In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai
  • Carolyn Wakeman (bio)
Robert Bickers . Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 410 pp. Hardcover $32.50, ISBN 0-231-13132-1.

In Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai Robert Bickers, senior lecturer in East Asian and Colonial History at the University of Bristol, argues that "Shanghai puts the confusions of empire practice sharply into focus" (p. 12). Exhuming the life of an ordinary Briton lured to China in 1919 by a recruitment notice for the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP), Bickers explores the contentious, class-ridden entanglement of colonialist and colonized against the backdrop of China's emerging nationalism. The story of Robert Maurice Tinkler, he writes, "involves all the actors in the tale of empire, opponents, victims and collaborators, those to whom empire was done, and those who did it" (p. 5).

In this richly nuanced "biography of a nobody," he traces the career of an unremarkable foreign cop to personalize the impact in China of Britain's empire in decline. An ironmonger's son from England's Lake District, Tinkler signed up for the Shanghai police force at age twenty-one, fresh from the trenches in France, one of two hundred thousand emigrants to leave the British Isles in 1919 for the outposts of empire, and one of seventy-four to join the SMP. "A white man can get a job out here" (p. 33) Tinkler wrote in his first letter home, awed by white privilege and power in foreign-administered Shanghai.

Tinkler adhered to regulations, avoided petty corruption, stayed out of debt, rose steadily through the ranks, yet in the process developed a violent temper and a virulent racism. "I would like to have a go at these yellow Chinese swine," he wrote in 1921 (p. 122). "The way the foreign powers are 'crawling' to these damned yellow pigs is nauseating," he complained in a letter to his family in 1926 (p. 176). Soon Tinkler's outrage overwhelmed his professional duty and his judgment.

Increasingly arrogant and abusive, he failed in 1929 to report the kidnapping of a Chinese caterer at the American Club, which brought demotion and transfer. After a formal reprimand, he handed in his resignation, resurfacing in 1935 as the labor supervisor of the China Printing and Finishing Company's Pudong plant, where ongoing worker disturbances and the provocations of the Japanese military occupation stoked his fury. Refusing to temper his belligerence or submit to the occupying authorities, he was killed in a melee with Japanese gendarmes in 1939.

Like most newly arrived foreigners, Tinkler initially was captivated by the "Paradise of Adventurers," finding in this exotic Oriental setting the possibility of becoming "someone else" (p. 339). But he happened to arrive at a moment of accelerating nationalism, when Shanghai engaged in the heady task of commercializing modernity even as it birthed a new politics of public activism and a revolutionary [End Page 25] nationalism that threatened the colonial elite. "Into this changing and increasingly politicized city came the 1919 recruits to the SMP" (p. 62), asked to serve as bobbies on a Chinese beat and defend a political settlement increasingly under siege. Reconstructing the perspective of someone from the "other ranks of empire," Bickers documents the antagonizing conflict of daily encounters between the foreign enclave and the Chinese city. Ultimately it was not just individual servants of empire like Tinkler who were swept away by political change but the brash venture of Western imperialism in Asia.

To differentiate the "mythic city" imagined and memorialized by expatriates from the urban reality against which it collided, Bickers guides us deftly through a wealth of local archives, PRO documents, newspaper reports, guidebooks, letters, family papers, and personal interviews to fashion a richly layered social history of Shanghai's foreign police. In the process he makes the scrutiny of sources an integral part of the narrative, deliberately involving readers in the challenge of constructing history. He relies on the thirty-six letters Tinkler sent to family members, the photograph albums he left behind, and a trove of indirect documentation gleaned from the SCMP files and the personal papers...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 25-27
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.