Up Suzhou Creek – A Brief History of The Shanghai Rowing Club – I

Part I: From The First Opium War to The First World War

A Chinese silk painting of 1905 depicting Europeans rowing in Shanghai, a port on the Yangtze River Delta on the East China coast. This picture, together with another depicting horse racing, is for sale. The dealer in Chicago says it dates to a period ‘when Chinese artists began using traditional art forms to illustrate Western traditions – a departure from the traditional subjects of nature and landscape. These paintings illustrate how recreation came to be part Shanghai’s colonial history… The Chinese architecture stands behind finely painted electrical wires which were certainly very new at the time’.

18 September 2017

Tim Koch goes East.

In the strange world of HTBS Types, a very small thing will often give rise to an awful lot of words. Recently, Hear The Boat Sing editor, Göran Buckhorn, wrote about a silver spoon that he had acquired that had an oar shaped handle and was marked ‘SRC’. It also had the maker’s details, Tuck Chang & Co of Shanghai, a business that operated from the late 19th to the early 20th century. Göran thought that it may have been made for the Singapore Rowing Club but this theory produced responses from three people who held that the spoon was, in fact, a relic of the Shanghai Rowing Club. The dissenting trio were Mark Welles, Simon Boyde, and HTBS contributor, William O’Chee. Göran summarised the latter’s remarks thus:

William knows Shanghai well. He writes: ‘Before the [1949] Communist Revolution, my grandfather owned a banana plantation in what is now downtown Shanghai.’ About the spoon, William remarks, ‘I think it relates to the Shanghai Rowing Club. It would make no sense to commission something from a silversmith in Shanghai for a rowing club in Singapore when the colony had no end of silversmiths of its own.’ He continues: ‘If it is from Shanghai, it may well be the last relic of the old club. Everything would have been lost in the Japanese occupation [1941 – 1945] and subsequent revolution.’

Canton c.1850 by the Chinese artist, Sunqua. British merchants in Canton (750 miles north-west of Shanghai) were the first foreigners to row for pleasure in China. Among the working boats, this picture seems to show some single and double skiffs.

While William’s assumption that everything from the old Shanghai RC would have been lost in the tide of history was a reasonable one, Mark Welles revealed that a rather large reminder of the former SRC does still remain – the clubhouse itself. Intrigued, I thought that this needed more investigation. First, some historical context.

Shanghai was one of five Chinese ‘treaty ports’ forced to open to foreign trade following the British victory in the First Opium War, 1839 – 1842. Subsequent treaties allowed the establishment of British, American and French enclaves in the city. Thus began what the Chinese called ‘the century of humiliation’ where foreigners in the treaty ports were exempt from local law and taxation. Banks and trading houses from the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Italy, Russia, Germany, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands and others soon arrived. In the 1930s, Shanghai flourished as a centre of international commerce and was the main financial hub of the Asia-Pacific region until the Japanese invasion of 1937. With the Communist takeover of 1949, trade was limited to other socialist countries, and the city’s global influence declined. However, the Chinese economic reforms of the 1990s resulted in a flood of finance and foreign investment and a spectacular rebuilding of the old city.

A map of Shanghai’s foreign enclaves. The French section covered four square miles and the ‘International Settlement’ (formed in 1863 by the merger of the British and American enclaves) was nine square miles. The Anglo-American enclave was governed by a British dominated municipal council. Originally, it had been envisaged that native Chinese would not reside in the International Settlement, but by 1905, they made up 95% of the population. The first and last site of the Shanghai Rowing Club boathouse is marked by the red arrow. Picture: frenchconcessionhousing.com

From the early 1860s, life was settled enough for foreigners in Shanghai to spend time on activities other than business and the securing of the concessions. Sporting, social, and intellectual clubs and societies were formed, with rowing as one of the pioneers of organised leisure activities.

This partial map of Shanghai in 1935 (click to enlarge) shows how the British and other foreigners had created a sporting and social ‘home from home’. The rowing club, sited on the Suzhou (‘Soo-chow’) Creek near where it flows into the Huangpu (‘Whang-poo’) River is shown by the red arrow. On the recreation ground on the left are marked the cricket, golf, bowling and swimming clubs. The horse racing track of the Race Club ran around the ground. A remarkable list of clubs and associations in Shanghai in 1939 is here.

In 1938, Nigel Mayne Wilfred Harris (1909 – 1999) wrote a history of Shanghai Rowing Club (of which he was an enthusiastic member) titled Sampan Pidgin, which translates as Boat Business. In 2009, rowing historian, author and journalist, Chris Dodd, wrote in Rowing and Regatta magazine:

[Sampan Pidgin’s’] pages are full of character and characters, and it captured a lost century of ex-pat living in an exotic and faraway place that came to an end in the Sino-Japanese war and the subsequent takeover of China by the communists in 1949. Sampan Pidgin is among my top five rowing books for its quality of writing and the tales it tells.

