One book that I use in my classes is Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. The book is the story of William Tinkler, an Englishman who served in the Shanghai Municipal Police. Students sometimes find it hard to warm up to the book because Tinkler is not easy to identify with.1 Bickers is interested in him because he is a good example of the lower parts of Empire and how they were experienced and also, I would guess, because Tinkler manages to go down the tubes at about the same pace as the Empire. I like the book because it is a ripping yarn and Bickers talks a good deal about historical method and how historians go about figuring things out. One thing that struck them last time was the discussion of Tinkler’s headgear. In a chapter called “What We Can’t Know”, where Bickers discusses the ways historians deal with a lack of evidence he mentions that when Tinkler died2 he was the owner of five berets. Bickers suggests that he had a taste for wearing them. This seems really hard to believe. Could you see Tinkler the dashing SMP detective
Or Tinkler the Empire hobo
in a beret? There is a really good story here, but Ranke only knows what it is. He was sort of out at elbow after leaving the SMC, maybe he got hold of a shipment of berets and these were the final ones he had not sold? Maybe he was an anti-Obelix, going around beating up Frenchmen and taking their hats to keep score? Maybe my understanding of the history of treaty port fashion its too limited for me to make sense of Tinkler’s hats? Anyone who has ever done historical research remembers finding facts that were amazing and obviously could be used to make some important point. Bickers describes the process of finding a lot of things like this and slowly finding a context for them. Most authors don’t clue you in to the the bits that they could never find anything to do with, but Bickers does. It’s a nice book for China, but also for historical method.
That’s the first book about Shanghai history I’ve ever heard of that actually sounds like fun.
Tempting to tell the students about the berets at the beginning, and see if they can make any more sense of it by the end.
This book review somehow reminds me of one of the figures in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorian – General Gordon. Born and bred in Shanghai I never fully appreciated and realized the heritage of this fairly young but rather complicated and colorful city until I graduated from college, maybe we are too just close. However I do believe many people, foreign expats or migrant Chinese alike or maybe even native Shanghaiese themselves, are still adrift in Shanghai, neither here nor there.
Glad you liked the post, but I would not really call it a review. There is a nice review here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/oct/25/featuresreviews.guardianreview12 It is a really good book.
It appears to be available in Mandarin translation too: