‘The Fengshui is right’: Geomancy and the ROC

Since its first encounter. Western opinion has been largely negative on the practice of Fengshui. Ernest J. Eitel in 1873 characterises it as ‘the blind gropings of the Chinese mind’, which one has ‘to overthrow’ to modernise a state.’ (1) Similarly, Edwin Dukes characterises it as a contradictory, ‘overbearing tyrant’ which will eventually be worn down and replaced by western thought and technology. (2) Beyond calling it irrational, some western scholars even characterised it as actively malevolent, posing ‘real danger and persecution’ to the missionaries. (3) By the early 20th century however, western scholarship had shifted a little, to include a few more sympathetic voices to geomancy’s case, with writers such as L.C Porter and Joseph Needham seeking to ground it in philosophy and science respectively, rather than dismissing it immediately as superstitious nonsense. (4)

This more sympathetic tone can be seen in US Congressmen Victor Murdock’s 1920 book China the Mysterious and Marvellous, which was a travel account of China and its spiritual and cultural practices. He similarly grounds Fengshui as a collected knowledge gathered over ’40 decades, ‘the science of knowing what is an auspicious place’ and an ‘ancient and revered custom’. (5)  While he argues that the new Republic should work to de-prioritise Fengshui in favour of western progressive ideas, he argues patience towards the Chinese population as asking them to change this custom is akin to asking Westerners to change something fundamental like the days of the week. (6)

What distinguishes him from both Eitel and Dukes however, is that he doesn’t just see Fengshui as a spiritual practice used by the Chinese commoners, but a wider characteristic and emblem to describe China as a whole.  In his concluding remarks  about his experience travelling through the new Republic of China he notes that ‘The Feng-shui is right…it is here, the Chinese believe in it, and it is working for the Republic.’ (7) This statement is striking for two reasons, firstly it is contradictory to the Republic’s state on the moment writing and their attitude towards Fengshui. Secondly, it highlights the conflation of two conceptions of Fengshui in Western eyes, Fengshui as something to be cultivated, and Fengshui as an omnipresent entity.

In line with Murdock’s earlier remarks in his work – that Fengshui was a longstanding, ingrained custom that the Republic’s ‘spirit of progress’ was helping to loosen its grip – the ROC policy towards geomancy was suppression. (8) The new ruling class of modern educated urban elites saw breaking popular superstition as a necessary condition to transform China and to claim the identity of a modern nation. The establishment of foreign universities and the growing interest in science led to the rise of anti-religious sentiment in the 1920s, calling for the end of rituals of popular religion. (9) Within the decade of Murdock writing this, the government produced the ‘Procedure for the Abolition of the Occupations of  Divination, Astrology, Physiognomy and Palmistry, Magic and Geomancy (1929). In this period then, the Chinese Officials and Western commentators seems to be working in tandem to undermine Fengshui. Yet despite this, Murdock still chose to characterise the Republic’s success, and future, on the existence of Fengshui.

Beyond basing their success on something that the government was actively trying to   distance themselves from, the basis he provides to evidence that Fengshui was working  in their favour seems spurious. Given that by the 1920s the Communist party was getting more of a foothold in China, and a year prior to publishing the Republic had to contend with the May Fourth movement, luck and good Fengshui are interesting qualities to characterise the new regime. He claims that the war with Japan and the Boxer uprising were fortunate events, both the workings of Fengshui which helped secure the success of the Republic. Yuan Shikai’s attempt to restore monarchy was permanently thwarted when fengshui ‘operated’ , causing his death (10). In the narrative Murdock describes, Fengshui isn’t generated or cultivated by the events, but rather it implies it cultivates the events to the fortune of the Republic. Murdock, therefore, positions this force as a spirit or omnipresent entity rather than a practice.


Both Dukes and Eitel explain, mostly disbelievingly, that Fengshui is something that can be disrupted or altered by actions, that someone can cultivate good Fengshui for themselves, or bad Fengshui for others, through distinct actions or spatial arrangements. Even beyond western interpretation, wider scholarship seems to characterise Fengshui as a more individualistic, ego-centred practice, not something working for and against a large collective such as a state. (11) Presenting it in such a way then suggests Murdock wasn’t just reviewing or critiquing Fengshui but utilising it for a distinct purpose. Murdock was working under Woodrow Wilson, whose presidency had been characterised as deploying ‘missionary diplomacy’. (12) He saw spreading Christianity and democratic ideals as his role in China, and as such worked extensively in his terms to cultivate a good relationship with the nation. As mentioned above, the educated elites were responsive to this agenda, drawing on British and American models for governance,  and in turn utilised this relationship to put pressure on Wilson to acknowledge the new regime, and securing his support in relation to their demand to have the Shandong province returned to them. (13) Murdock’s representation of the Republic, endowed with good Fengshui and somehow destined to survive, is in line with both the Republic’s and United State’s interest. By characterising a regime that had been more responsive to Western ideas and technologies as inherently lucky and auspicious, Murdock was protecting American interests. Therefore, it could be argued, in the same way that Western observers like Dukes and Eitel argued that Chinese locals used Fengshui as a way to oppose foreign influence, that Murdock saw Fengshui as a tool, and popular selling point, to bolster support and confidence around the more Western-minded Republic of China.


(1)    Ernest John Eitel, Feng Shui or the Rudiments of Natural Science in China (1873), pp.49-50

(2) Edwin Joshua Dukes. Everyday Life in China: Or, Scenes Along River and Road in Fuh-Kien. Religious Tract Society, 1885. IA Ch VIII Feng-shui: The Biggest of All Bugbears pp145-159, p.159

(3)   James E. Mills, “Western responses to feng shui.” Middle states geographer 32 (1999): 71-77, p. 72

(4) Mills, ‘Western responses’, p.73

(5) Victor Murdock, China the mysterious and marvellous. (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1920), p.134, p.137

(6) Murdock, China the mysterious, p.138

(7) Murdock, China the mysterious, p.307

(8) Murdock, China the mysterious, p.138

(9) Ole Bruun. Fengshui in China: Geomantic divination between state orthodoxy and popular religion. (University of Hawaii Press, 2003), pp.72-78

(10)  Murdock, China the mysterious, p.307

(11)   Brunn, Fengshui in Chin, p.15

(12) Eugene P. Trani, “Woodrow Wilson, China, and the Missionaries, 1913—1921.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985) 49. 4 (1971), pp. 328-351,

(13)  Trani, “Woodrow Wilson”, , p.335, pp.347-351


The Eternal Ways of Wind and Water: How Modern is Western Feng Shui?

In his article “Western Responses to Feng Shui”, James Mills argues that western representations of feng shui act as a mirror for western society, rather than informing us of authentic feng shui practice . Using this theory he claims that modern American conceptions of feng shui reveal the individualistic, commercialised, rootless nature of western society.1 However, this article ultimately falls victim to essentialising Chinese belief systems due to disillusionment with American society. “Traditional” feng shui and the feng shui of the modern west in fact bear surprising similarities, By analysing modern western feng shui, as presented in the magazine “Feng Shui for Modern Living”, we can trace continuity where Mills finds dissonance.

