Our latest guest appearance is from author and historian Melanie King. While researching her latest book, The Lady is a Spy: The Tangled Lives of Stan Harding and Marguerite Harrison she found H.I. Harding, the brother of one of her subjects in a handful of photographs on Historical Photographs of China. Here she introduces one of them, and tells us a little more about a consul with a singular reputation.
The year is 1922, and the British Vice-Consul to Kashgar, in Central Asia, sits proudly on a grey pony, wearing a turban and distinctive Uyghur clothing. It’s not exactly the attire in which one would expect to find a middle-aged diplomat, a longtime veteran of the Chinese Consular Service. But then Harold Ivan Harding was never one to follow convention.
Born in 1883 in Toronto, Harold and his sister Constance were brought up strict Plymouth Brethren, a religion both siblings were adamantly to reject. Harold’s father, Edwin, had emigrated to Canada in 1874 and, despite being the son of a humble London tailor, married well. His wife, Grace Elizabeth Lesslie, was from a prominent family of Scots who had left Dundee in the 1820s and opened several dry-goods stores in Canada. By the time Constance was born in 1884, one year after Harold, Edwin had emphatically declared his profession on her birth certificate as ‘Gentleman’.
Edwin Harding had been converted to his religion by the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby, and the Lesslie family were also keen followers. Edwin was not an affectionate man, forever obsessed with the lurking prospect of eternal damnation. His strict views profoundly affected the Harding siblings. Only a year apart, they were very close as children, so when Constance announced at the age of 13 that she no longer believed in God, her punishment was to be separated from her beloved brother and locked in her room for a week. By this time, Harold no longer believed in God either, but he wisely kept his counsel. Meanwhile, he worked out an escape by studying to pass the British Foreign Office exams.
Harold’s first posting to China was in 1902. Harold learned Mandarin fluently, but he deliberately chose to converse in the crudest version—one of his many contrarian acts. He gained a reputation for being ‘rude, hot-headed, undisciplined and insubordinate’, and one colleague described him as an ‘eccentric crank’. These eccentricities ranged from his embrace of Buddhism and vegetarianism, to more whimsical pursuits, such as forcing his dinner guests to race cockroaches across the dining table. These fun-filled evenings always ended abruptly when, at 10 pm, an alarm sounded and Harold trekked off to bed, leaving his guests to their own devices. Yet another of Harold’s quirks was to remove his trousers in hot weather and receive callers to his office without what he regarded as the dreary protocol of putting them back on. Any guests in 1922 were therefore no doubt relieved to find the Vice-Consul fully dressed—albeit in his Uyghur tunic and turban.
Andrew Hillier explores the story behind a pair of striking photographs in our collection, and in his family’s history.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.