In the 1920s Shanghai was divided into three administrative zones: The International settlement 公共租界 around Suzhou creek and along the north bank of the Huangpu, the French Concession 法租界 inland from the South end of the Bund and the Chinese old walled city 老城厢 on the South West bank of Huangpu jiang.
In the international settlement, three of the largest groups of foreign residents (along with the Portuguese and after 1922 the Russians) were the Japanese, the British and the American. The children of these families were sometimes thrown together, if not through the urbane internationalism of their parents (despite Shanghai’s cosmopolitan image, racial prejudice was still prevalent), then due simply to physical proximity.
In the satirical tidbits of American journalist Elsie McCormick’s The Unexpurgated Diary of a Shanghai Baby from 1927, we see the ‘Paris of the Orient’ through the eyes of an American toddler. Most of the baby’s revealing observations satirize the foreign settlers’ ignorance of everything beyond their own small social sphere (including the everyday life of their own child). The baby itself has an even more limited social life: Apart from its amah, its only social intercourse is a distance aquantainship with a Japanese baby – perambulators that pass in the night… One might compare the baby’s mix of awe and resentment towards the ‘fresh Jap baby’ to the American attitude to the growing Japanese militarism of the time:
Went to Hongkew Park and saw fresh Jap baby wearing white apron on top of kimono and little flat red hat on head. Silly getup. Jap famility excited because baby could step alone. Awfully stuck on itself. Have decided not to throw wooden elephant, as didn’t know Jap baby could walk.” 61
In a much later novel by Japanese born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, we likewise view 1920s Shanghai through the eyes of two children of the international settlement. This time, the two neighbour kids, one British the other Japanese, are both equally cut off from the world outside the settlement:
“I for one was absolutely forbidden to enter the Chinese areas of the city, and as far as I know, Akira’s parents were no less strict on the matter. Out there, we were told, lay all matter of ghastly diseases, filth and evil men.” (When We Were Orphans, 2000: 54)
Seen through the eyes of its (fictional) younger inhabitants, the international community of 1920s’ Shanghai reveals itself to be not so much decadent and cosmopolitan as suffering from ineffectual self isolation and quite a lot of prudish village atmosphere. If the settlement was itself a little ethnically confused (witness the municipal flag), the important part was that it was not Chinese. The arbitrariness and impotence of these lines drawn in the sand become humourously apparent when narrated from a child’s perspective. After reading quite a lot of literary descriptions of Shanghai as “the adventurers’ paradise” towards the undoing of all good men and women, it is quite liberating to see that image messed up a bit.
Finally, should you wish to discover the real Shanghai outside your own comfort zone, I recommend the strategy of this baby flâneur:
Went out this morning with amah and wooden elephant. Elephant very nice to bite tooth on, but always falling out of perambulator into street. Amah kind about picking it up and giving it back to me. Know taste of every street in Shanghai.” 25
2 thoughts on “Straight Baby Talk: Children of Shanghai’s International Settlement”
Absolutely thrilled to find this book! My dad was born in 1920 in Shanghai. The eldest son of a member of the British Municipal council.
He grew up there and often would tell me amusing stories of his life there.He was very close to his Amah and “houseboy”,yes that was the term at the time.. Masong was only a few years older than he,and probably his closest friend as a child til the family left China in December 1941.
My dad lived to the grand age of 95,and though he antidotally told me tales of his upbringing,it was all so different from the life we shared as a family in !960’sVancouver Canada .I so look forward to reading this book and learning a little more about his experience., Wish I’d come across it earlier to share with my dad. He would have got a kick out of it.
Reading the bit about the baby dropping the wooden elephant,rang so true. I laughed out loud.
Thank you, Jenn Hughes
Yes books are hidden treasures. How absolutely lovely, thanks for sharing your dad’s story!