Politics of Semi-Colonial Policing in the Shanghai Municipal Police

The unique political status of extra-territoriality meant the treaty-port city of Shanghai was split into three settlements which were each policed independently by four different police agencies: the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) for the International Settlement, the Concession Police for the Frenchtown and the Nationalist Garrison Command’s military police and the Chinese Special Municipality’s public safety bureau.1 Isabella Jackson explores how policing within the SMP was shaped by the opinion that ‘all anticipated threats were Chinese’.2 Police forces partly act to enforce social norms, and this is significant in colonial contexts when social norms were new and artificial.3 Thus, this post argues that the SMP’s heavy-handed tactics towards the ordinary Chinese population evidences an attempt to consolidate Britain’s unofficial influence within Shanghai through reproducing a colonial social hierarchy. The post will demonstrate this by examining the Sikh branch of the SMP. It will use a letter to the editor of the North-China Daily News concerning the behaviour of a Sikh constable towards a Chinese coolie, to evidence the everyday role of the SMP within the Settlement and the everyday low-level violence towards the Chinese population.

In 1892, the North China Herald published a letter from an ‘eyewitness’ addressed to the editor of the North-China Daily News. ((“The Sikh Police,” The North-China Herald, September 16, 1892, 416.)) It recounted the author witnessing a

‘Sikh constable on duty at the corners of Chekiang and Nanking Roads called to the ricsha coolie to stop, walked up to him, struck him with a full blow on the breast, turned him round, kicked him from behind, and then pointed to him to go on the Chekiang road.’ ((Ibid.))

Firstly, the letter evidences the routine police work of the SMP’s Sikh branch. All police have the principal priority of maintaining social order, and the Sikh branch, because of their intimidating physical stature, were tasked with bringing order to the heavy and disorganised traffic within Shanghai’s urban space.4 This spatial distribution of the Sikh constables resulted in them having a constant physical presence in all the busiest areas within the International Settlement. This was significant as they became the most visible and interacted with symbol of British presence in Shanghai.

Alongside the letter exemplifying Sikh constables’ traditional policing roles, the letter’s description of the constable’s violent actions supports Jackson’s observation that ‘Indian constables had a particular reputation for violence’.5 The author expands in their letter to write that they ‘have seen several instances of Sikh policemen maltreating natives’,6evidencing the significant tensions between the Chinese population and the Sikh police. However, unlike the letter suggests, the tension should not be only considered a result of the Sikhs’ nature, as Jackson noted the Sikhs ‘were encouraged [by the SMP] to employ corporal punishment against Chinese.’7This reinforces this post’s exploration of how the SMP had an aggressive attitude toward the Chinese populace; thus, it is unsurprising that their officers replicated this attitude. The SMP’s entrenched discrimination towards the Chinese reflects an attempt to replicate official colonial societies where local populations were subdued to create a social hierarchy to establish urban control. As Jackson explores, there was a ‘racist logic operating in Africa and India that force was required to prevent crime among colonial population’.8 Furthermore, the violence not only being shown by the Sikh branch but also the wider SMP emphasises how the British were attempting to create this social hierarchy and secure their uncertain presence. This is also implied by how the letter was sent by an ‘eyewitness’ suggesting the author wanted to hide their identity, implying unjust violence towards ordinary Chinese was not uncommon within the Settlement, and it may have even been frowned upon for a non-Chinese to find an issue with it.

Furthermore, the letter notes, ‘it is a disgrace to the Model Settlement to have Sikhs knocking people about as they do.’9This suggests how the eyewitness was concerned with the actions of the constable impacting the broader reputation of the Settlement. It illustrates how the police represented the public face for both the Settlement and the British empire, reinforcing how police were considered to embody and enforce the desired social norms of the governing nation. Thus, it is evident why even within the everyday roles of SMP’s officers, there was a significant focus on recreating a colonial hierarchy within society to achieve urban control.

Overall, the letter published in the NCH exemplifies Sikh police brutality towards a Chinese coolie. The violence, as the author indicates was not a unique event. This blog post’s examination of the letter, in conjunction with Jackson’s conclusions on policing in Shanghai, supports how violence towards ordinary Chinese was a common event. However, it more significantly helps to reveal how the violence towards the local population was not only confined to Sikh constables; the SMP encouraged and held an unofficial policy of active discrimination against the local population. This policy reflects a desire to create an illusion of colonialism by replicating the social hierarchy of official colonialism which helped achieve urban control.

