4 March 2019
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd continues his exclusive series to celebrate 21 years of the River & Rowing Museum with the saga of Sampan Pidgin.
In the last few years, readers of Hear The Boat Sing have been treated to new light on Shanghai RC thanks to diligent digging by Tim Koch and other hands. My own love affair with the club’s history is marked by chance encounters from Sydney to Cirencester and from the Isle of Wight to the River & Rowing Museum.
It began in Ventnor some 35 years ago when I chanced upon a copy of Nigel Harris’s Sampan Pidgin in an antiquarian bookshop. Published in 1938, the book captures a lost century of ex-pat lives in a faraway exotic place, describing the city’s history, the antecedents of the club in the 1830s, rowing on Soochow [Suzhou] Creek and the Wangpoo [Huangpu] River, regattas, swimming, social life, and marathon rows to Henli, the Shanghai RC’s summer place 46 miles in the direction of Nanjing. Stern-wheelers ferried passengers up the creek to Soochow, a 48-hour hike propelled by six to a dozen coolies tread-milling the paddles.
Regattas reflected the ethnic origins and commercial interests of the foreign community. The 1867 event offered the Merchants’ Plate, the Bankers’ Cup, the Brokers’ Cup and the Men-of-Wars’ Boat Race. In 1878, the Merchant Vessels Gigs’ Race included entries from the rival clippers Thermopylae and Cutty Sark. Prizes were often items from England such as napkin rings, pewter mugs, cigarette cases, salt cellars and silver cups, some examples of which are in the RRM’s collection.
Harris’s book ranks high in my estimation for its quality of writing and the tales it tells. It has the marque of a mature author. Imagine my surprise, then, when a chance conversation in Sydney in 1990 directed me to Gloucestershire, England, to meet the sprightly author. Now in his eighties, he recounted more tales of life on the Bund, and how the RAF had enabled him to reclaim copies of Sampan Pidgin from Shanghai after the war.
Rowing stopped in 1937 when the city’s trading activity was severely compromised by Japan’s invasion of China and the war in the Pacific. I always assumed that this marked the end of the club. While reporting on the Olympics in 2008, I couldn’t resist taking a Chinese bullet train from Beijing to search for traces of SRC in the booming, reinvigorated port. I found that a few of the neighbouring historical buildings survive, including the General Post Office and the elegant Victorian British consulate, boarded up in its leafy garden.
But after three days at the Pujiang Hotel, christened Astor House when it opened its doors in 1846 and situated a stone’s throw from the site of the club, I could find little trace of the building where rowing, swimming, dining and high jinks once took place. Visits to the British consulate, the Bund museum and the Shanghai City Archives turned up paper evidence of what was, but nothing of what is. Part of the site was buried under an ugly road bridge across the throat of Soochow Creek, close to the landmark Old Garden Bridge, itself under reconstruction at the time of my stay.
In 2009, I curated an exhibition at the River & Rowing Museum that outlined the club’s foundation in 1863 under the captaincy of William Stout of London RC to serve a membership drawn from a sizeable foreign community. The exhibition drew heavily on Sampan Pidgin, but the most exciting aspect for me was another chance meeting in my affair with Shanghai RC. My assumption that life on Soochow (Suzhou) Creek was snuffed out in 1937 or thereabouts was blown out of the water on the show’s opening day.
It happened like this. When I returned to the museum from my lunch break, I was told that a visitor from Australia had told the receptionist that he rowed at the club after WW2. Did he leave his number? No, but he said he was in Henley for the day to attend a reunion. I spent the early evening trawling hotels in search of reunions. Perseverance paid off at Phyllis Court, where a bunch of retired Royal Navy officers were about to take dinner. Among them was Peter Newcomb, the Aussie who had chanced upon the exhibition.
As a nine-year-old Peter was introduced to the club where his father ‘Dicky’ Newcomb was an active member. I charged him up to put his memoirs down for posterity, and he, his sister Di and some of their contemporaries did just that. Their memories of Shanghai in the 50s were published by HTBS in 2017 (“Up Suzhou Creek, from Mao to Now”).
Peter recalled clinker boats that survived the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists by Mao Tse-tung’s Communists in 1949 with only a few bullet holes. Di described coxing the men’s eight as a 13-year-old, steering out of Soochow Creek onto the Whangpoo (Huangpu) River. She remembered the Whangpoo crowded with huge junks towing strings of barges and little sampans paddled by a single oar over the stern, and the smell of the swirling, muddy brown current racing out to join the Yangtze. She also remembered how the Laodahs (the club’s Chinese staff) coxed the boats, their favourite job (way back in 1900, according to Sampan Pidgin, Dr Chu Tsze-fung, a corn extractor by profession, was coaching the boat house ‘coolies’ and organising four-oared races against the Yacht Club coolies).
Ivor Hansen recalled a regatta on the Huangpu, a major achievement of organisation in the face of official red tape. Leo Kalageorgi, SRC’s lifeguard, remembered the great club sandwiches served in the traditional dark oak bar of the restaurant. Peter recalled rival social attractions of his youth – the British Country Club, the Circle Sportif de Shanghai and the American Columbian Country Club.
The Communist victory eventually put paid to the British and French trading concessions in Shanghai, and SRC closed in 1952. The Newcomb family moved to Sydney that year, where Peter continued his rowing at Shore School.
That’s not the end of the story, however.
In his “Return to Shanghai” piece on 2 November 2017, Tim Koch told HTBS readers that the club’s 1906 swimming pool probably saved the site from total destruction. It was renamed Huangpu Swimming Pool and designated a national training centre in 1953 until being earmarked for demolition by the city government in 2009. This was partially thwarted by a group interested in saving the city’s past who found that the four-storey building next to the pool that was thought to have replaced the two-story clubhouse was in fact a two-floor extension on top of the old building. By 2018, the police station and temporary bridge erected in 1989 on the club site were no more, and the exterior of the clubhouse was restored to its original self, now protected as a cultural heritage site and serving as the Shanghai Rose nightclub and bar. The ersatz pool with its original white mosaics is under glass beneath a lawn, illuminated by blue light at night.
I’m looking forward to the next chance move in the Shanghai puzzle. Meanwhile, rowing may have long gone from Soochow Creek, but I am pleased to say that it thrives under the old name at Shanghai Qingpu Juvenile Amateur Sports School.