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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


On their way to China: British recruits to the Shanghai Municipal Police, on the S.S. Laertes, summer 1919'
from North China Daily News, 28 November 1937, p.4

On their way to China: British recruits to the Shanghai Municipal Police, on the S.S. Laertes, summer 1919' from North China Daily News, 28 November 1937, p.4

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Chinabound: Crossing borders in treaty port China

Robert Bickers, Department of Historical Studies, University of Bristol

The number of foreign residents legally working in China has been increasingly rapidly, doubling between 2002-2005 to 150,000. A significant proportion of these are British. (1) The opening up of China, especially since its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, has generated much interest, but the excitement which surrounds the globalisation of labour markets generally ought always to be tempered by reflection on historical precedent. China was from the 1840s onwards a country in which thousands of Britons settled or sojourned, working in a wide range of occupations. In the 1930s up to 20,000 lived and worked there (outside Hong Kong). Comparisons and contrasts between the two eras can certainly provide wry comment, but there is clearly much in the practices and attitudes of expatriates today that would not be unfamiliar to a historian. The big difference, however, is that today's foreign residents have no illusions about where they actually are. They live and work in China, are subject to Chinese law, and crossed the Chinese frontier to get there. The experience of their predecessors was actually much more opaque.

Of course, China was always an independent state, with an internationally-recognised national government, even if after 1916 that national government did not exercise national control. Foreigners arriving in China needed a passport, and passed through Chinese landing procedures. They then needed a Chinese-issued passport to travel more than 30 miles from any recognised open port, but this was a formality. Their experience thereafter was much less clear. Their presence generally was in fact based on various nationally and locally negotiated treaties which gave them extraterritorial rights – subjecting them to the jurisdiction of the British authorities in China rather than Chinese law – which amongst other provisions allotted them zones of residence in a number of Chinese cities. The British state went to war three times to secure these rights, or to protect or extend them. (2) Extraterritoriality was the key provision of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which concluded the First Anglo-Chinese or Opium War. Amongst other provisions, this also ceded Hong Kong island to Britain in perpetuity, and gave the British the right to reside and trade in five Chinese cities. (3) Hurriedly assembling a team of consular officials the British set about claiming their new rights, closely followed by merchant traders and missionaries who had been waiting for their China opportunities.

It was left to local authorities, those incoming British consuls and their Chinese counterparts, to work out the details. In many instances there was strong opposition to the new arrangements. The British consul in Shanghai found that feelings about the British, who had attacked the city during the war, remained strong, and as a result securing suitable accommodation within the city proved impossible. The resulting compromise, the demarcation of an area north of the city for British residence, slowly set in motion the evolution of a network of concessions and settlements – the 'treaty ports' – that acquired an increasingly formal aspect as the century developed (and as their numbers increased after 1860). (4) Some of these were formally British, and remained so – at Tianjin or at Hankow – while others were internationalised – notably at Shanghai. In British concessions the Consul generally had the final say, but at Shanghai a strong autonomous ethos developed, and was displayed by the activities and attitudes of the municipal councillors and the (foreign) electorate which voted them into office. (5)

Extraterritoriality, which was hardly unusual in itself – it was preceded by the 'capitulations' of the Ottoman Empire, and copied in Japan and in Siam – provided one way in which the border between China and Britain was blurred. (6) A Briton anywhere in China, as long as he or she had formally registered at the British Consulate, represented in his or her person (and by extension residence, goods, and often employees (7)) a diminution and degradation of Chinese sovereignty. The concessions themselves were enclaves standing in Chinese cities outside Chinese jurisdiction (although always home to many Chinese residents, who usually came vastly to outnumber the British). But the network of treaty ports as a whole blurred things even further, creating both these discrete individual de-territorialised zones and a wider, supra-national grey zone which united them all, the 'treaty port world'.