  1. Frederic Wakeman, “Policing Modern Shanghai,” The China Quarterly 115 (1988): pp. 408-440, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0305741000027508, 408. []
  2. Isabella Jackson, “Policing and Conflict in Shanghai,” in Shaping Modern Shanghai Colonialism in China’s Global City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp. 113-163, 114. []
  3. Robert A. Bickers and Christian Henriot, “Who Were the Shanghai Municipal Police, and Why Were They There? The British Recruits of 1919,” in New Frontiers: Imperialism’s New Communities in East Asia, 1842-1953 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), pp. 170-191, 173. []
  4. Isabella Jackson, “The Raj on Nanjing Road: Sikh Policemen in Treaty-Port Shanghai,” Modern Asian Studies 46, no. 6 (2012): pp. 1672-1704, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0026749x12000078, 1690. []
  5. Jackson, “Policing and Conflict”, 119. []
  6. “The Sikh Police,”NCH. []
  7. Jackson, “The Raj”, 1691. []
  8. Jackson, “Policing”, 114. []
  9. “The Sikh Police,” NCH. []

The Tourist Gaze in the 21st Century: a need for critical self-reflection?

The concept of the ‘Tourist Gaze’ is not a new one. We love to travel, and we love to tell other people about it. It would be no exaggeration to say that humans have been writing about their travels for as long as we have been able to put pen to paper. In my own experiences I have almost nothing to speak about, having travelled abroad for the first time in my life at the age of a quarter-century, so it is perhaps not surprising that as a child I soaked up the tales of my father and grandfather, whose work took them across the globe.

As an adult, these stories of far-off lands remain no less enthralling than as a child, but with a much more nuanced eye and ear. This leads back to my opening words. Take, for instance, the documentary Done Bali. Produced in 1992, it is now thirty years old, and yet much of the themes are still no less relevant today than they ever were, or perhaps ever will be. The documentary takes a standard format, with the history of the island narrated and interspersed with a variety of interviews, from residents to hotel owners, anthropologists to tourists, farmers to historians, and so on. One interviewee that stood out to me the most was Manuela Furci, a Bali expat from Australia who owned a clothes business. She stated that her original motivations to travel to Bali for tourism was that it was cheap and a great way to see another culture for less expense than travelling around Australia1. However, later in the program she noted the changes that she had seen over the past 13 years with the growth of tourism. Although she criticises what she deems to be a lack of work ethic in trying to run a business in Bali due to the number of religious ceremonies, she follows by lamenting the fact that it was even then becoming increasingly modernised, with the status quo changing from the simplicity of having hot water to an increasing level of competition for amenities such as a swimming pool or tennis court.

“All the things that I loved about Bali changed…it’s becoming more and more like the west in that sense. And that was the thing I didn’t like about it, the simplicity’s changed. It’s become more complicated and more about the rat race.”2

Furci, for her part, did not seem to acknowledge the inherent contradiction in her view, but in doing so she provides a perfect example of the tourist gaze. Although she had obviously made a home and living in Bali, she still wanted to hold on to the fascination with the idea of Bali as some kind of idyllic paradise which first drew her there. Yet, in order to run a business, she also required access to western amenities and way of life to facilitate this. This same wish for the ‘best of both worlds’ is one of the fundamental aspects of tourism anywhere in the world and is perhaps one of the most difficult things to reconcile. We travel because we want to see something different, but not so different that we feel uncomfortable.

As stated, Done Bali was produced in 1992. Towards the end of the program the various contributors discuss the rise of eco-tourism and criticism of tourism in general, which has obviously grown massively in the last three decades. Yet, for as much progress has been made, I could not help but feel that there is still a long way to go. With the growth of post-colonialism comes a welcome level of critical self-reflection as the western world comes to terms with the history of tourism and the colonial attitudes that this has entailed over the years.

For the prospective traveller wanting to be able to say that they, too, have ‘Done Bali’, perhaps the best advice could be to make sure that they have done their historical research as well.

  1. Done Bali, 6:49-7:17 []
  2. ibid, 44:07-44:42. []

Balanced on a Modern Thread: Marketing Consumer Products in Inter-War Japan

Andrew Gordon’s monograph: Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan covers the introduction of Western-style sewing machines into Japan, in first half of the twentieth century. Within the book, Gordon uses two figures to display how the sewing machine company Singer advertised its products towards a Japanese audience (Gordon, 2011, p. 63).







The first image shows a traditional Japanese extended family, within a traditional room, crowding round a modern sewing machine. However, the second image displays a similar size family, taking similar positions around an identical sewing machine in an American-style room. Gordon uses these two images to make two arguments. The first is that “Singer… marketed the machine in Japan, as elsewhere, as an emblem of modernity in two senses: that of rational investment on the one hand, and of freedom, style and the pursuit of Western-linked pleasure on the other” (Gordon, 2011, p. 62) . The second argument Gordon offers is that Singer used this “iconographic translation” to appeal to the same demographics as they had in America – a middle-class family, anxious to embrace modernity but still being susceptible to ideas of traditional values when shown within advertisements like this. However, the two advertisements also display a phenomenon visible in East Asian nations at this time, where culture and ideas of modernity were becoming more transnational in nature, specifically oriented to the West.

