The Bankers’ Bullet-Ridden Buick

Visualising China blog - 25/01/2019

Andrew Hillier explores the story behind a pair of striking photographs in our collection, and in his family’s history.

Guy Hillier’s car parked outside the premises of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Beijing, with flat tyres, broken windscreen, broken windows, and bullet holes. Richard Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China ref EH01-242.

The images of Guy Hillier’s bullet-ridden car would have been surprising to those who knew him only as the blind and austere agent of the Hongkong Bank’s Beijing office. He was not the sort of person to be caught up in a shoot-out.  In fact (spoiler alert), he was not in the car when it was shot at by Peking guards during the twelve-day Manchu restoration in July 1917. It was the Bank’s accountant, R. C. Allen, who, along with the chauffeur and a mafoo (a groom), narrowly escaped death. But Hillier was involved shortly afterwards and also came under fire.

Guy Hillier’s car parked outside the premises of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Beijing, with flat tyres, broken windscreen, broken windows, and bullet holes. Richard Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China ref EH01-243.

The weather was stiflingly hot – Hillier’s secretary and amanuensis, Ella Richard, recalled that the temperature was over 100°F – and he was spending the week-end of 30 June at Balizhuang, a Buddhist monastery in the western hills, some four miles outside Beijing, where he had a modest set of rooms. Hearing that the former emperor, the eleven year-old Aisin-Gioro Puyi, had been brought out of retirement and placed on the throne, he hurried back to Beijing on 2 July and cabled A. G. Stephen, the Shanghai manager:

Restoration of Emperor proclaimed yesterday.  President [Li Yuanhong] so far refuses to resign and remains in his residence with 2000 men under republican flag …Peking remains quiet with troops of the new regime posted throughout the city. No opposition or disturbance expected in Peking at present, but provincial and Southern opposition probable.[i]

In fact, the calm was short-lived and, amidst much confusion, sporadic fighting began breaking out in the city between Zhang Xun (Chang Hsun), the principal militarist, who had instigated the coup, and troops loyal to the former premier, Duan Qirui (Tuan Chijui). As the events unfolded, Hillier kept Stephen up-dated with a stream of somewhat breathless telegrams. By 11 July, Puyi was still on the throne and, as the city seemed quieter and Hillier was having difficulty sleeping in the heat, he and his mafoo rode back to Balizhuang, having told Allen to meet them at the western gate at 7 a.m. the next morning.

However, waking at about 4 a.m., he heard the sound of gunfire coming from the city and he and his mafoo immediately set off back to Beijing.  Having also heard the gunfire, and realising it would be too dangerous for Hillier to return by pony, Allen decided to drive out to fetch him. According to Maurice Collis’ account, as he made his way through the city, the car was shot at ‘without warning or [anyone] calling on the car to stop’.  But, Ella Richard recalled Allen telling her a very different story immediately afterwards:

Allen had been going at a fine pace through one of the broad streets near the Palace when an officer commanding some Chinese troops shouted an order to them holding up his hand. The chauffeur wished to stop but A. who could not understand Chinese, called to him to rush through. The chauffeur jammed his foot on the accelerator, and they tore past the officer. He was so enraged that he gave an order to fire. The car was riddled with bullets. The mafoo sitting by the chauffeur was hit in his arm and a bullet passed through the peak of the driver’s cap … They swept safely into the great broad street on the West where, to their astonishment, they found G. and his mafoo riding their ponies.

The car’s petrol tank had been holed and all six men had to make for the safety of the Anglican Mission on foot.  Hillier ‘had had to run like a lamplighter through some of the hottest firing’, as he told Ella. It was, he said, ‘an extraordinary experience for a blind man. He could hear the shots and the rattle of machine guns and the ping of bullets but he could also sense that the streets were empty and a strange silence reigned but for the terrific noise’. Even for someone who so relished brinkmanship, the incident shows how foolhardy Hillier could be but also his extraordinary reserves of courage.

Senior bank staff, including Guy Hillier and R.C. Allen, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Beijing, c.1923. Standing, from left to right: R.C. Allen (Accountant), Eleanor Hillier, unidentified man (but not Hubbard), D. A. Johnston, name unconfirmed (possibly J.L.T. Patch). Sitting: Guy Hillier. Guy and Ella were married in Hong Kong on 20 December 1919. Richard Family Collection, Historical Photographs of China ref EH-s63.