Figure 1: The First Issue of “Feng Shui for Modern Living”

“Feng Shui for Modern Living” was first published in 1998, and, as seen in Figure 1, it claims to be the world’s first full colour magazine on feng shui. As noted by Mills, its pages are predominantly devoted to interior design and the benefits it can have for the individual, with articles such as “12 Mood Lighting Ideas” and “Arrange Your Desk For Success” featuring in the first issue. This, he argues, represents the self-centred nature of western culture. The communal concern for street alignment and settlement layout of traditional feng shui is lost.2 However, feng shui has always been an individualistic pursuit for the common person. Whereas the elites of Chinese society tried to etch cosmic importance into the fabric of cities, common people were always concerned with their personal fortunes. Qi, the force which feng shui was designed to capture was seen as a finite resource, and as a result fostered competition between those who hoped to harness it.3 For example, in cases of parental burial, given each child’s unique cosmological relationship to a potential gravesite, siblings often struggled among themselves to select one which was most auspicious for themselves at the expense of others.4 Feng shui has thus always been an intensely and inherently individual endeavour.

Also missing from the pages of “Feng Shui for Modern Living” is any reference to the siting of tombs, which Mills argues is fundamental to “traditional” feng shui. Burial siting was undeniably an important part of early feng shui. However, Ole Brunn argues that over the course of Chinese history, divination of graves for the dead became less and less orthodox.5 By the 1880s, for the Chinese community in Singapore, burial siting was uncommon. Selecting an ideal burial site was, to a large extent, a privilege of the wealthy. Most had to make do with common graveyards run by Chinese associations, which did not totally disregard cosmological siting but were far less specifically tailored.6 Rather, grave siting took on greater meaning as a strategic discourse of resistance, used to combat British attempts to exert greater control over Chinese Singaporeans. To most of the Chinese community in colonial Singapore, burial feng shui was much more of an ideal used to justify the immunity of certain spaces from colonial interference than an essential practice. To suggest that the exclusion of burial geomancy from western feng shui is a unique omission disregards the plurality of feng shui conceptions over time.

Another of Mills’ critiques is that of over-commercialisation, with western practitioners harnessing the idea of feng shui to sell their services, magazines (such as “Feng Shui for Modern Living”), and correspondence courses.7 According to Mills, the market has been oversaturated and greedy. Yet, feng shui specialists were already omnipresent in Qing times.8 The feng shui market has always been large due to its necessity in nearly all aspects of Chinese life. These practitioners would have demanded fees for their services, and though their base salary may have been comparatively low, they were expected to be hosted lavishly with plenty of good food and drink during the period of their work, which could last for several days or more.9 In addition, Ole Brunn suggests that feng shui was used as a bargaining tool to extort money from foreigners attempting to build infrastructure into China during the 1840s and 50s.10 Overall, there is no reason to romanticise feng shui as an altruistic practice. From its origin, it has been a pragmatically deployed trade and tool.

That is not to say that modern western feng shui is the same as the ancient Chinese practice or that it tells us nothing of our current times. It is, indeed, a unique conception of feng shui born from its context. However, the same is true of feng shui in every time and place, as it is truly an umbrella term which encompasses a diversity of practices and beliefs. We should therefore be cautious of any fixed conception of feng shui at all. Attempting to contrast modern applications of feng shui with a “traditional” alternative is a baseless task, which ultimately leads to the essentialisation of eastern belief systems.

  1. James Mills, ‘Western Responses to Feng Shui’, Middle States Geographer 32:1 (1999), p. 75. []
  2. Ibid, p. 74. []
  3. Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Feng Shui (Cambridge, 2008), p. 63. []
  4. Richard Smith, Fortune-tellers and Philosophers (New York, 1992), p. 164. []
  5. Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Feng Shui (Cambridge, 2008), p. 11. []
  6. Brenda Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore (Singapore, 2003), p. 297. []
  7. James Mills, ‘Western Responses to Feng Shui’, Middle States Geographer 32:1 (1999), p. 74. []
  8. Richard Smith, Fortune-tellers and Philosophers (New York, 1992), p. 132. []
  9. Ibid, p. 155. []
  10. Ole Brunn, An Introduction to Feng Shui (Cambridge, 2008), p. 40. []

Ghosts, Festivals and Soujourner Identities

,The Yu Lan Jie (盂蘭節), or the Hungry Ghost festival provides an interesting lens to view the soujourner communities and native place associations in major Asian cities through. This can be seen in the symbolic respect of the soujourner ghost, or the community building aspect of these festivities but also the contested space itself where these festivals and rituals take place – where foreign influence and urbanisation threatened the communities’ access and claims to the land and the Yu Lan Jie celebrations.

 Playing a role in Taoism, Chinese folk religion, and Chinese Buddhism, this important festival has muiltiple reported origins, but can be traced back to an ancient Indian buddhist scripture known as Yulanpen Sutra, from which the name of the festival derives. The Sutra relays the story of Maudgalyayana, who goes on a journey to visit his deceased parents, only to find his mother in the realm of Preta, the hungry ghost. After his mother refuses his rice, Maudgalyayana is informed by Buddha that the only way he can feed and save her is by providing offerings at his monastic community during Pravarana, roughly corresponding to the 15th day of the 7th month (1). Drawing on this, the Chinese celebration falls on the 7th lunar month, considered the ghost month, where on the 15th day of that month the gates to hell and heaven open and the ghosts are believed to pass into the human realm. Rituals and offerings are given to satisfy these ghosts in both burial grounds and the house, with the intended purpose of ensuring prosperity and ward off bad luck. I bring up the origins of this festival to trace what the early depictions of this festival seem to align with, the family. In these images, celebrations seem to be more intimate and more household based rather than celebrated by guilds or communities.



This more personal setting however, applies only to one side of the festival: household celebrations were specific to ancestral ghosts, however, separate celebrations existed in the heart of the community – often in regional temples and burial grounds or marketplaces – for the ghosts with no descendants or who have been forgotten (2). Indeed, the potent image of the ‘hungry ghost’, almost animalistic in their distress, seem to align more with these forgotten, emotionally charged ghosts than the ancestral spirits. Therefore, when cities like Shanghai starting rapidly urbanising in the 19th century, the native place associations which sprang up found this festival an important event to show their regional solidarity. The ‘sojourning ghost’, as Goodman aptly puts it, and its plight as a foreign entity in the living realm, struck a cord with the lonely sojourners in the city without families (3). Indeed, a stone inscription on a Ningbo artisan association building in Shanghai seems to make this exact parallel when it says: “Living, we are guests from other parts; dead, we are ghosts from foreign territory.” (4)