This essay looks at the British residents in the treaty ports, and the ways in which they navigated this complex environment. About half of the British population lived in Shanghai, with Tianjin home to the second largest community. Their occupations were varied. (8) There were the trading assistants and managers of the well-known China firms, such as Butterfield and Swire, Jardine, Matheson and Co., and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank; there were men in the riverrine and coastal merchant fleets, and technical and managerial staff at cotton mills, mines, breweries, even a gramophone plant. Hundreds worked in service trades, from shop assistants to insurance agents. There were substantial numbers of missionaries, the staff of the various administrations running the concessions. There were also British subjects in Chinese government employ, and although there were colourful opportunists – mercenaries and arms-smugglers such as 'One Arm Sutton', or 'Two-Gun Cohen' – most of these were in more prosaic employ, in the Post Office, or, by far the greatest number of them, in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. (9)

Most accounts of colonial life concentrate on the British elites. Kenya's 'Happy Valley' set, or the Singapore British garnered much contemporary press and other attention, much of it critical of their alleged mores. Somerset Maugham and others have left lasting images of this in plays and writings. (10) But the vast majority of Britons were non-elite. Totals at any one time also hide the true numbers, as they hide turnover, which could be significant. Over 5,000 Britons in total worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs between 1854 and 1949, and at least 2,000 served in the Shanghai Municipal Police. The numbers of Britons living and working in China at any one time were always overshadowed by those heading to the White Dominions, for example, but they provide good case studies for understanding the motivations for migration, and the backgrounds of those who chose to migrate.

Exotic as it might seem as a destination, they usually went to China because it was an ordinary destination within the Anglophone and imperial world of migration and employment. Newspaper advertisements for openings in China were placed alongside those for posts in Britain, the formal empire and elsewhere. Applications to join the police suggest that China itself was rarely the reason for going (except from those already in East Asia, or in China itself – men who had served in the British military in China for example, who liked what they saw and wanted to stay on). (11) If China disappointed, men often moved on. Evidence of the post-Shanghai careers of former policemen shows significant movement to Australia in particular, and to many other ports of empire call – Hong Kong, Canada, India, Africa – as well as back to Britain. Speculative applications to join the Customs in the 1930s came from Britons in Hong Kong, Ireland, Southern Rhodesia, Federated Malay States, and China. (12) The preconception here was often that the British world of opportunity in China was a simple one, with the same rules as those operating in British colonial territories. A man who could 'deal with natives' had transferable colonial skills, and more generally, professional skills generally were transferable from Britain, through empire, to China and beyond. However, as the structural particularities of the position in China suggest, this was not a simple world.

In jurisdictional, spatial, and personal terms, British migrants found themselves in a complex landscape. The police had to learn in Shanghai how to operate in a settlement in which there were multiple foreign legal jurisdictions, (bounded) Chinese jurisdiction, as well as municipal byelaws and regulations, and in which – as a result – sharper operators abused the opportunities provided for semi-criminal or criminal gain. Moreover, there were three territories physically side by side in the one city (in Tianjin there were nine). On top of this they were working in a polylingual world. English was a dominating language, in standard and cruder forms (pidgin English), but their colleagues in the force were Chinese (speaking numerous regional dialects), Indian, Japanese, and Russian. There were significant German and French communities. There were also different time and calendar systems, as the Chinese agricultural system continued to be used (even after its proscription as a modernization measure from 1 January 1929), and had to be accounted for. Policing also took notice of the plethora of national and holy days, European, Japanese, and Chinese, as well as an increasingly crowded set of Chinese 'humiliation' days, which commemorated political events or marked acts of foreign aggression in the nationalist 1920s and 1930s.

The men of the Customs were Chinese government employees, and their situation was thereby further complicated. They were not the only foreign nationals in formal or informal Chinese employ, but they were the largest single (non-military) group. Moreover, they were working alongside fellow employees from China, the United States, Japan and several European states. The Customs was a site of multinational co-operation (or else it failed to function), but the temptations of intra-imperialist competition could also be strong. Customs Inspector General, Sir Robert Hart, who ran the service from 1861-1911, aimed to inculcate a very strong ethos of service loyalty amongst his staff. (13) In this he and his successors were fairly successful, although staff solidarity was challenged and degraded by the First World War, and the Japanese invasion of China after 1931. (14) A Briton in the Customs could be at the same time a Chinese government employee, a British national, a man loyal to the treaty port world which provided his employment, and a private or public British imperialist.

