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

Part III: From Mao to Now.

Mao, The Great Helmsman (allegedly).

20 September 2017

Tim Koch charts the final days of SRC.

I concluded Part II of this trilogy by noting:

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.

The end of the Second World War also ended the Sino-Japanese War. Yet a civil war continued as Mao Tse-tung’s Communists fought Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. In May 1949, the Communists took Shanghai from the Nationalists, the latter soon all fleeing the mainland to the island of Taiwan. By May 1951, the Shanghai Communists began to kill thousands of Chinese considered to be ‘counter-revolutionaries’. There was clearly no future for Western business there, and most foreign firms moved their offices and their employees to Hong Kong. Drained of members, Shanghai Rowing Club closed in 1952, 89 years after it was first established.

Chris Dodd, rowing historian, author, and journalist, has a particular interest in SRC and arranged a special exhibition on the club at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum in 2009. Chris also collected the memories of some of those who remembered SRC in its final days in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Peter Newcombe:
[My sister] Diana was about nine and I was about seven when we first went to (SRC) in about 1948. Our father, Alan [known as Dicky] Newcomb was an active member and we spent quite a bit of time in the club’s boats, restaurant, squash court and swimming pool before we left Shanghai in September 1952 to go to Australia.

Although life was increasingly restricted and worrying for the adults after Mao came to power in 1949, the 1952 summer was a lot of fun for the children, particularly as the Shanghai British School was closed down for good, and we were free to roam about Shanghai during the day on our bicycles.

I remember old clinker-built rowing shells in the club including at least one eight, which survived the 1949 Communist ‘liberation’ with only a few bullet holes. There was also a tub scull or pair which was taken into the swimming pool during the winter and tethered bow and stern for rowing lessons and training, using oars which had holes in the blade. That’s how I learned to row aged 9 to 11…

Alan ‘Dicky’ Newcombe at stroke.

Diana Hicks (née Newcomb):
Laodahs [rowing club Chinese staff] would usually cox the members rowing. They loved this job as all the other Chinese would think how important they were being rowed by four or eight men… 

Dad [took] Ladies Fours out onto the river…

Ivor Hansen:
During 1952, some kind of a rowing regatta was actually run on the Huangpu. This must have been a major achievement, given the need to negotiate with the local Communist authorities of the time…

There was a traditional dark oak bar located in the restaurant on the upper level [of the clubhouse]. They served a great club sandwich and French fries, and the ginger beer was unique! This area opened, to the east, onto the roof top [of the boathouse].

Leo Kalageorgi:
Leo remembers the Rowing Club days very well. He rowed and worked there as a lifeguard in the final year of its existence, believed to be in 1952. [On] the sad occasion of its closing… he was invited to help himself to the books in the library that were being dumped as trash. Those were fond days and he recalls swinging on the rings across and over the pool’s length, the squash courts and sunbathing on the roof in deck chairs…

Life in Shanghai in the 1950s was exciting as well as sad as most ‘foreigners’ were leaving, many of them were born in China so it was rather traumatic…

There was a social life in the club at that time; however, Leo was a little too young and financially limited to participate. The quality of life in Shanghai for foreigners and their families declined quite rapidly after the 1949 ‘liberation’ by the Chinese Communists. The club finally closed in 1952 mainly due to lack of memberships caused by the departure of most of the British citizens.

Leo Kalageorgi at ‘6’.
A propaganda poster from the ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966 – 1976) showing happy workers parading on Shanghai’s main promenade, The Bund, once home to many foreign banks and business houses. The disastrous ‘Revolution’ was supposed to purge the remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. Ironically, China’s present embrace of capitalism has done more to destroy Shanghai’s architectural heritage than did Mao’s great leap backwards.

The fate of the SRC’s buildings after most members left Shanghai somewhat mirrors the path of China in the last 70 years. It was probably the club’s 1906 swimming pool that saved the site from total destruction. Taken over by the authorities, the club became the Huangpu Swimming Pool and in 1953 was made a national training centre for swimming. But, in the following decades, more modern facilities were built around the city and the old Huangpu pool fell into disuse and was earmarked for demolition by the city government in 2009.

Some wonderful (if sad) pictures of what the club had become by 1981 have been put on Flicker by Paul Dinning. Here, the boathouse is on the far left with the clubhouse and swimming pool joined to its right.  This shows the Garden Bridge on the left with the gym and part of the boathouse on the right. Here, a wide view of the gym, boathouse, club, and pool buildings. The Union Church behind the swimming pool had lost its spire (restored in 2010) and, under the Communists, had become the Shanghai No. 2 Illuminating Lamps Factory.

