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Empire Made Me

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Originally published  2003
3.8/5 Goodreads

Author  Robert Bickers
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Similar  The Scramble for China, Britain in China: Communi, Settlers and Expatriat, The Boxers - China - an, Getting Stuck in For Shan

Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai is the 2003 biography of the Shanghai policeman Richard Maurice Tinkler by the British historian Robert Bickers. Tinkler, a British veteran of World War One turned policeman in interwar Shanghai was described by Bickers as an extremely tough, able, violent and racist policeman operating in one of the world's most crime-ridden and dangerous cities who loathed the Chinese as a people and treated them with much brutality. The New Zealand author John Grant Ross wrote in a review of Empire Made Me that: "Some books get under your skin, keep you awake at night long after you’ve finished reading them. This biography of a policeman in Shanghai’s International Settlement in the 1920s and 1930s is such a book."

The stated aim of Bickers's book was that: "This book is about Empire, and specifically about the ways in which it shaped and distorted twentieth-century British lives". Bickers argues in this "biography of a nobody" that through Tinkler himself was an unimportant man who achieved a brief moment of fame after his murder in June 1939 when he was stabbed to death by Japanese Marines, his life as a policeman in Shanghai revealed much about the British Empire worked in practice. A major theme of Empire Made Me was gender, the roles assigned to the sexes by society, which differs from sex, which describes the biological differences between males and females. Bickers maintained that the British imperial ideology required imperial men to adopt the macho pose of the heroic white man, forever seeking to prove his masculinity by keeping "the natives" whatever they be black, Indian, Asian, etc in line which was necessary to protect the idealized demure white women from the threat posed by "the natives", who were viewed as seeking to rape white women whenever they had the chance. In this way, Bickers argued that there was a close link between Tinker's racism and his machismo.

Bickers spent 13 years researching the life of Tinkler, a working class Englishman born in 1898 and who enlisted in the British Army in 1915 by lying about his age. After leaving the Army in August 1919, Tinkler promptly joined the Shanghai Municipal Police, serving until his dishonorable discharge in October 1930 for being drunk on duty. Much of Tinkler's correspondence survived, which allowed Bickers to vividly explore many aspects of Tinkler's life such as the resentment which he felt as a working-class man looked down upon by the socially superior British residents of Shanghai, his relationships with women, his intense racism and loathing of the Chinese and his macho sense of masculinity. Much of Tinkler's racism stemmed from the experience of a man who spoke with a working class Lancashire accent, despised by his social superiors, which led Tinkler to hate the Chinese with a special intensity as a way of compensation. One reviewer noted how Tinkler was something of a fascist in terms of personality, if not politics writing that:

"Bickers tried to design the book as one about colonialism, but the story kept frustrating anything so simple. In many ways, this is a story about policing, about modernity, about the ways fascism didn’t take in British culture and the ways it did, and about emigration. Tinkler’s letters, which survive, show him becoming an angrier and angrier man, an expat with a grudge against the world. But this doesn’t reduce to mere racism, as the races he despised included the Scots, former members of the Royal Navy, and the British public (in his words “the most prejudiced, uneducated, ignorant people in the world”). In fact, he sounds more like a classic fascist, craving war and glorying in contempt for the masses, whoever they were."

The American historian Karen Fang praised Bickers for his treatment of gender, writing:

"Gender is a recurring aspect of Bickers’ narrative, which thoughtfully illustrates how the strong masculinity essential to British imperial ideology required constant performance and self-indoctrination—a telling instability in Tinkler’s history that suggests how empire was already breaking down...A sympathetic but still critical text, Empire Made Me refuses to romanticize either the cosmopolitan exoticism of contemporary Shanghai or the quotidian violence of colonial policing. As Bickers puts it, in another comparison to a pathbreaking historigraphical work that clearly influenced him, Tinkler resembles the “ordinary men” Christopher Browning has described in the Polish police reserves during the German occupation, for whom Jewish extermination was part of their daily commission." [Fang is referring to Browning's 1992 book Ordinary Men about the German Reserve Police Battalion 101 who shot down much of the Jewish population in south-eastern Poland in 1942-43]

By contrast, Ross in a 2015 review felt that the book was somewhat "politically correct" in its harsh assessment of the British Empire and noted the problem of researching the life of an ordinary man, writing:

"Robert Bickers is, as you’d expect with a career academic, no apologist for the British empire. We’re told that British rule in treaty ports such as Shanghai was racist and cruel. However, we’re not given any reference points for comparison. What was the state of Chinese law and order outside the foreign settlements? How was the policing in Shanghai before and after the SMP period? Much worse of course. Then there’s the inconvenient fact that the great majority of the population in the small International Settlement was Chinese – and that they had moved there of their own free will...

Many books on the old Shanghai describe the decadence and glamour, the shocking contrasts of wealth and poverty, the whores, gangsters, and foreign elites. Empire Made Me has plenty of background colour, but the focus is on the daily graft of the cogs of empire: men like Tinkler. In a biography of an ordinary man, however, Bickers faces the inevitable difficulty of a lack of evidence. There were letters to Tinkler’s sister and documents from British and Chinese archives, though not much else. The result is gaps in the story – such as several missing years in the early 1930s; Bickers actually has included a chapter titled “What We Can’t Know.”"

Ross argued that the book was unfair in the sense that it was difficult to fully understand Tinkler today given that so much of his life went undocumented such as the "missing years" from 1931 to 1934, that such flaws were a tribute to how "thought-provoking" Empire Made Me was, and that a less ambitious historian than Bickers would had produced a less interesting book.


Empire Made Me Wikipedia

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