During the interwar period, debates on modernity in Japan became linked to the positives and negatives surrounding perceptions of the West. On the one hand, modernity inspired by the West often promised increased affluence and liberation, as shown through rapid economic growth and the rise of department stores, where a vast array of items could be purchased at once. However, the growth of modern spaces in Japan was also linked to fears of moral degradation, and the loss of traditional culture (Tipton, 2013). The image of the ‘modern girl’, sporting a Western-style outfit and with hair cut short, represented both the liberation and loss associated with modernity in Japan. As such, while members of the Japanese middle-classes held many aspirational feelings towards items of modernity, they also experienced fear at the rapid pace of change which items such as sewing machines – which struggled to work on Japanese clothing – represented.

This Singer ad shows a potential way to navigate a Western country through this debate, while ensuring that their products still sold well in a Japanese market. The family itself is inspired by modern ideas, as shown by the original source picture the Japanese ad was based on. However, by emphatically placing the sewing machine within a traditional background, Singer attempted to market their product as a symbol of all of modernity’s virtues, with none of the vices which had become the centre of debate. Other companies also mixed Western and traditional symbols to expand their markets. Mitsukoshi, a Japanese department store, advertised many cosmetic products using Western styles and symbols in its journals, which also promoted Japanese culture, and worked closely with the government in its coverage of the colonial developments of the 1930s. Overall, Singer’s sewing machine, like many artefacts symbolising modernity, marketed themselves to East Asian audiences as representing smaller cultural and technological steps than they perhaps did. This helped to avoid such items being tied to ideas of degeneracy or a loss of traditional values, making them more marketable in the inter-war period.


Gordon, Andrew, Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan (2011, Berkeley).

Mitsukoshi: Opening Up, in Ambaras, David and McDonald, Kate, Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History. Available at: https://bodiesandstructures.org/bodies-and-structures-2/mitsukoshi-opening-up?path=in-the-pages-of-mitsukoshi [Accessed 20/02/2023].

Tipton, Elise, ‘Moving Up and Out’ in Freedman, Alisa, et al., Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labour in Japan, (2013, Stanford), pp. 21-40.

Tea WG and Imperial Nostalgia in Hong Kong

Hong Kong was one of the last British colonial holdings to be decolonized – with the handover of the territory to Chinese authorities taking place in 1997. With only around two and a half decades having passed since then, the legacies and memory of Hong Kong as a part of the British Empire still hold significant influence within the territory. One of the most dramatic displays of this influence could be seen in the 2019-2020 protests, where protesters could be seen waving British flags, and the flag of colonial Hong Kong.[1] Outside of these political displays however, cultural legacies of Hong Kong’s past can be viewed in other places – including commercial settings.


The Tea WG company was founded in 2008 in Singapore, and has quickly established itself as a prominent multinational business within its area of tea, basing its brand identity around luxury.[2] Within the 2010s, the business has expanded operations within Hong Kong, opening new stores and restaurants – of which the latter are especially interesting to examine from a spatial standpoint.[3]


The stores themselves create a ‘colonial’ atmosphere through their aesthetics. They are bright and colorful stores, with large open windows and a golden-yellow tinted color palette. Rows and rows of tea caddy tins line the interior of these stores, some given evocative colors and names such as ‘Jade Dragon’ and ‘French Earl Grey’.[4], [5] All of these elements serve to create an image of a kind of cosmopolitan, colonial and perhaps Victorian establishment, where one can experience the opulence associated with this romanticized picture. There are other elements that also contribute to the creation of this experience – for example, the staff of TWG outlets dress in formal, somewhat old styled attire that evoke Victorian images of butlers and maids.[6] One of the key attractions of the outlet in the form of its afternoon tea also furthers this experience with its use of classic European-esque dishes and food.[7]


One potential explanation about the unique set of arrangements that TWG restaurants utilize is that the atmosphere is appealing to the significant expatriate community of Hong Kong and the considerable number of non-Chinese tourists the city attracts. But other examples of similarly styled businesses – such as the Cova chain of coffee shops – the relative level of success and proliferation of the TWG business, and the previously mentioned cases of British flags being woven in political protests all suggest something more than simple appeals to tourism and expatriates. Rather, what this all suggests is that there is a sentiment amongst at least a significant portion of the Hong Kong populace that has a degree of nostalgia for the colonial period, a nostalgia that some businesses have attempted to take advantage of by theming themselves in an appropriate manner.

[1] Sum Lok-kei. ‘Why Hong Kong Protesters Wave US and British Flags’. South China Morning Post, 22 August 2019.

[2] La rédaction. ‘TWG Tea, the Best of Tea since 2008’. Luxe Magazine, 2017.

[3] Castagnone, Mia. ‘Singaporean Luxury Tea House Aims to Win over Chinese Consumers’. South China Morning Post, 3 October 2021.

[4] ‘Tea WG Boutique at Hong Kong International Airport (香港國際機場精品店)’, 2022. https://teawg.com/international-airport.html.

[5] Yu, Helen. ‘Tea Time: 8 New Afternoon Tea Sets To Try In Hong Kong This Season’. Tatler Asia, 4 October 2019.

[6] Tripadvisor. ‘TEA WG AT IFC MALL, Hong Kong – Central’, n.d. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g294217-d3237777-Reviews-Tea_WG_at_IFC_Mall-Hong_Kong.html.

