Luke Ching: Gazing Within/Without
The following two poems by Charlotte Robson have been written in response to Window (Day 2): Room 118, Titanic Hotel, Stanley Dock, Regent Road, Liverpool (2017) – a photograph taken by the Hong Kong-based artist Luke Ching, held within the University of Salford Art Collection and recently exhibited as part of ‘Taking the Leap’ at PHOTOFAIRS – Shanghai (20-22 September). Ching’s practice invites viewers to reflect on the constantly evolving nature of our cities and the history of the places and buildings that surround us. The image was created during a 10-day residency in Liverpool, during which the artist temporarily transformed a bedroom in the Titanic Hotel (a 200-year-old former warehouse overlooking Stanley Dock) into a pin-hole camera. Ching lived in the room during the exposure, never turning on the lights. The work touches on the processes of time and questions the durability of our urban fabric and social interactions.
Lì wù pǔ[i]
[Key s-words: Shanghai, sea, seafarer]
Seagull spires - not pictured - must’ve
sung the port’s tune, rallying
Stilled waters, running deep, a
Seeded So(o) long ago, twin veins
spider silk webs tracing transient(?)
paper traps screen
[i] This is how Liverpool is written in (Mandarin) Chinese Pinyin transliteration. Mandarin is the language that the Shanghainese seafarers would have spoken, whereas the Hong Konger mariners would have spoken Cantonese.
Shànghǎi Fǎ Zūjiè[ii]
On my penultimate day in Shanghai
I gently strayed down memory lanes,
searching for everything
I knew I shouldn’t
(as an educated woman).
That old book smell,
more fragrant in the summer humidity,
drawing me (and my entangled blood)
down dusty, peeling lùs,[iii]
of faded Empire.
But those stories have left this beating womb.
Canopied arteries shading l i n g e r i n g,
shipped-in-splendour, alongside other
remnants - chattering birdcages! - more inherent
to place than time, I peered,
on the cusp
of new chapters.
Phoenix city of diamond towers,
it was here I thought I was to rest my wings.
Instead, you simmer on within my heart,
my journey forever changed.
[ii] This is how the name for Shanghai’s former French concession (1849-1943) is written in Pinyin. Yvonne Foley believes that her own father was an inhabitant of the then French concession.
[iii] In Pinyin, lù is a Chinese word for road, most commonly used in Shanghai.
The storied port cities of Shanghai (China) and Liverpool (UK) were officially twinned in 1999 in recognition of their extensive shared trading history in commodities such as tea, silk and cotton. Recounting this history would be incomplete without mention of the Ocean Steamship Company, or Blue Funnel Line, which, established in January 1865 by Alfred Holt and Philip Henry Holt, was long known as ‘the China Company’ on Merseyside, due to its entrenched merchant marine links with the East Asian country. Agamemnon was the heroic-sounding name given to the Holts’ pioneering, 2300-ton steamship, which embarked on its trailblazing maiden voyage on 19 April 1866, carrying the first cargo from Liverpool to China.
This journey was undertaken in the context of much contemporary destabilisation within China itself as a consequence of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) and, prior to this, the Anglo-Chinese First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60, respectively), which forcibly opened China to trade with Europe and the United States. As a result, Agamemnon sailed for Shanghai – docking at British-ruled Hong Kong along the way – with the full might of the British Empire, then in its so-called ‘golden age’, behind her. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, the armed Opium conflicts had resulted in the city being carved up into extraterritorial concessions by the dominant French, British and American powers. The British and American settlements joined forces in 1863 to form the International Settlement, while the French concession remained an independent entity until Japan took control of the entire city in December 1941, during World War Two.
The Blue Funnel Line’s well-travelled Liverpool-China route meant that a community of Chinese seamen began to form in and around Liverpool’s dockside Pitt Street, Frederick Street and Cleveland Square areas towards the close of the 19th century. Then, around the outbreak of World War One, a concentrated effort by the British state to import Chinese mariners from Britain’s then quasi-colonial outposts in China (to replace the British seamen required to enlist in the Royal Navy) significantly boosted Liverpool’s growing native Chinese population further. Similarly, 20,000 additional Chinese seafarers would land and, in some cases, settle in Liverpool throughout WWII to assist with Britain’s naval war effort.
