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Book Review


Bickers, Robert. Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. New York: University of Columbia Press, 2003. 384 pp. $39.50 (cloth)

     Robert Bickers' prize-winning 2003 work, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, is a great book. Bickers' exploration of life in the lower echelons of Britain's informal Empire in China successfully bridges multiple divides between theory and narrative, academic and trade audiences. Although the work is geographically centered in Shanghai's International Settlement, the processes of institutional, social and personal development that Bickers articulates makes Empire Made Me useful for understanding broader notions of power and Empire. To grasp concepts of identity and the distorting effects of Empire, the book reveals the changing context of colonialism, power, race and class through the institution of the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) and ultimately one man, Richard Maurice Tinkler.

     The twenty-year period from 1919 until 1939 saw the transformation of Shanghai from a treaty port dominated by Europeans into a cosmopolitan center of industry, finance and politics under Japanese rule. Arriving on the banks of the Huangpu River during this era of political and social uncertainty were one thousand British men recruited to serve in the SMP as policemen. These men were tasked to walk the beat, supervise Chinese or Sikh officers and maintain the prevailing order of Shanghai's International Settlement. Among them was Richard Maurice Tinkler, an energetic twenty-one year old from Lancashire seeking a comfortable path to respectability after serving in the trenches of World War One.

     Bickers writes, "This book is about Empire, and specifically about the ways in which it shaped and distorted twentieth-century British lives (3)." For a lower middle-class but talented man like Tinkler, Empire offered opportunities for advancement in return for service and duty. The uncertain identity and status of the police force isolated the men from both upper class British, who were protected by their wealth, and the other national groups represented in Shanghai: Chinese, Russian or Japanese, all of whom they were supposed to control. Class and racial identities were also supported by idealized gender roles. Empire manliness as imagined by Tinkler followed a stern code; "a man courted danger and displayed his strength; a man led other men; a man lived solo and –as we shall see - a man broke hearts (28)."

     In the second half of the book the negative personal distortions that result from the double-edged nature of colonial existence become central to the narrative and the remainder of Tinkler's short life is a journey into isolation, poverty and seething resentment. The colonial difficulty of self-identification was magnified for Tinkler because his talent and intelligence initially allowed him to 'pass' in high society -- at least until his lack of money and low status employment become evident. Tinkler responded by increasingly opting-out of British conventions in favor of American mannerisms and slang, which isolated him from superiors and colleagues. If Tinkler could not move upwards within Shanghai's British society, neither could he mix freely with other races without compromising his fragile authority within the SMP. Tinkler's struggle for social and self respect was complicated, as the fixed social and racial hierarchies of Shanghai were increasingly threatened during the 1920's by political, social and economic changes bringing new, racially destabilizing groups such as Russians (poor but white) and Japanese (Imperialist but Asian) into Shanghai life. In the center of this volatile mixture was the steadily increasing organizational ability of Chinese political and social groups. After the May Thirtieth Movement of 1925, when the Chinese demonstrated their latent political power, the institutions of the International Settlement were forced to adapt. Tinkler, driven by notions of race, power and masculinity, could not adapt so easily and became increasingly violent and difficult to work with and was censored in 1929 for dereliction of duty. Humiliated in the one arena where he could achieve self-respect, Tinkler's erratic behavior increased, ultimately leading to his resignation in October 1930.

     At this point the narrative breaks down due to a lack of source material and Bickers is forced to rely on secondary sources, anecdotal information, and conjecture to fill in the period between January 1931 and February 1934. Previous reviews have commented negatively on the methodology of this section, "What We Can't Know," and while it may be difficult for non-academic readers to accept the lack of detail, it is a vital part of Bickers' endeavor. Throughout the course of the work, Bickers speaks to the reader about the mechanics of his research, recounting fortuitous discoveries of documents, conversations with surviving relatives and his first impressions of dusty photos. This process conveys a necessary sense of the difficulty of reconstructing the life of one man, even in the not-so-distant past, and subtly forces the reader to approach historical research as a process of discovery.

     When Bickers is next able to find Tinkler, doing short-term work in the inland city of Nanchang, he is angry and alone. After a near destitute period in Shanghai, Tinkler landed a job as a supervisor at a printing mill across the river from the International Settlement. Living in a spartan company room, with few personal possessions or friends, his only legacy during this period was the memories others had of his brutal conduct toward Chinese workers. His death in 1939 at the hands of Japanese Marines marked Tinkler's last service to the British Empire by offering a convenient martyr on which to center anti-Japanese sentiment.

     Bickers' comprehensive analysis of the SMP and how it continually reshaped society and itself serves as a model for future studies of institutions throughout the colonial world. The decision to use Tinkler to personify larger conceptions of power and identity grounds and enlivens what could have become a tedious exploration of late-imperial institutions. Bickers successfully threads the needle by treating Tinkler neither as anti-hero nor as thug but as a flawed everyman to illustrate a broader account of the workings of Empire, and the Faustian bargain it required of its servants.


Eric Setzekorn
University of California, Irvine


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