[7] Yu, Helen. ‘Tea Time: 8 New Afternoon Tea Sets To Try In Hong Kong This Season’.

Mitsukoshi and IKEA: Traveling Department Stores

In 1905, the Mitsui Dry Goods Store changed its name to Mitsukoshi and began advertising itself as Japan’s first department store.  The original store was founded in 1673, but it went through a long process of transformation to become the modern department store that exists today. In 1878, it began hosting bazaars where the public would take off their shoes before wandering through the stalls of goods, and in 1904, the addition of windows to the storefront allowed people to look in at goods from the street.1 While many of the innovations Mitsukoshi implemented were modeled on Western department stores, Mitsukoshi created its own unique “department store experience” and its branch stores in colonial Korea and Dalian enjoyed similar success when they opened in the 1930s.2

Despite Mitsukoshi’s popularity in Japan and Southeast Asia, it was less successful in the United States.  In 1979, it opened its first branch in New York in an effort to “learn more about the American market and equalize the Japanese United States balance of trade.”3 It opened its doors just as another Japanese department store, the Takashimaya company was reducing the size of its Fifth Avenue location.  The Takashimaya Company also began “shifting to primarily American products from largely Japanese because of the rising price of the Japanese merchandise.”4 Despite its goal of learning about American markets, the New York branch of Mitsukoshi closed in the 1990s.  While the failure of Mitsukoshi in New York was attributed to economic factors, it is essential to note that the products and experiences that department stores offer their customers are tailored to the place itself and its consumption culture.  In New York for instance, consumers were less interested in expensive Japanese products from a brand without widespread recognition in the United States.

The difficulties of adapting shopping experiences to new markets went in both directions. Although certain aspects of Japanese department stores were modeled on Western department stores, this does not mean those stores were universally successful when transplanted to Japan.  Like the Mitsukoshi in New York, Ikea failed to adapt to the needs of Japanese consumers.  In 1974, Ikea entered the Japanese market but by 1986 all locations had closed.  This was attributed partly to different consumer habits, as “Japanese consumers at that time were not ready for the ‘self-service and self assembly’ concept because Japanese consumers were only accustomed to a high level of service,” but also to the spatial practices of the Japanese.  Japanese homes and living spaces tend to be smaller and “the Scandinavian style furniture from Sweden did not fit small-space living.”5

“1974 Ikea Catalogue,” Ikea Museum, 72 https://ikeamuseum.com/en/digital/ikea-catalogues-through-the-ages/1970s-ikea-catalogues/1974-ikea-catalogue/.

In 2006, Ikea relaunched in Japan with new strategies for adapting to the Japanese market.  A recent series of promotional videos on how to furnish tiny homes with Ikea products demonstrates the store’s recognition that their products must to cater to the specific spatial needs of Japanese customers.6

Like Mitsukoshi, Ikea failed to adapt to consumer habits and spatial needs.  While department store models often appear transferable, the success of a department store depends on more than management and appearances.  In a comparison of shopping malls, Lizzy van Leeuwen notes that “although the design and management strategies of shopping malls are rather standardized all over the globe, the social configurations of these centres of consumption differ remarkably at local levels.”7 The social and spatial configurations of department stores are just as unique at local levels and stores must take into account the experience of shopping as well as the specific needs and spatial practices of their customers.

  1. Brian Moeran, “The Birth of the Japanese Department Store,” in Asian Department Stores, ed. Kerrie L. MacPherson (London: Routledge, 1998). []
  2. Aso, Noriko, “Mitsukoshi’s Expansion Before 1945” Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History. []
  3. “Mitsukoshi Opens Here.” The New York Times, March 16, 1979. https://www.nytimes.com/1979/03/16/archives/mitsukoshi-opens-here.html. []
  4. “Mitsukoshi Opens Here.” []
  5. Thy Nguyen, Yingdan Cai, & Adrian Evans, “Organisational learning and consumer learning in foreign markets: A case study of IKEA in Japan,” Paper presented at The British Academy of Management 2018 Conference, UWE Bristol, UK (2018), 9. []
  6. WK Tokyo, “IKEA |Tiny Homes Episode 2: Small Space Visions,” YouTube, December 21, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60KL3p-M27k. []
  7. Lizzy van Leeuwen, “Celebrating Civil Society in the Shopping Malls,” in Lost in Mall: An Ethnography of Middle-Class Jakarta in the 1990s (2011), 162. []

Vending Machines: Understanding Spaces of Consumption within Japan and the Risk that Vending Machines Posed

In a 1963 news article, a debate was struck regarding vending machines in Japan. Specifically, why America had chosen to create an exhibit based on the vending machine idea. The fundamental point of this exhibit was to showcase industrial achievements, but what confuses the audience and author of the article is why America chose vending machines as one of its biggest achievements. ‘In view of past exhibits when America showed the world such developments as space capsules and cars that float on a cushion of air, why did the U.S choose vending machines to display in Tokyo?’ 1 The expectation for this exhibit was to allow people to understand certain achievements by being able to hold them within their own hands. The other expectation was to catch the interest of Japanese businesses and ensure that vending machines would become a part of Japanese consumption.