Part of this rare book has been put online by Simon Drakeford, who runs a website on the history of sport in China’s Treaty Ports. Mark Welles has kindly sent me a pdf of the whole history and, as will become clear, I have drawn heavily upon it.

The Chinese port of Canton had been open to foreign trade since 1757. Harris claims that:

Rowing as a sport appears to have been introduced into China by British merchants trading at Canton. The Chinese ‘Regulations’ dating from 1760, governing the conduct of foreigners at Canton, forbad rowing about the river in their own boats for pleasure; nevertheless these regulations were not strictly enforced, and on 21st June 1837, the ‘Canton Regatta Club’ was formed by some of the younger members of the community for boat-pulling and sailing on the river…

As to Shanghai specifically, Harris says:

Following upon the opening up of Shanghai to foreign trade in 1843, Canton merchant houses opened branches in the new port and their influence was witnessed in sport as well as trade.

Although it appears that the first regatta in Shanghai was held as far back as 1849, yet the first which we have an account was held on the (Huangpu River) on 29th October 1852…

‘The Shanghai Regatta with a View of The Bund’, c.1850, Chinese School. This is part of a larger picture. The boat with the American flag holds the umpire. The Bund was a promenade along the Huangpu River, home to many foreign banks and business houses. Picture: Creative Commons Licence / Peabody Essex Museum 2006 / Mark Sexton Photo.

The 1852 event attracted eleven entries, three for the four-oared gigs, three for wherries pulling double sculls, and five for single scull wherries. More regattas followed and a ‘Regatta Club’ was formed in 1859. However, the ‘Shanghai Rowing Club’ that was to last into the 1950s was formed in 1863. The first captain was an Englishman, William Stout, (who was to find fame as a rowing man when he returned home to London Rowing Club) and the first secretary and treasurer was an American, AA Hayes, Jr. This prompted Harris to write:

there was thus initiated in its origins that internationalism which has been at once a source of the club’s strength and the assurance of its survival through many trying vicissitudes during three-quarters of a century.

In later years, oarsmen from countries including England, Scotland, Ireland, the U.S., Germany, Denmark, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway and Italy all rowed with and against each other. In 1937, twelve nations were represented in the SRC membership, 54% were British, 22% German. However, Harris observed:

The composition of the International Eights has always been a difficult problem, and on several occasions, nationality has been stretched rather further than strict ethnological considerations would permit.

Shanghai RC may have been a multinational organisation but the impression is that it was the British members that were always in charge. Few obviously ‘foreign’ names appear in the lists of club officials and high-ups.

An early example of SRC’s ‘internationalism’, a pot won by one of the American Crew that beat the English Crew in the club’s Autumn Regatta International Race of 1866.
An 1867 Shanghai Regatta programme reproduced in Harris’s ‘Sampan Pidgin’ (click to enlarge). On the regatta’s second day, apart from singles, fours, and eights, the event included races for ‘gigs manned by Chinamen’, ships lifeboats, and canoes.
‘Rowing at Shanghai’ as depicted by the British “Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News”, 24 March 1887.

Harris recorded that the active membership had shown a more or less steady growth from the club’s founding in 1863 until 1932 when it declined because of a trade depression and increasing political unrest. He gave figures for various years: 1867 – 68; 1891- 130; 1905 – 250; 1921 – 290; 1932 – 299; 1937 – 131. These figures are surprisingly low, especially considering that the British population in the International Settlement in 1935 was 6000. However, the club must have been very well run for a small membership to be able to pay for the boats, land and buildings that it did over the years.

While Harris was largely upbeat about Shanghai rowing, 30 years earlier a former member of the club had his criticisms. In 1904, Oliver George Ready published Life and Sport in China. Ready had rowed at Cambridge and compared the Suzhou Creek to the Cam:

The club has two excellent boathouses and plenty of boats… but the rowing is not first class… [This] is partly due the difficulty of coaching otherwise from the stern of a boat, there being no towing path on which the coach can ride or run alongside… It would well repay the club to have a path made alongside the creek and get a professional out from home for a year or two to initiate a high-class style…

There is, of course, more to most rowing clubs than just pulling an oar. On the website Finding Old Shanghai, Lara de la Harpe wrote:

[In] 1890… the [SRC] chairman, Mr A.C. Westall, encouraged [members] to urge their friends ‘to forsake the effeminate game of lawn tennis for the manly exercise of rowing.’ He also pointed out that the ‘increase of interest in the Club was due to people taking more pleasure in it. It was of no use to say that the Club should be composed only of actual rowing men: in this climate, people would not go in for such exercises unless there was some pleasure to be got out of them.’ [North China Herald, April 25 1890]. Clearly, like many of the clubs in Shanghai at the time, the rowing club was a place for social events, regardless of whether rowing was involved.

