The Chinese Intellectual Memorialized in Oxford

Chiang Yee and England’s wartime circle of Chinese literati – Paul French

Anyone who has lived in or visited the UK will likely be familiar with the Blue Plaque scheme: permanent signs on buildings across the country, commemorating the link between that location and a culturally significant person or event. To qualify for a Blue Plaque, nominees must be regarded as eminent within their field; that is, their achievements have made an exceptional impact or deserve national recognition. Nobody is quite sure how many Blue Plaques there are – it’s rather a hotchpotch system administered locally – although London alone has about 900.

Until recently, Britain only had two Blue Plaques commemorating the lives of Chinese people: one to the writer Lao She, and another to Dr Sun Yatsen, “Father of Modern China.” 

Hidden History

Lady Chatterley Must Go!

The censorship of a classic in 1940s Shanghai – Paul French

In September 1940, the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) launched a concerted campaign to ensure that no English-language books deemed “salacious” or “unfit for public sale” should be available in the territory of the International Settlement. The campaign began by seizing several copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover available in foreign and locally operated bookstores. With the Japanese encirclement of the foreign concessions of Shanghai complete, relations between the International Settlement – often termed the “solitary island” (gudao) – and the Japanese military were at an all-time low. It was the brink of all-out, total war.


The Shanghai Mind

Arthur Ransome and the Origin of the Shanghai Mind – Paul French

People have long talked about Shanghai being different from the rest of China. Beijing scholars in the 1920s coined the term haipai (Shanghai style) to criticize Shanghai’s self-obsessive modernity. Shanghai was a “bubble,” “a bastard child,” somehow not fully China.

It is true that Shanghai’s history is distinctly different to that of other Chinese cities. It was not a Crown Colony, a Dominion, a Commonwealth, a Raj or a Federated State, but Shanghai was that other product of British imperialism – a Treaty Port. From 1842 until 1941, Shanghai was one of initially five settlements forced from China after the First Opium War (1839-1842) and based on the notion of extraterritoriality, which meant that foreigners were exempted from the jurisdiction of local Chinese law.


Au Revoir to the Astor

Bidding farewell to one of Shanghai’s iconic hotels – Paul French

The Astor House Hotel, in one form or another and under one name or another, has stood at 15 Huangpu Lu (previously known as Whangpoo Road) since 1846. Variously, it has been called Richard’s, The Astor House, and then the Pujiang since 1959. Just across from the Waibaidu, or Garden Bridge, on the north side of Suzhou Creek, its views have been somewhat obscured by the construction of the Russian Consulate in 1917 and the art-deco Broadway Mansions in 1934. But still the Astor stands – majestically occupying an entire block with its 134 rooms and suites, a sprung dancefloor, bars, lounges and a 500-seat restaurant. The building many know and love really dates to 1911, when it was one of the city’s finest hotels. Now, due to new regulations on state enterprises owning commercial businesses, the Astor, which is owned by the Shanghai Stock Exchange for convoluted reasons, closed at the end of December. Best guess, and rumour, is that it will re-open as a museum (of what is unclear) after perhaps two years of refurbishment.

Hidden History

A Very British Time in China

Penelope Fitzgerald’s holiday in China – by Paul French

With the release of the film of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel The Bookshop this year, hopefully she’ll win many new fans and readers. The Bookshop was Fitzgerald’s second novel and is thought by many to be her best. The film version, by the Spanish director Isabel Coixet, stars Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Bill Nighy. The story revolves around Florence Green, a middle-aged widow, who decides to open a bookshop in a small town, finding some support and some opposition. Though the book was famously set in Suffolk (Hardborough, a satirical version of the real town of Aldeburgh) the movie version was filmed in Northern Ireland and Barcelona.