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Guest blog: It’s the End of the World as They Knew It


James Carter is the author of the forthcoming Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai (W.W. Norton), which uses the events of 12 November 1941 at the Shanghai Race Club to tell the story of China on the eve of World War II. He has written two previous books on Chinese history, and contributed to the Times Literary Supplement, the LA Review of Books, ChinaFile, and the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, among other venues. He is Professor of History and Director of the Nealis Program in Asian Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, USA.

Fires viewed from the Race Club, Shanghai, 1937. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0744.

Covid19 has fueled a fascination with apocalypses. The end of fictional worlds dominate our media choices: Contagion, 2012, Train to Busan, Deep Impact … we can fill our socially isolated nights with demise of worlds that never were. But worlds end all the time, and not just in fiction, and perhaps it is a good time to look back at some one of them. Historical Photographs of China provides us glimpses of what those moments of impending doom.

Perched at what seems like the end — if not the end of the world, at least the end of the world we have been living in up to now — I’m thrown back to think about when worlds ended before.

I’ve been immersed for some time in Shanghai as it toppled into World War II. I focused my research on a single day — Champions Day, 12 November 1941 — chosen precisely because it was on the margins between one world — old Shanghai, with all its cosmopolitanism and cruelty — and what would follow. It would not re-emerge, at least not as it had been.

Shanghai had existed as unique enclave since the 1840s. It looked like a colony, swam like a colony, and quacked like a colony … but officially, at least, it was not a colony. The International Settlement and French Concession, though, were unique spaces, insulated from most of the trials that swept across China in the last decades of the Qing dynasty, a revolution that overthrew it, and the turmoil that followed.

By the 1930s, the autonomy of these concessions was well established, but their future was increasingly hazy. The 1932 ‘Shanghai War,’ sparked by nationalist tensions and the death of a Japanese monk, killed more than 10,000 people in and around the city as Japanese and Chinese forces fought one another. For the ‘Shanghailanders’ — white (mainly British) inhabitants of the International Settlement — the fighting caused concern, but little real disruption to their lives. Consideration was even given to postponing Champions Day, the holiday in the Settlement when life paused for the running of the Champions’ Stakes, and crowds of 20,000 or more would see one of the city’s fastest horses crowned ‘King of the Turf,’ but in the end, a delay was not necessary. A ceasefire took hold in March, and life in Shanghai quickly recovered. Even the city’s two Chinese-owned and operated racetracks, which had been damaged in the fighting, quickly re-opened and began hosting races once again. Shanghai had survived the end of the world … for now.

Shanghai Volunteer Corps billet in Racecourse grandstand, Shanghai, 1932. Photograph attributed to Jack Ephgrave. HPC ref: Ep01-291.

The world would end again in the summer of 1937. If 1932 hinted that the world of Old Shanghai might not be permanent, 1937 shouted it. The hostilities that broke out between Japan and China at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peiping (as Peking was then officially known) in July spread to Shanghai later that summer. ‘Black’ or ‘Bloody Saturday’ — 14 August 1937 — was an accident. Chinese pilots mistakenly dropped bombs over the International Settlement, which was supposedly neutral in the conflict at the time, but the effect was no less deadly for having been inadvertent. Thousands died, including many refugees fleeing the fighting all around, and also the first Americans to die in World War II.

Casualties and debris, Cathay Hotel bombing, Shanghai, 14 August 1937. HPC ref: AL-s59.

From 1937 on, Shanghai entered its Lone Island (gudao 孤岛) era. Japanese armies completed their occupation of the city — except for the foreign concessions — in November, and for four years, until Japanese armies marched onto the Bund on 8 December 1941, the Settlement at the heart of Shanghai clung to its autonomy. We might routinely describe the moment as liminal, poised between the world the ending and the one about to begin. I often think of it more as Wile E. Coyote, suspended in mid-air while the smoke cleared and revealed the abyss below.[1]

Though glimpses into the chasm were common in the Lone Island period, the cartoon coyote stayed somehow aloft. Scarcity and hoarding led to inflation. Foreign consulates advised their nationals to leave. Refugees found their way to the city, escaping the war that was brutalizing China (the atrocities of the ‘Rape of Nanking’ were less than 200 miles away). But amid this chaos, life in the Settlement went on.

Racing went on too—the Chinese-owned tracks were closed (destroyed, really) by the war, but the Shanghai Race Club at the city’s centre was soon drawing larger crowds than ever as Shanghai residents sought escape from the grim reality surrounding them.

Shanghai Race Club clock tower, Shanghai, 1937. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0312.

It was not until December 1941 that the world ended again. The same offensive that Americans remember mainly for Pearl Harbor included Japanese attacks on Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, and Shanghai. The Japanese strike on Shanghai was quick — sinking or seizing the two remaining  Allied gunboats moored in the Huangpu River — but the fate of Shanghai was, as usual, slow to resolve. Although long apprehensive about its fate, Shanghai suffered less during the war than just about any city in Asia. Although there were a few arrests, it was eight months before a large number of Allied men were imprisoned, and another six months before most remaining Allied nationals were interned by the Japanese in euphemistically designed Civilian Assembly Centres.

Rev. Dr Forbes Scott Tocher, goats and staff, at the ‘farm’, Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre, Shanghai, 1945. Photograph by Oscar Seepol. HPC ref: To-s27.

Even the race track stayed open, dominated still by British nationals into 1942, then controlled by Japanese interests who continued racing right into the summer of 1945. Just weeks before an atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, newspapers in Shanghai were still advertising the races.

Old Shanghai did not return. Racing did not restart after the Japanese surrender. Although the city’s architecture survived the war (much of it lasting to be destroyed as part of the city’s economic resurgence in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries), it was fundamentally changed, in ways that few people looking at the gathering clouds in 1932, or 1937, or 1941 could have predicted.

[1] Ed.: for those too young to catch this reference, follow this link.

Gina Tam on Dialect and Nationalism in China, and a grave in Amoy


Our latest guest blogger is Gina Anne Tam. An assistant professor of Chinese history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Gina’s research and teaching interests include the history of nationalism, race and ethnicity, language, and foodways. She received her BA in history and Asian Studies from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and her Ph.D. in history from Stanford University. Her first book, Dialect and Nationalism in China 1860-1960, is published by Cambridge University Press.

The grave of Carstairs Douglas, missionary and linguist, Gulangyu, Xiamen, c1877-1880. HPC ref: Mx01-100.

This photograph shows the grave of Scottish missionary Carstairs Douglas in the port city of Xiamen (Amoy), where he lived for nearly twenty years until his death in 1877. Among his many legacies—remembered, of course, as a pioneer, church leader—was his expansive and comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary of what he calls the ‘Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy.’  Douglas’s massive tome, with hundreds of pages and thousands of entries, has stood the test of time, continuing to serve as a foundational text in the study of Chinese phonology even to this day.

Douglas was one of many missionaries from Europe and the United States who took advantage of the assertion of foreign power in East Asia after the first Opium War to travel to Qing China, and one of many who used his spare time between evangelical activities to study, analyze, and write about language. These men were instrumental in the invention of a China for the Western imagination—a imagined construct fabricated to adhere to a European and American worldview. Without what felt like a full picture of China before them, these sojourners filtered the fragmented information they collected through the lens of their own histories, making sense of what they saw by inserting it into streamlined narratives of historical progress modeled on the European experience. Nowhere is this process clearer than in European narratives about the Chinese language. It simply made sense to these men to equate the China’s literary language to Latin, its local languages (called fangyan in Chinese) to dialects, and the language of officials to a so-called ‘Chinese language’ that would, were China to modernize and become a modern nation, serve as its lingua franca.

Adam and Eve: Book of Genesis in Fuzhou dialect. Source: Seng ging du siok kie mung (Sheng jing tu shuo qi meng) (n.p., 1890)

But not to Douglas. One of the ways that he was unique among his peers was that he was one of the few to starkly acknowledge just how inadequate these metaphors were and how misleading the process of translation could be. He wrote the following in the introduction to his dictionary in regard to the spoken language of Xiamen:

Such words as “dialect” or “colloquial” give an erroneous conception of its nature. It is not a mere colloquial dialect or patois; it is spoken by the highest ranks just as by the common people, by the most learned just as by the most ignorant . . . Nor does the term “dialect” convey anything like a correct idea of its distinctive character; it is no mere dialectical variety of some other language; it is a distinct language, one of the many and widely different languages which divide among them the soil of China.

Douglas’s criticism highlights the inherent associations attached to each English term. The term ‘dialect,’ he claimed, implied a branch or auxiliary, a category or entity only made comprehensible through its relationship to its root language. It also implied mutual intelligibility, which could not be claimed of the local languages of Fujian, where Douglas was stationed, and Guangdong, Shanghai, or Beijing. Ultimately, Douglas recognized that terms like ‘dialect’ emerged from a historically contingent experience, and that by applying these terms to phenomena born of a different context, he was creating an imperfect metaphor that had the potential to mislead.

Lin Yutang in Sao Paolo, 1959, unknown photographer, Governo do Estado de São Paulo-
Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo

Several decades later, another language enthusiast, Lin Yutang, would make precisely the opposite argument about China’s fangyan. Lin spent much of his early adulthood abroad, first at the United States at Harvard, and then France and finally Germany, where he completed his doctorate in philology at the University of Leizpig. When he returned to China, he became a strident defender of the linguistic methodologies he absorbed in his training. In 1925, Lin wrote an excoriation of his colleagues’ insistence that the term fangyan, a word with a long history in Chinese literature stretching back millennia, referred simply to “languages spoken in a particular place” and nothing more. Lin chided:

There should be no confusion as to the definition of fangyan. The world’s languages are connected in one system, called a yuyanxi [family of languages]. Language families are then divided into yuyan [languages], and within each language there are divisions of fangyan [dialects]…We ought to declare that when we speak of fangyan today that we are using it [with the] meaning from modern linguistics.

