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

Part II: From the Jazz Age to the Jet Age

In the inter-war years, Shanghai was to some, ‘The Paris of the East’, but was to others, ‘The Whore of Asia’. Both views were probably true.

19 September 2017

Tim Koch is still out East.

Though the world changed forever with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Shanghai was initially little affected. China was neutral until February 1917, after which it joined with the Allied Powers. Even then, it was hardly involved in the war militarily or diplomatically. The war’s real effect on China was to be evidenced in the growth of Chinese nationalism in the years after the conflict.

Membership of the Shanghai Rowing Club dropped from as men returned to their home countries to enlist, and the Autumn 1914 and Spring 1915 regattas were abandoned, but otherwise, life went on; regattas were held in 1916 and 1917, a gym was built in 1916, swivel rowlocks were experimented with in 1917. Harris says little about this time and I suspect that, when his book was published in 1938, he did not want to offend SRC’s German members who then comprised over a fifth of the total membership. I presume that representatives of the Central Powers remained in the city at least until 1917, but the British dominated club almost certainly expelled those from Germany or Austria-Hungary. Evidence for this supposition is in Harris’s throwaway line, ‘The readmission of German members in 1926 was of great benefit to the Club…’

Anti-British mural in Shanghai. From the Bristol University Collection © 2014 Historical Photographs of China.

Following the First World War, China was a country in conflict for many years. There were clashes between the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party, and also between nationalists and foreigners. There was a two-stage civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, the first between 1927 and 1937, and the second from 1946 to 1950, with the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937–1945 separating them. However, the foreign concessions in Shanghai were for a long time largely untouched by all of this, most foreigners acting as slightly inconvenienced spectators. At its very worst, their attitude was that of British banker, Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, who said of the Sino-Japanese War, ‘It’s just the natives fighting’. He died in a Japanese prison in 1943.

The Ladies Fours of 1922 show no sign of the problems ahead.

In 1937, Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek decided on Shanghai as the place where he would stop the Japanese aggression that had been growing since 1932, driven by Japan’s desire for empire and raw materials. Some hold that he chose the city so as to have an international audience of expats for his show of force. As many as 300,000 people died in a three-month battle, beginning in August 1937, as a million Japanese and Chinese soldiers fought in a dense, cosmopolitan city. Incredibly, a largely untouched foreign community watched the city collapse from the relative safety of the Concessions, neither the Chinese nor the Japanese wanting to alienate international opinion by intentionally attacking these areas.

The Battle of Shanghai was the first instance of modern urban warfare.

Harris writes on how SRC was effected by these troubled times, particularly at ‘Henli’, 45 miles outside of the safety of the Foreign Concessions:

In July 1920, some uneasiness was caused by Chinese troops tearing up the Henli Bridge and entrenching against one another. Two [SRC] Committee Men at Henli warned the opposing parties regarding the club’s property, and hoisted the Union Jack…

[At] the Spring Regatta in 1925… news of riots in Shanghai had filtered up to Henli, and later came a telegram recalling all [members of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps militia] to town. As the earliest available train was not till after 10 am, it was decided to row off the two most important races before leaving…

During March 1932, a fire, supposed to have been set by Chinese soldiers, caused the complete destruction of the Club’s property and boats [at Henli]… A claim [for compensation]… was refused by the Nanking Government…

On no less than seven occasions during the years 1924 – 1937 have ‘military conditions’ caused the club to abandon the idea of holding the customary Henli Regattas…

The ‘official dates’ for the Battle of Shanghai between Chinese and Japanese forces were 13 August to 26 November 1937, the end coming with the withdrawal of the Chinese military towards Nanking. Harris records that the Committee closed the Club on 13 August:

Boats carried by Coolies to Cricket Club for safety, during wee small hours with police escort – severe shock for any wandering pedestrian… to meet Eight upside down, proceeding like a giant caterpillar down Nanking Road. Sole occupant of Club – the Number One Laodah [boatman].

A club boat is taken to the relative safety of the Shanghai Cricket Club. Picture from “Sampan Pidgin”.

The Club re-opened on 1 September but, following nearby shelling between a Japanese Destroyer and Chinese trench mortars on 3 September, Harris records that:

Committee meeting at the Club that evening decided Club Opening premature… Club opened once more on 28th September – rowing on the deserted Creek permitted ‘at members’ own risk’ – Bow of the first Four decided ‘Prevention better than Cure’ and wore his Tin Hat… Trench Mortar explosions caused ‘Time’ to falter occasionally… Club buildings unscathed except for one bullet hole through Boathouse window.

Harris’s stoical account does not mention it, but the rowers would have had to share the creek with a number of bloated corpses during this time.

November 1937: An American Marine on the neutral south bank of the Suzhou Creek (in the Anglo-American International Settlement) observes the destruction a few feet away on the north bank. Picture: chinamarine.org

With the Japanese victory in Shanghai, the Suzhou Creek on which SRC stood formed the boundary between the International Settlement (South) and the Japanese Concession (North). By the end of November 1937, the shift of the war outside of Shanghai permitted the return of the club boats. Here, information from Nigel Harris’s wonderful Sampan Pidgin, published in 1938, ends.