The communal festivities include rituals performed by Taoist priests or Buddhist monks, – who were sometimes transported from their native regions- bonfires burning spirit money and clothes to transfer to the pauper ghosts, stage performances, costumed processions and a large collective banquet for members of the native place associations (5). These activities led to a large amount of flexibility in cultural expression, lavishness and scale, allowing a fluid framework for members to exert their regional identities through far from home. It allowed expression from across the social strata of the native place association, not just the Huiguan leaders (6). For the more )wealthy and prominent regional communities, like Guangdong and Ningbo, these processions and religious ceremonies were the perfect opportunity to exert their legitimacy and prestige as a collective.  The festivities also prompted social welfare provisions amongst the association, with cakes made for the celebration being distributed to the poorest in the group (7).  welfare did act as a point of critique of these celebrations, particularly when funds for disaster and conflict relief were being sought from those affected in their transnational communities. As a one writers chides  “The yulanpenhui is to relieve the homeless ghosts. But they are already dead. . . . Why not help the living?” (8). With the hungry ghost celebrations and public charity both important for the construction of status for the Huiguan elites and the community’s identity such a critique almost challenges an ordered hierarchy of the prestige making activities of native place associations. While public charity and mutual aid objectively seems the more worthy cause for the whole regional group, somewhat ironically it exists as the less accessible option for the lower strata to participate in than Yu Lan Jie which remained popular well into the 20th century.

The final thought I wanted to discuss about the significance of the festival was what it reflected about the ongoing struggle soujourner communities faced in regards to the burial grounds and guild halls where they would perform some of these rituals, and the very real dead they were temporarily storing before transporting them to their native regions. Rapid urbanisation of cities didn’t just lead to the rise of migrant soujourner communities in cities, but also led to the problem of relocating graveyards upon the desire to expand the boundaries of the city. In Shanghai, this problem was often characterised as a conflict between the Chinese communities and the Western powers. This could be seen generally through the western discourse of public health and plague prevention, objecting to the sojourner guilds coffin repositories in the urban areas (9). More specifically though, it is possibly most famously seen through the two conflicts between French authorities and the Ningbo people regarding the location of Siming Gongsuo and coffin repository in 1874 and 1898. While an article in the agreement between China and the international settlement specifically forbade the western powers from removing the dead from their lands without explicit permission, because said article also stated that the no new Chinese coffins should be placed within their limits, many public cemeteries quickly decided it was in their interest to agree and relocate (10). Guild graveyards proved to be more stubborn, particularly the Siming Gongsuo. Given all the discussion above, it can be understood why these locations would be more precious to the soujourner community, away from their home and family. The rise in popularity of the commercial urban graveyards in Shanghai are possibly evidence that people were feeling the distance between the city and the newly relocated, isolated graveyards. While the Ningbo riots can be characterised as examples of early popular nationalism, it’s important to contextualise these events in the broader trend of urban displacement. Thomas S. Mullaney interactive digital volume The Chinese Deathscape Grave Reform in Modern China virtually maps this phenomenon and notes that this is just as much a contemporary issue as it is historic (11). While the festivals may have spiritually marked the migration of the dead in the living realm, burial re-locations make the dead physically migrants in, what Mullaney terms, the landscape of death. This not only makes the metaphor between sojourner and ghost complete, but also indicates why such a festival has been historically so important to migrant communities, as it is not only culturally enriching but such cultural enrichment is under a continuous mounted threat from urbanisation.


(1)   Jean DeBernardi,. “The hungry ghosts festival: a convergence of religion and politics in the chinese community of Penang, Malaysia.” Asian Journal of Social Science 12, no. 2 (1984), pp.25-34, p.26

(2)  Debarnardi, “The hungry ghosts”, pp.27-29

(3)  Bryna Goodman, Native, Place, City, and Nation: regional networks and identities in Shanghai, 1853-1937, (University of California Press, 2023.), p.96

(4)  Cited in Goodman, Native, Place, City, p.96

(5)  Debarnardi, ‘The hungry ghosts’, p.27-29,

(6)  Goodman, Native, Place, City, p.100

(7)  Debarnardi, ‘The hungry ghosts’, p.28

(8)  Goodman, Native, Place, City, p.99

(9)  Ibid.p.163

(10) Christian Henriot, ‘When the Dead Go Marching in’, in Mullaney, Thomas Shawn, Christian Henriot, Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke, David William McClure, and Glen Worthey. The Chinese deathscape: Grave reform in modern china. Stanford University Press, 2019.

(11) Henriot, ‘When the Dead’.



Welcome to the Hotel der Nederlanden: Cultural Contact in Anna Forbes’ “Insulinde”

A “contact zone” refers to a space where historically and geographically separated people engage with each other and establish new relationships and identities.1 In the Dutch colonial city of Batavia, a “contact zone” of particular note was the Hotel der Nederlanden, one of the most prominent hotels in the city and often the first port of call for any visiting European. By analysing the representation of the Hotel der Nederlanden in Anna Forbes’ 1887 “Insulinde: Experiences of a Naturalist’s Wife in the Eastern Archipelago “, we can learn about Dutch colonial culture and how its unique hybridity supported discourses of colonial modernisation. By conspicuously adopting certain features of native culture, and placing them in service of western comfort and convenience, colonial Batavian society could claim to be elevating and improving native society.

Co-option of some native ways of life within the Hotel der Nederlanden is apparent in Forbes’ description of guest attire. She is shocked to learn that Dutch ladies wore the native sarong for nearly all of the day besides dinner, rather than a “respectable skirt”.2 Despite her initial reaction, she eventually sees rationality behind these clothes which are “natural in the climate”, even saying the sarong is “really becoming” once you become accustomed to it.3 Given their ready adoption of native dress by the residents of the Hotel der Nederlanden, Batavian society did not seem to outwardly harbour anxieties about “going native”. However, the sarongs worn by European ladies are seen by Forbes to be separate and improved from their native versions, being elevated by costly materials, dainty “lace or embroidery”, or a European dressing jacket.4 Thus, aspects of native culture were appropriated by Europeans who were seen to bring greater aesthetic sophistication to them, impressing the merit of Dutch colonial society upon visitors.

Beyond merely providing a backdrop for this phenomenon, the hotel perpetuated it through its dining experience. Forbes states that, after a fairly standard breakfast of eggs, coffee, and sausages, lunch at the Hotel der Nederlanden presented a fusion of Indonesian and western cuisines. The process of this meal, called the “rijsttafel” or “rice table” by the Dutch, involved guests helping themselves to rice served on an immense platter, spooning curry over it, adding various meats, fritters, vegetables, and condiments (pickles, chutneys, chili), and then mixing it all together.5 Not only did the “rice table” confront the uninitiated with new foods, it was also an unfamiliar ritual. Forbes notes how a family unused to the custom nearly missed out on all the food before her husband intervened.6 What is most clearly demonstrated here is the clear intention of the Hotel der Nederlanden to not imitate the colonial metropole. Rather than relying solely on familiar European dishes and practices, the hotel encouraged visitors to engage heavily with “native” cuisine. Yet, given a Dutch name, prepared by European chefs,7  and served alongside “beefsteaks and fried potatoes”,5 the “rijsttafel” was separated from whatever native roots it might have had. Like the sarongs of the ladies at the Hotel der Nederlanden, it was only a superficial adoption of Indonesian customs, redesigned for European consumption.

