British bulldogs in a China shop


BRITAIN IN CHINA: Community, Culture and Colonialism 1900-1949, by Robert Bickers. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999; 276 pp., 45 pounds (hardcover), 15.99 pounds (paper).

When Lord Macartney opened his British Embassy in China in 1792, he was told to ask for bit of land or, perhaps an island, to serve as a kind of warehouse for British trade.

What he had acquired by 1842 — the colony of Hong Kong and a web of treaty ports — was five times what the British had expected, and more than they could handle.

Imperialists felt comfortable in Hong Kong, with their legal status as colonialists firmly in place. But Robert Bickers, the author of “Britain in China,” observes that British snobbery in the treaty ports rested on shakier ground.

In this academic dissection of more than 300 works on the period, as well as a vast amount of primary-source material, Bickers does a brilliant job of breaking down the complex culture that was embedded in treaty port life, mainly in Shanghai, from 1900 to 1949. He looks at why the British felt superior, showing a deep understanding of the contemporary British mind-set. And he gives a thorough analysis of how and why it all came crashing down amid larger political events like the rise of nationalism and the communist state, the Japanese Army’s invasion of Manchuria, two world wars and a violent incident in which British Sikh policemen opened fire on a group of Chinese demonstrators in May 1925, killing 11.

This account is not for readers unfamiliar with Chinese history, however, as Bickers’ tight focus leaves explanation of those larger events to other authors.

He picks up the story by zooming in on the bunk of a British migrant on a ship headed for China in the interwar years. How were Chinese represented to the British, he asks.

From a large sampling on the sailor’s bookshelf, Bickers picks “Shanghai: A Book for Travellers and Residents” to show how the British developed and perpetuated their feeling of superiority in relation to the Chinese. The book is an instructive guide and, Bickers notes, “there is little indication in this book that Chinese will ever be anything but servants and guides.” It came complete with a glossary of pidgin-English words that rickshaw runners would understand — stop, go faster, be careful — and gives them a name imported from India: “coolies.”

In another contemporary account of the times, “Chinese Characteristics,” Arthur Smith finds faults in the Chinese that he feels can be corrected through Protestantism. His chapters bear such titles as “The disregard of accuracy,” “The talent for misunderstanding” and “The absence of sincerity.”

Everything, these authors wrote, is topsy-turvy in China.

Bickers theorizes that Britons who wrote like this did so to entrench their positions as China experts, positions predicated on the creation of distance. Because they were close to the action and therefore, theoretically, able to decipher events, only they could be trusted for reliable information; one could not, after all, trust the Chinese.

The jobs of many British residents in China depended on their special status.

By 1922, the Shanghai Municipal Council employed 600 people, making it the largest employer of Britons in the settlement. Along with many support services and industries, it was dependent on treaties for its raison d’etre.

Although missionaries and expatriate employees of international companies were also present, it was the righteous “settler” mentality that gradually became a diplomatic hurdle for the British government, which increasingly saw the settlers as an out-of-control burden.

Britons set up parks to which the Chinese did not have access. Their police force patrolled the streets of Shanghai, giving orders to the Chinese, who, despite paying most of the taxes in the International Settlement of Shanghai, received the least in the way of services. Chinese were put in steerage on luxury passenger ships, and their separate first-class section, Bickers says, fell below the foreign level in “bath [and] sanitary conditions.”

“The [Shanghai Municipal Council] served up provocations on a plate for local and national Chinese authority, and for the Chinese populace in the settlement. . . . There was no unbroken history of Chinese resistance to the exercise of SMC authority — and like many colonialisms its power was often appropriated and used by its local collaborators for their own ends . . . [but] the potential for disaster was there,” Bickers writes.

Compounding the outrage is the sense that the Britons who settled China were in no way extraordinary. Many would be near the bottom rungs of society had they stayed in Britain. Most had come to the treaty ports to find work. One settler, Stella Benson, mentions in her papers that the people who populated the settlement were “converted kitchen maids and promoted commercial travellers,” and that they were of the “tenth rate.”

On arrival, several became mired in debt, victims of the “cashless chit” system of writing IOUs.

Bickers mentions a few examples. “S.G.N. Bailey resigned in 1924 when facing court writs for payment of bills for ‘clothes, liquor and motorcars.’ Sergeant James Douglas, on his sudden death in 1926, owed a third of his estate to three tailors, two garages, a shoemaker, four cafes, the [Shanghai Municipal Police] and Municipal Service Club bars, a watchmaker, as well as an unpaid newspaper bill. The total was equivalent to about five times his probable monthly salary.”

When Bickers combines all these factors, it is stunning to think the British held the treaty ports as long as they did before losing control of them to the Japanese occupation force. When the Chinese regained control, most of the treaty ports’ British tenants were abruptly booted out.

Bickers painstakingly chronicles the devolution of the administration of Christian missionary schools to Chinese hands, the acceptance of Chinese locals onto formerly British-only political bodies and the gradual sinification of companies. The last involved both growing employment of Chinese and the use of Chinese labels in reaction to the heavy toll taken by boycotts of British products.

The China Navigation Co. redid its passenger ships to accommodate an intermediate room for both Chinese and foreign passengers, allowing mingling. “Economizing on the fittings was warned against, owing to the attention to such details expected by ‘the growing numbers of Chinese who both demand and are willing to pay for comfort on the European Standard,’ ” Bickers quotes the company’s London headquarters as writing.

Rounding out the narrative, he points out that even the typical British migrant had a different view of China before arriving.

“When Oxford graduate M. W. Scott arrived in Hong Kong in 1934 to work for Swire’s, he was met at the quayside not by fellow Britons from the Butterfield & Swire office, nor by the sight of ‘sinister’ coolies at work, but by one of the newly trained, British-educated Chinese assistants, J. C. L. Wong. Scott’s introduction to his new job came in a meeting as an equal with a Chinese colleague — who promptly took him out for a ‘chop stick meal.’ “

This is a book for academics. But if the general reader is patient, and not intimidated by the 56 pages of footnotes and bibliography, it provides remarkable insight not only into Britain in China, but into the collapse of imperialism in general, and the psychology of a foreign Western community in an Eastern culture.