Here, Lin insisted that his colleagues adhere to frameworks established by linguists in Europe and the United States. From his perspective, these categories were determined by science and science was not culturally contingent. Ultimately, Lin’s sought to include Chinese knowledge in a global scientific epistemology, which demanded an adherence to the categories it had prescribed.

My book, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, explores Chinese nation-building by tracing shifting discourses on fangyan. This history is, in part, a history of translation. The history of how fangyan became equated with the English term dialect reveals how the process of nation-building compelled Chinese reformers at the end of the Qing dynasty to imagine a nation with a singular language—a characterization that we, today, frequently presume to be objective truth. The prescribed “need” for a singular Chinese language was first articulated by Douglas’s peers from Europe and America, who pronounced China “backwards” due to its lack of linguistic unity. But by the turn of the twentieth century, it had become the centerpiece of China’s national conception among Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. And once these reformers had deemed a national language necessary for national genesis, everything else had to be reframed as something other than a national language; dialects, with their connotations of subordination, felt like a natural fit. And once such designations had been deemed necessary for national modernity, linguists like Lin Yutang reframed categories like language and dialect as scientific, objective fact, not human constructions. Ultimately, their work masked the fact that translation is a product of creation—creations imbued with political interests and human biases.

By unpacking the process by which fangyan became twinned with ‘dialect,’ we can see firsthand how the translation was born out of the political needs of the moment of its creation. It was, in other words, not a neutral pairing, but a deeply fraught innovation with wide-ranging implications. And, as my book shows, this translation and the framework it upheld always had detractors. Lin and Douglas were not necessarily representative of their time or place: there were Western observers who uncritically found dialect a proper framework for understanding fangyan, and Chinese folklorists, authors, and scholars who were suspicious of Lin’s hierarchical taxonomical model which indirectly upheld northern Mandarin as more significant than other Chinese languages. These stories are important for understanding the vicissitudes of the relationship between language and identity, too.

While Douglas may be remembered for any number of achievements, to me, his legacy was his prescient recognition that categories born of a European experience might not fit neatly onto China’s linguistic landscape as the tombstone in the photograph ill-fits China’s deathscape. He highlights how the pairing of fangyan to the term dialect was one of creation, and how the translations we choose have implicate our lived realities.

Guest Blog: The Chile Pepper: Mao’s Little Red Spice


Brian Dott received a Master’s degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan and his PhD in Chinese History from the University of Pittsburgh. He teaches in the History Department and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies Program at Whitman College. His passion is studying changes in Chinese cultural practices from 1500 to the present. Brian R. Dott is author of The Chile Pepper in China A Cultural Biography (Columbia University Press, 2020). His previous book examines different groups of pilgrims to one of China’s most sacred mountains: Identity Reflections: Pilgrimages to Mount Tai in Late Imperial China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2004).

Chile peppers (also spelled chilli or chili) first arrived in China from the Americas around 1570. Their popularity took off quickly. A source from 1621 described them as being grown everywhere and important for cooking and medicine. Ultimately, the Chinese use of chile peppers has influenced a wide range of cultural practices, from cuisine to medicine, from decorations to gender tropes. I began this project with a simple question; I was eating in a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing and wondered how the Chinese had begun eating something new with such a strong and distinctive flavour?

Dr Lucy Harris and two others having a wayside meal, on the way to Santai, Sichuan, c.1905. HPC ref: LH-s01.

As the photograph above might suggest, getting used to Sichuan food once chiles were super popular could take some adjustment! The variety of gazes is quite intriguing:  the photographer gazing at traveling companions and at the local Sichuanese; the locals gazing at the foreigners; the child at the table gazing directly at the camera; one of the women at the table contemplating her meal (chiles?); her companion gazing at her reaction.

Fresh chiles, Kunming. Photograph by Brian Dott, 2017.

Initial use as a spice probably began as a substitute for more expensive flavourings, such as black pepper (imported), Sichuan peppercorn, and salt (government controlled). If the chile had remained merely a substitute, it would not have come to play such a key role in Chinese culture. Indeed, by the nineteenth century very few sources referenced its use as a substitute, instead emphasising it on its own merits. For this blog, I will introduce class roles in the spread of the chile and its role as a metaphor for revolution.

Dried chiles, Dunhuang. Photograph by Brian Dott, 2016.

Modern sources about chiles in China tend to emphasise transmission and spread of chiles within China via merchants or traders. However, chiles did not become a widespread commercial crop until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Thus, the spread of chiles in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries actually happened in a different sphere. An important trait of the chile plant, which aided its spread around the globe, is that it can grow in temperate climates. Thus, unlike well-known spice trade spices, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, or cloves, which require tropical climates to grow, and therefore had to be continually imported to places with temperate climates, chiles could be grown in vegetable or kitchen gardens throughout most of China (gardens such as the ones shown below).

A man watering vegetables in a field, c.1933-1946. Photograph by Hedda Morrison. HPC ref: Hv22-067.

Walled garden and house, c.1930s-1940s. Photograph attributed to Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-s110.

I argue that chiles spread within China primarily between neighbours. Seeds would have been passed from neighbour to neighbour, between relatives and communities that inter-married.  The spread was at the grassroots level. The internal spread of chiles in China was markedly different from other American crops introduced around the same time. The sweet potato, maize, peanut and tobacco all received a great deal of written attention and promotion from both local and national elites. In contrast, no written sources prior to the twentieth century promoted the growing of chiles.  With the history of the chile in China, reading between the lines of elite authored sources, we can see people taking their culinary and medical needs into their own hands.

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century the Chinese began employing the chile as a symbol for military expertise and even for revolutionary success. Mao Zedong, a chile-loving Hunanese, absolutely adored eating chiles. He would tease people who ate with him if they couldn’t stand the heat. He even sprinkled chile flakes on his watermelon! At one point a doctor recommended that he cut back on his consumption of chiles, to which he acerbically quipped, ‘If you are even afraid of chiles in your bowl, how will you dare to attack your enemies!?’ Mao went even further in a conversation with American journalist Edgar Snow, asserting that the revolution would not be possible without the chile! Modern writers directly link the military prowess of Mao and other famous Hunanese military leaders with their chile eating.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976). HPC ref: Bi-s110.

Today a key component of Hunan regional identity is the ability to eat chiles. Mao is also an important symbol for Hunan, including his love for chiles. Many Hunan restaurants emphasise this connection with busts or portraits of the Chairman on prominent display. Menus often include dishes such as ‘Mao family red-braised pork.’ Below is the frontispiece from the menu of the Financial District Mao Family Hunan Restaurant in Beijing. Mao as revolutionary and chile-lover are both emphasised.

Trading Places, a photographic journey through China’s former Treaty Ports


Nicholas Kitto describes the project which culminated in the recent publication of his book ‘Trading Places, A Photographic Journey Through China’s Former Treaty Ports’ (Blacksmith Books)

 It was quite late on 16 December 1996, and I was walking along Racecourse Road in Tianjin. We had just finished a fine dinner hosted by my client’s local office and as this had included traditional rounds of maotai, the cold night air was very welcome. We had driven along the road earlier in daylight when returning from the client’s facility in the Tianjin Economic Development Area and had spotted a house that may have been the one I sought. As we were leaving for Shanghai the next morning this was the only opportunity I would have until a subsequent visit.

As a professional accountant based in Hong Kong, from the mid-1990s I began to travel frequently to the mainland on business. Two weeks before my 1996 visit to Tianjin, I was with my father on the Isle of Man and mentioned my forthcoming trip to the city where he was born and had lived until aged six, when the family moved to Hankou (my grandfather, Jack Kitto, was with the Asiatic Petroleum Company (North China) Limited, one of two subsidiaries of the Royal Dutch Shell group operating in China at the time). ‘Wouldn’t it be a laugh if you found our old house’, he challenged before drawing a rough sketch of the building and a map of its location, despite the years which had passed and his age when he had last been there.

Ice-skating on the Tientsin Country Club’s small lake in around 1930. My father is somewhere amongst those on the ice.

Thanks to my father’s drawings, once I was on foot that chilly evening it wasn’t too difficult to identify the house due to certain unique features and it being on an apex of a bend in Racecourse Road at a point where two other roads joined in a ‘V’ shape. The next morning I was up early to take some photographs and my father soon confirmed that we had succeeded.

The following year in December 1997, armed with a photograph from around 1930 provided by my father as second challenge, I was able to locate the former Tientsin Country Club. My father remembered the Club well, at least from the outside, as children were seldom permitted inside. This time I had the hotel driver’s local knowledge to thank for the find.

Nick Kitto outside the Tientsin Country Club, immediately after locating it in December 1997.

The Tientsin Country Club, now known as the TY Club, soon after a full restoration was completed in 2014. The Club includes a heated indoor swimming pool, a squash court, a bowling alley, a small theatre, a sports bar and extensive dining facilities, largely all as in the original lay-out. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

In the years that followed I continued to visit Tianjin occasionally (memorably attending a ‘tea dance’ in the Tientsin Country Club one Friday afternoon in January 2002) but my interest in the buildings was largely limited to those with connections to my family, although at that time I had little idea of the extent of their activities in China. While visiting Tianjin with my father in November 2004, this began to change. On this occasion, apart from having a drink in the old family house, now conveniently a bar, and also a guided tour of the Tianjin Country Club by a kind and understanding caretaker, we walked around the old city centre and it was hard not to notice the large number of western-style buildings. I wanted to know more about these buildings: who used them and for what purpose, how many of them remained in China and in which cities were they to be found? And so I began to read about the treaty port era and was soon fascinated, especially as it was obvious that, even from my limited experience in Tianjin and Shanghai, a great number of buildings from those days had survived.

