Jonathan Mirsky

The Shanghai Beat

Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift In Shanghai


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 410pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

THISI S A good book with a superb title. It claims to be a biography of Maurice Tinkler – a racist, brutal, intelligent, observant Enghshrnan who lived in Shanghai fi-om 1919 to 1939, when he was bayoneted to death by the Japanese. For most of those years he was a member of the Shanghai Municipal Police, a curious body that patrolled the International Settlement which had its own mini-government inside China’s biggest city. That force and the city it served are the real subjects of Empire Made Me.

At the bottom of Shanghai’s white social scale, the members of this force, who were mostly constables, were convinced, like most other ‘Shanghai-landers’, that they were superior to all Chinese.

Very little is known about Tinkler beyond a handful of letters, a box of curios and other mementos, some testimonies from elderly people who remembered him years afterwards, and some clippings about his death, which caused a brief international kerfufile. There is also the sparse o5cial documentation of his. career Tin . – a rapid rise and an equally rapid fall into semi-disgrace – and his death, which was savage but caused by Tinkler’s own bad temper, violence, racism and resentment.

Robert Bickers, a history lecturer at Bristol University, has done his best with the sparse, bare bones of Tinkler’s erratic, indeed ‘drifting’, and rather pointless life. Most of the book, as he says, is really about ‘the thin white line’: the millions of mostly unknown and unrecorded British who served the Empire – of which the Shanghai Settlement was not strictly a part – but who are largely ignored by scholars. Little has been recorded, he observes, about ‘the men of the armies of empire, on the navy, the merchant navy, railwaymen, labour supervisors … the gas engineers of empire, the road builders, all those who weren’t quite pukka, and precious little anywhere on policemen’.

The 1,000 policemen who served in the Shanghai force over the years were, for the most part, genuine constables, walking beats in a foreign city where they spoke the language a bit and disliked most of the inhabitants. The Western elite, they rightly discerned, looked down on the police as a necessary body but absolutely below the salt. And the police themselves in turn despised the Chinese, whom they encountered in a way most other Westerners preferred not to know about. Nevertheless, they and their 6,000 Chinese fellow-constables – catalogued as imperialist running dogs in the post-1949 Shanghai archives, which Bickers has industriously trawled – did keep order of a sort and protect property, and, like police everywhere, never knew who would be waiting with a knife or a Mauser when they entered a dark alley.

Why did these badly paid men do it? After the First World War unemployment was widespread at home and in Shanghai ‘a white man could get a job’; the Empire needed servicing. They didn’t move the pukka social circles of lonial life (this was still true in ong Kong right up to 1997), but they had their own status as white men, with servants, clubs, sporting grounds, long leaves, and access to women. And they were told from the day they arrived, in Tinkler’s case almost straight from the mud and blood of the war trenches, that they were superior to all Chinese and must never let their own side down. Unless he committed a really serious crime and was caught and tried for it, an _d Chinese Englishman was always protected and could usually find a job in which he could order Chinese about.

Tinkler came out in a small draft of men, some of them veterans, selected for their height and good teeth, and after a brief professional training during which he was introduced to colonial snobbery, he became constable. Intelligent, ambitious and brave, he quickly moved up in the force to relatively high office as detective. This allowed him plenty of free time, the chance to ‘swank’ in well-cut clothes, and to move in higher social circles. He could also live on his own, away from the constables’ cramped barracks, which meant space for women – the Russian, American, Chinese and Japanese semi-prostitutes who were the usual targets of men like Tinkler. He actually fell for one, a shadowy woman, whom he might have married.

In the seventeen letters to his sister Edith we see man increasingly brutalised by his work; by being a servant of the rich, who expected him to perform often dirty and violent tasks; and-by his own racism and taste for violence. By 1921, two years after his arrival in China, he had already formed the view that would lead to his awful end: ‘[The Chinese] are treated too lundly nowadays and do not respect the whites as they hd in the old days when “might was right”.’

All this Bickers places against a tapestry of Shanghai life and mores at many levels of society. He has strong views about empire (which I share), but he tends to say the same thing too often, and because he has little information about Tinkler he lapses into that old trap for the historian with not enoug”h material – ‘he must have seen’, ‘he probably went.. ., saw.. ., met.. .’.

The story, although a bit overwrought in the telling, is a poignant one: of a man with many good qualities but more bad ones. who sinks. like a character from Somerset Maugham, into a characteristically colonial moral quagmire. The photographs (though there are not enough of them) tell the story: a Lancashire lad, Tinkler is a smartly turned-out under-age solher, almost an officer when the war ends. In subsequent pictures we see him first as a writer of vivid letters with a taste for violence; then a confident policeman with a bright future, although even more violent and now a womaniser and drinker too; and finally, sacked from the police, a shifty-eyed, heavily bearded semi-drifter. iust arrested in another citv for walking about half-niked. In the end, as the bois of Chinese labourers at a British printing firm (a dead-end job), he used to lose his temper a lot, and did so once too bften with some Japanese marines: he waved a pistol, and was beaten and bayoneted to death.

For a few days the Shanghai newspapers complained of the ‘outrage’. His sister, for whom Tinkler had always been a hero although they had been out of touch for ten years, badgered the British Government to get Tokyo to apologise, and it became a pesky diplomatic incident. Orwell – once a colonial policeman – told this kind of story better in Burmese Days, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’, but Robert Bickers rises to eloquence: Tinkler, he concludes, ‘lived a forward life, of force instead of reason, of violent language and violent action. He bullied and blustered but now did so with the wrong people, in the wrong time, in the wrong place. Shanghai 1939 was no longer a city in which the servants of British empire held sway by force.’ The British Consul sneered: ‘It’s a pity that so many of our disputes with the Japs are over such very vile bodies.

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