Strangely for a ‘social’ club, SRC was, in the words of the Captain at the 1890 Annual General Meeting and quoted by Harris, almost the only club in Shanghai where members were not licensed to be drunk on the premises. He concluded that the man who would excel in rowing must be temperate in all things. However, a ‘licence to be drunk’ did come later.

Mr R.M. Capmbell, SRC Captain, 1894 -1895. Picture from “Sampan Pidgin”.

Still on the social side, in the oppressive heat of a Shanghai summer, Harris notes that ‘the company of ladies in pleasure boats was a welcome change form the rigours of training’. However, it seems that ladies were not always passengers – Harris quotes a 1892 report that ‘the Ladies’ Four graced the Creek with their presence, and installed fresh vigour into several oarsmen…’ There are references to women rowing at least in 1922 and in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Also in the spirit of token inclusiveness, even the Chinese were allowed to row – though only racing against each other. In the patronising tone of the time, Harris records:

The race for ‘The Whangpoo Stakes’ in 1901 for Chinese crews in Fours, representing Ningpo and Shanghai, caused much amusement and was the first of many similar encounters.

This was not the only time that Sampan Pidgin revealed the Europeans attitude to the native people. Of the club’s Chinese employees, Harris said:

The duties of the Laodah [head boatman] and Boat Coolies are many and varied, and by no means confined to looking after the Fleet and putting the boats into the water for we spoilt oarsmen. Coxing is one of their tasks… oarsmen are familiar with their somewhat parrot like refrains… It has always been a tradition that the senior Locker Room Boy is called ‘George’.

These ‘Boys’ were, of course, grown men.

However, SRC may have been a benevolent or paternalistic institution. Harris states that in the 1930s, the club had started a pension fund for ‘old and trusted servants on their retirement’. There was even a move to admit Chinese as members – of the right class:

A Select Committee was formed at the end of 1931 to report on the question of the admission of Chinese as members of the Club. The report was favourable of encouraging Chinese to row, particularly St. John’s College and Shanghai University, by loan of boats and services of coaches, and to admit such Chinese as full members. It was intended to place these recommendations before the Annual General Meeting; however, in view of the 1932 Sino-Japanese hostilities and consequent unsettled conditions, it was decided to hold this over.

Harris also tells the dubious tale of the Chinese businessman who, when told that the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race cost £3000 to stage, said that he would do it with 16 Chinese rowers for just £300. ’Twas ever thus.

This picture from c.1875 – 1880 is in Bristol University’s online Historical Photographs of China Collection, reproduced under Commons Creative Licence, © Helen Dhoot. The caption says: ‘The building is the Upper Boat House, on Markham Road… beside Suzhou Creek. It was built c.1875-76. Quoits, croquet and tennis were played on the lawn there’.
Detail from the above Upper Boat House photograph.
Detail from the above Upper Boat House photograph.

Harris does not record when the first boathouse was built for SRC, though he does say that it was ‘near where the present one stands’, i.e. on the south bank of the Suzhou Creek, close to where it flows into the Huangpu River. It later became known as the ‘Lower Boathouse’ (used more in the week) after the ‘Upper Boathouse’ (used more at weekends) was erected upstream of the Creek in 1875. In 1902, increasing river congestion caused the ‘Upper’ to be moved even further upstream, and it was sold off in 1906.

The first ‘Lower’ was an ‘unpretentious structure’ with walls and roof made of overlapping pieces of coarse matting stretched over poles. It was later rebuilt in weatherboard and shingle, complete with bathroom and ‘large dining saloon’.

The second of the three ‘Lower Boathouses’, pictured in 1886. It was demolished after the erection alongside it of the clubhouse and boathouse of 1905, and a swimming pool was built on the site. Picture from the Bristol University collection, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

By 1905, an impressive new clubhouse and adjoining boathouse had been built next to the old Lower Boathouse. A covered swimming pool, on the site of the old boathouse, was finished in the following year. The North China Daily News described the new clubhouse as ‘a large, handsome and commodious structure of the Shanghai-Red-Brick order of architecture with dressing-room, lavatory, bathrooms, a large ball-room with convenient anterooms on the first floor…’

At the opening of the swimming bath in 1906, Club Captain EC Pearce expressed special thanks to their neighbour, the Union Church, which had granted permission to build the new complex on their shoreline:  ‘I need hardly say that one of the mottoes of the Rowing Club had always been … Cleanliness is next to Godliness. In carrying this theory into practice, the bath had been placed next to the good Church.’