The Astor House Hotel and alarm bell, British Concession, Tianjin, c.1903-1906. HPC ref: He01-120.

The Astor Hotel in Tianjin. In 2010 a restoration of the hotel was completed. The old brick walls, wooden trimmings, fittings, floors and doors were preserved down to the smallest detail; the result is magnificent. The main bar in the hotel is appropriately named after William O’Hara, the last owner of the Astor (from 1903 to 1949). Released from Japanese internment, he re-established the hotel after extensive renovations. But the municipal authorities confiscated the hotel in lieu of back-taxes and O’Hara left for New Zealand in 1949, heart-broken and virtually penniless. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

Butterfield and Swire premises, Victoria Road, Tianjin, 1919. Photograph by G. Warren Swire. HPC ref: Sw04-112.

A great-great-uncle of mine, Lionel Howell, worked at the Butterfield & Swire’s shipping office in Tianjin, amongst other locations, and was present during the Boxer troubles. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

Happily, a long-time friend, Robert Nield (1), shared my interest and, after a tentative visit to Tianjin in November 2007, in September 2008 our exploration of China’s former treaty ports commenced in earnest. Robert’s objective was to write on the subject; mine to photograph as many of the surviving buildings as we could find. During our travels we certainly found a large number of these buildings; indeed there was no city we visited where we didn’t discover something.

The Custom House in Guangzhou was built in 1914 to replace its predecessor which was destroyed by a fire in 1912. This image was chosen as the cover of the book and is a particularly good example of the painstaking efforts that were made during a restoration process. This image dates back a few years and the building has inevitably weathered somewhat since. Nevertheless the finely restored detail remains visible today. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

We were fortunate with our timing. With the approaching Beijing Olympics of 2008 many cities had invested significant resources in restoring buildings of historical interest (not only from the treaty port era of course), and restoring them to a very high standard. This activity was not limited to the Olympic host cities as restoration projects extended throughout the country from Harbin in the north, to Beihai (Pakhoi) and beyond in the south.

The British consulate in Beihai was constructed in 1885 to replace the first consulate established in 1877, which was little more than a fisherman’s shack balanced precariously on stilts over the water’s edge. In 1999, the building was moved 55.8 metres to make-way for a dual carriageway. It now stands at the entrance to the Beihai No.1 Middle School. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

The French Custom House in Mengzi, deep in Yunnan province, was built in expectation of increased trade with what is now Vietnam. In order to encourage this trade the French built a railway linking Haiphong on the Vietnamese coast with the provincial capital at Kunming. The construction of the railway was a massive undertaking through difficult mountainous terrain and involved more than 100 viaducts and 150 tunnels. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

Often extraordinary effort was made to save a building or restore a whole area close to how it looked in the 1930s. This included, but was not limited to, moving structures several metres to make way for new development, diverting traffic underground and demolishing gruesome concrete bridges from the 1950s. Demolition to make way for the new might have been a more popular option and it is impressive, and certainly fortunate, that this was not adopted in so many cases. And the restorations continue to this day. At the time of writing, the city of Yantai (previously known as Chefoo) is undertaking a large project to restore the former foreign settlement area to its previous state. Although much has already been completed, work will be ongoing for some years yet.

The German Consulate in Hankou. The front door, which faces the Yangtze River, leads up to the consul’s apartment while the offices on the ground floor were accessed from the rear. The building is now part of a large Wuhan Municipal Government compound. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

The Custom House at Wuhu was completed in 1919 and replaced an 1877 version that was less accessible having been built further inland along a creek. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

Our planning for each visit followed a similar pattern. Robert had by far the greater knowledge and resources, especially when it came to maps, but I would always undertake my own research, with a particular emphasis on buildings which may have survived. A day or two before a visit we would ‘fly-over’ the city on Google Earth, comparing interesting-looking roofs to old maps. From this Robert would produce extensive copies of maps and we would plan a route, with me keeping an eye on the position of the sun for the benefit of my camera.

The Shanghai Bund looks spectacular since its restoration was completed in 2012. Buildings from Butterfield & Swire in the French Concession to the British consular compound at the far end were restored. Much of the motor traffic has been diverted underground and the ten-lane road reduced to four. The resulting space was pedestrianised, creating a broad walkway running the full length of the Bund by the river. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

Once on site, we would leave our hotel after an early breakfast and explore on foot, that being the only way to ensure we did not miss anything. Each day was long with no break for lunch, but we would try to be back at our hotel by 6pm. Often we would cover more than one city in a single visit. Generally we booked a hotel car and driver for a day trip to another city but sometimes the distances were too far, in which case we would go by train and stay for a few days.

Gardeners at ‘Hazelwood’, Shanghai. Photograph by G. Warren Swire, taken soon after completion of the building in 1934. HPC ref: Sw08-019.

The Butterfield & Swire taipan’s residence, ‘Hazelwood’, designed by Clough Williams-Ellis. The building is now an annex to an international hotel, the main building of which is visible to the rear. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

We frequently created considerable curiosity but this was always friendly and, in particular, I never had any trouble with my large camera and lenses. Sometimes our driver would become interested in our activities, especially if we had hired him for more than one day. I remember one appearing on the second day with his own pocket camera and he enthusiastically joined-in the hunt. On another occasion we were investigating the recently redecorated former Butterfield & Swire agent’s residence in Qingdao when the architect arrived with more than a concerned look at our intrusion. As it happened, we had copies of G. Warren Swire’s earlier photographs of the building which we offered to the architect. He was delighted, but insisted on returning them after he had made a copy. We had many such experiences and these all helped to make every visit fruitful and thoroughly enjoyable.

River traffic on the Yangtze River at Yichang, including ‘Lung Mow’, ‘Wanhsien’ and ‘Shasi’, c.1923-1924. Photograph by G. Warren Swire. HPC ref: Sw06-094.

The Yangtze River at Yichang, taken slightly further downriver from Warren Swire’s, but the consistent shape of the hills is clear. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

By 2016, having made over fifty visits to as many former treaty ports and settlements, I had accumulated over 4,000 photographs of buildings (2) and it seemed timely to produce a book to showcase them and to assist those interested in locating them. That took time as I had writing to be completed and photographs to be chosen, but the book was at last published at the end of March this year and a few of the more than 700 photographs it contains are reproduced here.

Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building, Dalian, c.1923-1924. Butterfield & Swire’s agent in the city rented a second-floor apartment as his residence. Photograph by G. Warren Swire. HPC ref: Sw06-129.

The HSBC building in Dalian. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

During our exploration of the treaty ports I also discovered a great deal about my family’s activities in China, but that is another story altogether.

Nicholas Kitto

May 2020

Dedicated website:



  1. Robert Nield is author of ‘China’s Foreign Places, The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840-1943’ (Hong Kong University Press, 2015). See his blog post on Visualising China: ‘Robert Nield on Wuzhou, old and new‘.
  2. A complete set of my treaty port images resides with the Historical Photographs of China project at the University of Bristol.

A Chan (Ya Zhen) in Guangzhou


A Chan’s studio and other shops, Heavenly Peace Street (天平街), Guangzhou (廣州). HPC ref: UB01-20.

This nice view of a commercial street in Guangzhou (Canton), that has been on the Historical Photographs of China website for a while, has been identified as the work of A Chan (雅真 Ya Zhen), an early Chinese photographer who worked in South China. A Chan’s authorship – confirmed by other versions of the image (see here and here, for example) – was cleverly hidden in plain sight, but it took a closer look to see this. The big shop sign on the right reads 香港 Xianggang [Hong Kong] / 雅真影相 Ya Zhen yingxiang/jing soeng [A Chan (Ya Zhen) photography]. It likely as not marked the entrance to A Chan’s studio in the city, with the reference to Hong Kong suggesting that it also operated in the then British colony, or possibly even that it had begun its activity there.

A Chan’s work is reasonably well known, and the information which had eluded us before had actually been mentioned in a couple of places. For example, in Terry Bennett’s History of Photography in China, Chinese Photographers 1844- 1879 (2013) and on the website Jiu yinzhi 旧影志 dedicated to the history of early Chinese photography.

The street in the photograph was 天平街 Tian ping jie, known as Heavenly Peace Street in English. The street is described in a 1904 guidebook as follows:

‘天平街 Heavenly Peace Street

In this street are shops for making bronze vessels (黃銅 [huangtong]), working in marble (雲石店 [yunshi dian]), and making palm-leaf fans.’

Dr. [John Glasgow] Kerr, A Guide to the City and Suburbs of Canton (Hong Kong: Kelly & Walsh, Ltd., 1904), p. 17

A Chan advertisement in A Pictorial Handbook to Canton (1905), p. 35

However, an advertisement published in the guidebook A Pictorial Handbook to Canton (Middlesbrough, Hood & Co., 1905), which also reproduces the same photograph of Heavenly Peace Street, lists ‘A. Chan’ as based on ‘179 Tai Sun Street, Canton (New City)’. The advertisement’s note that the studio ‘had always on stock a large assortment of Photographs[,] Views[, and] Post Cards[,] Etc., Etc., of Canton, Macao & Hong Kong’, suggests that he worked around the Pearl River Delta.

‘Tai Sun Street’ was likely 大新街 Da xin jie, or Great New Street, also known as Tai Sen Kai (an old romanisation from the Cantonese pronunciation) – today’s Da xin lu (大新路). It is listed in Kerr’s 1904 guidebook right after Heavenly Peace Street (both in the section on the New City). In Great New Street, that guidebook ensures, ‘the stranger will find much of interest, and the variety of articles made and exposed for sale will repay a careful survey of the shops’. One of them, it seems, was A Chan’s.

The Historical Photographs of China Projects holds several other photographs by A Chan, all of which were taken in Guangzhou.

