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The British

Page history last edited by Tom 13 years ago

Britons in Shanghai



The British presence in Shanghai appears durable and dominant. The British own the largest bank and trading firms. They administer the trams, the police force, the gas company and water works, as well as the courts and Municipal Council. In fact it is easy to forget that Shanghai is not a British colony – unlike in Hong Kong, nightclubs in Shanghai do not close to the tune of the British National Anthem (if they close at all). Shanghai does not have a Governor representing the monarch, nor does it have a military status. It has only the Municipal Council and its businessmen. The British, in fact, are not quite as solid as they seem. Their hold on Shanghai is an exercise in brinkmanship.


The young and well-connected epitomise the top of the heap in Shanghai – hired in Britain and sent out for a four-year posting to China, they receive the plum jobs in Shanghai’s trading firms and institutions. Those who prove able in addition to having a good upbringing easily find themselves let in on the city’s political secrets. They move equally easily to the Long Bar of the Shanghai Club, where a man’s job status indicates whereabouts on the bar he takes his drink. For them, Shanghai is just a slightly exotic posting that is the first step on a distinguished career. They lack a financial or emotional investment in the city. Their time in Shanghai is, for the most part, carefree.


In fact, they may find it hard to fit everything in, as Shanghai makes them eligible bachelors. After riding in the morning, working all day, men with marriageable daughters invite them to endless dinner parties. After dinner, the parents generally delegate one person to take the younger generation out to a nightclub, paying the bill as their treat. Once it has been established that one knows how to behave properly, there is no end to the people one meets.


The well-off in Shanghai – the British especially, but also the Americans, French and other Europeans - lead an intensely social life. Parties, teas, cocktail gatherings and committee meetings run together in a flurry of activity that never seems to cease. There is tremendous competition between party hostesses. An ordinary dinner party offers two kinds of soup, fish, an entrée, bird, beef, a savoury and three or four different puddings. At 11.30 people suggest making it an early night, but as soon as certain guests leave, the suggestion changes to ‘just one dance’ at a nightclub. The partygoers frequently stay out until four o’clock in the morning, come home, have a bath, get two hours’ sleep, then go riding before leaving for the office. Somehow, all these bright young things manage to sustain this punishing schedule.


Just one dance, then.




The British sense of propriety and of occasion has a wide influence amongst Shanghailanders. There are no limits to what one can do in Shanghai, but regardless of what vices one might pursue, the pre-eminence of the British in Shanghai’s society makes sure that one does so with decorum. Not technically a colony, Shanghai lacks the formality of Hong Kong. But people still pay formal calls to people’s houses, introduce themselves with calling cards, and wear appropriate attire at all times.




The National Balls


The National Balls are Shanghai’s grandest social occasions. They take place in the Majestic Hotel, which started life as a house owned by a Captain McBain. He fell in love with the daughter of the sampan woman who cleaned his ship. Against strong opprobrium from the British, he married her and gave his new wife the best education he could afford. She speaks French, German and English fluently and always dresses with impeccable taste. He built what later became the Majestic so that he, his wife and their nine children could all live together. When he travels to Europe with his family and servants, it is in his private carriage hitched to the back of the Trans-Siberian.


At the St George’s Ball, anyone with a uniform and some medals puts them on – it’s de rigeur. At the St Andrew’s Ball, the organisers ship haggis in from Scotland and put on a display of pipers. At the St Patrick’s Ball they play Irish airs. At the George Washington Ball you can eat red, white and blue ice cream and marvel at the illuminated eagle over the bandstand.





Posted to Shanghai



Working for a British bank



A young man just leaving school can get a job with a bank such as the Hongkong & Shanghai by means of an interview. The interview stresses the importance of regarding the bank as a career rather than a mere job. Exams are set, so that the bank can gracefully turn down those who do not come up scratch socially. After a stint in London, the bank despatches the young man to Shanghai by P&O liner. The voyage functions as an extra holiday to a great extent, with an enjoyable social life en route. At each port of call a representative of the bank comes down to meet him and take him out. Arriving in Hong Kong, he finds both the heat and the nannyish demeanour (which enforces a regulation mess life on its junior employees) of the bank oppressive. After two months he is transferred to Shanghai, where he can live with whoever he likes. Work proves long and arduous. Office hours include Saturdays, and few firms give holidays apart from a Long Leave every four years, which lasts six months. On the other hand, lunch lasts two hours, which gives time to take part in some sports or catch up on sleep.




Working for the press



An introduction for a capable young journalist lands him a job with a press agency and a posting to China. The Trans-Siberian Railway is the fastest and, at £60 from Moscow to Manchuria, the cheapest way to get from Europe to China. It’s also very unpopular, as few people are keen to try out the world’s first communist railway. The press agency provides the young correspondent with a second class ticket for the Express, which rarely travels at more than 30mph. When the train is going uphill, he gets his exercise by jumping off and running alongside. Eight days after departure from Moscow, the train pulls into Manzhouli in Manchuria. Thence the journalist takes the Chinese Eastern Railway to the port of Dairen, where he takes ship to Shanghai. He starts work and moves into a flat in the French Concession. Compared to London, his living costs have halved, while he earns twice as much as he did there.

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