.[3]

Figure 3: Binchun’s portrait, ca. 1866, courtesy of Tong Bingxue.

Figure 3: A portrait of Binchun, ca. 1866, courtesy of Tong Bingxue.

 Figure 4: Anson Burlingame with two Chinese co-envoys, Zhigang and Sun Jiagu, and the Tongwenguan students, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Figure 4: Anson Burlingame with two Chinese co-envoys, Zhigang and Sun Jiagu, and the Tongwenguan students, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Whether intended or not, such visual strategies of portraying the Chinese in their early missions to the West confirmed many existing impressions about the Chinese: that they were extremely status-conscious, fond of social gatherings, and typically gave only somewhat innocent – if not childish – responses to what they saw, depicted by terms such as ‘delighted,’ ‘disappointed,’ ‘disapproved,’ or ‘taken aback.’  In the following image, taken in Stockholm, the juxtaposition of the Qing mission, seen as a moving relic of an ancient and static culture – and the monumental glass-roofed ‘crystal palace’ at the Kungsträdgården, an industrial hall designed by the great architect Adolf W. Edelsvärd, sums up these impressions well.

Figure 5: “The Pin Mission, Stockholm, 1866”. HPC ref: Ha-n01.

Figure 5: “The Pin Mission, Stockholm, 1866”. HPC ref: Ha-n01.

Interestingly, these caricatures of the early Chinese travellers to the West, simplistic and condescending as they were, have been embraced by modernist Chinese intellectuals in the reform era – and at present – to show how far China has come along, or has yet to go, towards becoming ‘modern.’ Images of these early travellers to the West, created through the lenses of nineteenth century Western photographers, came to embody the steps China took to walk out of its supposed late imperial isolation and arrogance. Whatever its historical validity, the trope of the Confucian gentleman ‘stepping forth onto the world’ has been widely circulated in the Chinese public sphere, often as a subtle critique of the nationalist, or anti-Western, policies of the People’s Republic of China.

As Qing diplomacy converged with contemporary Western practices and moved towards the permanent legation, the value of Qing representatives as spectacles of the orient also declined, as it was replaced with direct consultations with Foreign Ministries. The role of the diplomat thus differed fundamentally from that of the traveling mandarin by design. Diplomatic negotiations were often conducted in private meetings, in writing or through telegraphy, with little fanfare and publicity. From 1877 onward, the most publicized images of Qing diplomats were standard head portraits similar to those of European statesmen, not visual stories exhibiting them on site.

From the 1880s onward, hardly any visual representation of Qing diplomats could be found in Western newspapers, and when they appeared, the Chinese were not depicted as spectators, but as diplomats and statesmen.

Figure 6: Portrait of Marquis Tseng (Zeng Jize), early 1880s, courtesy of Tong Bingxue.

Figure 6: Portrait of Marquis Tseng (Zeng Jize), early 1880s, courtesy of Tong Bingxue.

Figure 7: French political cartoon depicting Zeng Jize playing cards with Jules Ferry as an allegory of their intense negotiations in the months leading up to the Sino-French War. Le monde parisien, 1883.

Figure 7: French political cartoon depicting Zeng Jize playing cards with Jules Ferry as an allegory of their intense negotiations in the months leading up to the Sino-French War. ‘Le monde parisien’, 1883.

So the image of the traveling mandarin gazing the West in wonder came to an end with the Qing’s dispatch of resident ministers and consuls. This change was as much a reflection of China’s changing diplomatic structure, as it was a media artefact of how the Chinese came to be documented by the press.

[1] Binchun, Cheng cha biji (113.

[2] Day, Qing Travelers to the Far West: chapter 1.

[3]  I argue that the name ‘Burlingame Mission’ has tended to downplay Chinese agency in the mission.

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Ruins of Macau in Historical Photographs of China collection – part three

Dr. Helena F. S. Lopes is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Department of History, University of Bristol. This posting is the final part of a three-part series on the ruins of Macau. You can read part one here and part two here.

