I have recently been reading a lot of books. Ironically, this was in part because I left a Kindle on a plane and had to get the app instead – having the books so temptingly close caused very rapid consumption.
Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai by Robert Bickers, is the personal history of Richard Maurice Tinkler, Lancashire grammar-school boy, war-hero, emigrant, Shanghai policeman, waterfront drifter, and eventually victim of Japanese brutality. Tinkler was in many ways an archetypal figure of his time, an autodidact with artistic pretentions for whom the First World War was both a traumatic and a liberating experience, disillusioned and supremely confident, a Wyndham Lewis Tyro. Had he been Italian, he would surely have taken part in D’Annunzio’s barking mission to Fiume.
Instead, after sculling about for a few months in a Britain determined to squash real wages back to pre-war levels, he sailed for another semi-colonial, semi-independent port city characterised by hyper-modernity and political turmoil, the Shanghai of J.G. Ballard’s childhood, where he joined its odd, multi-national and multi-ethnic (including Brits, Shanghainese, people from Shandong province, Sikhs, Russians, central European Jews, and Japanese) but heavily Britishised police force. As a cop, he was very successful, escaping the beat for the glamour of CID and later the goon dramatics of the riot squad, before making a fool of himself and ruining his career.
Bickers tried to design the book as one about colonialism, but the story kept frustrating anything so simple. In many ways, this is a story about policing, about modernity, about the ways fascism didn’t take in British culture and the ways it did, and about emigration. Tinkler’s letters, which survive, show him becoming an angrier and angrier man, an expat with a grudge against the world. But this doesn’t reduce to mere racism, as the races he despised included the Scots, former members of the Royal Navy, and the British public (in his words “the most prejudiced, uneducated, ignorant people in the world”). In fact, he sounds more like a classic fascist, craving war and glorying in contempt for the masses, whoever they were.
Interestingly, he mocked his own detective career by comparison with the classic American fictional detectives in his letters, while at the same time living the life and the role of the world-weary, cynical, thuggish, hardboiled dick to the full, in a city that afforded him more scope for it than anywhere else. Bickers seems to have been trying to steer against the mythos of old Shanghai, but he can’t escape the fact that again and again, his interviews and archival research turn up evidence that it actually was very much like that.
Sergeant Barnes falls in love with a Japanese taxi-dancer at the Venus Cafe, a White Russian haunt owned by the Corsicans. Across town, a substantial quantity of confiscated opium disappears in mysterious circumstances, while DI Sam Sherlock (yes) is killed in the line of duty confronting a group of heavily armed terrorists and Richard Sorge is busy spying. A new recruit, Dan Cormie, is advised to get a “sleeping dictionary” to improve his Chinese – that is to say, a local girlfriend. Actually, he married Miss Tsang Mei-yuan, with the result that he was both considered the force’s best linguist and also politically suspect. Also on the force, W.E. Fairbairn is designing the unarmed combat course that would be taught to the British commandos of the second world war. Most of the British cops aren’t just foreigners to China, but they are also seeing the big city for the first time. And that was before things got weird.
The police history side of the book is fascinating in itself. In the early 20s, the International Settlement changed its drugs laws from a licensing system to one of outright prohibition, under pressure from the international community. The effects were exactly like those of the War on Drugs, and I mean exactly. Availability didn’t go away, while violent crime soared and police corruption became a huge problem. After the police organised a highly secret drug squad, compartmentalised from the rest of the force and technically not quite legal, the major wholesalers were forced out but only as far as the French zone next door.
Tinkler’s fall from grace is telling, too – he neglected to pursue a report of a kidnapping, apparently out of racism or perhaps because he was drunk on duty, and the victim’s family went to the press, specifically the new American-owned press that was less likely to cooperate in hushing the matter up. Bickers argues that Tinkler had missed an important political shift – the Settlement’s rhetoric of cosmopolitanism and Chinese-Western cooperation had ceased to be just colonialist eyewash, under the pressure of Japanese aggression, and become increasingly real, leaving him out of time in his carefully constructed identity as an imperial goon.
However, the story bears some surprisingly familiar features from police scandals in very different times. Also, an instance of police brutality is described which is very, very similar to the Oluwale case in 70s Leeds – never trust the Leeds police, as the football song goes. Perhaps the temptations and failure modes of a police force are much the same anywhere. Bickers argues that, given the enormously ambiguous political situation, the challenges of incredibly fast urbanisation, and the basically open availability of guns, the force actually did quite well in providing a degree of security.
Ballardians will be interested to know that James Ballard senior hired him to protect his textile factory, and Tinkler met his sticky end at the hands of the Japanese navy doing just that, after having a bad attack of testosterone-poisoning. Bickers interviews old man Ballard’s Chinese PA, who remembers Tinkler as follows:
“tai ben” and “tai liumang” – he was the thickest, his personal behaviour was distasteful, and his cultural level was very low