Thus, despite these visible areas of cultural hybridity, the Hotel der Nederlanden was still firmly entrenched in colonial hierarchies. One clear example of this is presented in Forbes’ description of the staff, as she notes the amount of male servants, waiters, and valets rushing about the hotel.8 All are said to be referred to as “boy”. Indeed, contemporary travel guides would often include sections on useful vocabulary for hotel life, which are predominantly addressed to the native “boy”.9 This imperious language made clear the implied hierarchy between Europeans and the Javanese. As such, though Javanese concepts, aesthetics, and culture are incorporated into the experience of the hotel, colonial prejudices were still present. Adoption of native attire or cuisine merely served to conceal this, suggesting instead that the Dutch were actively improving upon and modernising Indonesian society.

By analysing the Hotel der Nederlanden as a “contact zone”, we can learn about how Dutch colonial society constructed their identities as modernisers and cultural stewards. The aspects of culture chosen for appropriation and the methods by which they were adapted show that interest in truly accepting native culture was superficial. However, for Anna Forbes and visitors like her, the Hotel der Nederlanden and the wider Dutch East Indies came to embody the proof of the European capacity to advance native cultures.10 Thus, the Hotel der Nederlanden can be seen as a site where cultural contact was leveraged to highlight the beneficial effects Dutch rule had on Indonesian culture.

  1. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturization (London, 1992), p. 4. []
  2. Anna Forbes, Insulinde: Experiences of a Naturalist’s Wife in the Eastern Archipelago (London, 1887), p. 8. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Anna Forbes, Insulinde: Experiences of a Naturalist’s Wife in the Eastern Archipelago (London, 1887), pp. 8-9. []
  5. Ibid, p. 11. [] []
  6. Ibid, p. 12. []
  7. Scott Merrillees, Greetings from Jakarta (Toledo, 2012), p. 80. []
  8. Ibid, p. 7. []
  9. For example: The Official Tourist Bureau, Java, The Wonderland (Batavia, 1900), pp. 4-6. []
  10. Susan Morgan, Place Matters: Gendered Geography in Victorian Women’s Travel Books About Southeast Asia (New Jersey, 1996), p. 71. []

Spring Prospectus: Boating and the Bund: The Shanghai Yacht Society and the masculinity of leisure, c.1890-1930.

This blog is a short introduction to my Spring essay followed by a short analysis of a few primary sources intend to use as part of the final analysis.

The relationship between sport and empire initiated the homogenization of societies, cultures and institutions whilst introducing western sports globally.1 This essay will explore the relationship between the Shanghai Yacht Club and its use as a font of colonial masculinity.  Through the club’s role as a site of leisure, its function consolidated the British settler community in Shanghai as an economically, politically and racially separate and exclusive social unit from its establishment in 1868. The first recorded yacht race along the Shanghai River was in 1869 and soon after in 1871 the private Shanghai yacht club Boat house and Slipway Company was established in the bund; a ‘‘spatial form’’ that was already was backed up by a full set of strong and largely autonomous Western dominated institutions such as Shanghai Municipal Council, Mixed Court, Volunteer Corps, and Maritime Customs.2 The racially exclusive nature of these events distinguished British Settlers from the rest of the International Settlement. Resultantly, the club became a source of institutionalized identity for the settlers who controlled access to the bund and therefore, activities such as rowing or yachting which took place on the waters parallel were a physical manifestation of their ethnic and economic elitism.  

Boating and the Bund is an essay of three parts, it firstly asks, how did the leisure activities of rowing and sailing buttress the social lives and status of British male colonial identity in the Shanghai International Settlement from c.1890s-1930? The Shanghailanders, a nickname for the British settlers in Shanghai, were a social and ethnic group causing significant issues for the British State because if the legalities of their informal prescience in Shanghai.  With their financial successes tied inextricably to the treaty port system and their extraterritorial privileges, British settlers used social activities to create a unity and a sense of community identity.3 Articles in the Social Shanghai, a tabloid style magazine that as published by the North-China daily New and Herald Limited performed as a public newsletter focused on elevating the prestige associated with the British Settler’s leisure activities and the reputation of prominent men within these groups. A section of the Social Shanghai entitles ‘Well-Known Shanghai Residents’  in the 1908 January- June edition includes a section on MR G. W. Noel ‘a native of Surrey, came to Shanghai in 1895’, a reputable local man who became a partner at the auctioneering firm Makenzie and Co to form ‘one of the best known  and most highly esteemed auctioneers in the Far East’.4 Dubbed a great success, Mr. Noel is immediately named as an ‘active member’ of over 12 clubs in Shanghai (fig. 1) including the yacht club. tis clear that prestige and charisma, qualities of foremost importance within Shanghai’s British elite, were expressed primarily through visibly participating in community building leisure activities in order to highlight that your wealth and social standing was substantial enough to afford such pastimes. 5 On one level, participation was an illustration of a mans wealth and on another it was a sign of commitment to the Shanghailander community by investing in their shared value system, operated through leisurely clubs. Consequently, this essay asks; Why did the North China Herald and China Daily newspapers build such substantial excitement around the British clubs (as in rowing/sailing etc. rather than dancing clubs) of Shanghai and make their events into a source of tabloid media?  

Figure 1: Social Shanghai,  January-June 1908.6

Secondly, executing the Yachting races along the bund illustrates how British settlers used the site to reinforce their identity spatially. As figure 2 illustrates, it is clear that the Bund is a site of exerting British culture and national identity through architecture and leisure. Sailing and rowing were primary opportunities to display agility and skill whilst asserting spatial control over the bund. These club also used their institutions and infrastructures to generate British imperialism within Shanghai’s international settlement during the decline of the Shanghailander political authority. By racing with British settlers from the Hong Kong yacht club to provide a vector through which the British settlers of Shanghai could associate themselves with the colonial authority of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Telegraph and the China Herald report extensively on the relations and competitions between the two British yachting clubs.7 This essay argues that this relationship was co-constitutional. Whilst the Shanghailanders need to outsource their authority as British Settlers form their more stable Hong Kong associates, equally British colonial masculinity was supported significantly by the use of sport to illustrate their capacities and therefore the Hong Kong club also boosted their colonial identities from the racing tournaments.


Figure 2: The Bund, Shanghai by Sunqua (1830-1870).8

Thirdly, as the Nationalist Revolution took hole in 1923-1928, dependence on Leisure as a source of strength established competing masculinities. with the boom of Chinese clubs were challenged by Chinese alternatives in the leisure and club scene, no evolution occurred within British circles. Therefore, using articles from North-China Herald, China Mail and the Hong Kong Telegraph to track the growth of their Chinese counterpart clubs,  the this essay aims to analyze how this decline impacted the relationship between the British and other ethnic groups within the international settlement as they were no longer able to rely on this source of colonial masculinity which was fundamental to asserting their control in treaty port Shanghai. 