In the event, with the help of a modest payment to Zhang’s troops, the coup ended late that evening and the emperor’s twelve-day reign was over and Duan resumed the office of premier.  The following day, according to Ella, one of his representatives called and apologised for what had occurred. ‘They refunded the loss of Allen’s burberry and one or two things stolen from the car and paid compensation to the mafoo for his wound and spoiled clothing’. Most important of all, they presented Hillier with a new car.[ii]

[i] Based on Hillier’s telegrams, the story is told by Maurice Collis in Wayfoong: The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (London: Faber, 1965), pp. 145-50, but, in 1934, when Puyi was made a puppet emperor in Manchuria, Ella Richard wrote her own account, ‘Pu Yi’s Twelve Day Reign or the Battle of Peking’ (Private Collection).

[ii] I am grateful to Jenifer Peles for allowing me access to Ella Richard’s papers and to quote from them.

Reversing Robert Capa’s gaze: Wuhan, 1938

Visualising China blog - 11/01/2019

Ooo, look: our eagle-eyed Project Manager Jamie Carstairs spotted this wonderful photograph taken in 1938 by Robert Capa in Hankou (Wuhan) and recently published in MAGNUM China (Colin Pantall and Zheng Ziyu, eds, Thames & Hudson, 2018):

Robert Capa, CHINA. Hankou. July-September, 1938. Men, seen through a window, walking through street after the air battle between Japanese and Chinese fighter planes. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

This is one of a number of striking photographs Capa took during his two stays in the then temporary capital of Nationalist China during the Japanese invasion. But why are we excited? Because of this photograph, which we scooped up from ebay last year. Robert Capa: we now know where you were.

Banner outside the headquarters of “L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS”, 69 Jianghan Lu, Wuhan, 1938 (Bi-s162)

Whoever the photographer was, we can tell from this that Capa’s photograph was taken from within the headquarters of L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS (‘France: Belgium: Switzerland Returned Students Association’). This was on Wuhan’s Jianghan Road, at no. 69 in fact (江漢路六十九號). This was a prominent long thoroughfare stretching from the Yangzi riverside, and remains today a major pedestrianised shopping street in the city centre.

Wuhan fell to the Japanese in October 1938. The Nationalist capital was re-established at Chongqing, yet further along the Yangzi river. Capa had long since left. The Association will have relocated too. The fate of the men he caught on film as they walked along the street on this sunny day in 1938 was probably bound up with the terrible course of the capture of the city and its brittle history during the occupation.

In and outside the combat zone: The Regimental Museums Project (2)

Visualising China blog - 14/11/2018

Dr Andrew Hillier completes his introduction to The Regimental Museums Project by discussing some of the more nuanced aspects of military photography and the importance of regimental archives.

Aside from Felix Beato’s photographs of the Second Opium War, referred to in the first blog, and similarly brutal images surrounding the Boxer Uprising, photographs could often bring out the more complex aspects of Britain’s presence in China, for example, the fact that the 1st Chinese Regiment comprised, as rank and file, mainly Chinese subjects, who were required to fight against their fellow countrymen, under the command of British officers. [1]

New recruits to the 1st Chinese Regiment learn drill, 1900. Courtesy of the National Army Museum, NAM. 1983-05-42-4. From an album of 52 photographs taken and compiled by Captain C.D. Bruce (West Riding Regiment), acting Major (1st Battalion Chinese Regiment). © National Army Museum.

Photographs also show how, outside the combat zone, the military could also be engaged on a range of civilian tasks, albeit these would generally have an underlying strategic purpose. The Royal Engineers, for example, in the aftermath of the Uprising, took part in an extensive programme, rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed during the conflict, including bridges, railways and railway stations and, for a time, running the railway between Peking and Shan-hai-kwan (Shanhaiguan).) Whilst this was to ensure troops could be speedily deployed, it was also to protect the interests of British bondholders in the Tianjin-Mukden railway.