The exhibit showcased the vending machine as an invention that could practically do everything from cooking food to dry cleaning clothes. Therefore, creating a new space of consumption that took away human interaction, allowing businesses to run a low-cost vending machine venture with almost no employees. However, in comparison to the introduction of department stores to Japan, this space of consumption meant that customers were left with no employee interaction, therefore, dismissing former expectations within a space of consumption.

‘In selling food, companies again position products less for personal pleasure than as a means for their customers to appropriately fulfil social expectations.’2

Vending machines posed a risk of disrupting Japanese values and expectations because it took away the standards placed on businesses to ensure customer satisfaction, and due to having no human contact these standards could not be met. Therefore, what this created was a generational shift, in which young people were expected to use these machines and housewives were encouraged to stay away and use supermarkets.

‘Housewives still buy many of their beverages from the supermarkets, and older people are just beginning to use can vending machines. Older people didn’t use the machines as much because they didn’t feel comfortable with them. They felt service was too impersonal.’3

This is similar to the stereotypes placed on department stores because of the association between being an adult and the step up to adulthood. Therefore, what this highlighst is that spaces of consumption are not just built on socialization and the exchange of goods, but they are also shaped into a generational environment that might be used to encourage family ideals. This is perhaps why newspapers would mention housewives and their resilience to avoid vending machines and remain committed to using supermarkets. Young people were not attacked by the media for using vending machines, but what is presented is a stereotype that young people use these machines because they have not yet matured and come to understand the value of customer service.

Consequently, however, vending machines also became associated with crime because they lacked human interaction, therefore, allowing them to be broken into or smashed because they could not provide change.4 Without the necessary security to keep these machines safe, they became easy targets for thievery. Not only was the lack of human interaction a factor which caused a large amount of crime, but it was also because of what vending machines began to offer as a result of popular demand. Cigarettes were just as popular as drinks and food and therefore, created a different influx of customers which diminished the former stereotype of vending machines being primarily for young people. The consequence of this allowed this space of consumption to become associated with the class and status of its customers not only because of crime, but also because of what was being consumed and how it was being purchased.5

  1. Pacific Stars and Stripes, Vending Machines Dispense bit of America (Tokyo, 1963) p.6 []
  2. Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, Consuming Life in Post-Bubble Japan: A Transdisciplinary Perspective (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) p.37 []
  3. Pacific Stars and Stripes, Drink Machines a Big Business (Tokyo, 1984) p.7. []
  4. Pacific Stars and Stripes, Starting a Coin-Operated Rampage (Tokyo,1991) p.66. []
  5. Pacific Stars and Stripes, Shoplifting No Bargain for AAFES Customers (Tokyo, 1973)p.26. []

Towards hyperreality, a tendency to conceptualize: the development of department stores in Japan from pre-war to post-war period

The original purpose of starting a department store was to enable consumers to purchase their demanded goods in one place.1 Then the appearance of department stores made consumption and purchase more convenient for the more and more condensed and urbanized society. During the process when the department store was adapting to Japanese society, the function of department stores exceeded the original one. Rather than solely advertising and selling consumer goods, they also sell lifestyle, culture and a sense of belonging to certain classes and groups. Therefore, Japanese departments are very keen on creating their own brand culture for their consumers. To sum up, Japanese department stores sell certain concepts to their customers. Through investigating the media of advertisements used by different department stores, a tendency of supplying and consuming concepts and cultures of the department stores could be observed. Moreover, it is not just a postwar phenomenon in Japan, but also significant in the prewar period. Starting in the prewar period, it reaches a peak in the 1970s and 1980s. Exceeding the sale of material goods, department stores gradually are made into hyper-real space.

In Ueno’s case study of the Seibu department store, she offers three advertising posters designed by the Seibu department store. Neither of them displays specific goods or brands. They are composed of photographic portraits of people and a short slogan. The explanation for this kind of design is that these poster does not serve the purpose of selling specific goods, but rather aim to sell a concept to customers. Themes used by Seibu included ‘research for one’s self’, ‘women staging themselves’ and ‘My Own Expression’. When people buy certain customer goods from Seibu, they are not just buying the good, but also consuming one of the concepts and lifestyle printed in these posters. In order to better help their customer to construct a lifestyle of their own Seibu’s business plan of constructing specialized merchandise includes all kinds of goods, such as sports goods, interior furnishing and so on.2 They almost covered all aspects of one’s daily life. Therefore, Seibu department stores had a mature system of advertising and selling. In this system, the customers consume more than just material goods, they could also enjoy a sense of satisfaction and superiority when they feel that they have demonstrated and affirmed their personality or certain social identity while purchasing. Moreover, not only the action of purchasing could affirm make conspicuous of one’s identity and self-awareness, but which department store one chooses to go shopping in is also a way to show one’s choice of lifestyle.

