Not Lost in Translation

A detail from “The Shanghai Regatta with a View of the Bund” c.1850, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It shows Westerners boat racing in Shanghai over 10 years before they formally established a rowing club. Photograph: Peter Simpson.

29 May 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on some HTBS posts that can now be read by a billion more people.

In 2017, I produced a three-part history of Shanghai Rowing Club (SRC). The club existed between 1865 and 1952 and was run by and for Westerners resident in the city, a port on the East China coast. I was particularly pleased with it as it combined recovering a virtually lost rowing story with exploring economic, social and political history that is still relevant today.

The posts covered SRC in three periods in Shanghai and China’s turbulent history: “From The First Opium War to The First World War”“From the Jazz Age to the Jet Age”; and “From Mao to Now”.

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; it was colonialism in all but name. Arguably, China’s loss of pride at the hands of Japan and the Western powers has shaped its current quest for wealth, power and respect.

China is divided between the Western powers in the ‘century of humiliation’. “Puck” magazine, 1898.

Early in January of this year, I received a request from Yuebin Huang, a resident of Nanchang, China. Yuebin wrote:

I am a paddler in China, I do Stand Up Paddling, canoeing, but not rowing, and I also run my own paddle board club, at the same, I also like history a little bit. So I guess this is why I like your articles so much. I have an idea. I want to translate this trilogy into Chinese and share it on Chinese social media, especially in the paddling community. I guess the content will be of great interest.

Of course, I was happy to give my permission. Yuebin lives 725 km from Shanghai and, since he first made contact, travel has obviously been restricted but he originally wrote:

I visit Shanghai many times a year because there is an active (stand up) paddle community in Shanghai and its surroundings and I have close ties with them. When I go to Shanghai again, I would like to visit the SRC clubhouse. Although I didn’t know the story just now, but because you told the story so vividly, I’m very interested to see it.

Part of Yuebin’s translation of part one of the SRC history. The picture is a Chinese silk painting of 1905 depicting local people watching Westerners rowing in Shanghai.

Yuebin added an introduction to his translation, part of which reads as:

157 years ago, in the Shanghai Concession, a rowing club with Westerners as the absolute subject was established and is believed to be the first in Asia. From 1863 to 1952, the club has survived and developed for nearly a century, all through the entire modern Chinese history. Although the dominant people are Westerners, but the story was taken place on our land, and they’ve paddled through the same river as we are paddling today. Both are paddlers, and because of the water’s connection, stories about each other can be understood completely.

If your Mandarin is up to it, you can read more of Yuebin’s translation here.

This is also an opportunity for me to post some pictures relevant to SRC that I have found since the original articles were published. An earlier ‘follow up’ piece is here.

Three ages of the 1905 Clubhouse

A pre-1916 view when the ‘mock Tudor’ building on the left was extended. It housed the gymnasium and, later, handball and squash courts.
1981: The building at its lowest ebb, surrounded by an ugly and ramshackle city.
The restored clubhouse (now a nightclub) in a vibrant, modern Shanghai. Picture:


A prize for SRC’s 1882 Chester Cup for Eights, Veterans v Griffins, Won by Griffins. ‘Griffins’ were Western newcomers to Shanghai, eventually they would become ‘Old China Hands’. Recently, this trophy was put on eBay by a seller in Vermont and, remarkably, it went for $2,700.
Another recently auctioned SRC trophy. The eBay listing said that it came from an estate of a Manhattan couple who had lived in Shanghai in the 30s and 40s. It was sold as a tennis trophy (SRC had a lawn tennis section from 1932), but I think that the rackets could actually be for squash (SRC built a court in 1936).


The caption says ‘Boating picnic, Good Friday 1891. Up the Wampoo (Huangpu River) at the Pagoda’. A flag with ‘SRC’ on it is displayed.
A press photograph marked ‘Shanghai Regatta, 1939’. I am confused as to what the wall to the left is; it makes me think that this cannot be at the 1905 clubhouse.

At ‘Henli Regatta’

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’, a cod-Chinese version of ‘Henley’. The pictures below date from the 1930s and are from the University of Bristol’s Historical Photographs of China archive. They were taken by or for John (‘Jack’) William Ephgrave (1914 – 1979) who was born in Shanghai and who worked for British American Tobacco. © 2013 Adrienne Livesey, Elaine Ryder and Irene Brien.

The ‘matshed’ boathouse at Henli. A matshed is a usually temporary structure with walls and sometimes a roof made of overlapping pieces of coarse matting stretched over poles.
The Griffen Four. The photo has ‘we lost’ written on the back.
Winners of the pairs race.
One of the Ladies Fours.
Two athletic looking types.
Resting at the matshed boathouse.

SRC Today

According to a June 2019 post by Greg Smith on his site Quantified Rowing:

Shanghai Rowing Club has an ancient history, but has only been revived in the past few years. Their brand new boat house is adjacent to Shanghai Disneyland and they row on the ‘moat’ that surrounds the property. 

As the above video of Greg and friends doing an unusual drill shows, Shanghai Disneyland seems a good place to row and dispels any thoughts that the revived SRC is a Mickey Mouse club.

Foreign business houses by the Pearl River in Canton (now Guangzhou), southern China, possibly 1830s. A coxed four flying the American flag is in the bottom right corner.

Nigel Harris, who wrote the 1938 history of SRC, held that rowing as a sport appears to have been introduced into China by British merchants trading at Canton (open to foreign trade since 1757) and that they formed the ‘Canton Regatta Club’ for rowing and sailing in 1837.

While the seller of this painting dated it as ‘1830s’, the U.S. flag flown from the building may be the 20-star flag of 1818 – 1819 with stars in a ‘Great Star’ arrangement. The British flag shown may be the pre-1801 version without the red diagonal cross on white of St. Patrick. While both could simply be old flags still in use in the 1830s, or the artist may not have been accurate, the coincidence suggests a possible earlier date.

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