This picture of the new clubhouse (left) and boathouse (centre) must have been taken when they were newly built in 1905 as the swimming pool of 1906 is not yet in place on the far left. On the road side, the boathouse and swimming pool wings were probably mirror images of each other.
A view of the boathouse from the creek. A ramp leads down to the pontoon. The clubhouse with its distinctive cupola is clearly visible but the angle excludes a view of the swimming pool.
A later but similar view to the above, this angle allowing a view of the pool building. Clearly, congestion on the lower part of the creek was a problem.
This picture must be post-1908 as it shows the ‘new’ Garden Bridge (called the Waibaidu Bridge in Chinese), the first all-steel bridge in China. Picture: roomfordiplomacy.com
A full post-1908 view of, left to right, a mock half-timbered building (probably the gym and handball courts), the boathouse, the clubhouse, and the swimming pool. The original postcard inscription is wrong, the Bund and the Public Garden are not shown. Picture: shanghailander.net
An aerial view of 1934. Picture: roomfordiplomacy.com
A 1920s river level view of SRC (on the right), looking east towards the Garden Bridge.
An open space at the upriver end of the club. The end of the SRC swimming pool building is on the right.

As to the club boats, Harris reveals that the first were ‘not far removed from naval cutters’ and that they were brought up by the merchants who migrated from Canton in the 1840s. By 1869, the fleet was composed of four eights, seven fours, four doubles, and five singles. Surprisingly perhaps, less than half were brought from England, the rest were Chinese made. English boats were imported from Searle of Maidenhead, Biffen of Hammersmith, Sims of Hammersmith, and Clasper of Putney. The Brits did not dominate however, later there were boats from Switzerland and also from Frankfurt. Oars made locally and in Australia were tried but Harris claims that none matched up to those from Aylings of Putney. As to boat fittings, all boats, except those for juniors, had sliding seats by 1880. Less progressively, swivel rowlocks were experimented with in 1917 but they were judged ‘a failure’, Harris noting that, in 1938, ‘fixed rowlocks still hold the field here’. He also recorded that:

Owing to the expense in freight and duty on imported boats the Club [since 1933] fulfilled its requirements locally… [boats] were made on the premises by Chinese carpenters using old boats as models.

The SRC’s fleet as of 1937 as listed in ‘Sampan Pidgin’. Impressively, over half the boats are less than five years old. ’Local’ orders for boats also included ones from Japan.

The first three of the pictures below were taken sometime between 1900 and 1910, a time of growth for SRC. They are from the same album in the Bristol University collection © David Hutton Potts.

A sculler on the Huangpu River.
A four on the Huangpu River.
Where this sculling race is taking place is not identified, but the narrowness of the river suggests that it was on the Suzhou Creek.
A 1909 picture from “Sampan Pidgin” showing the ‘Taikoo Hong Four’ just downstream of the club and the Garden Bridge. ‘Hong’ is Chinese for ‘business’.

Rowing flourished in Shanghai despite the fact that the Huangpu River was too busy and that the also busy Suzhou Creek was too bendy for ideal rowing conditions. However, the construction of the Nanking – Shanghai Railway in 1905 allowed relatively easy access to the Lake Tai Plain, the ‘Venice of the East’, 45 miles west of Shanghai, a place much more suitable for rowing and regattas. Many Europeans had houseboats there and it was soon dubbed ‘Henli’ or ‘Hen Li’, a cod-Chinese version of ‘Henley’.

A race at Henli. Bristol University collection © John Swire & Sons.

In 1906, it was decided to hold SRC’s Autumn Regatta at Henli. Harris wrote that it was ‘more successful as a picnic than a regatta’, but things improved and the new venue came into regular use, the Spring Regattas being held there from 1913. It may have seemed that the fun would never stop – but in August 1914, stop it did. The world was at war.

Part 2 of 3, From the Jazz Age to the Jet Age, will be posted tomorrow.

I have used the modern version of Chinese names throughout. In the past, more phonetic translations were used. Thus, ‘Suzhou Creek’ was spelt ‘Soochow’ or ‘Suchow’. The native Chinese may have called the creek ‘Woosung’ or ‘Wusong’. The Huangpu River was previously spelt ‘Whangpoo’. Also, I have used the now offensive terms, ‘Chinamen’, ’Coolies’ and ‘Boy’ only as quotations in an historical context.


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