A foreign life in a foreign land

Historical Notes
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"I SET no value on objects strange and ingenious and have no use for your manufactures." Thus in 1793 the Emperor rebuffed the first formal British mission to open China to foreign trade. Convinced, however, that in the interior there lay a huge market for their goods, British merchants persisted, initially by diplomacy and then by force. As a result, the first "treaty ports" in China were opened in 1843.

Here, for almost a century, western traders, businessmen, missionaries, consuls and their families lived in separate enclaves or concessions. They were immune from Chinese laws and governed themselves, running their own municipal councils. For the Chinese, two of the Shanghai Municipal Council's many thousands of by-laws which barred dogs and Chinese (except for Chinese nannies or amahs in charge of small western children) from the public park, came to stand as symbols of national humiliation.

Writing about the treaty ports is complicated by the fact that their municipal archives are all in China. There was no requirement that archives or copies of archival materials be deposited abroad, for the treaty ports were not colonies, but represented a system described as "informal Empire".

As access to Chinese archives is a difficult and exasperating business, involving an enormous expenditure of time, money and patience for a disproportionately small reward, much information must be gathered from the volumes of memoirs written by treaty port inhabitants. These invariably touch on the vagaries of Chinese servants. They continually complain of servants' inability to apply the appropriate tool to a task; their attitude to toothbrushes, in particular, was unhealthily creative. Toothbrushes were used to scrub the bathroom, brush shoes and ice cakes. When challenged, a common line of defence was that the toothbrush in question was not the servant's own but "Master's" or "Missee's".

Daily life for some treaty port residents appeared to be one long battle with dishonesty. One man, convinced that his milk was being watered, went as far as to buy a hydrometer but it still took him weeks to discover the cunning contrivance of a hollow bamboo tube full of water that the milkman concealed in his sleeve.

Chinese servants were condemned to a state of infantilism by the use of pidgin English. This conveniently ignored tenses and declensions but reduced all recorded conversations in treaty port memoirs to a rather idiotic level. I have tried to avoid such exchanges although I know of the persistence of pidgin for, in 1976, the elderly Chinese servants still employed by the Shanghai representative of the Standard and Chartered Bank would appear silently at six to ask, "Missee want cocktail?"

The exceptions to the rule which characterised Chinese servants as unhygienic and prone to cheating are found in the books written by those who were children in the treaty ports. Like all western children at the time, they were largely brought up by servants, and all of them came to love their Chinese amah. Chinese amahs were patient and loving and their small charges usually learnt Chinese in their company, avoiding pidgin English.

Childhood memories aside, using memoirs written in the age of Empire raises problems. The separate lives of foreigners in their foreign enclaves and their attitude to the Chinese are no longer acceptable. But unacceptable anachronism is only one part of the phenomenon of pioneering Victorians struggling to recreate the sort of life they would have enjoyed had they stayed in Godalming or Edinburgh.

Frances Wood is the author of `No Dogs and Not Many Chinese: treaty port life in China 1843-1943' (John Murray, pounds 25)