Australians who helped mould modern China
THE subtitle carries the surprising core message of Peter Thompson’s new book. The Australian heroes of Shanghai Fury include social reformers, lawyers, business people, diplomats, policemen, doctors, gamblers, a Salvation Army officer, Brigadier George Walker, tortured for refusing to make pro-japanese broadcasts, author Frank Clune, who ‘‘ exposed the Shanghai Club’s claim to have the longest bar in the world’’, and many journalists.
Americans, Britons, Canadians and New Zealanders tend to follow readily the triumphs and failings of their compatriots on the international stage, today and in the pages of the past. But oddly, once Australians board the flight or walk up the gangplank, they often disappear not only from sight but even from popular history. There are two exceptions: war heroes and writers or other media personalities such as actors who become successful in Britain or the US.
The Australians who have gone to Asia or the Pacific in recent years and done fascinating, selfless or infamous deeds mostly remain unknown. This was not always so. A century ago, Thompson writes, ‘‘ China was such a novelty that Australians who visited Shanghai inevitably had their experiences recorded in the press back home.’’
Thompson, a veteran Australian journalist who lives in London, helps make amends in this highly readable history set chiefly in the rambunctious, international city of Shanghai between the first Opium War of 1840 and the declaration of the People’s Republic in 1949.
He cleverly, and with few signs of the intricate stitching required, weaves his Australian dramatis personae into the wild story of China’s travails as it struggled to shed its senile, malfunctioning Manchu dynasty, started to modernise as a democratic republic before being invaded by atypically obnoxious Japanese, and then fell, mostly with unknowing enthusiasm, into the hands of the murderous, cynical ideologue Mao Zedong.
The stars of the story are two amazing Australians who played remarkably influential roles in the history of modern China: George Ernest ‘‘ Chinese’’ Morrison and William Henry Donald.
The lives of each would make great movies, although the lurid truth would have to be toned down to make it believable.
Morrison, born in 1862, whose father
‘ was headmaster at Geelong College, warmed up for China by canoeing from Albury down the Murray River to its mouth, by walking from Normanton in Queensland to Melbourne and venturing into Papua New Guinea. After qualifying as a doctor in 1894 and ‘‘ possessed with the strong racial antipathy to the Chinese common to my countrymen’’, he travelled from Shanghai to Rangoon overland, a trip that changed his attitude to the Chinese to one of ‘‘ lively sympathy and gratitude’’.
He then travelled to Calcutta, caught a fever, recovered in Edinburgh and met the editor of The Times, who appointed him as a special correspondent in the ‘‘ Far East’’. From 1897, Morrison covered every significant event in the region as the great powers fought over the Manchu remains. He was ‘‘ embedded’’ with the Japanese when they defeated the Russians at Port Arthur, was appointed an acting lieutenant during the 55-day siege of the foreign legation quarter of Beijing by the Boxers (during which a doublecolumn obituary appeared in The Times, which he later read with relish) and as plague broke out, wrote a series of articles about China’s health challenges. He backed the republicans and after Pu Yi, the last emperor, was forced to abdicate, he became political adviser to the Chinese government and its representative at the Versailles peace talks after World War I. He married late, fathered three sons and died of pancreatic cancer aged 58. It’s difficult to think of an Australian who lived a fuller life.
William Donald was born in 1875 in Lithgow, NSW, where he began his working life as a reporter on The Mercury.
Like many young Australian journalists he tried his hand in Hong Kong, with The China Mail, before shifting to Shanghai where he became a friend of Charlie Soong, the wealthy printer-publisher whose daughters married three of the most influential men of the 20th century and in time rivalled in influence their husbands: H. H. Kung, for a while the richest man in the world; Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China; and Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader.
Donald became an important adviser to the latter two, and played the leading role in negotiating Chiang’s release after he was kidnapped by communist troops in Xi’an as the Japanese invaded. He was to become known to the Japanese, Thompson writes, as ‘‘ the evil spirit of China’’.
History, Thompson concludes, ‘‘ has a way of separating the dross from the hidden gems’’. He has unearthed a couple of dozen in this book, a rare haul. Rowan Callick is The Australian’s AsiaPacific editor.