Hotel Estoril, Macau, c.1975. HPC ref: Aw-t515.

Another image in the ‘20 colour slides of Macau scenery’ series has a rather more subtle connection to 1940s Macau when compared with the statue of Ferreira do Amaral addressed in part 2. In fact, the building depicted above is essentially associated with the post-war period.

This is a view of the Hotel Estoril with its now gone bilingual neon sign: Hotel Estoril / 愛都大酒店. The building’s origins go back to the early 1950s, though the present-day ruin dates from the 1964 reconstruction and expansion. It is often described as Macau’s first ‘modern’ casino-hotel owned by Stanley Ho’s Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau (STDM).

Those responsible for the building’s appearance illustrate the deep connections between Macau and other colonial port cities in China. The building was designed by Macau-born, Hong Kong-based architect Alfredo Victor Jorge Álvares and a particularly iconic feature is the large mural in the façade designed by Oseo Acconci, an Italian sculptor who arrived in Macau precisely in 1940 after working in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The nude female figure in the mural – considered a rare example of Futurist art in Macau – has generated its fair share of controversy, as has the case for preserving the hotel, which remains abandoned since the 1990s and is planned to be redeveloped as a new Central Library.[1]

At present, Macau has the largest gaming industry in the world. This snapshot of this relatively ‘young’ local ruin, whose golden days lasted less than a decade (until the Casino Lisboa outshone it from the 1970s) but which can be seen, in a way, as pioneering the casino resorts now seen throughout the territory, is perhaps a fitting way to end this three-part series on some of the changes and continuities, rebuilding and disappearances, one find represented in the HPC Macau photographs.

[1] Sonia Nunes, ‘Macau’s Futurist Woman’, Macau Closer, Dec. 2015; Philip Feifan Xie and William Ling Shi, ‘Authenticating a Heritage Hotel: Co-Creating a New Identity’, Journal of Heritage Tourism 14/1 (2019); pp. 67-80; ‘New Macao Central Library to be built on former Hotel Estoril site’, Macau News 10 Sept. 2020.

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Ruins of Macau in Historical Photographs of China collections – part two

Dr. Helena F. S. Lopes is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Department of History, University of Bristol. This posting is part two of three-part series on the ruins of Macau. Part one can be read here.

Ferreira do Amaral statue, Macau, c. 1975. HPC ref: Aw-t524.

In one of the ‘20 Colour Slides Of Macau Scenery’ (c. 1970s) in the Colin and Janet Andrew Collection held at the University of Bristol Special Collections (DM2818/3), sharing promotional space with old temples and new hotels, one finds a site of crucial importance to discussions on ‘disappearance’ and public commemoration of Macau’s colonial past: the controversial statue of João Maria Ferreira do Amaral.

A Portuguese naval officer, Amaral served as governor of Macau from 1846 until 1849. He undertook a series of measures aimed at curbing Chinese power in the territory and asserting Portuguese colonial control. From closing down Chinese customs houses to clearing graves to build roads, his actions met with fierce Chinese resistance which led to his killing in 1849 outside the Macau border. His death escalated tensions between Chinese and Portuguese authorities, which reached the point of military confrontation. Macanese army officer Vicente Nicolau de Mesquita played a leading role in ensuring a quick Portuguese victory with significantly outnumbered forces in the Passaleão/Baishaling incident. Amaral and Mesquita have remained divisive figures: hailed as colonial heroes by some, criticised as colonial oppressors by others.[1]

In 1940, almost a century after Amaral’s assassination, bronze statues of the two men were installed in Macau. At the time, China grappled with the overwhelming effects of the War of Resistance against Japan while the Portuguese Estado Novo dictatorship, capitalising on its Second Word War neutrality, celebrated its imperial history in an international exhibition in Lisbon (the Portuguese World Exhibition, whose architectural legacy remains highly visible today). The placing of these statues in prime locations in Macau (Mesquita’s near Leal Senado, Amaral in a square named after him near where the Hotel Lisboa and the Bank of China skyscraper would later be built) in this particular context has been seen as a way ‘to secure the territory’s neutrality through the means of re-affirming a Portuguese identity.’[2] A more critical reading would, however, note the symbolic act of colonial humiliation at a time when Chinese anti-imperialist activism had more pressing targets. By 1940, Macau – itself a site where the Chinese anti-Japanese resistance was active – was no stranger to the massive disruption caused by the Japanese invasion of China. A significant number of Chinese refugees moved to the neutral territory during the conflict.

