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Reviewed by:
  • Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai by Robert Bickers
  • Karen Y. Fang
Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. By Robert Bickers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

This book, product of the first prize awarded by the Institute of Historical Research, is a superb study of colonial institutions and their effect on individual employees. A self-described “biography of a nobody” (4), Empire Made Me reconstructs the life of Richard Maurice Tinkler, a working-class Englishman who served in the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) throughout the 1920’s, and whose precipitous death in 1939 during the Japanese occupation briefly became an international incident. Robert Bickers’ genius in this book is his focus on the marginal aspects of Tinkler’s existence—issues usually uninviting to traditional scholarship. As a British policeman on the China coast Tinkler may seem an archetypal imperial servant, finding professional opportunity unavailable in the British provinces by the commission to control the native population abroad. But, more interestingly, Bickers repeatedly emphasizes, in Shanghai the racial privilege of policemen was counteracted by their confinement to the servant classes—actually a common, but easily forgotten, imperial story. Empire Made Me thus builds upon Alain Corbin’s Biography of an Unknown, a book its author acknowledges as a chief inspiration, in that it tracks a biographical subject who would have been unknown if not for the ready-made institutional identity that colonial policing offered. Similarly, it differs from this influence in that was precisely empire’s bureaucratic processes that ensured his history, unlike Corbin’s subject, was preserved.

Tinkler was part of the white “Shanghailander” culture which inhabited Shanghai’s International Settlement during the city’s “thirty-year spree” (50) before the second war. A space of several foreign “concessions” in a rapidly-changing China, the International Settlement was governed by a predominately British council that rendered it a de facto colony, hence accounting for the British-run police service. But given their officially non-colonial status and the diversity of foreign and local powers jockeying for position at the time, police authority was always embattled, and the imperial pretensions of the British presence similarly hindered. These complications, however, only underscore the book’s pertinence to issues beyond China studies. As the title announces, Empire Made Me shows how a single individual can embody global history. Like many imperial servants Tinkler shuttled between various British theaters, appearing in the era’s most defining events. While his SMP colleagues came from and went to other police commissions in Pretoria, Palestine, Malaya, and India,Tinkler had been in Flanders in 1916, and in working his way up in the SMP had participated in the growing political intrigue that characterized China during this time. His death, Bickers implies, foretold the fate of empire, and even western involvement in Asia, by mid-century.

The bold, first-person title of Empire Made Me also hints at another concern of the volume. Gender is a recurring aspect of Bickers’ narrative, which thoughtfully illustrates how the strong masculinity essential to British imperial ideology required constant performance and self-indoctrination—a telling instability in Tinkler’s history that suggests how empire was already breaking down. Indeed, Bickers’ book is the antithesis to the monolithic physical monuments of official imperial history, as his frequent allusions to war memorials and other imperial relics suggest. A sympathetic but still critical text, Empire Made Me refuses to romanticize either the cosmopolitan exoticism of contemporary Shanghai or the quotidian violence of colonial policing. As Bickers puts it, in another comparison to a pathbreaking historigraphical work that clearly influenced him, Tinkler resembles the “ordinary men” Christopher Browning has described in the Polish police reserves during the German occupation, for whom Jewish extermination was part of their daily commission.

One indicator of the book’s power is that at nearly 350 pages of dense, detailed text, Empire Made Me is as difficult to put down as the popular Nick Carter detective fiction with which Tinkler seems to have shaped his persona. Bickers has a novelist’s sensitivity for psychological development, local color, and the compelling detail. Indeed, literature, both biographical and fictional, is a rich addition to Bickers’ archive...

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