Visualising China in a global war


Dr Helena F. S. Lopes is currently a Senior Research Associate in the History of Hong Kong and a Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Bristol. She holds a DPhil in History from the University of Oxford. Her research interests include transnational encounters in South China during the Second World War.

Woman sewing, Shanghai. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0198.

Found between images of refugees and nurses, the photographs of women sewing clothes in 1937 Shanghai (here and here) are hardly the most obvious when discussing a global war. This seemingly banal activity is one that goes on in peacetime as well during conflicts. Yet, times of crisis make clear how much of an essential service this is, everywhere in the world. The current COVID-19 crisis is of course no exception. In accounts of the Second World War in China, making clothes is sometimes mentioned as one of the key activities through which women – this was an activity made mostly by women – supported the war effort. Sewing by hand or with the help of machines, women made uniforms for those serving in the frontline (including, of course, health workers as well as soldiers) and clothes for the destitute, and continued to make garments for everyday use. These images of resilience have obvious transnational parallels and perhaps it was a sense of familiarity that drew the attention of the American photographer Malcolm Rosholt who took those photographs. War is often dominated by dramatic shots of military operations or their devastating effects in humans and the environment but these photographs suggest something of the constructive activities done by those left in the shadows, often lacking recognition for their wartime contribution.

If histories of the Second World War were until fairly recently (and one could argue, still are to a large extent) marked by male-centred narratives, they were also dominated by Eurocentric and American-centric perspectives. However, in recent years, new studies challenging some of the ways in which the conflict had previously been presented in English have begun to enter mainstream discussion. For example, the three volumes of the Cambridge History of the Second World War, published in 2015, have several chapters covering East Asia.

The conflict in China is still more commonly known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, or, in China itself, as the War of Resistance Against Japan (抗日戰爭 KangRi zhanzheng), but many studies of the social, military, political, and diplomatic dimensions of the war in China published in the last few decades engage directly with that conflict’s place in a global Second World War. For a representative list of these studies, see the bibliography below.

The start of a global World War Two continues, to a considerable extent, to be placed in Europe in September 1939, but when looking beyond the standard starting point in central Europe – for example, to China, Ethiopia or Spain – other possibilities make sense as well.[1] One of them is 1937, when an all-out war began between China and Japan. Others may argue that was a mere regional conflict which did not lead to the start of a conflict engulfing the whole world. But neither did that happen with the war in Europe in 1939 – only in 1941.

The conflict in China was extensively covered by the overseas press at the time, including by photographers and documentary film makers, but would come to be overshadowed by the onset of the conflict in Europe. The official start of war in China is now 1931, not 1937, the opening salvo of the Sino-Japanese conflict being placed in the Manchuria Crisis, which started with the Japanese military invasion of the Chinese Northeastern provinces and led to the gradual occupation of parts of North China. The start of a continuous state of warfare in July 1937 surely marked a crucial turning point, though it is important to note that a culture of resistance, with a dimension of transnational mobilisation, existed long before.

A woman speaking at a parade commemorating the thirteenth anniversary of Sun Yat-sen’s death and the first anniversary of the Sino-Japanese War, Hankou, China. Photograph by Robert Capa. © Cornell Capa.

For many in the 1930s, the war being fought in China had clear connections to those being fought in Spain or in Ethiopia. In other words, at least for some people, this was understood as a transnational conflict from early on. And whilst there were patches of nominal neutrality in the early phases of the Sino-Japanese War, notably concessions and colonies under foreign rule, even these were marked by global interactions connected to different dimensions of the conflict, including legal and illegal commercial activities.

The Historical Photographs of China Project (HPC) holds numerous images where we can find concrete visual traces of a global Second World War in China. The collection of Malcolm Rosholt photographs shows Shanghai in the early stages of the war in the summer of 1937. We see the physical markers of a divided metropolis, between Chinese Municipality grappling with a Japanese invasion and the supposedly neutral International Settlement and French Concession. But his photographs also show how the momentous impact of the conflict transcended those divisions in different ways and forged new connections, even if unintendedly. Rosholt’s photographs chronicle old and new faces of a global city at war. We find, amongst others, Chinese and Japanese soldiers, Sikh policemen, the French Jesuit missionary Robert Jacquinot de Besange who headed the Shanghai Safety Zone, and refugees fleeing the violence of the war and seeking shelter across the borders that had been drawn around zones of foreign residence and power, and sanctuary, in the city.

Refugees waiting by a steel gate, Shanghai. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0374.

Some images provide subtle reminders of the many global connections coming together in wartime China. See for example, the photographs of Chinese Boy Scouts standing in front of a banner for a ‘Red Cross Society of the Republic of China’ hospital. These are two different symbols of an internationalised Nationalist China that gained new life during the conflict.

Boy scouts outside Shanghai Stock Brokerage Corporation office (serving as a Red Cross hospital), Shanghai. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0156.

Other traces of China’s position in a global World War Two can be found in some of the Wuhan photographs among the HPC holdings, which have merited other posts in this blog. It is the case of this pro-resistance banner outside the headquarters of the France, Belgium and Switzerland Returned Students Association (L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS) – the location from where Robert Capa took one of his iconic photographs of wartime China. Capa was one of many – including the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens with whom he had come to the country – to draw parallels between the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese conflict. The role of Chinese communities overseas, including, but definitely not limited to, students is an important dimension when studying transnational connections in China during the war.

Banner outside the headquarters of “L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS”, Wuhan. HPC ref: Bi-s162.

The visual record of China’s global war is made of many anonymous faces, but it also includes prominent individuals, both men and women. One of them, which had featured prominently in Iven’s 1938 documentary The 400 Million – in whose production Capa had worked – was Soong Ching-ling [Song Qingling]. The widow of Sun Yat-set and the sister of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Soong Ching-ling founded the China Defence League and was at the forefront of transnational networks of support for China’s resistance. Amongst others, she was photographed by Cecil Beaton, a British photographer who visited China as part of his wartime work for the Ministry of Information. Beaton also documented the conflict in other parts of the world. Many of his wartime photographs can be found at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Half length portrait of Madame Sun Yat-sen, in Chongqing. Photograph by Cecil Beaton. © IWM IB 3459C.

There were multiple forms of Sino-foreign cooperation in the war, both civilian and military. From formal alliances to shadow diplomacy, from transnational institutions to personal relations, these left traces in different types of sources and attest to the variety of ways in which China was connected to the world and how the war in East Asia was connected to other theatres of the Second World War. HPC includes images of some of these various encounters, including of Sino-British intelligence cooperation in the 1940s evident in the photographs of the Stanfield Family Collection.

SOE officers and Chinese Directorate of Military Intelligence, Xi’an, 1945. HPC ref: JS03-21.

This collection also includes several photographs of the official ceremony of Japanese surrender in Beijing. Such events, often understood from national frameworks, were actually quite global: they had international consequences and drew observers and participants from different nations, in this case including Hankou-born John E. Stanfield, who served in the Special Operations Executive Far East Force 136 and signed the surrender documents of the Japanese forces in North China on behalf of the British Army.

American, French, and British attendees at the Japanese surrender, Beijing. HPC ref: JS04-048.

Important international connections framed experiences of resistance but these were also present around practices of collaboration. A window into this can be found in the images of foreign diplomats attached to the collaborationist Reorganised National Government which, amongst others, were recently made available by Stanford University in cooperation with the Cultures of Occupation in Twentieth Century Asia Project at Nottingham.

No reference to China’s role in a global World War Two would be complete without mentioning its main wartime capital, Chongqing, which became a major political, diplomatic and cultural centre during the war. The Fu Bingchang Collection holds a series of incredible images of life in the city. The image below, of a party accompanying Fu at the San Hua Ba airport in Chongqing as he left to take up the post of Ambassador to the Soviet Union is one of the many images in his collection that provide a visual record of the rich history of Republican China’s wartime diplomacy. Chongqing also features in other images. The Joseph Needham Collection offers photographic evidence of knowledge exchange taking place in the 1940s through the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office which Needham directed in the city.

A group at San Hu Ba Airport, Chongqing. Photograph by Fu Bingchang. HPC ref: Fu01-049.

Even though important new work has been appearing recently on China’s wartime experience, several of its global connections remain unexplored and should keep historians busy for many years to come. The HPC collections will no doubt provide useful material for those of us interested in the complex history of the conflict in China and its many transnational links.

[1] Even for Allied War Crimes teams investigating cases in China, the definition of the conflict was set by the German invasion of Poland: Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (London: Allen Lane, 2003), pp. 326-27.

A few reading suggestions on China in a global war:

  • Christian Henriot and Wen-hsin Yeh (eds), In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Shanghai Under Japanese Occupation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Stephen R. MacKinnon, Wuhan 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
  • Rana Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (London: Allen Lane, 2013)
  • Aaron William Moore, Writing War: Soldiers Record the Japanese Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)
  • Marcia R. Ristaino, The Jacquinot Safety Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008)
  • Hans van de Ven, China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China 1937-1952 (London: Profile Books, 2017)
  • Hans van de Ven, Diana Lary, and Stephen R. MacKinnon (eds), China’s Destiny in World War II (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014)
  • Shuge Wei, News Under Fire: China’s Propaganda Against Japan in the English-Language Press, 1928-1941 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017)
  • Wen-hsin Yeh (ed), Wartime Shanghai (London: Routledge, 1998)
  • Pingchao Zhu, Wartime Culture in Guilin, 1938-1944: A City at War (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015)
  • Journal of Modern Chinese History, 13:1 (2019) – special issue ‘Wartime Everydayness in China during the Second World War’
  • Modern Asian Studies, 45:2 (2011) – special issue ‘China in World War II, 1937-1945: Experience, Memory, and Legacy’

On photography:

A Banker and his Amanuensis


Andrew Hillier draws on the Richard Family Collection in Historical Photographs of China to evoke the moving relationship between Guy Hillier and his young amanuensis, Ella Richard. Andrew’s book, Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817-1927, is published this month by Renaissance Books.