This essay will argue that the creation of social anticipation and a group mentality through clubs like the Yacht Society were established to separate the British Shanghailander from other international settlers and local Chinese residents. Consistent records of races between Shanghai and Hong Kong Yacht and Rowing Clubs further illustrate that this was an inter-treaty port social system through which British treaty port settlers were able to justify each other’s permanency.  

  1. Ning Jennifer Chang, ‘Women in the Chase: sports Empire, and Gender in Shanghai, 1860-1945’, Chinese studies in History 54, no. 2 (2021), pp.130-148. []
  2. Christian Henriot, ‘The Shanghai Bund in Myth and History: An Essay through Textual and Visual Sources,’ Journal of Modern Chinese History 4, no. 1 (2010), pp.1–27 []
  3. Robert Bickers, ‘Shanghailanders: The Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai 1843-1937’, Past and Present (1998), pp.161-211. []
  4. North China Daily News and Herald Ltd., ‘Social Shanghai: A Magazine for men and women’ Vol V (January-June 1908), p.31. Accessed at: Social Shanghai Vol V January-June 1908 : Shorrock, Mina : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive (accessed 20/03/2024) []
  5. ‘Social Shanghai: A Magazine for men and women’ Vol V (January-June 1908), p.31. Accessed at: Social Shanghai Vol V January-June 1908 : Shorrock, Mina : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive (accessed 20/03/2024) []
  6. North China Naily News and Herald Ltd., ‘Social Shanghai: A Magazine for men and women’ Vol V (January-June 1908), p.31. Accessed at: Social Shanghai Vol V January-June 1908 : Shorrock, Mina : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive (accessed 20/03/2024) []
  7. Anonymous 1925, Feb 09. HONG KONG YACHT RACERS WINNERS FROM SHANGHA, The China Press (1925-1938), p.1. (Accessed at: HONGKONG YACHT RACERS WINNERS FROM SHANGHAI: Full Account Of Interport Regatta; Some Very Good Sailing – ProQuest) Accessed on 20/03/2024 []
  8. The Bund, Shanghai by Sunqua (1830-1870) in the Ashmolean Library collection, Accessed at: https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/359962  (Accessed 20/03/2024) []

Policing, News and Government: Public law and order from the outside.

A pertinent chapter in the public order and policing of Shanghai was the 1930s when simultaneously, the looming threat of Japan led to a spike in public demonstrations in China, and Shanghai’s Public Safety Bureau came under strict anti-communist leadership who were extremely determined to eliminate radicalism from the city. This ‘red hysteria’ was so intense that the Bureau put aside its nationalist-fuelled disdain for Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) and co-operated with them to root out radical individuals and police the mass assemblies, whether student demonstrations or public celebrations (1). SMP’s increased anxiety and involvement in intense policing may have been seen as conducive to those in the cities, but to the foreign governments who backed the council, this shift in approach likely led to some reflection on the nature and perception of public order abroad, particularly at a time when imperial powers were struggling to mitigate unrest and loss of control in colonies

A useful source in considering the official British reaction to the public order in Shanghai is an exchange in the House of Lords between Lord Marley, Chief labour Whip, and the Earl of Stanhope, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs during a Sitting on 5th of February 1936 (2). During this Sitting Marley had called for papers from Stanhope in regards to the allegations surrounding police violence during a student demonstration on the 24th of December the previous year. Drawing from witness accounts Marley outlines accusations of unprovoked police brutality and calls for further inquiry into police conflict. Stanhope contends these allegations. There are three primary areas the two figures clash over: sources, justification and nature of police violence, and finally consequences of inappropriate policing. It’s clear that both sides see business as a prime motivator to keep law and order amicable, but they differ in terms of authority, in which evidence holds it and how best to instil it in overseas settlements.

In terms of sources, Marley is largely drawing from witness accounts, although they contextualise this evidence with newspaper coverage and complaint letters to newspapers describing other demonstrations in China such as Peking. They substantiate their claims by describing their witnesses as an American who is ‘entirely trustworthy’ and a Chinese lady who is ‘well known throughout the world’ and thus ‘whose evidence cannot be but reliable’. (3) In opposition, Stanhope bases all of his opinions on newspaper reporting and questions the journalistic research of Marley ‘I am bound to add that the report which I have read in the Press on this matter differs very materially from the one he has given to you Lordships’. (4) This prioritisation of the newspaper over first-hand accounts results in an echo chamber in opinions surrounding law and order, as the SMP were closely monitoring reports on their policing. Records from their archive show them disciplining several newspapers for breaking the Chinese Press laws which relate to disparagement of public services (5). SMP made sure they were represented in line with official attitudes to policing, and foreign officials used said newspapers to justify that their policing was appropriate. The weight Stanhope puts on these pro-police accounts in English newspapers indicates not only how important the press played in overseas policy, but also why the Shanghai Municipal Council’s control over journalistic reporting was important in asserting control and confidence in overseas government.

An important element of Marley’s case is that the procession was ‘entirely peaceful’ before the police came to break it up, He highlights the age of the participants as mostly ‘children of middle school age’, who were met by a fully armed band of foreign amel British officers (6). He noted that one officer started beating protesters over the head, leaving them bloody and unconscious. He implicitly praised the patriotism of these protests in the face of Japanese aggression and argued that such protests taking place here would be praised by intellectuals. He, then, deliberately parallels the British subject to the Chinese subject, with equality in rights.

In opposition to this, Stanhope highlights that, far from being fully innocent, these protesters were disrupting the traffic and business in the railway station for at least 30 hours (7). While discussing Japan, Jordan Sand highlights why demonstrations in urban railway stations represented both an effective site of public lobbying and a source of great annoyance and disorderliness for authorities (8). According to Stanhope, if you’re causing such a disruption to travel, ‘it is quite obvious’ any government must do what they need to ‘to secure control again’ (9). He also argued that a report in the paper counters the claim that the students were armless and peaceful. While he doesn’t explicitly agree undue force was used, his argument mostly suggests that he, and suggestively the government, believe state violence is necessary.

Interestingly, where Marley and Stanhope align is their framing of why appropriate enforcement of public law and order is important. While Marley highlights the unjust harm the police have potentially caused, he doesn’t present his case as a humanitarian plea, but as a business move. He highlights that excessive force could cause tensions to escalate between the British and Chinese populations, and increase anti-British sentiment (10). He argues that this would waste the opportunity British businesses have to snatch trade that used to be Japanese. Stanhope points out that the municipal council
are largely made up of businessmen so they’d be highly aware of the optics of their police on trade and keep it in check (11). Notably, however, he doesn’t counter Marley’s claim that public order isn’t just about a moral code or power hierarchy, but also a matter of good business. This is perhaps hardly surprising given, as Frederic Wakeman highlights, disorder itself was also often about trade, in this case, Shanghai’s notorious international narcotics trade (12).

