I apologize for the long absence. This weekend I’m going to give a talk about Jews in China during World War II, so I’ve been using all my free time to prepare for that. This preparation has included reading a narrative titled Empire Made Me (Penguin, 2003) by Robert Bickers. While the book doesn’t cover much about Jewish life in Shanghai back then, it does present a view of foreigners in Shanghai that goes beyond the sing-song houses and the opulence of the Cathay Hotel.
The story centers around Maurice Tinkler, a British veteran of World War I who finds himself lost in his own country at the conclusion of the war. When his sister shows him an ad in a British newspaper for police officers in Shanghai, Tinkler successfully applies for the job and becomes one of 70+ British men who sail to China in 1919 to join the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP).
Tinkler quickly rises in the ranks of the force. One of the criteria to succeed in the SMP is to pass Shanghainese proficiency tests. Not Mandarin, but Shanghainese. And Tinkler seems to have no problem with his language lessons. He’s a smart guy.
But he’s flawed in almost every other way. He believes that his role is to keep the Chinese in their place. Tinkler is a violent person and becomes involved in some scuffles and shootings,which result in his dismissal from the SMP after ten years on the force. He never marries and in effect abandons his girlfriend back in the UK. His sister Edith is his closest relative, but after 1930, she never hears from him again.
When foreign officers are fired, they are usually sent back to their home countries. Tinkler asks to go to the US, where he stays for a few weeks. Before long, he’s back in China and drifts between jobs, some outside of Shanghai. The author admits that he has to guess Tinkler’s whereabouts for a few years between 1930 and 1934, when his records appear again in Shanghai as an employee of a printing company.
In 1939, Tinkler is involved in a skirmish with some Japanese soldiers. He is brought to a hospital but soon dies. The remainder of the book focuses on the last couple years of the Shanghai Municipal Police and how its officers were left to themselves, without support from Britain or Shanghai.
I thought Robert Bickers did a fantastic job in bringing the reader to pre-WWII Shanghai. The story is not just one about Maurice Tinkler, but how ordinary men reinvented themselves in Shanghai. And how the British Empire also used these men and left them bereft.