We last encountered Guy Hillier diving for cover, as he came under fire during the short-lived restoration of the emperor Puyi in the stifling heat of July 1917. The events were described by Ella Richard, Guy’s confidential secretary and amanuensis, who had joined him the previous year. Guy’s wife, Ada, was living in England with their four children but, already seriously ill, she would die later that summer. However close Guy and Ella then became, it would be over two years before they married. With twenty-two years between them, there may have been a paternal element in the relationship but it was one in which the famously austere banker found solace and amusement in his final years.

By the time he was appointed manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank’s Peking office in 1891, Hillier was already losing his sight through glaucoma and, by the early 1900s, it had completely gone. Rejecting his offer to resign, the Bank provided him with an amanuensis. When he returned from visiting his wife in 1916, the position had once again become vacant and the Bank asked Ella if she would be interested. Born on 7 September 1879, she was the eldest daughter of the famous missionary, Timothy Richard, and for some years had been looking after her widowed father. However, he had recently re-married and, with her new-found freedom, she jumped at the opportunity. A keen, if somewhat scatty, writer, she recorded their life together in a  diary and various other accounts, along with a cache of photographs, pasted into albums.[1]

Ella Richard. Undated, but most probably taken at about the time she first met Guy Hillier in 1902, aged 23. HPC ref Hi-s343.

Ella Richard had first met Guy in Shanghai 1902, when this ‘desperately shy young woman’ was giving a ‘finishing course’ to Morna, the youngest daughter of the well-known barrister, William Venn Drummond. Guy’s brother, the Customs Commissioner, Harry Hillier, was Drummond’s son-in-law and Guy was staying with the family during the Boxer Indemnity Protocol negotiations.[2]  ‘Listening to the blind banker playing the piano’, Ella later wrote, ‘little did I dream what Fortune was to bring us both.’

She arrived in Peking on 9 September 1916, a day earlier than expected. But far from causing embarrassment, there was a flutter of excitement as she entered this intensely masculine world. It soon became clear that, sharing her love of literature and sense of humour, Guy  was captivated. Ella would be there to comfort him when news arrived that his son, Maurice, had been killed in action. So also, when his wife died. Although conducted at a distance for over ten years, his was a not untypical empire marriage, and he and Ada had remained fond of each other. Unusually, given Ella’s non-conformist background, Guy was a devout Roman Catholic and a two year delay before re-marriage was customary. The wedding eventually took place on 20 December 1919 in Hong Kong. [3] Although there were few guests, it was celebrated in style, with Guy, as his son, Tristram observed, dressing as though he was still living in the 1890s.

Guy and Ella’s wedding, St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Garden Road, Hong Kong. On Guy’s right is, most probably, his mafoo (groom), ‘the stout and doughty’ Hooray. HPC ref: Hi-s344.

Although still manager of the Peking agency, Guy left the routine work to his deputy and  he and Ella spent much of their time in a set of rooms, he had long rented at Pa-li-chuang (Balizhuang), a Buddhist monastery in the western hills. Whilst there were only the most limited sanitary facilities, including a large earthenware flower-pot for basic needs, it provided a tranquil haven from the bustle of Peking.

Here in spacious courts under beautiful old trees and sophora, we would sit, I reading out aloud to him while he knitted (he knitted very well)… In the trees overhead, we would hear the blue jays or the drumming of woodpeckers or the song of orioles, and outside in the high road would pass a string of camels with clanging bells.

Guy, knitting at Balizhuang, late autumn 1921. Books are on the table and Ella is holding their cat Carpentier. HPC ref: EH01-343.

‘Sitting out in sun in time of snow’ at Balizhuang. From left, Guy, Hatty B., Flo (Florence Harding, Ella’s sister) and Ella. HPC ref: EH01-289.

Gladys Denham and Eleanor Hillier sketching maidenhair (Ginkgo biloba) trees near the pagoda at Balizhuang, Beijing. HPC ref: EH01-313.

In late 1921, Guy’s daughter, Madeleine, came out to join them and almost immediately became  engaged. Her fiancé, Charles Todd, was a dynamic and colourful personality, who had fought in the First World War and was now working for the Eastern Trading Company. [4]  Guy’s son, Tristram, also arrived from England and the wedding, which took place on 25 February 1922, was a large- scale family affair. [5]

The wedding of Madeleine Hillier and Charles Todd at St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, Beijing. To their left, Guy and Ella, to their right, Kathleen Watson and Captain Stileman, Best man; in front, Eileen Hutchins and David Brown. HPC ref: EH01-349.

Having lived in the city for over thirty years, Guy had suffered from Peking’s harsh climate and was in failing health by the early 1920s. After a short illness, he died on 12 April 1924 in the presence of Ella, Madeleine and a Jesuit priest, Father Mullins. A lavish funeral was attended by large numbers of Chinese and Westerners and concluded with a long procession to the French cemetery at Beitang,  the flowers being carried in a separate carriage. [6]

The original head-stone on Guy’s grave at Beitang cemetery, later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution after its removal to Waiqiao Cemetery. HPC ref: Hi-s347.

The large granite slab marking Guy’s grave at Waiqiao Cemetery, Beijing, inscribed ‘sans peur et sans reproche’, which survived intact. Author’s photograph, 2017.

Several days later, Ella returned alone to Balizhuang and, passing through ‘the little green gate into [their] own courtyard’, she was ‘enveloped by a sense of peace’.

The plum-trees were a mass of snowy blossom and the pear tree was in its exquisite livery of tender green and cool clusters of white bloom. I went to his room and knelt by his bed and felt at last I had come home and that he was near me, watching me … and looking upon all the beauty of our loved home.  [7]


[1] A selection from the Richard Family Collection can be viewed on Historical Photographs of China.  I am grateful to two of Ella’s great nieces, Fiona Dunlop and Jennifer Peles, for allowing me access to Ella’s writings and providing me with much fascinating information about her.  Save where otherwise stated, all quotations are from Ella’s papers.

[2] Drummond owned a sumptuous mansion, Dennartt,  just off Bubbling Well Road.

[3] North China Herald, 3 January 1920, p. 48.

[4] See generally, Sue Osman, ‘Charles Todd and his family, 1893-2008’ (unpublished, Private Collection).

[5] Tristram Hillier, Leda and the Goose (London: Longmans, 1954), pp. 42-61.

[6] China Illustrated Review, 19 April 1924. For Guy’s last days and a moving description of the funeral, see Frank King, The Hongkong Bank Between the Wars and the Bank Interned, 1919-1945: Return from Grandeur, Vol. 3 of The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 146-147.

[7] Ella survived well into her eighties, a somewhat daunting presence for her great-nieces, when they visited her in her South Kensington flat. She died on 14 October 1963.

The John Gurney Fry Collection: tea, silver and chocolates


Jamie Carstairs, who manages the Historical Photographs of China Project, writes about a collection just added to the HPC site.

Last year, an album of 124 photographs  was generously donated by Richard Ambrose to the Historical Photographs of China project, care of Special Collections, University of Bristol (DM2887).

Many of the photographs in the album are by either Lai Fong (Afong Studio) or John Thomson, and were taken in Fuzhou (Foochow) or elsewhere in Fujian Province. Most probably the album was put together in China, for or by, John Gurney Fry.

John Gurney Fry is depicted, somewhat idiosyncratically, with bowler and umbrella, in a sedan chair parked in the garden of ‘The Old Bungalow’, with his gardener, chair bearer and a house servant, Fuzhou, c1869-1870. HPC ref: Fr01-014.

J.G. Fry (1838-1877) was born in Essex, England, where he died, aged just 39. In Fuzhou he had been resident partner in the firm of John Silverlock & Company, merchants. His brother, Frederick William Fry also worked for the company, as a clerk. On Fry’s ‘premature death’, a notice reproduced from the Foochow Herald records that ‘The Foochow community are indebted to the deceased gentleman for his hearty assistance in several public undertakings, notably the Club, of which he was the principal promoter’.(1) Indeed, early on in the album are photographs of the club’s opening in 1870 – Fr01-007 and Fr01-005.

Fujian Province is tea country and Silverlocks (known as Zhonghe in Chinese) was principally a tea firm. In the album, there’s a straight-on Chinese style portrait of a ‘Tea man’ (merchant) who worked at the firm, named as Hopchun. He is posed with a bowl of tea, a tobacco pipe and fan, beside a tea plant (Camellia sinensis), the plant as if on an altar.

A portrait of Hopchun, c.1869, in which a tea plant is central in a symmetric composition. Photograph attributed to Lai Fong (Afong Studio), as suggested by the number written in pencil on the album page (30). See the Lai Fong (Afong Studio) number lists in Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China: Chinese Photographers 1844-1879 (London: Quaritch 2013), p. 312. HPC ref: Fr01-046.

Captioned in the album ‘Village up country’ (i.e. northern Fujian, a principal tea region). This old tree is thought to be a tea tree. Beside it, there appears to be a hooped tool on poles, perhaps netted, for harvesting the leaves? The photograph may be by John Thomson, c1870? HPC ref: Fr01-093.

Drum Peak and other Wuyishan peaks, near Xingcun, Fujian, c1869. This is a fine photograph of groves of ancient tea trees in their natural mountain setting, one of several accomplished landscape photographs of dramatic Fujian scenery by Lai Fong. HPC ref: Fr01-090.