A Briton could always bluster through. The basic response to this plural world was to create a Britain in China, a British world across the treaty ports, replicating with local characteristics the practices, institutions and assumptions of a British life. This was in character strongly inflected by British India (adopting its vocabulary, and borrowing its personnel), which provided a template for colonial life. In the club and in the church, the masonic lodge and the race club, through the amateur dramatic society, the newspaper, Britons made themselves comfortable. (15) Their dominance meant that their patterns and practices strongly influenced their fellow Europeans and North Americans well into the 1920s. And although there was rivalry and competition between and within different national communities, there were strong communities of interest across them. Anglo-German commercial ties in China were strong, for example, before 1914. The British also took with them their social assumptions and practices, dividing themselves up on easily replicated class lines, putting the Shanghai bobby and the Customs Tidewaiter in his place, but also identifying some local ones, between locally-focused interests, and expatriate ones, between the 'Shanghailander', and the world of Jardines, Swires, ICI and the more globally tied companies.

This British China world, recreated in large treaty ports like Shanghai, and in the smallest of the 'outports', was important in terms of enabling British migrants to negotiate and make sense of some of the fuzzy borders that faced them in China. It did so further by demarcating specific boundaries in British public and private interaction with other communities and individuals. One complication facing the British was that those accorded British-protected status in China also included British Indian subjects, Straits Settlements, Hong Kong and Australian Chinese, Sephardic Jews, Eurasians with British nationality, and others. (16) Britain in China excluded these groups from its clubs, from most social interaction and political access (unless wealth and prominence made it unavoidable), and from its self-image. These groups were British, and treated by the consuls and the law as such, but they needed to be kept in their place, or rather out of the British place. The British communities were also acutely aware of other ways in which their identity could be, in their eyes, compromised – through marriage or public liaisons with Asian women (Chinese or Japanese), or (after 1917) with Russian refugee women. (17) They therefore policed, through formal and informal marriage bars, the private lives of younger male staff. We know that many men flouted such policies, but the penalties could be severe, and there are certainly accounts of transfers, non-promotion, and dismissal related to the otherwise perfectly ordinary private relationships of British men. There were assumed public, transgressive consequences of these private acts. An Asian or Russian woman married to a British man would have to be accepted, ran the argument, in British society in China, and this would dilute its Britishness. The position of their children was likewise deemed complicated (and liable to complicate).

Retaining 'Britishness' was seen as vital if British interests in China were to retain diplomatic (and military) support. China had been opened up by force, and force was resorted to, to maintain and to extend British privilege. The treaty port fear was that a community which had compromised its 'Britishness' would lose government support. British society worked to police the lives of all classes of personnel, to protect itself from their errors of judgement. It also worked to make sure that personal failure was cleaned out of the settlements and concessions where possible. 'Distressed British Subjects' were sent home, steerage, and an infrastructure was established (formally with the courts and consuls, as well as more informally) to try to make sure that the 'prestige' and 'integrity' of the British community was not damaged by the treaty port world's failures. So in addition to the corrupted Chinese borders that sojourning or settling British migrants encountered, they had to negotiate the peculiar sexual, social, and ideological boundaries established by their community which gave it form and substance. In walking their towns and cities, within their households, within their bedrooms, they dealt with a much more complex world than at first seemed on offer. This was not the position they presented, obviously, when they mobilised in the later 1920s – and especially after 1931 – against Chinese nationalist and British government moves to re-negotiate the treaties and abolish extraterritoriality, but it was one reason why their erstwhile backers became wary of them. (18)

There was, of course, no simple environment for the British migrant anywhere, but the internationalised China of the treaty era was probably more complex than most. There was never a shortage of recruits, wartime aside, and the Asia Pacific War and the abolition of extraterritoriality and the treaty ports in February 1943, did not signal the end of the British presence (although it removed fields of employment opportunity such as the police (19). The nature of the presence had been steadily evolving from the 1920s onwards, as new multinationals (BAT, ICI, Shell) came to garner greater support from British diplomatic representatives at the expense of the Shanghailander and the small treaty port people. (20) But after 1945, and after mid-1949, when Chinese communist forces occupied most of the country, Britons found it got easier and easier to get their bearings. They were no longer living in a treaty port world, in a Britain in China. They were living and working in China.