Then the department store became a hyperreal space. According to Jean Baudrillard, a hyperreal is generated by models of a real without origin or reality. In contemporary society, the signs of the real substitute the real.3 Based on this theory, Osawa Masachi argues that the urban heart of Tokyo, places such as Shibuya and Ginza could be seen as hyperreal space created by the investment of capitalist groups. In these spaces, people define their personal interest and taste through the consumption of the fruits of hyperreality, which helped them to be recognized or develop a sense of belonging to an ideology or certain group. Osawa defines this generation of people as ‘shinjinrui’ or new people.4  Referring to the case study of Seibu, the culture and themes created by Seibu had these effects. For example, the theme ‘My Own Expression’ would help customers to recognize themselves as someone who seek their true self and active expression of the true self, which is a different ideology and concept of life from the interwar period when people chose to identify themselves as a member of a mass or collective.

((‘Mitsukoshi Opening Up’, https://bodiesandstructures.org/bodies-and-structures-2/mitsukoshi-opening-up?path=in-the-pages-of-mitsukoshi [accessed 12.2.2023].))

The precedent of this phenomenon could be traced back to the prewar Mitsukoshi department store. Similar to Seibu, Mitsukoshi also published its own magazines as a means to advertise its brand and goods. Compared to the posters of Seibu, the magazines edited by Mitsukoshi contained more specific information and display of material goods. However, there were still some sections in the magazine which were not directly related to the marketing of goods. The first example is a traditional section of the journal: the special feature of spotlighting daughters (reijo) of the local elite.5  These featured articles offer detailed descriptions of the honoured daughter’s lifestyle, personal interests and tastes and used them as a way to sell a type of lifestyle to the prospective customers of the department store. Their elite background and traditionally admired hobbies would attract other people to imitate the lifestyles of reijos. The second example is the spatial arrangement of the department and its decoration, especially the Mitsukoshi department store. It has an intentional imitation of western-style department stores.  The traditional Japanese stores do not involve the movement of customers. There would be only one counter, and the customer speaks to the salesperson who would find the item for the customer and show it to him or her behind the counter. Then the customer only needs to wait. Mitsukoshi adopted a spatial arrangement of western department stores which allows customers to move around the stores and its architectural and decoration styles was also westernized. These traces of imitation of the West targeted upper-middle-class customers. This intentionally made the western environment serve the upper-middle-class people’s mental need to experience the modernity imported from the West. Additionally, the discipline in the department store shows its exclusivity to other groups of people. Therefore, the spatial arrangement, decorations and atmosphere created in the Mitsukoshi department store created a space where people from certain classes can affirm their identity and have a taste of western modernity.

Moreover, the creation of hyperreal space and selling concepts does not only have an influence on customers. They attracted prospective female workers to the department store as well. The typical case is the elevator girls. Laura Miller, the author of “Elevator Girls Moving in and Out of the Box”, argues that the uniform, training accepted by the employees and script used by the elevator girls gave these female workers chance to participate in the middle-class imagination.6

In the future, this tendency of conceptualization of goods may even continue and accelerate, as now Mitsukoshi’s app could even provide people with a virtual shopping experience online. Without actually being present in the department store, customers could use their avatars to shop in the 3D setting of the stores. Beyond material goods, there is an inevitable tendency of consuming and selling signs and concepts to fulfil the demand of consumers in Japan.

  1. Ueno Chizuko, “Seibu Department Store and Image Marketing – Japanese Consumerism in the Postwar Period” in Kerrie L. MacPherson ed. Asian Department Stores, p.342. []
  2. Ibid, p. 326. []
  3. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, p. 1-2. []
  4. Osawa Masachi, Kyokou No Jidai No Hate, p. 47-48. []
  5. ‘Locating Reijo’, https://bodiesandstructures.org/bodies-and-structures-2/locating-reijo?path=peopling-the-place-of-mitsukoshi [accessed 12.2.2023]. []
  6. Laura Miller, ‘Elevator Girls Moving In and Out of the Box’ in ed. Freedman, Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan, p.65. []

The Buddhism Centered Chinese Exhibit at the British Museum, London

The British Museum has a surprising amount of space dedicated to Asia, and specifically China – aside from sections devoted to Chinese jade and its products, and a rather extensive and well cataloged section devoted to Chinese porcelain, there is a section devoted to the region itself. While the fact that entire sections are dedicated to Chinese jade and porcelain is in itself worth examining from a spatial standpoint – ascribing a large degree of focus on the categorization of these singular types of items – what is especially interesting is the framing of the Chinese history section around Buddhism.

Green, Brendan. Overview of the Gallery of China. September 2, 2023. Photograph, 4032×3024 pixels.

The initial view of the section as one enters it is striking – red pillars flow from the front to the back of the area, separating the different subsections. The impression is almost like that of a temple – something that is strengthened by the display in the far back and center of the section. The display is that of three Bodhisattvas overlooking the entire area, dwarfing most of the exhibit physically. If there is a visual narrative created by the spatial layout of the section, it is one that places Buddhism at the center of Chinese history.