(1) Frederic Wakeman Jr., “Policing Modern Shanghai,” The China Quarterly, no. 115 (September 1, 1988), pp.408–40, pp.433-436

(2) United Kingdom, Debate, House of Lords, v.99, (05 February 1936), pp.439-446, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1936/feb/05/the-international-settlement-in-shanghai

(3) UK, Debate, House of Lords, 1936, p. 441

(4) Ibid, p.443

(5) See file D-7518 in the SMP Archive, ‘Allegations Against The Police By The Shanghai Public Daily News 1569’


(6) UK, Debate, House of Lords, 1936, p. 441

(7) Ibid, p. 443

(8) Jordan Sand, Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects (University of California Press, 2013), pp.42-70.

(9) UK, Debate, House of Lords, 1936, p. 443

(10) Ibid, p.442

(11) Ibid, p.444

(12) Wakeman Jr, ‘Policing Modern Shanghai’, p 409




The little globe Shanghai: the independent coexistence of the political powers during the Republican period (1912-1949)


Shanghai has been a cosmopolitan city for a very long period. After the First Opium War, the British forces exerted influence over the city’s operations,2 and the signning of the Treaty of Nanking elevated Shanghai to a significant treaty port in China.3 Throughout the Republican era, Shanghai boasted numerous international settlements, attracting a sizable foreign population engaged in trade, migration, or seeking refuge.4 This dynamic transformed Shanghai into a city where diverse cultures, powers, and foreign identities intermingled. Among the various forces and identities present, the police forces emerged as particularly complex institutions, highlighting the intricacies of Shanghai’s societal landscape. In this week’s assigned reading, Frederic Wakeman Jr. posits that this complexity underscores Shanghai’s ties to the imperial network,5 as all four police agencies operating in the city during that time were linked to imperialism or colonialism:

  • The International Settlement’s Shanghai Municipal Police
  • Frenchtown’s Concession Police
  • The Nationalist Garrison Command’s Military Police
  • The Chinese Special Municipality’s Public Safety Bureau

Nevertheless, this blog, in another way intends to discuss the diverse police forces in Shanghai in 1945, based on the texts from one of the volumes of Jingcha Yuekan 警察月刊 published in 1945 in Shanghai, to contend that Shanghai, at least in the aspect of police forces, represented a little globe. Specifically, it was a city showcasing the international coexistence of various countries, rather than solely being a treaty port city within the imperial network.

In one of the volumes of Jingcha Yuekan 警察月刊 published in 1945, a text titled Waiji Baojia 外籍保甲 provides a concise overview of the foreign police forces in Shanghai during that year. According to the text, in 1945, there were 26,715 foreign households in Shanghai, including nationalities such as Poland, Spain, Germany, Greece, and White Russia, among others.6 This detailed enumeration highlights the Chinese police’s awareness of the growing presence of foreigners, necessitating specific record-keeping. Furthermore, the text includes information on marriages and departures of foreigners. In February 1945, for instance, one German and one Spanish individual left Shanghai, while ten others became residents due to marriage.6 Additionally, two individuals underwent divorce proceedings.7 These reports indicate that the Chinese Shanghai police force was not only focused on local criminal matters but also actively monitored the living situations of foreigners. Managing the experiences of foreign residents was evidently within the purview of the Chinese Shanghai police forces, reflecting an international exchange of information. At this juncture, the foreign residents were not a manifestation of imperialism but rather constituents of Shanghai as a miniature globe.

However, despite the Chinese police force noticing and recording the presence of foreign groups in Shanghai, it does not imply a managing-and-being-managed relationship between these foreigners and the Chinese police force. Instead, I argue that the primary text reveals Shanghai’s dynamic situation, which rendered it a little globe. While the Chinese police force documented the details of foreign residents, they were not involved in their management. According to the text, foreigners had their own established Baojia Dui 保甲队, responsible for securing of specific groups and conducting defence drills within their settlements. For instance, the text highlights that Jewish people had 45 Baojia 保甲, collectively serving as a police force for 16,713 hours in February.7 Moreover, in the same month, the Jewish police force conducted six air defence drills involving 511 individuals.7 Similarly, White Russians had three Baojia 保甲, serving for 1,032 hours in February.7 Evidently, foreign groups operated under their own orders and regulations regarding policing. At this juncture, the Chinese police force merely acted as record-keepers rather than active participants or managers. Although foreigners were residents of Shanghai under the supervision of the Chinese police force, these foreign groups operated independently of the Chinese police force system. Within Shanghai’s city space, these groups functioned as autonomous institutions. This arrangement contributed to the creation of a little globe in Shanghai that lacked a centralised management.

Frederic Wakeman Jr. argues that Shanghai’s complicated police systems during the time highlighted its role in the imperial network. However, my contention in this blog is that Chinese and foreigners in Shanghai occupied independent statuses individually. Spatially, Shanghai resembled a collection of many small states and nations, with the Chinese lacking dominant status. This situation resulted in Shanghai being characterised as a miniature globe during this era.

  1. “Waiji Baojiao” 外籍保甲, Jingcha Yuekan 警察月刊 1.2 (1945): 20. []
  2. Robert S. Rait, The Life and Campaigns of Hugh First Viscount Gough, Field-Marshal (London, 1903), p. 268. []
  3. ‘The Opium War (or How Hong Kong Began)’, South China Morning Post, 24 July, 2011, <https://www.scmp.com/article/974360/opium-war-or-how-hong-kong-began> [accessed 11 March 2024] []
  4. Frederic Wakeman, ‘Policing Modern Shanghai’, The China Quarterly 115 (September 1988): p. 427, <https://doi.org/10.1017/s0305741000027508> [accessed 11 March 2024] []
  5. Wakeman, ‘Policing Modern Shanghai’, p. 412.] []
  6. “Waiji Baojiao” 外籍保甲, p. 20. [] []
  7. Ibid. [] [] [] []

Understanding the Messy Urbanism of Shanghai Through Ursula Bacon’s Memoir

People played out their lives in the lanes… but it was the first hour after dawn that disturbed us… the residents… placed their honey pots in a neat row outside their house… soon… the unbelievably strange, guttural, grunting-groaning sound [of] … the two-wheel pushcart [came] for the collection of human faeces… As soon as he departed… women charged on the scene… soon came the rhythmic noise from swishing the bundle of sticks around inside the family toilet.1

This passage, from Ursula Bacon’s memoir From Hitler’s Hate to War-Torn China, describes a daily ritual that unfolded in the labyrinthine lanes of Shanghai. Residents meticulously arranged ‘honey pots’ (or otherwise known as wooden night stools, or family toilets) in rows outside their houses, heralding the arrival of the ‘two-wheel pushcart’ (or alternatively known as night stool cart) which was accompanied by strange guttural sounds – a peculiar yet particular urban orchestra responsible for collecting human waste.