The Japanese took over most of Shanghai but stayed out of the International Concessions where life carried on almost as normal, as this press cutting from May 1938 shows. It reports that England won the International Eights in the Spring Regatta, with America second and ‘The World’ third. Nigel Harris is marked with an ‘x’. Picture: treatyportsport.com

For four years, the International Concession existed in a strange cocoon, albeit one crowded with visaless refugees, including Chinese escaping the Japanese, White Russians escaping the Bolsheviks, and Jews escaping the Nazis. Eventually though, on the day of the Japanese attack on the USA at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941, Japanese Marines crossed the Garden Bridge and occupied the International Settlement unopposed. The outside world had finally reached the foreigners of Shanghai.

Japanese Marines march into the International Settlement, 7 December 1941. A Nazi flag hangs from one of the buildings.

During the Japanese occupation, Europeans and Americans in Shanghai were forced to wear armbands to differentiate them, many were evicted from their homes, and they were liable to the same maltreatment as the Chinese – including punitive punishments, torture and execution. In February 1943, all Westerners were sent to an internment camp, the Lunghua Civil Assembly Centre, on the outskirts of Shanghai.

As all conquering armies, the Japanese took what they wanted. At the exclusive Shanghai Club, members were given 20 minutes to leave before Japanese officers moved in, famously shortening the legs of billiard tables to make it easier for them to play. What of the rowing club? I have no definite facts, but it seems that when SRC members returned after the war, they found both premises and boats ‘fit for purpose’. Possibly, the club may have been simply locked up and somehow remained unmolested, perhaps looked after by Chinese club servants. A story from Chris Dodd seems to back up this idea:

[Sampan Pidgin author] Nigel Harris was a sprightly 80-year-old when I caught up with him in 1992. He had left school aged 17 and gone to work in a bank in Shanghai, and learned to row as a ‘Griffin’ [junior] at the club. He escaped the war in China while on leave to get married, and in 1945 was with the RAF in Hong Kong. One day, he was offered a spare seat in a Shackleton flying to Shanghai on diplomatic business. ‘We’ll be on the ground for one hour,’ he was told, ‘so if you’re not back, you’re doomed.’ Harris went directly to the locked and deserted rowing club. Breaking in, he found 50 mint copies of his book in the office, and brought as many as he could carry back with him…

Thus, it seems that the rowing club had not been cleared out for some other purpose, Harris’s books remained in situ throughout the war – as did the books from the pre-war club library remembered post-war member, Leo Kalageorgi. If the Japanese had used the place, the English language publications would surely have been the first to be used for kindling or toilet paper. Further, there is even a hint that the club may have been used for its proper purpose – rowing – during the Japanese occupation. Post-war member, Alan Newcombe, left his son a photo of a crew afloat near the Garden Bridge. The inscription on the back reads: ‘An eight left behind at the Shanghai Rowing Club by the Germans in 1945, taken over, put into good condition and used up to 1952…’ Perhaps these Germans were pre-war members who took over when Allied civilians were interned?

In 1943, while Shanghai was still under Japanese occupation, Britain officially ended 100 years of the city as a Treaty Port and gave control of the International Settlement to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government. With the defeat of Japan in 1945, this theoretical control became a reality and foreign business returned, hopeful that they could operate profitably under the Nationalists, albeit now for the first time under the jurisdiction of Chinese law. The French ceded their privileges in 1946. The Shanghai Rowing Club was operational again by 1948 at the latest.

This apparently post-1945 picture shows a SRC crew with the Bois Cup for International Eights. The shields on their vests (perhaps arranged for bow side and stroke side) suggest that they represented ‘England’. The Garden Bridge is visible on the right.

The final part, From Mao to Now, will be posted tomorrow.


  1. Since writing this trilogy, I have become aware of a book by Robert Bickers, Professor of History and Director of the ‘Historical Photographs of China’ project at the University of Bristol, titled ‘Getting Stuck in For Shanghai: Putting the Kibosh on the Kaiser from the Bund: The British at Shanghai and the Great War’ (Penguin Specials 2014). I have only read the parts of it that Google Books will allow, but it seems to confirm my supposition about the treatment of German members of SRC during the 1914 – 1918 War.

    Bickers writes of the members of the warring nations that lived, worked and played together in Shanghai at the outbreak of the War:

    ”Ethos and practicality made the business of coming to hate each other in the heat of 1914 not only difficult to fathom, but awkward to enact”.

    The Amazon summary of the book states:

    ”The city’s inhabitants on either side of the conflict continued to mix socially after the outbreak of war, the bond amongst foreign nationals being almost as strong as that between countrymen. But as news of the slaughter spread to the Far East, and in particular the sinking of the Lusitania (in May 1915), their ambivalence turned to antipathy”.

    Bickers again:

    ”The Lusitania news broke on the last day of the (horse racing) club’s spring meeting…. (The) stewards instructed the secretary to ask all forty German members ‘not to make use of the Grand Stand, premises or compound of the club until further notice’……. Similar notes went out from the country club, rowing club and cercle sportif français….. Indignant at their treatment, the Germans and Austrians in the rowing club declared that they had considered themselves expelled, and …. threatened to melt down the (club) cups they held unless their membership subscriptions for the year were returned to them”.

  2. My grandfather Alexander Malcolm lived in Shanghai from 1916 to 1930s
    Here is a picture taken at the rowing club, probably taken in the 1920s (AM on the first row, left)

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