Green, Brendan. Three Bodhisattvas Overlooking the Gallery. September 2, 2023. Photograph, 4032×3024 pixels.

The subsections of the area also place an emphasis on Buddhism – for the most part, these sections divide China along temporal lines, by constructions such as ‘early’ and ‘modern’ China, and along dynastic lines. One of the few exceptions to this is the subsection completely devoted to Buddhism in China.

Green, Brendan. Structure of the Gallery of China. September 2, 2023. Photograph, 4032×3024 pixels.

The focus that the section places on Buddhism is noteworthy because while Buddhism is important in Chinese history, it is far from the most important or only element in the history of Chinese religion, culture and spiritualism. Taoism and Confucianism go nearly unmentioned throughout the entire section, while displays that contain artifacts relevant to non-Buddhist religious and spiritual practices are discussed outside their respective contexts.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly why the British Museum decided to frame its China exhibit around Buddhism. One possible reason is due to material limitations – perhaps the Museum simply did not have access to as many artifacts related to Taoism and Confucianism as they did Buddhism. Perhaps the Museum decided that centering the section around the display of the three Bodhisattvas would make for a striking and dramatic image, and themed the section to match. Regardless, it is an interesting example of how a museum can construct narrative through spatial arrangement.  

Modern innovation or symbol of colonial control? The case of the department store in early 20th century Korea and Taiwan

One might think on the surface that the history of department stores would be pretty dull stuff. On the contrary, it is a fascinating topic, with an almost unlimited scope to draw from. In particular, Brian Moeran’s paper on the history of Japanese department stores reveals a wealth of information about the changing nature of shopping and consumerism in Japan. Having studied modernism and consumer culture for my long essay last year, focusing especially on the flagship companies of Mitsukoshi and Shiseido, I was eager to learn more about department stores, this time taking a look not at the goods on display inside, but from a conceptual stance on how the very concept of a department store was seen as a site of contradiction and control.

In discussing the way that the department store brought modernity to Japan, Moeran states that it “personified the new intelligentsia’s aspirations for enrichment, self-fulfilment and gracious living during the period of Taishou democracy.”1. In contrast, Jina Kim’s work Urban Modernities in Colonial Korea and Taiwan shows how this was no less true in Korea and Taiwan, but that it came with an inherent contradiction for those living under colonial control. In her chapter on consuming modernity, Kim takes a different angle of analysis in looking at how department stores were viewed in literature, taking two specific short stories as her basis. Like Moeran, she begins by giving a historical overview of department stores in Japan, but then turns her attention to how they were brought over to Korea and Taiwan as part of the Japanese occupation. She shows how what is now such a staple part of daily life was viewed with fear and conflicting feelings for those living under colonial control, as it was a symbol of modernity, but a forced modernity, brought not by their own wishes but as the coloniser’s desire to shape Korea and Taiwan according to their own view of what a ‘modern’ nation ought to look like.

Kim’s work is fascinating for showing how literature can be used as a contemporary source for historical analysis. She notes that the decades of the 1920s and 30s saw heavy crackdowns on political and activist groups, and so literature allowed authors to “spiritedly engage with the changing attitudes toward modern life and the best possible way to make sense of the often insensible modern world.”2 By depicting scenes of modern life replete with vivid descriptions of western clothes, shops, food and goods of all kinds, authors were able to make “subtle yet strong leftist critiques” which “[made] the reader question the conditions of urban life.”3 By contrasting authors in Korea and Taiwan, Kim shows the similarities and differences in attitudes in the two countries. Although her analysis on Taiwan is far shorter and could benefit from further examples, her detailed discussion on Korea and the work of Yi Hyosǒk shows how fiction can reveal a wealth of information about daily life and the contradictory views of the time. While the historian has to keep in mind issues with straying into literary analysis, Kim’s work is a brilliant example of how it can be done while keeping a firm historical focus and bringing a new perspective into the existing work on imperialism and colonialism.

  1. Brian Moeran, ‘The Birth of the Japanese Department Store’ in Kerrie MacPherson (ed) Asian Department Stores, (Honolulu, 1998), pg. 142 []
  2. Jina E. Kim, Urban Modernities in Colonial Korea and Taiwan, (Boston, 2010), pg. 100. []
  3. ibid. []

A Haven for High Society: The Shanghai Race Club as a Hub of Socialisation (1862-1951)

The Shanghai Race Club was much more than just a place for horse racing. Founded in 1862, the club quickly became one of the most prominent social and cultural centres in Shanghai, attracting some of the city’s wealthiest and most influential residents. For nearly a century, from 1862 to 1951, the Shanghai Race Club was a hub of socialisation, where attendees could gather to mingle, dine, dance, and enjoy a variety of cultural and sporting events. This blog post will explore the spatial practices of a typical Raceday at Shanghai during this fascinating period in the city’s history. Such a spatial approach provides a unique window into the social and cultural dynamics of Shanghai during this time.