This improvised locomotive was the product of the Royal Engineers No 4. Company of the Bengal Sappers and Miners, under Captain H.R. Stockley. The engine, named ‘Grasshopper’, had been cobbled together under the supervision of Sergeant A. Tinkham, who was engaged in the reconstruction of Boxer-destroyed railway tracks in and around Fengtai, Peking (Beijing) in 1900. HPC ref NA06-16: a photograph from an album (WO 28/302. China. Boxer Rebellion) in The National Archives. Crown copyright image reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England.

Later, as Britain sought to reduce its imperial role and civil war in China intensified in the 1920s, , so government policy wavered between maintaining neutrality and using military force if that was seen as necessary to protect British interests.

Shanghai Volunteer Corps at a street barricade. HPC ref AL-s12. Comprising a multi-national militia under the control of British soldiers, the SVC, which was mobilised, for this emergency, in September 1924, included a Chinese company.

Scots Guards & Shanghai Scottish Pipers, HPC ref AL-s04. The Scots Guards arrived in Shanghai on 2 July 1928 and were based there until 20 January 1929 as part of the British Shanghai Defence Force which was despatched in late 1926 when the National Revolutionary Army of the Guomindang occupied central China during the Nationalist revolution.[2] Note the Chinese on-lookers for whom this was not only a routine ceremonial but, in the highly-charged circumstances of the time, a powerful demonstration of British military capacity.

If these images depict the military presence on a public level, many collections also bring out a more personal aspect of regimental life – both the soldier’s daily routines and also his interaction with the local people and his surroundings.

Acrobatic display by Somerset Light Infantry soldiers, c. 1913. HPC ref JC-s056. The sort of photograph that soldiers will have sent in letters home.

Whilst the camera’s ‘imperial gaze’ was not always welcome for those being photographed, many images reflect a lively curiosityt and show how photographs could articulate a new form of cultural understanding.  Enclosed in letters home, they would also be a way of maintaining contact with family and friends as well as importing the experiences into the regimental record.

Photographs thus form a particularly important part of regimental archives, reflecting, as they do, not only the history of the regiment but also the careers of individual soldiers serving far from home. Similar material can also be found in public collections such as the British Library, the National Archives, the National Army Museum and the Royal Geographical Society. However, whilst those archives are secure, the future of regimental archives is more uncertain, not least because many regiments have been disbanded or merged and are having difficulty finding an identity in post-imperial and post-Cold War Britain. Whilst some collections are housed in buildings which form part of the regimental history, others are struggling to find a home or have already become incorporated in the local county archives and thus, although in safe hands, have lost that important local connection.

The former barracks of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, Berwick-upon-Tweed. Managed by English Heritage, the buildings house an excellent military museum and the regiment’s archives, which include an important collection of photographs recording its assignment in China (mainly, Shamian, Canton (Guangzhou)) in the late 1920s. Photograph by Andrew Hillier, 2018.

As with other artefacts, such as plunder and loot, issues arise as to how these photographs should be displayed, given the problematic nature of Britain’s imperial history. That debate can only take place if there is proper access to the material and understanding of the surrounding events and this is where the regimental museums have a vital role to play, precisely because of the close connection between the regiment and the events in question.

The aim of the Regimental Museums Project, therefore, is to use these collections to examine the British military presence in China and how the serving soldier interacted with the Chinese people and his surroundings. Since the military would often explore locations seldom visited by westerners, for example, for intelligence and route-mapping purposes, whilst soldiers would embark on ambitious expeditions during their leave, there can be found within museum collections a wider set of images of the country. Wherever possible, the focus will be on individuals who, whether as part of their official duties, or simply from personal interest, recorded that presence, frequently adding comments and annotations. Chance has largely dictated how these photographs, whether neatly pasted into albums or hurriedly stuffed into envelopes, have found their way into museums, and often their origins are unknown or cannot be disclosed for reasons of confidentiality. The project will, therefore, be in the nature of work in progress and will not follow any particular thematic or chronological path. Hopefully, it will raise the profile of these collections and stimulate discussion in the context of Sino–British relations and history more generally. It may also encourage readers to rummage through trunks in attics in search of mementoes of their military forbears in China.

[1] The 1st Chinese Regiment will be the subject of the next blog.

[2] Robert Bickers, Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (London: Allen Lane, 2017), p. 64.