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The White Russians

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 1 month ago


White Russians in Shanghai




With over 20,000 of them in the city, the White Russians form the second largest foreign community in Shanghai, after the Japanese. Originally from Russia, they belong to the upper and middle classes, dispersed and often deprived by events after the Great War. Survivors of the trenches returned to the Revolution and the subsequent civil war. They had to make a choice between Communism and loyalty to the Tsar. Those who stood with the Tsar were known as White (as opposed to Red) Russians, and were forced to flee the country after the Bolshevik victory. The nobility who spoke a foreign language and, crucially, had a foreign bank account, went to Europe. Those not so fortunate trekked across Siberia to the eastern port of Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan.



Vladivostok fell to the Bolsheviks in 1920. The White Russians crossed into Manchuria and settled in Harbin, or journeyed south into China and the treaty ports of Tianjin and Shanghai.


Due to the Bolshevik takeover, the White Russians lack citizenship and therefore also do not enjoy the benefits of extraterritoriality. Their uncertain status leaves them neither rejected nor wholly accepted by either the Chinese or foreign communities. They are generally considered unsuitable for employment in the business world, or as fit to marry, yet on the other hand, they are able to mix freely with all kinds of people, as they are seen as a neutral element.



At first, the White Russians were treated with respect. In 1922, a Russian captain was guaranteed landing rights in Shanghai by the British Consul in Harbin. The Russian refugees were seen as a better class of person, with a large amount of money, unlikely to wind up destitute on the streets. This is no longer the case. When the roubles ran out and refugees turned up penniless and with only the clothes on their backs, the foreign community panicked.



The very existence of this refugee people is a nagging doubt in the mind of Shanghai. Pulling rickshaws, begging for alms, becoming concubines and prostitutes, dying in the street, the White Russians prevent anyone from thinking of Shanghai as a bastion of white privilege. The foreigners of Shanghai have always depended on an appearance of superiority to cement their status and make up for their lack of numbers in comparison to the Chinese. But how can this now continue when white men and women are plying the lowliest trades?



The majority of White Russians in Shanghai are former merchants, rich peasants, university teachers and ex-army officers, though they will often claim to be generals, counts or princesses. Hailing from middle class homes and looking forward to a prosperous future before the Revolution, nothing in their background has prepared them for their flight from Russia nor for their life in Shanghai. What disturbs the other foreigners is that in terms of background and education the White Russians are very similar to themselves. Their predicament shows the very precarious nature of the foreigners’ existence in Shanghai. Should there be a revolution at home, or a foreign power invade, then they too could share the fate of these Russian refugees.



The White Russians find themselves in the same boat as the poorer Chinese inhabitants of Shanghai. Their reaction is a kind of forced exuberance, frequently spending a whole month’s pay in one night of revelry. Life has brought one calamity after another for them and many White Russians escape into fantasy, pretending that nothing has changed for them since the golden days at home. For their part, the Chinese simply cannot understand this kind of behaviour and look on the White Russians with disdain. And for all that they look down on the Chinese, foreigners at least think of them as hard workers if nothing else. They retain no such respect for the Russians, dismissing them as untrustworthy, overly emotional and frequently drunk. Despite having many Russian policemen, the Shanghai International Police force has never promoted one of them to Inspector. Other good positions in the municipal authority are likewise denied to Russians.


The White Russians can be found in nearly every nightclub in the city. The men play in the orchestra while the women dance with customers, charging from ten cents to a dollar for a dance ticket, depending on the venue and their age. Their wild abandon and touch of foreign mystique are symptomatic of Shanghai by night.



Before the White Russians arrived, there was not much in the way of entertainment for foreigners in the apart from the occasional film or amateur dramatic production. Nowadays, though, nearly all the big hotels employ Russian orchestras and singers. Russian theatres such as the Tomsky and the Pribytkova put on ballet and opera. Moreover, the presence of the Russians means that there is now a lot more opportunity for cultural self-improvement. The impoverished Russians teach languages, music, horse-riding and fencing. The arts are still alive and well in the Russian community, with artists and poets founding societies, publishing works and arguing with each other in cafes.