Lai Fong used the tiresome wet collodian process which required the glass plate negative to be processed immediately before the chemicals dried. Terry Bennett notes (2) that Lai Fong’s makeshift portable dark-tent (i.e. darkroom) can be seen on a boat in Fr01-071, as shown below. One has great admiration for the early photographers, lugging around their kit (bulky camera paraphernalia, as well as flasks of chemicals and fragile glass negatives) in wheelbarrows, on porters or pack horses ‘their fingers and linen stained with nitrate of silver and odoriferous chemicals’ (3) – and for their ingenuity as regards darkrooms. C. F. Moore, for example, converted a Chinese sedan chair into his portable darkroom.

Gollen Valley cave near Xingcun, Fujian, c1869. Photograph by Lai Fong (Afong Studio). HPC ref: Fr01-071.

Lai Fong’s makeshift dark-tent (i.e. darkroom) on a boat, at Gollen Valley cave near Xingcun, Fujian, c.1869. On the one hand, Lai Fong had ready access to plentiful fresh water; on the other, perhaps greater care had to be taken when pouring chemicals etc. Photograph by Lai Fong (Afong Studio), being a detail from Fr01-071. HPC ref: Fr01-176.

The large chocolate-hued albumen prints that Lai Fong made are textbook examples of Frederick Scott Archer’s game-changing collodian technique, i.e. ‘highly satisfactory from the artistic point of view; the image produced was perfect in definition, subtle in detail, and well balanced in tone values.’ (4)

Jade Girl’s Mirror-stand Peak on the Nine-bend river, Wuyi Mountains, near Xingcun, Fujian, c1869. Captioned in another album: ‘94. Gemmy Damsel’s Mirror-stand Peak near Sing Chang Tea mart’. Photograph by Lai Fong (Afong Studio). HPC ref: Fr01-079.

Photographs by John Thomson in the album, include the following:

Rapids at Nanping, Fujian, c1870. ‘Freezing’ rapidly flowing water in a photograph was not possible with the slow shutter speeds available at the time. This could make for dreamy waterscapes. See Fr01-098. Photograph by John Thomson. HPC ref: Fr01-p078.

These square prints were made off one of a pair on stereoview negatives. Interestingly, Deborah Ireland points out that all four of these photographs were later reproduced in John Thomson’s books, Foochow and the River Min or China and Its People. See Fr01-109, Fr01-110, Fr01-111 and Fr01-112. HPC ref: Fr01-p083.

Thomson occasionally photographed at the same location as others. Compare Thomson’s well known photograph of picturesque ‘Little’ Jinshan temple (金山塔寺), Wulong River, near Fuzhou, with Fr01-002 (below) and with Hv36-47.

‘Little’ Jinshan temple (金山塔寺), Wulong River, Fuzhou, c1869. The ‘Little Jin Shan’ is a pagoda and temple on a small island located in the middle of the Wulong River, which is a branch of the Min River, near the village of Hongtong in the western suburb of the city of Fuzhou in Fujian Province. It resembles the famous Jin Shan (Gold Mountain or Golden Hill) Temple (金山寺) in in Jiangsu Province. Unidentified photographer – perhaps Lai Fong (Afong Studio)? HPC ref: Fr01-002.

Who, I wonder, is sitting with Charles Sinclair and his wife in Fr01-081, which is a detail of Lai Fong’s photograph Fr01-080 (Touring party in Bankers’ Glen, on the Yuen Foo branch of the Min River, near Fuzhou, c1869.)?

The album contains seven, multiple part, panoramic views. Towards the end are 28 photographs taken in Shanghai, Singapore and Penang, perhaps serving as souvenir remembrances of Fry’s sea journey home to Essex? An irresistible  pièce de résistance treat in this box-of-chocolates album, is a striking interior photograph of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai, taken with great skill soon after the building was completed. The depth of focus is remarkable, the lighting expertly balanced, the composition radical.

Interior of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai, c1870. The ‘British Church’ or Holy Trinity Church (later Holy Trinity Cathedral) was consecrated in 1869. Unidentified photographer. HPC ref: Fr01-128.

John Gurney Fry’s album was subsequently owned by both his sister Jane Augusta Fry and his brother Frederick William Fry. Later, it apparently came into the possession of R. Tanner-Smith of the tea importers and blenders Twinings, before being passed on to Richard Ambrose’s family. The album was saved from disposal after Richard Ambrose’s great grandmother’s death in 1946, by his father, who appreciated the beauty and technical skill evident in the photographs.

It is fitting that the John Gurney Fry Collection is in Bristol, a city with strong Fry family connections. Frys invented the chocolate bar in Bristol. Lewis Fry and his sister Mary Fry (Mrs Napier Abbott) helped mobilise support in the city for the creation of University College Bristol and later the University of Bristol. The Fry Tower still exists in University Road. The Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies thrives. The Fry Portrait Collection is a much used resource in Special Collections. Property, money, books and other mss were donated to the university by the family. The generosity of the Fry family, and of Richard Ambrose, is a credit to the city.

(1) The London & China Telegraph, 29 October 1877, p. 925.

(2) Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China, Chinese Photographers 1844-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2013), p. 191.

(3) Lucia Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography 1839-1939, (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1939), p. 72.

(4) Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography, p. 72.

Chris Courtney on Wuhan in the Time of Cholera


Our new blog is from Chris Courtney, Assistant Professor of Chinese History at the University of Durham. His research focusses on the city of Wuhan and its rural hinterland. He is the author of The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood, a study of one of the deadliest disasters in human history. He is currently writing a history of heat in modern China, examining how ordinary people coped with the challenge of living in extreme temperatures over the course of the twentieth century.  

Two centuries before the COVID-19 outbreak thrust Wuhan into the global media spotlight, the city was in the grip of another deadly pandemic. The disease described by the British as Asiatic cholera swept across the globe in seven waves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It left millions of people dead in its wake. Imaged from the Historical Photographs of China collection offer a fascinating insight into how Wuhan experienced this disease, and how people joined the global effort to overcome it. Pandemics are not simplistic morality tales with culprits and victims. Yet they do require human agency, as people build the systems that nurture and disseminate pathogens. In this respect, cholera was, in its first flourish, a disease of empire, transported unwittingly by merchants and soldiers exploiting new transportation links. Later it became a disease of modernity, hitching a lift in the bodies of sailors, statesmen, and pilgrims as they used steamboats, railways, and automobiles to traverse vast distances at hitherto unimaginable speeds.

Much like with COVID-19, in the nineteenth century China there was considerable debate as to how and where cholera originated. Some argued that the disease had long been endemic to China, while others suggested it had been imported more recently. Much of the confusion stemmed from the fact that a new disease was given an old name. The Chinese called cholera huoluan 霍亂, which was a term that had been used for three millennia, used to describe diseases that caused a “sudden disturbance” of the bowels. Despite these pretentions of antiquity, however, cholera in its modern form seems to have only arrived in China the nineteenth century. In 1817 it spread out from the Ganges Delta, where it had long been an endemic condition, first throughout India and then to East Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Over the subsequent decades, it would reach all populated continents. It arrived in China in the 1820s, during the first pandemic wave, having most likely stowed away aboard a British merchant ship.

Water carrier, Early Twentieth Century, Banister Collection Ba04-35, © 2008 Peter Lockhart Smith

It is difficult to say when cholera – as opposed to huoluan – first arrived in Wuhan. It has been spreading along the Yangzi River trading route in the 1820s, and there were epidemics during the Taiping Civil War, yet the first outbreak in Wuhan to be confirmed by biomedical testing seems to have occurred in 1895, having been recorded by physicians in the Catholic Hospital. This was the same institution, today under somewhat different management, where the COVID-19 whistle-blower Li Wenliang 李文亮 worked before his tragic death. While we cannot say for certain when cholera arrived in Wuhan, we can certainly see why the city was so susceptible to the condition. It had long been a commercial centre and transportation hub, where merchants exchanged diseases as well as produce. It was also one of the most densely populated areas in all of China, which suffered from poor sanitation and regular summer floods. Even in the absence of a crisis, a shortage of sources of fresh drinking water meant that many people had to rely on polluted rivers, buying bucketloads from carriers such as the one pictured above. Although drinking water was filtered with alum and boiled, the same precautions were often ignored for cooking and washing. All these factors allowed cholera and other waterborne infections to thrive.

The Water Tower and Ma Lu, Hankow (Wuhan), Stanfield Family Collection, js02-130 © 2015 John Stanfield

A key development in the fight against cholera occurred when an industrialist called Song Weichen 宋衛臣 commissioned a large water tower in 1906. Though this hardly stands out on the vertiginous skyline of Wuhan today, for much of the twentieth century it was the tallest building in the city. It formed the centrepiece of a new Waterworks and Electrical Company, which was supplying around fifteen thousand people with clean drinking water by the mid-1920s. While this went a long way to tackling the problem of water-borne diseases, many of the poorer residents remained beyond the reach of the new urban sanitary regime. The same was true for medical interventions. The first vaccines for cholera were developed in the late nineteenth century, yet only foreign settlers and local elites were able to take advantage of them. As a result of these uneven developments, susceptibility to infectious diseases came to correlate increasingly with economic status. This was true also true in the world beyond Wuhan – as richer communities improved their defences, conditions such as cholera increasingly became a disease of the poor. Until conditions could be improved for every citizens, however cholera would remain a threat.

British Universities and Schools Luncheon Club garden party, Ruxton Collection, Ru-s177 © 2008 Penelope Fowler

During the early twentieth century numerous organisations were involved in efforts to eradicate cholera. These included local benevolent halls, foreign missionaries, and organisations such as the Red Cross and Red Swastika. Few figures did more to improve public health in cities such as Wuhan than Wu Liande 伍連德, a Malayan-Chinese epidemiologist who had made his name fighting plague in northern China in the 1910s. In the 1930s, Wu set up one of the branches of his new Quarantine Service in Wuhan. Unfortunately, this new institution could not prevent an outbreak of cholera in 1932. This occurred partly a result of disastrous flooding that had struck much of China the previous year. The 1932 epidemic was the deadliest of the twentieth century, spreading to three hundred cities, infecting one hundred thousand people and killing thirty thousand. It highlighted the continual vulnerability to the China suffered, its public health problems being a symptom of chronic poverty, environmental instability, and political chaos.