As a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany, Bacon’s memoir helps to overcome the paucity of knowledge of the Jewish experience in Shanghai during the years 1939 to 1947. Throughout, Bacons depicts that upon disembarking from their ships, the refugees were met, not by the idyllic portrayal of China found in storybooks but rather with the stark reality of unfamiliar smells, sounds, crowds, heat and humidity. Bacon was overwhelmed by the nature of her new environment and at multiple points throughout her memoir she voices expression of disturbance at the city’s informal structures of practices – often dismissed as underdeveloped or messy. Indeed, Bacon’s memoir becomes a distinct articulation of the lives of the Chinese population living in Shanghai, which she saw as a ‘messy’ urban fabric.2

Jeffrey Hou and Manish Chalana in their chapter ‘Untangling the “Messy” Asian City,’ introduce the concept of ‘messy urbanism.’ This term encapsulates conditions and processes that diverge from institutionalised or culturally prescribed notions of order.3 Their chapter highlights the importance of looking at the often hidden, disguised, under appreciated, or dismissed compositions (such as disposal of waste) to help uncover the nuances of urban life. The author suggest that the layers of actors and actions revealed by the concept of ‘messy urbanism’ allow us to view urban life from a diverse, rather than hierarchical perspective. In this context, the seeming disorder of messiness conceals multiple layers of order and meaning that are readily decipherable to the communities that create and use them.4

In navigating her dual roles as both a foreigner and a refugee, Ursula Bacon also embraces the identity of a newcomer to Shanghai. This multifaceted positioning adds layers of complexity to her perspective, allowing her to engage with the urban landscape as someone simultaneously discovering and adapting to new surroundings. This nuanced perspective becomes a constant negotiation in her text, as she strives to portray the urban conditions without imposing the gaze of a foreigner who might misunderstand the complexity of the city. Bacon’s unique positioning contributes significant value to the representation of ‘messy urbanism,’ capturing the intricate dynamics of her experience in the lanes of Shanghai. Her words link the city’s ‘messiness’ to issues of poverty and a departed from the old hierarchical vision of Shanghai in the 1930s. Shanghai had established itself as the Paris of the East, yet Bacon’s initial impression reflects a nuanced perspective: ‘well, this is Shanghai, after all. It’s not Paris, London, Rome or Home.’5 Her use of a nostalgic tone serves to illuminate the everyday practices she encounters while traversing Shanghai to shed light on the broader patterns of urban order, characterising the messy urban fabric of Shanghai in the 1930s.

The work of Hanchao Lu’s Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century, helps to neatly outline this sentiment. Lu’s work is one of the most original contributions to our understanding of Shanghai and is a valued source. Lu does well to detail to the indispensable role of the ‘nightsoil’ collectors who ‘repeat these actions hundreds of times every morning.’6 Lu’s articulation, in conversation with Bacon’s memoir, reminds the readership that within the perceived disorder there lies hidden layers or order and meaning. Whilst to a foreigner it may be seen as a disturbing routine, it was a ‘daily necessity.’7

Contemplating on John de Monacahuc’s assertion that ‘cities are messy places, and on the whole, they word well because of the messiness’ encourages a nuanced perspective when engaging with these sources. 8 To truly appreciate the underlying order, one must delve into the divers patterns, recognising that, although they may seem intricate, they are the very elements that contribute to the effective functioning of the city.

In essence, this exploration of messy urbanism in Shanghai highlights an unconventional order, resilience and the vibrant pulse of everyday life. Beneath the ‘messy,’ there exists a clear order – a dynamic interplay of practices and structures that shape the city’s identity. The seemingly disorder elements contribute to a rich urban fabric that reflect the adaptive ingenuity of Shanghai’s diverse communities

  1.  Ursula Bacon, Shanghai Diary: A Young Girl’s Journey from Hitler’s Hate to War-Torn China, (2004) []
  2. Bacon, Shanghai Diary.  []
  3. Jeffrey Hou and Manish Chalana, ‘Untangling the “Messy” Asian City,’ in Manish Chalana (ed.) Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia, (2016), p. 4. []
  4. Hou and Chalana, ‘Untangling the “Messy” Asian City,’ p. 4.  []
  5. Bacon, Shanghai Diary.   []
  6. Hanchao Lu’s Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century, (2023), p. 189. []
  7.   Lu’s Beyond the Neon Lights, p. 190 []
  8. Hou and Chalana, ‘Untangling the “Messy” Asian City,’ p. 5 []

The Women of Bali and the Garden of Java: Touristic Visuals in the Dutch East Indies

The anthropologist Dean MacCannell argues that the tourist embodies the search for authenticity away from our daily lives.1 While modern mass tourism certainly grew more feasible as a result of greater mobility, safety, and disposable income, the demand for it increased due to the alienation inherent in the modern age.2 The Officiele Vereeniging voor Touristenverkeer, translated as the Official Tourist Bureau or OTB, was founded in 1908 to promote international tourism in the Dutch East Indies and did so by tapping into the modern need for perceived authenticity. By analysing visual tourist material produced by the OTB, as well as material produced by colonial transport companies such as KLM and KPM, we can analyse the different discourses which they utilised to capture the tourist’s desire for the authentic.

Figure 1: Trips in the Isle of Java, OTB 1909

Figure 2: Java: The Ideal Tourist Resort, OTB 1914

Figure 3: See Java, OTB 1937

Most prominent in the tourist material produced by the OTB for Java is the theme of unspoilt nature. From the earliest publications to the material produced just before World War 2, brochures depicted the same scene of tropical flora set before an imposing volcano in the background.  Even early proposed itineraries were preoccupied with the natural, mandating visits to the Botanical Gardens at Buitenzorg (Bogor), as well as recommending stays at the garden’s mountain branch at Cibodas, or a summit of Mount Gede.3 Nature was authenticity in its purest form. MacCannell describes it as the “original other”, once a uniting fear but in the modern world a source of awe and refreshed perspective.4 Even where evidence of human settlement is seen, as in Figure 3’s lonesome smoke plume, it is sparse and only serves to heighten this sense of awe through comparison between the grand scale of nature and the humble existence of humans. Of course, association between the tropics and vibrant nature was by this point an established trope, built upon the works of Humboldt and other early travel writers who formed the tropics in the western imagination.5 However, in Java, Robert Cribb argues that the theme of unspoilt nature is so prominent because early tourism followed the line of least resistance. It promoted areas where transport and accommodation were most readily available. On Java, these spaces were the colonial hill stations.6 As a result, the authenticity promoted for Java is the nature which would have surrounded the early Dutch colonisers on their retreats to the cool foothills.

Figure 4: OTB

Figure 5: KLM

Figure 6: KPM 1928

The dominating image for Bali, on the other hand, is the bare-chested woman. The roots of this stereotype derive from western image makers residing in Bali in the early 20th century. Men like Walter Spies and Dr Julius Jacobs, while also giving focus to the island’s culture, built upon pre-existing notions of tropical sensuality to produce an image of a sexually liberal Bali.7 This hybrid depiction of Balinese people, inclined towards sexual overindulgence but culturally richer than other “primitive” tropical races, made the people of Bali an alluring attraction.8 For Europeans and Americans who lived through the rigours of the First World War and the Great Depression respectively, this type of freedom offered an escape from their repressive societies.9 Bali had only been fully annexed by the Dutch in 1908 and so still retained much of its wild and mysterious image. The encouragement of this image by official arms of the Dutch colonial regime points to an attempt to profit off of another form of commercialised authenticity. Rather than awe-inspiring nature taking centre stage, it was interaction with Bali’s people, charming and untouched by modern convention as they were, which proffered the chance to experience the authenticity that was missing from modern western life.

