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  • The Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai
  • Marcia R. Ristaino
The Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. By Robert Bickers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 384 pp. $34.50 (cloth).

Robert Bickers has written a book providing a new perspective on empire, as seen and experienced by one of its servants, a police constable employed by the Shanghai Municipal Police, the body that kept order in the International Settlement mostly for the benefit of its thriving and prosperous business interests. This view of empire, as seen from the bottom rung, shows the clear divisions between those who are recognized as pukka, enjoying enormous privileges, many at the expense of the Chinese, and those other whites who must struggle interminably against their countrymen's class discrimination, snobbery, and their own false illusions.

Robert Maurice Tinkler is a working-class Englishman from Lancastershire, fresh from the trenches of World War I, out of work, and looking for adventure. Almost out of the blue, he signs on to become a policeman with the Shanghai Municipal Police, an avocation that might at least approach the skills he acquired in the war. His photograph reveals a rather dashing young man who is intelligent and ambitious and who finds the relative privileges accorded to a white man, even a policeman, in Shanghai much to his taste. It seems, however, that his discovered pleasures, such as having a Chinese servant who "pulled back the mosquito curtains at 6 A.M. and served him a cup of tea" (p. 63), while initially satisfying, become diminished as he begins to understand his decided low-class status within the white Shanghailander society around him. He finds that the police force is regarded only as a necessary institution, whose white members are clearly omitted from the right social circles. His disappointment is also reflected in his career progress, which is quite promising at first, as he reaches the rank of detective, but when his bitterness and social resentment start to take hold, his performance starts a downward spiral that leads to his personal degeneration and eventual dismissal. Even his Russian mistress seems to regress more and more into the background.

Tinkler's story is documented by his letters to his sister Edith in which his discontent with his status as a servant of empire and to the rich in Shanghai is a constant theme. Also apparent are his extreme racism and proclivity for violence. Time and again his convictions of racial superiority over the Chinese are expressed. It is not difficult to predict that these personal traits, along with his heavy drinking and womanizing, all so readily available in Shanghai at this time, will eventually [End Page 240] spell disaster. The conclusive event involves a wild skirmish with armed Japanese Marines during which Tinkler, waving a gun and firing it at least once, is clubbed and bayoneted to death. The incident and its questionable outcome, pursued by sister Edith, are taken up by the British Foreign Office, but eventually lead nowhere.

Bickers points out frequently the difficulty of cataloging and building a life story while working with only a scant number of letters, seventeen to Edith, even though he supplements them with a substantial amount of research done in various archives and libraries and interviews with elderly contacts with stories about Tinkler to relate. Given this limitation on source material, he must resort to filling the voids by telling what might have been, probably was, or could have been. This approach is understandable, but not strengthening for an accurate historical account of Tinkler's life. However, Bickers's extensive knowledge of his subject and careful drawing of connections between similar lives and situations does produce a quite full and convincing portrait of an ordinary life lived in empire, in extraordinary times, from 1919 until 1939, and in China's most famous city. The story reflects the life of an ordinary Britisher, sucked into the design and requirements of empire service, who becomes shaped and often distorted by its very force. Tinkler, by his own frustrations, violence, and racism, forfeits the personal qualities and talents that might have served him well in life. In his...