It is the autumn of 1924. It’s Raceday. The day everyone has been waiting for. The crowd in the enclosure is decked out in the finest and most elegant styles of the Art Deco period. Anticipation for the Champions’ Stakes is bubbling, with a sense of electricity and excitement rippling through the air of Old Shanghai. This scene, one of the most famous from the time of Treaty Port China, is a magnificent lens through which to understand social practices and how people, of different classes, genders and ethnicities mingled and interacted.


Ning Jennifer Chang’s ‘To See and Be Seen: Horse Racing in Shanghai, 1848–1945’, is a wonderful text that captures that unique element of the typical Raceday in Shanghai. This being that the act of going ‘Racing’ is as much about the spatial practices of the enclosures, the bars and the dining rooms than it is about the running of the horses themselves. The spectacle was a product of the attendees themselves; the way they dressed, behaved and put on a show. Chang’s chapter captures the significance of ‘being seen’, the outward portrayal of a positive, and often opulent and lavish image, that would heighten social status and your perceived position of class. Dressed in ‘divine millinery’ and ‘dainty dresses and lovely ducklings of bonnets’, the ladies attending appear to have been especially concerned with this external image.

James Carter’s brilliant ‘Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai’ also captures the vibrance of Raceday at Shanghai. He writes that ‘Champions Day was Shanghai: stylish and obscene, bigoted and cosmopolitan, refined and ragtag.’2 This excerpt seizes the juxtapositions that would have been clear on the day. The whole of Shanghai had come to watch; different classes, genders and ethnicities all in the enclosure together, all rushing to the bookies to place a bet, all rushing to the bar to get one more drink. Chang notes that on one occasion in 1878, 20,000 Chinese people attended, a figure amounting to 10% of the total Chinese population of Shanghai.3The enclosure, a relatively small space for watching the races, would have had people huddled closely together, everyone visible to one another and all open to each other’s scrutiny and judgment.

Despite the buzz of the enclosure, elites still had the privilege of private dining and drinking. Owners’ boxes provided a more exclusive space for ‘elaborate meals and freely flowing champagne.’4 Fur coats and the latest fashions were strutted, whilst ever more alcohol was consumed in what must have been a similarly raucous atmosphere. Carter’s book highlights how important the fashion was to the scene of the day. Miss Ing Tang (pictured below) was a fashion designer who made clothes specifically for the Raceday. Her designs and their popularity reveal that ‘the day should be not just about sports but also about the Settlement’s social scene of sophisticated, sometimes, orientalist styles.’5


One only has to visit the Cheltenham Festival or Ladies Day at Royal Ascot to understand and grasp the link that racing has with style, grandeur and elegance. It continues to capture the imaginations and offer many the chance to display their class, high-taste and social status. This is confirmed by Chang who writes that ‘Horse racing was not the only thing worth watching. During the two seasonal meetings held each year, the area around the edge of the racecourse became a temporary leisure space, and for those few days, it would be like a Chinese festival or a Western holiday’.7 The Race Club during this era provides another example of Shanghai’s trendsetting style. Although a Western import through the Treaty Port arrangement, the city embraced not only the sport of racing, but also its culture of socialising, gambling and drinking. In concurrence with the cabarets, dance halls and jazz that defined much of the social liberation and moderation of this period, racing and its fashion had a huge influence on the changing cultural landscape of Shanghai.

It is important to note the autonomy that this space provided otherwise constrained groups. Women were arguably the biggest beneficiaries, with the chance to express themselves in high style. Moreover, women from all walks of life were able to attend, with the admission fee being inexpensive. Chang has also expressed the view that ‘Within this space, the most attractive aspect was that men were allowed to watch women without restrictions regardless of whether they were decent women or courtesans from Shanghai’s brothels.’8 Thus, equally, the men in attendance benefited from the female presence, too, with the enclosure offering a unique spatial environment for interaction and courtship.

As it turned out, the smart money in 1924 was on Bonnie Scotland to win the Champions’ Stakes as it ran comfortably home by a few lengths. Not that anyone was paying too much attention. The real show was the effervescent champagne social taking place the other side of the rail. The day out at the Race Club was an archetypal element of Shanghai’s cultural liberation during this period, one which did not discriminate and one which excited the entire city.

  1. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/shanghai-race-club []
  2. James Carter, Champions’ Day: The End of Old Shanghai, (New York, 2020), p. 22 []
  3. Ning Jennifer Chang, ‘To See and Be Seen: Horse Racing in Shanghai, 1848–1945’, in The Habitable City in China: Urban History in the Twentieth Century, (London, 2017), p. 96 []
  4. Carter, Champions’ Day, p. 22 []
  5. Carter, Champions’ Day, p. 86 []
  6. Carter, Champions’ Day, p.86 []
  7. Chang, ‘To See and Be Seen, p. 97 []
  8. Chang, ‘To See and Be Seen, p. 98 []