Anti-Japanese public hygiene banner, Wuhan, 1938 Miscellaneous Collection Bi-s165

Having witnessed the terrible devastation wrought by the 1932 epidemic, it is not surprising that the Nationalist Government was extremely alarmed when millions of refugees took to the roads to escape oncoming Japanese invasion in 1937. With Wuhan serving as the temporary capital of Nationalist China following the fall of Nanjing, many of these refugees soon began to arrive in the city. Lacking adequate accommodation and suffering aerial bombardments, Wuhan struggled to cope. Soon propagandists began to promote anti-epidemic measures as part of the broader war effort. Flies often serve as a vector for cholera infection. These insects were now portrayed as the equivalent of the invading Japanese army, and vice versa. The Nationalists were hardly unique in drawing such comparisons. As Edmund Russel has noted, throughout the modern era people have sought to anthropomorphize insects, turning them into conscious adversaries with wicked plans, whilst they have also sought to dehumanize enemy soldiers, suggesting that they need to be eradicated like insects. In 1938, the Nationalists claimed that the common fly and the Japanese army both posed an existential threat to China, proclaiming that ‘If you don’t kill it, it’s going to kill you.’

Woman inoculated in the street, Shanghai Malcolm Rosholt Collection, Ro-n0779
© 2012 Mei-Fei Elrick and Tess Johnston

Wuhan eventually fell to the Japanese, meaning that Nationalist anti-epidemic measures were relocated to Chongqing. Tackling cholera remained a major task for the government during the war, particularly when a deadly epidemic struck Yunnan. In her recent book, Mary Brazelton demonstrates that while efforts to implement mass vaccination during the war were severely constrained, the expertise developed during this period would form a vital blueprint for the health campaigns implemented by the Chinese Communist Party after 1949. These campaigns would eventually vastly diminish the impact that cholera, in Wuhan as elsewhere in the People’s Republic. While the Chinese government was happy to take the credit for this, in reality cholera prevention was the culmination of decades of effort, conducted by numerous different organizations, both domestic and international. Despite these efforts, cholera remains a threat in the world today, as is most tragically demonstrated by the ongoing outbreak in Yemen. The strain of cholera has changed, yet the context for its transmission – poverty, sanitary collapse, and warfare – is strikingly similar to that found in early twentieth century China. Thus, as we enter the age of COVID-19 it is worth reflecting on the fact that we have not escaped the time of cholera.

Some Further Reading

  • Brazelton, Mary Augusta, Mass Vaccination Citizens’ Bodies and State Power in Modern China, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2019
  • MacPherson, Kerrie, “Cholera in China, 1820–1930: An Aspect of the Internationalization of Infectious Disease,” in Mark Elvin and Ts’ui-jung Liu (eds.), Sediments of Time: Environment and Society in Chinese History, 487–519. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Peckham, Robert, Epidemics in Modern Asia. New Approaches to Asian History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Poon, Shuk-wah, “Cholera, Public Health, and the Politics of Water in Republican Guangzhou,” Modern Asian Studies, 47(2), 2013. 436-466
  • Russell, Edmund. War and Nature : Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Studies in Environment and History.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Commemorating John Thomson: Edinburgh to install a Bronze Plaque


Jamie Carstairs, who manages the Historical Photographs of China Project, nominated John Thomson for a plaque in Edinburgh.

The independent plaques panel at Heritage Environment Scotland (HES) announced yesterday that a plaque to commemorate the Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921), is to be installed in Edinburgh. This will be one of seventeen to be installed ‘celebrating noteworthy individuals from Scottish public life’. HES describe John Thomson as a ‘towering figure in nineteenth century century photography, acclaimed for his photography in China’. This is a welcome accolade for him, also celebrating the capital’s significant contribution to Scottish photographic history.

The cast bronze plaque is to go up outside 6 Brighton Street, Old Town, Edinburgh, the tenement building where the Thomson family moved to live in an apartment in 1841, when John Thomson was four years of age. He lived there until he left for Singapore in 1861.

The wording on the plaque is to be:

LIVED HERE 1841-1861.

Many thanks to Deborah Ireland, Terry Bennett, Richard Ovenden and Michael Pritchard for advice and help with factual information, and to Roberta McGrath for help liaising with the residents at 6 Brighton Street, who are also to be thanked for the granting of their permission for a plaque to be affixed to the building. Messages of support for the nomination (which formed a part of the nomination) were received from the above, and also from Betty Yao, Nick Pearce and Roddy Simpson.

The messages of support included:

John Thomson’s photographs provide a rich and lasting visual record of the Far East. They are loved, admired and appreciated by people of all ages and from diverse backgrounds.’ Betty Yao MBE

John Thomson was a master of the art. The photos he took in the Far East set standards of excellence against which other practitioners are judged. He is particularly revered in China, where he is considered to be China’s most important nineteenth-century Western photographer. When he returned to the UK in 1872, after a ten-year tour of the East, his fame earned him the moniker of ‘China Thomson’.’  Terry Bennett

It is very fitting that the house where John Thomson lived in Edinburgh, whilst studying at the Watt Institute and School of Arts, is to be marked. He gained a life diploma there in 1858 which enabled him to attend Chemistry classes (today this institute is part of the Heriot-Watt University) and it was the knowledge he gained during this period which propelled him forth into the world to become the leading travel photographer of the Victorian age.’ Deborah Ireland

‘John Thomson is internationally important and the pioneering images he created in the Far East, especially China, England and Cyprus continue to be widely exhibited and the focus of admiration, interest and study.’ Roddy Simpson

Manchu lady and child. Photograph by John Thomson (negative number 701). Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain

The idea to nominate the great Scottish photographer John Thomson for a plaque originated during research to restore his grave in south London, in which it became apparent that he was not publicly commemorated in Edinburgh. HES described the nomination application as ‘exemplary’ and concluded that a plaque ‘might raise the profile of John Thomson and interest in documentary photography as a whole’.

Thomson is often on display in other ways. An exhibition Siam through the lens of John Thomson 1865-66 runs on until 17 May 2020 at Chester Beatty, Dublin. These marvellous large reproductions, made from scans of Thomson’s superb negatives held at the Wellcome Collection, epitomise the ‘power of picturing’. There are hopes for a similar exhibition in Edinburgh next year.

Thomson is generally considered to be the best of the nineteenth century foreign photographers in China. His magnum opus, Illustrations of China and Its People, was published in four large volumes in 1873-4, and featured 200 of his photographs along with his droll, perceptive contextualisation. Thomson is also well-remembered for his photographs in Street Life in London, a ground-breaking and influential publication that arose from a collaboration with journalist Adolphe Smith in 1877. Thomson was a member of the Royal Photographic Society from 1879 and gained the Royal Warrant (‘By Appointment to…’) in 1881. It is fitting that a heritage plaque is to be installed in Edinburgh just before ‘China’ Thomson’s centenary year in 2021.

A portrait of John Thomson FRGS, FRPS, aged about 60, reproduced in ‘The Wide World Magazine’ in 1898, in an article about him by Arthur E. Swinton, entitled ‘Queer Sights in China’.

For a brief outline of John Thomson’s photographic career, useful links, and some of his photographs, see

See also the blog on the British Photographic History site.

Happy birthday to us!


Our copystand in action: this is where it happens

It’s our birthday! Fourteen years ago today, Historical Photographs of China welcomed its first and longest-standing employee, Project Manager Jamie Carstairs. A professional photographer, sometime cheerful bookshop assistant (so he told us), TEFL teacher and graduate of the postgraduate Photojournalism programme at the University of Wales, Jamie also had experience of working with collections of historic photographs.

Since then, we – he, largely – have digitized some 50,000 different prints, negatives, and album pages, drawn from 154 collections, most of them lent to us by families with historic ties to China. They have come from Bristol, from across the British Isles, continental Europe, Canada, Australia, India, the United States, and of course China.

A collection in the raw: the Banister family’s, Bishop and all.

We now have 21,304 images online (and on the third iteration of our platform), most recently the first samples of an album largely focusing on Fuzhou in the late 1860s and 1870s, which we will tell you all about soon. We have organised exhibitions in Bristol, Bath, Durham, and London, Nanjing, Hong Kong, Chongqing, Beijing, and in Spain. We can be found on BBC Sounds, and on film.

The project has always run on a shoestring. Sometimes we have had two of them, once, you could say, we had four shoestrings, but mostly we shuffle along with the one. Support has come from the British Academy, Swire Charitable Trusts, AHRC, the University of Bristol, Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, and the Worldwide University Network. Do feel free to add your name to this list and don’t forget to send us a cheque: we won’t be offended, no really, we won’t be.

It is roughly 30 years since I got the first glimpse of what became the project, on a trip to talk to a British man who had worked in inter-war China. In an apartment in Bourne End, gorgeously decorated with items he had brought back from China, he reminisced and, from time to time, to reinforce a point, reached over to a bookshelf and pulled out an album of photographs. These he showed me and so here we are, thirty years on from that, and 14 years on from Jamie’s arrival in 13 Woodland Road.