Despite their bravery and settled status, investigations in The National Archives in recent decades by Yvonne Foley (the daughter of a Shanghainese mariner based in Liverpool during this period), her husband Charles, and others have unearthed evidence that the post-war British government, with the help of the Ocean Steamship Company, subsequently, and clandestinely, compulsorily expelled these Chinese settlers following the conflict. In the majority of cases, this was carried out without the knowledge of their families (many Chinese mariners were by now husbands or partners to British women and fathers of Eurasian children), who, heartbreakingly, assumed they had been abandoned, with many never to see the men again. By mid-1946, Liverpool’s ‘surplus’ Chinese seamen had been deported to various east or south-east Asian ports. Due to political upheaval on the mainland, some never made it back to China.
Today, a small memorial to these fathers, husbands, partners and employees, independently paid for by the Foley family, faces out towards the River Mersey on Liverpool’s waterfront. The Port of Liverpool Building stands behind it, with the Museum of Liverpool to its side. Erected on 23 January 2006, 60 years after the seafarers’ forced expulsion from the city, it reads (in both English and Chinese):
To the Chinese merchant seamen who served this country well during both world wars,
For those who gave their lives for this country – thank you,
To the many Chinese merchant seamen who after both world wars were required to leave,
For their wives and partners who were left in ignorance of what happened to their men,
For the children who never knew their fathers,
This is a small reminder of what took place. We hope nothing like it will ever happen again.
For your memory.
Somewhat ironically, but for a buffer of a few metres of road, grass and pavement, this memorial is flanked by Liverpool’s Three Graces – the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building, and the Port of Liverpool Building – architectural pastiches of which occupy prime spots on Shanghai’s own historic waterfront, the Bund. Indeed, the Chinese city’s British-designed Customs House, Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund, and HSBC Building (which today houses the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank), all built with British trading profits during the first half of the 20th century, present as concrete echoes of Liverpool’s well-known riverside real estate. This decidedly unambiguous connection literally dwarfs the still partly concealed and invisible human ties between the two ports.
The above two poems were written in response to Hong Kong artist, Luke Ching’s Window (Day 2): Room 118, Titanic Hotel, Stanley Dock, Regent Road, Liverpool photograph (2017). Born and raised in Liverpool and having twice studied at Shanghai’s Fudan University, this photograph initially triggered in me a desire to, in the words of anthropologist Igor Kopytoff, “make salient what might otherwise remain obscure.” Explicitly, to bring to light, through research and imagination, both the legacy and long-buried history of the unspecified Chinese seamen who, at one time, contributed so much to life, peace and commerce along Liverpool’s working docks. Inversely, the second poem, named after Shanghai’s former French concession, is inspired by my own personal experiences of living, as a Liverpudlian, in this dynamic and cosmopolitan Chinese city – romantically referred to as ‘the Paris of the Orient’ during the last century – which remains very dear to my heart. Tracing the physical vestiges of European semi-colonialism in Shanghai on my penultimate day there, the poem seeks to relay my attempts at understanding the meaning of home in today’s globalised, postcolonial context.
Falkus, Malcolm, The Blue Funnel Legend: A History of the Ocean Steam Ship Company, 1865-1973, London, 1990. (Generously lent by the P.H. Holt Foundation.)
Foley, Yvonne, ‘John Swire, Alfred Holt and Liverpool’s Chinese Community’, Special Collections, SOAS Library website, https://blogs.soas.ac.uk/archives/2014/11/24/john-swire-alfred-holt-and-liverpool’s-chinese-community/ accessed 25/09/2019.
Foley, Yvonne, ‘Liverpool and its Chinese Seamen’, Half and Half website, http://www.halfandhalf.org.uk/index_main.htm accessed 16/09/2019.
Hogan, Anthony, ‘Chinese Community’, Liverpool and Merseyside Remembered website, http://liverpoolremembrance.weebly.com/chinese-community.html# accessed 18/09/2019.
Kopytoff, Igor, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process’, in Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge, 1986, 64-91.