The old SRC buildings were not listed as ‘historic architecture in need of protection’ as it was thought that the original clubhouse had been knocked down to make way for the ugly four-story building that then stood next to the pool. However, a group interested in saving Shanghai’s past found that the original two-story clubhouse had in fact been preserved and the other two floors were just added on. The conservationists heralded the pool itself as one of the earliest sports facilities in modern China. Their campaign to halt the destruction was semi-successful.

Today, the clubhouse exterior has been renovated to its original condition, protected as part of a cultural heritage site, and is now a nightclub and bar. The swimming pool building has gone (save for the entrance arch) but the pool itself is preserved in a way — part of it is hidden underneath a green lawn designed in shape of swimming lanes while the remainder is covered in glass and the original white-mosaic pool is visible and illuminated with blue light at night, as if it were filled with water. The original boathouse (and probably the gym) had been demolished in 1989 and a police station and temporary bridge built on the site. These have now been removed and the site is a grassed area running down to the Garden Bridge.

The club at its lowest ebb, pictured by Ivor Hansen in October 2007, looking east. The original ground floor of the clubhouse on the right can just be made out but it is the archway to the swimming pool on the left (marked with a red arrow) that properly confirms that this is, in fact, the old Shanghai Rowing Club.
The view looking west in 2007. On the right is the police station built on the site of the boathouse in 1989, and which was demolished in 2009. It is little wonder that it was assumed that the old clubhouse had been knocked down and replaced. Picture: Ivor Hansen.
The clubhouse today, following renovation in 2010. The archway that once led into the swimming pool (marked with a red arrow) has also been preserved. Picture: kaminoge.blogspot.co.uk
A plaque outside the renovated club explains its history. Picture: chinarhyming.com
The clubhouse as it is today is at the bottom right. The site of the former boathouse is to its left, the site of the former swimming pool is to its right. Among the trees in the centre are the restored buildings of the former British Consulate.
Looking east towards the Garden Bridge. The archway that led into the old swimming pool is marked with a red arrow. Picture: gpbnews.org
Looking west towards the General Post Office (with the clock tower). Picture: Daniel Case.
The interior of the club today. Named the ‘Shanghai Rose’, the bar and nightclub’s decor is ‘Shooting for an old Shanghai environment mixed with a Moulin Rouge energy…’ Quite. It is not the ideal fate for a venerable old rowing club, but it is preferable to it being covered by a shopping mall. Picture: idealshanghai.com
Another notable surviving relic of Shanghai Rowing Club is now held by the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club (which, despite its name, is also an important rowing club). Simon Boyde has sent me this picture from RHKYC of the SRC trophy for the ‘Hong Fours’, an inter-company coxed fours race (‘Hong’ is simply Chinese for ‘business’). Simon thinks that the club may hold other SRC trophies.

This study of the history of Shanghai Rowing Club was inspired by a HTBS post on some SRC silver spoons.  William O’Chee pointed out that Shanghai had ‘no end’ of silversmiths. Henley’s River and Rowing Museum has an example of SRC associated Shanghai silver – a three-piece tea set from 1893 consisting of teapot, milk jug, and sugar bowl. The Museum listing says that they ‘belonged to SRC’, but the milk jug picture shows the initials ‘ABC’ and the teapot description says that an ‘associated person’ is A.B. Curgel, so I think that these were won as a prize by Mr Curgel. A more conventional SRC trophy from the Tom Weil collection and held by the Museum has the winner’s initials engraved in a similar way.

Today, there exists a final reminder of the Shanghai Rowing Club, 1863 – 1952. Fifty-nine years after it racked its boats for the last time, shanghairowingclub.wordpress.com tells us:

In 2011, four expats looking for a place to row in Shanghai, finally land in the Aquatic Sport Centre. The SRC is born again. Five years later, we are now rowing on the Dianpu river, in Qingpu …. We train on Sunday, every Sunday, except during typhoons, national holidays and some regattas days… Join us!

Qingpu is 37 miles/60 kilometers west of the centre of Shanghai. The new SRC’s Facebook page records its activity there.

The emblem of the new Shanghai Rowing Club, founded in 2011.

It would be churlish to question the new SRC’s claim that it was founded in 1863, but I hope that the members occasionally gather at the ‘Shanghai Rose’ bar in the old clubhouse by the Garden Bridge and drink a toast to those that went before. The ghosts that inhabit the building would surely approve.


  1. Tim, my compliments on a superb series of articles. They breathed new life into the history of the old club, and masterfully at that. Perhaps we need a meeting of HTBS tragics in Shanghai for the World University Rowing Championships. Perhaps we might even get some of us out on the water in Qingpu.

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