Thus, we can see how the OTB and other arms of the Dutch colonial regime appealed to different aspects of “authenticity” in two parts of their empire: Java and Bali. While Java may have been the tamest, most heavily agriculturally exploited part of the Dutch East Indies, it nevertheless was branded as a paradisiacal, natural garden. This drew in tourists hoping to be refreshed by exposure to nature. In the case of Bali, its people were leveraged to present a promise of simplistic living and moral freedom. The Balinese could be thought to be living in a close to natural state, thus acting as an alluring proxy to access authenticity. Touristic materials can thus help us engage with the international discourses surrounding native landscapes and peoples, as well as telling us about the needs and desires of targeted western audiences.

  1. Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (London, 1976). []
  2. Shelley Baranowski et al., ‘Tourism and Empire’, Journal of Tourism History 7:1 (2015), p. 113. []
  3. Robert Cribb, ‘International Tourism in Java, 1900-1930’, South East Asia Research 3:2 (1995), p. 198. []
  4. Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (London, 1976), p. 81. []
  5. David Arnold, The Tropics and the Traveling Gaze: India, Landscape, and Science, 1800-1856 (Washington, 2006), p. 113. []
  6. Robert Cribb, ‘International Tourism in Java, 1900-1930’, South East Asia Research 3:2 (1995), p. 202. []
  7. Adrian Vickers, Bali: A Paradise Created (Berkeley, 1989). []
  8. Ibid, p. 127. []
  9. Ibid, p. 142. []

‘YOUR HOME is incomplete if you do not possess a “HIS MASTER’S VOICE” Gramophone: The role of gramophones in Asian Cities

In his book Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, Su Lin Lewis articulates the role of soundscapes and cinema in globalising Asian cities. One interesting aspect explored is the impact of the gramophone in injecting new life into leisure entertainment.1 Lewis articulates that around the ‘gramophone and wireless created a new, mass experience of listening to music and stories, divorced from live experience and occurring in the comfort of one’s home, or in the home of one’s neighbour, or in a crowd on a street.’2 Essentially, the gramophone, emerging as a cultural conduit in ones home, severed the tether to live experiences, granting a global audience unprecedented access to diverse cultural expressions.

This discussion seeks to explore the role of the gramophone as a social space in globalising Asian cities.

Lewis notes that this phenomenon was not a simple diffusion from West to East but a complex interplay involving local and regional influences. Lewis places significant emphasis on the gramophone market in Burma. Narrated through a story in Ranghoon’s University College Annual, Lewis traces the clash of musical preferences between an ‘old-fashioned Burman’ and the younger generation, symbolising the generational divided.3 The influx of Burmese renditions of English songs, accompanied by instruments like Hawaiian guitars and Hilly Billy Banjos, created a sensory transformation. While concerns were raised about the potential influence of swing and hot-cha music, the adaption of jazz tunes by Burmese musicians interestingly led to the preservation of diverse musical traditions in Burma and exposed local audiences to both Western and Asian music. Lewis highlights the pivotal role played by the gramophone – divorcing music from live performances and bringing a mass experience of global sounds to Burmese homes, streets and communities.

Lewis proposes that the cultural adaption observed in Burma was not an isolated occurrence but rather part of a worldwide phenomenon.4 Therefore, this discussion will expand this exploration to Singapore during the early 20th century, with a particular focus on the role played by His Master’s Voice (HMV) Gramophone Company. As a global player, HMV, initially founded in London, established a noteworthy presence in Singapore, contributing to the cultural exchange facilitated by the technological advancements of the gramophone.

The gramophone’s ability to mechanically reproduce music facilitated a cultural exchange, exposing a multi-cultural city to various musical styles.

Similar, to the situation in Burma, HMV’s recordings in Singapore exposed local audiences to various forms of music, fostering a sense of cosmopolitanism and modernity. The adaptability of simple jazz tunes and the incorporation of diverse musical traditions became part of the sensory transformation of Singapore into a modern Asian city. The recordings not only preserved existing musical traditions but also played a role in the creation of new and modern popular genres.5

Figure 1, an advertisement of an HMV gramophone found in the Straits Chronicle 1915, provides valuable insights into the cultural impact of the gramophone. The title ‘your home is incomplete if your home does not possess a “His Master’s Voice Gramophone,”‘ conveys that the gramophone is more than a mere functional device; it is a status symbol and a valuable addition to one’s identity. Indeed, the gramophone came to be one of the prime symbols of class formation, modernity and social change. It was especially favoured by a small, yet distinct community known as the Peranakan Chinese in Singapore, for its capacity to acquire ‘culture’ and bring both global and local music to the home.6 It goes on the articulate that ‘you must realise its superiority over all other instruments, if you think for one moment just how many musical instruments are contained in one.’ This propagandist assertion underscores the gramophone’s technological advancements, showcasing an ability to reproduce diverse sounds, distinguishing between various local cultural and foreign instruments and styles with clarity. Indeed, gramophone recordings by the HMV in Singapore were a fusion of stylistic borrowing and localisation. Musicians adapted to changes in British colonial society, actively merging elements of commercial Anglo-American popular music wit Malay lyrics about the problems and hopes of ordinary people to generate new meanings.7


Figure 1. ‘Advertisements Column 3,’ Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, 4th March 1915.8

Furthermore, the invitation to ‘hear Caruso, Tetrazzini, Titta Ruffo, Melba, McCormack, Journet, Paderewski, Kubelik, Kreisler, the New Symphony Orchestra, Coldstream Guards Band, and a great host of hosts of others in YOUR house,’ emphasises how the gramophone acted as cultural bridge, bringing so many voices to the homes of ordinary people. This further highlights a new consumer culture in Singapore where variety was clearly appreciated.

Clearly, western technology and the colonial market system provided a hybrid, cosmopolitan and inclusive modernity that aimed to create a more modern society. This underscores and helps advance Lewis’s argument that the gramophone helped to globalise Asian cities.

  1. Su Lin Lewis, Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920-1940, (2016), p. 238 []
  2. Lewis, Cities in Motion, p. 228 []
  3. Ibid., p. 231. []
  4. Ibid., p. 232 []
  5. Tan Sooi Beng, ‘Negotiating “His master’s Voice”: Gramophone Music and Cosmopolitan Modernity in British Malaya in the 1930s and Early 1940s, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 169:4 (2013), p. 461 []
  6. Peter Lee and Jennifer Chen, Rumah Baba: Life in a Peranakan House, (Singapore, 1998), p.93 []
  7. Beng, ‘Negotiating “His master’s Voice,”’ p. 459 []
  8. Figure 1. ‘Advertisements Column 3,’ Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, 4th March 1915, p. 2 []