  1. China Daily, 4 April 2006, p. 1; http://english.people.com.cn/200604/04/eng20060404_255781.html Back to (1)
  2. In 1839-42, 1856-60 and 1900: J. K. Fairbank, Trade and diplomacy on the China coast: the opening of the treaty ports, 1842-54 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA and London, 1954); James L. Hevia, English lessons: the pedagogy of imperialism in nineteenth-century China (Durham, NC and London, 2003); John Y. Wong, Deadly dreams: opium, imperialism, and the Arrow War (1856-1860) in China (Cambridge, 1998) Back to (2)
  3. Amoy [Xiamen], Canton [Guangzhou], Swatow (Shantou), Ningpo [Ningbo], and Shanghai. Back to (3)
  4. Albert Feuerwerker, The Foreign Establishment in China in the Early Twentieth Century (Ann Arbor: Michigan Papers in Chinese Studies No.29, 1976). Back to (4)
  5. Chinese representation on the Shanghai Municipal Council only commenced in 1928. Back to (5)
  6. Richard S. Horowitz, 'International Law and State Transformation in China, Siam, and the Ottoman Empire during the Nineteenth Century', Journal of World History 15:4 (2004), 445-86. Back to (6)
  7. This refers to practice and assumption (on the part of British individuals and firms) in particular, but it was often contested. Back to (7)
  8. A good survey of this world in the late 1900s is provided by Arnold Wright (ed.), Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Other Treaty Ports of China: Their History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources (1908). Back to (8)
  9. F.A. Sutton, One Arm Sutton (1933), Daniel S. Levy, Two-Gun Cohen: A Biography (New York, 1997); http://www.bris.ac.uk/history/customs/ Back to (9)
  10. The key example from the work of W. Somerset Maugham is On a Chinese Screen (1922). Back to (10)
  11. See Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (2003). Back to (11)
  12. Second Historical Archives of China, Chinese Maritime Customs Service records, 679(1), 17242, 'Applications for appointment in the Customs - Foreign, 1936-48'. Back to (12)
  13. For more on this see the work of Catherine Ladds: 'Conflict and Cosmopolitanism; The foreign staff of the Chinese Customs Service, 1854-1950,' University of Bristol, PhD dissertation, in progress 2006. Back to (13)
  14. Robert Bickers, 'Anglo-Japanese Relations and treaty port China: the Case of the Maritime Customs Service' Forthcoming in Antony Best (ed.), The International History of East Asia, 1900-1968: Ideology, Trade and the Quest for Order (London, 2007). Back to (14)
  15. Robert Bickers, Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism, 1900-49 (Manchester, 1999). Back to (15)
  16. Claude Markovits, 'Indian Communities in China c.1842-1949' in Robert Bickers and Christian Henriot eds. New Frontiers: Imperialism's New Communities in East Asia, 1842-1953, (Manchester, 2000) pp. 55-74; Chiara Betta, 'From Orientals to imagined Britons: Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai', Modern Asian Studies 37.4 (2003), 999-1023. See also Maisie J. Meyer, From the Rivers of Babylon to the Whangpoo: A Century of Sephardi Life in Shanghai (Lanham, 2003). Back to (6)
  17. The Russians were stateless: Marcia Reynders Ristaino, Port of Last Resort: The Diaspora Communities of Shanghai (Stanford, CA, 2001). Back to (7)
  18. E.S.K. Fung, The Diplomacy of Imperial Retreat: Britain's South China Policy, 1924-31 (Hong Kong, 1991); Robert Bickers, 'Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai, 1842-1937', Past and Present, 159 (1998), 161-211. Back to (18)
  19. K.C. Chan, 'The Abrogation of British Extraterritoriality in China, 1942-43: A Study of Anglo-American-Chinese Relations', Modern Asian Studies 11:2 (1977), 257-91. Back to (19)
  20. See Jürgen Osterhammel, 'Imperialism in Transition: British Business and the Chinese Authorities, 1931-37', China Quarterly, 98 (1984), 260-86, and Bickers, Britain in China. Back to (20)

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