So thank you for your support*, for using the platform and all the words of encouragement we have received over the years, and thanks especially to: Shannon Smith, Alejandro Acin, Rosanne Jacks, Grania Pickard, Helena Lopes, and the Research IT team at Bristol, who have all worked on the project, not forgetting Andrew Hillier, Emily Griffin, Monika Lucas; to Christian Henriot and Gérald Foliot, who provided our first platform and long-term support; Chang Chih-yun, and the team supporting our Shanghai Jiaotong University-hosted mirror site; to the University of Bristol’s Special Collections team and Public Engagement squad, and to librarians, deans, fellow-historians and many others — Deidre Wildy! Caroline Kimbell! — who have supported us in different ways over the years.

* Last call for your help – the HPC survey closes soon…  We would like to hear your opinions of the Historical Photographs of China site, about how you use it, and how it is useful to you – to help us plan its future. We invite you to complete this short survey:

Jamie in Suzhou in 2011

Ready for action at an outreach event at Bristol City Museum

The green boxes shown here in the University of Bristol Library Special Collections contain materials donated permanently for archiving.

We used to work in one of these, but are now housed in the University’s Arts & Social Sciences Library

Wuhan’s Yellow Crane Tower: Resistance and Resilience


Our latest blog comes from Dr Yang Chan, Shanghai Jiaotong University. A graduate of Hunan University, Dr Yang was awarded her PhD at the University of Bristol in 2014, and then worked at Wuhan University, before moving in 2017 to Shanghai Jiaotong University where she is now Associate Professorship in the Department of History in 2017. A historian of wartime and post China, her first book, World War Two Legacies in East Asia, China Remembers the War, was published by Routledge in 2017.

The Yellow Crane Tower (Huanghelou 黄鹤楼) is probably the most famous landmark in Wuhan. Located at the confluence of Yangzi and Han rivers, it was built originally as a military watch tower during the Three Kingdoms period in 223 AD. In the course of history, it gradually became a well-known scenic spot. The Yellow Crane Tower has been destroyed many times and rebuilt, repeatedly, across the centuries. The present version is based on a Qing Dynasty reconstruction, which was destroyed by fire in 1884. The photograph below was taken by a studio owner in Wuhan, just before this first disaster).

The Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼), Wuchang (Wuhan). Photograph by Pow Kee, whose studio was to the right of the pagoda. A scan of a magic lantern slide © 2019 Royal Asiatic Society. Historical Photographs of China ref: RA-m122.

Numerous men of letters visited the Yellow Crane Tower, and composed poems which are still on everybody’s lips today. The verse of Tang Dynasty poet Cui Hao 崔颢  provides one example (translated by Peter Harris) :

Long ago someone rode away on a yellow crane;
All that’s left here, pointlessly, is Yellow Crane Tower.
Once a yellow crane has gone it won’t come back again –
The white clouds will be empty, endless, for a thousand year.
Across the river in the sun are the trees of Hanyang in rows,
And scented grass on Parrot Island growing thick and lush.
But whereabout is my home village, in the evening light?
Seeing the misty waves on the river I grow disconsolate.

Other renowned authors include Cui Hao’s contemporary, the poet Li Bai, the national hero General Yue Fei from Song Dynasty, and Chairman Mao Zedong. These literary and artistic works had transformed the Yellow Crane Tower into a cultural symbol of Wuhan and even China as a whole.

During the second Sino-Japanese War, Wuhan became the centre of Chinese resistance between 1937 and 1938, as the Nationalist government and people from the Japanese occupied areas took refugee there. In these days, the Yellow Crane Tower was the centre of China’s war mobilization effort. In front of it, politician’s speeches were given, demonstrators were assembled, battlefield news was broadcast, and ‘anti-Japanese’ murals were painted on the walls.

An anti-Japanese banner, Wuhan, 1938, during the Sino-Japanese War. Historical Photographs of China ref: Bi-s162.

After the fall of Wuhan, peculiarly, the Yellow Crane Tower was protected by the Japanese Imperial Army and its puppet Wuhan municipal government. It was lauded as the symbol of the shared culture of China and Japan, and the ‘Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere’. As Tang Dynasty poems were beloved by the Japanese for centuries, the Yellow Crane Tower was well-known in Japan; and thanks to the travel notes of Wuhan written by Japanese writers from the Meiji Restoration onwards, Japanese people were further fascinated by it. Nevertheless, for the war-torn Chinese people who never yield to neither the cultural hegemony nor the military strength of imperial Japan, the Yellow Crane Tower had nothing to do with Japan at all. Imperial Japan’s plan of changing the symbolic meaning of the tower eventually failed.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Wuhan is suffering a different, but equally serious war at the moment. We despair at hearing bad news and tragedies daily, but at the same time, we are also touched by many other stories showing the glory of human nature. For instance, a Tang Dynasty verse was written on parcels of medical supplies donated by Japan: ⼭川异域 风⽉同天 (Although the mountains and rivers are different, we share the same wind and moon). Most Chinese people are moved by the beauty of the language and the heart of their neighbours in the East. This kind of human nature – compassion and selfless assistance to those in need – can definitely serve the Sino-Japanese friendship much better than the ‘constructed’ Yellow Crane Tower.

Finally, the Yellow Crane Tower has experienced and overcome countless difficulties in its history. Just as with this long-surviving landmark, we’re sure that, with the resilience of Wuhan people and the assistance from their compatriots and the international society, Wuhan will resist the virus heroically and recover from this disaster soon.

Reference: Zhao Huang, ‘Reconstruction of Power Around Yellow Crane Tower during the War of Resistance Against Japan’, Urban History Research 2017 (2) 赵煌 : ‘抗战时期中⽇围绕黄鹤楼的 记忆之争与权⼒重构’, <城市史研究>2017 (2).

Wuhan photographed


Over the past month Wuhan has been much-discussed, but its history is still largely misunderstood. I wrote about its long and intimate relationship with world markets in this blog post. It was of course, like most of the Chinese treaty ports, opened up as a consequence of conflict, and the exercise of foreign might.

The fact that it was a site of foreign residence and trade, means that it often crops up in photographs in our collections. You can find about 460 searching for Wuhan in our advanced search, including probably the earliest photograph taken in the city, this portrait of the Manchu Governor-General Guanwen 官文 taken in December 1858.

This collection continues to grow, and last week we received an unexpected donation of a small album from the daughter of a couple working with the China Inland Mission from 1923-1926. While the bulk of the collection consists of photographs taken in the hill-top summer resort of Guling (Kuling), there are a number from Wuhan showing (we think, but we may well be wrong) the floods of late August 1926. Wuhan was repeatedly afflicted by flooding, and the devastatingly destructive floods of 1931 form the subject of Chris Courtney’s 2018 book The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood (Cambridge University Press). Sometimes the echoes from history sound familiar. Flooding in Wuchang in 1924, one Shanghai headline pronounced ‘A Flood caused by “bad government”‘. Here are three of the images, the first and second forming a before and during of the scene.

We will be copying all these photographs and adding them to the website, but for now these pages of this small album, until last week in the hands of the family, show yet again how globally interconnected Wuhan has long been.

Chang Ning on Cultural translation: Gambling Cultures


Dr. Ning Jennifer Chang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. She has just published her first book, Cultural Translation: Horse Racing, Greyhound Racing and Jai Alai in Modern Shanghai (異國事物的轉譯:近代上海的跑馬、跑狗與回力球賽). Here she introduces the book and its main arguments.

Cultural Translation explores how culture was ‘translated’ through a study of three imported Western sports/gambling in the colonial setting of Shanghai. They were, namely, horse racing, greyhound racing and jai alai (also known as Basque Tennis). The book shows these sports all experienced deviation and re-interpretation in China in very different ways.

A man leading a horse past the ‘CASH SWEEP’ betting booth, Peking races, Beijing, c.1925-26. Oliver Hulme Collection, OH02-62.

Historical Photographs of China contains a great many photographs of racing life, with images of racing and race days at Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Tianjin, Qingdao and Hankou. Racing was a leisure activity, but it was also about display and it was a business. As the photograph above of a horse being led by its owner at Beijing’s race course in about 1925 indicates, it was also about gambling: the windows in which racegoers could enter the Cash Sweep can be seen in the background.

Tiffin on the re-opening of the Chinese Jockey Club in Oct. 1935. (Quan Guo Bao Kan Suo Yin (Source:

We know that racing clubs played a prominent role in the colonial world but less well-known is the fact that not only the Chinese elite, but underworld figures such as the leaders of the Green Gang saw such clubs as tools for social navigation. After the establishing in Shanghai of first an International Racing Club, at Jiangwan, and later a Chinese Jockey Club, they became proud club members. When joint meetings between the clubs were held, British gentlemen had to rub shoulders with Chinese gangsters. The class identities of the British club were thus redefined to an unknown degree.

Famous gangster, Du Yuesheng, leads in Merry Memories, winner of the Ladies Purse at the Chinese Jockey Club meeting on 6 June 1935. (

Madame Du presents the Ladies’ Purse to Charlie Encarnacao, the winning jockey. (

No doubt quite a few of the Chinese elite and even gangsters embraced British racing culture. Not only did they follow British rules strictly, they registered their clubs at Newmarket in England to prove their authenticity. When examining spectator behaviour in these sports, however, my work has revealed a gradual development in spectator behaviour from watching to betting. When jai alai was staged, spectators even found a way to Sinicize it. They managed to establish a forecast theory by borrowing from traditional Chinese betting knowledge, leaving Western theory of probability no room to act.

Afternoon greyhound racing in Shanghai. (

Betters watch jai alai attentively from behind the wire netting. (

By demonstrating this deviation and re-interpretation, this book argues cultural translation was not a simple phenomenon of localization. Instead, it was a result of a complex seesaw battle between cultures. The direction and degree of its deviation depended on how powerful the cultures were. For example, China had a longer and stronger tradition in gambling, so the spectators managed to re-interpret these sports in the Chinese way. On the other hand, the British empire no doubt played a more important role in the colonial setting in Shanghai. The British way of racing captured the attention of the Chinese elite and even gangsters.