It can be very difficult for White Russian men to find employment. Manual labour is the province of Chinese workers prepared to settle for much less in wages than the Russians can afford to take – often no more than food and a floor to sleep on. Well-paid jobs go to foreigners, while clerical and shop work goes to Eurasians and Portuguese. What does mark out the Russians is that a good number of them, survivors of both the Great War and the civil war in Russia, are very experienced soldiers. Wealthy Chinese hire them as bodyguards, and the White Russian bodyguard has become a staple sight in Shanghai, standing on the running board of a car with a gun slung over his shoulder. The Chinese hire them to protect them from kidnappings by the gangsters and secret societies of the city.


White Russians guard a bank's armoured car.



The difficulties encountered by the men means that many of the women find themselves forced to earn money to support themselves and their families. The better-off White Russian women bring a touch of style and glamour to the city, running dress salons and beauty parlours. Madame Garnet runs the most expensive dress shop in town, on the ground floor of the Cathay Hotel. For the poorer women, with shop and office work unavailable due to Eurasian and Chinese competition, pretty much the only option left is to take up ‘taxi dancing’ – the quintessential image of White Russian women in Shanghai. Every evening they sit around in the city’s dance halls waiting for a man to buy a book of dance tickets and spend one on them. Some use their jobs to become prostitutes or acquire foreign husbands, while others merely return home in the morning to care for elderly loved ones. The Russian dance hostesses are beautiful, haughty, unstable, desperate and fascinating to many, greedy and deceitful in the eyes of others. The best Russian hostesses work at the Del Monte, a grand place with a large garden, a wide veranda and rooms upstairs. Others work in somewhat seedier inns around town. The bars do not pay the girls a wage but expect them to pick up customers, agree a price and then go elsewhere. On some evenings the management announce a floor show, which frankly are probably only marginally more enjoyed by the patrons than the embarrassed girls.



There are two White Russian newspapers – “Shanghai Zaria” (Shanghai Dawn) and “Slovo” (The Word).


Music is very important to the White Russians. If one goes to visit the Russian musicians in Avenue Joffre, one will find that they live in tiny, damp cellars with nothing else in the room but a grand piano, a cello or a violin. Russian children outshine all the others at the Christmas Carol service in the Town Hall. Every year Shanghai’s schools enter their best singers and, although the Russian children may look shabbier than their British, American, French and German counterparts, and though the Russians may get little respect from the other foreigners, this performance always wins admiration.



Denied the protection of extraterritoriality, the White Russians are subject to Chinese laws. If they break those laws, they can soon become intimately familiar with Chinese courts and, worst of all, prisons. With the foreign community unwilling to take the side of the Russians, they find themselves not only at the mercy of Chinese law, but also Chinese whim.






A White Russian wedding


In the mind of the foreigner in Shanghai, only marriage to a Eurasian is worse than marriage to a White Russian. A young man who arrives at the British Country Club with a Russian girl will lose much prestige in the eyes of his fellows and probably get a severe talking-to from one of the senior members. Should an employee of a British or American company marry a Russian, he will usually get the sack. If a man who marries a White Russian manages to keep his job, she is still expected to downplay her nationality. She has to stop speaking Russian and stop seeing her Russian friends. For some women, the sacrifice is worth it, as it provides them with a nationality and a passport.



Literature clubs of the 1930s


There were many White Russian literary clubs. The most popular was started in 1933 by a poet called Spurgot. It members included painters, writers, actors, musicians and journalists. Elirov, the Master of Ceremonies and an eminent ballet dancer, gave each meeting a theme. “The Fight Against Boredom”, the title of a poem dedicated to the society, describes the aim of these occasions and reveals the Russians’ wishful thinking. It expresses a sentiment more redolent of the leisured days predating the Revolution than the harsh reality of life in Shanghai.

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