Getting Stuck in For Shanghai is the new book out from Penguin Specials by Robert Bickers, professor of history at the University of Bristol. Bickers talked to us about his new book, which is about a group of Britons in Shanghai around the time of the outbreak of the First World War.
Firstly, could you tell us briefly what the book is about? It is set just before and after the outbreak of the First World War, but it tells the story of a specific group of people, doesn’t it?
The core of the book follows a group of 110 British men who sailed together from Shanghai to England in October 1914 on a Japanese steamer, the Suwa Maru. They were heading to join the army, and were known as the “Shanghai British Contingent”. About 30 of them joined the same regiment. The men trained together, and then went into action together. Throughout this period they sent lots of chatty letters about their experiences back to Shanghai. The book explores their stories, and places it in the context of relations back in Shanghai between the former allies — now enemies — the British and the Germans. It is a story about the war, and about individual men and women during that war, but it is also a story about the expatriate world of old Shanghai.
Your book is one of the Penguin Specials, short books focused on single subject. As a professional historian, how did you decide that this story was best told this way, rather than as part of a larger work?
I am interested in people, and how they deal with the predicaments they find themselves in, in ordinary people in extraordinary times and places. I first came across the story nearly 30 years ago in policeman Alfred Grimble’s’s personnel file in the Shanghai Municipal Archives, and had remained interested in it. The chance to write a Penguin Special provided the perfect opportunity. A short book telling his story, and that of the 109 men who sailed with him, seemed the best way to unlock Grimble’s tale from the archive.
You write that foreigners of different nationalities in Shanghai at that time mixed socially, and even celebrated each others’ national holidays. How unusual was this at the time among treaty ports?
It was the norm. Britons and Germans in the city, for example, might have been international imperial rivals, but they had very close business relations, and often established companies together. They also married each other. Unpicking all of this in wartime proved to be very difficult.
I’m interested in the ways in which the Shanghai of the era you write about is similar to the Shanghai of today. Just like then, there is a large foreign expat community inShanghai today, who are able to lead a social life that is very different from that of the Chinese in the city. Do you see any parallels? How are the foreigners living in Shanghai today similar or different from the ones in the 1910s?
There are plenty of superficial parallels to spot, but the underlying relationship is very different of course: foreign expats are subject to Chinese law, unlike their predecessors; and there are no French, or American or British gun boats moored in the Huangpu. That difference actually should make us think a little differently about the old world of Shanghai’s foreign communities: if we strip away all of the things that seem to be similar, what remains? That is the sort of question which interests the historians.
I notice on your website that you occasionally blog about historical matters that interest you or that you are working on, which may or may not later become part of a book. How do you decide what to share online?
I follow my nose as I root around the archives, and I try and find the best medium with which to communicate the topic that has got my attention. For now that might be a blog post, or it might be an academic journal article, but in time it might become a book, as Alfred Grimble’s tale has now done. I think I have done him justice, I hope so.
You can buy Getting Stuck in for Shanghai by Robert Bickers as an ebook through Amazon.