The statues of Amaral and Mesquita, by Portuguese sculptor Maximiano Alves, showed the men engaged in positions which seem to glorify, with masculine assertiveness, their role as defenders, by violence if necessary, of Portuguese colonial rule in Macau: Amaral riding a horse while brandishing a whip to, according to an information plaque in the statue’s current location ‘defend himself against his aggressors’; Mesquita drawing his sword while standing. They stand alone, their opponents invisible. Yet not a century went by before their presence was deemed too uncomfortable to remain standing in a post-colonial Macau. Mesquita’s statue was removed first, in the late 1966 clashes that saw Portuguese colonial authority in Macau contested and constrained in events whose wider context had links to the Cultural Revolution in the mainland (but which had specific local dynamics as well). A photograph taken the year before the statue’s toppling can be seen here. Amaral’s statue remained in place beyond the 1960s, but was dismantled in 1992 and shipped to Lisbon, at the request of the then director of Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. The decision to remove the statue before the handover and the figure of Amaral as a symbol of contrasting perspectives on the territory continues to generate discussions and being reimagined in cultural productions (for example novels and an opera).[3]

When the monument was removed, it seems to have been for many just a statue of ‘a guy on a horse’ located in a square where people could stroll and gather together regardless (rather than because) of the figure being commemorated.[4] Indeed, the photograph above shows people riding pass it or congregating in groups. In the background we see the Penha Hill, with Our Lady of Penha Chapel (Capela de Nossa Senhora da Penha) on top (first built in the seventeenth century, the present-day building dating from 1935).

Earlier this year, Amaral’s name came up when an advisor to the Municipal Affairs Bureau in Macau suggested changing street names associated with the Portuguese colonial period – attracting some pushback.[5] In Lisbon, Amaral’s statue was not put in storage nor exhibited in a museum but is on public display, in a small garden in a residential neighbourhood. It appears to remain fairly unnoticed. One should not overlook the power of indifference to rejecting the statue’s original celebratory purpose – perhaps that too is a peculiar form of decolonisation.

Ferreira do Amaral statue, Lisbon, 2020. Photograph by Helena F. S. Lopes. © Helena F. S. Lopes.

[1] On the contrasting meanings of the statues for Chinese and Portuguese see C. M. B. Cheng, Macau: A Cultural Janus (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1999), pp. 28-30.
[2] Paula Morais, ‘Macau’s Urban Transformation 1927-1949: The Significance of Sino-Portuguese Foreign Relations in the Urban Form’ in Izumi Kuroishi, ed., Constructing the Colonized Land: Entwined Perspectives of East Asia Around WWII (Surrey: Ashgate, 2014), p. 155.
[3] E.g. João Paulo Meneses, ‘A maldição da estátua de Ferreira do Amaral’ [The curse of Ferreira do Amaral’s statue], Ponto Final, 11 May 2011; Mário César Lugarinho, ‘Violência e Interpretação, Leituras da História de Macau’ [Violence and Interpretation, Readings of the History of Macau], Abril-Revista do Núcleo de Estudos de Literatura Portuguesa e Africana da UFF, 10/20 (2018), pp. 37-48.
[4] C. H. Clayton, Sovereignty at the Edge: Macau & the Question of Chineseness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 212.
[5] On the meanings (and lack of them) of Macau’s official street names and multiple perceptions of architectural changes in Macau see Clayton’s Sovereignty at the Edge, Chapter Five.

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