Impressions of Shanghai, 1937 (I)

In the late 1930s, Shanghai was a magnet for adventurous young westerners. Among them was  Best Overend (1909-1977). At the age of twenty-seven, he was the Third Watch Officer on a steamer that left Sydney heading for China. Once arrived in the Middle Kingdom, he found employment in Shanghai as an architect for the British firm Lester, Johnson and Morriss. In this capacity he became a keen observer of the exotic life that unfolded around him, and he later committed his recollection to paper. 

What follows is the first of three installments of Overend’s Shanghai memoirs. It is an edited extract from Tramp to Shanghai: a young man’s tale before the war, by Best Overend and Tronn Overend available as a free iBook from the iTunes store. The extract was first carried in the November, 2012 issue of Quadrant magazine ( and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Quadrant and Best Overend’s son Tronn Overend.

When you arrive, you fall in love with China. The first thing you see is the yellow river swept clean of all floating rubbish by the scavenger boats. It is so clean that even the seagulls leave. There is nothing, even for them. When you wake there is the rising and falling chant of the coolies unloading. Together they chant HAY HO, HO HAY, HAY HAY, HO HAY. In the little Shanghai streets, there is a mixture of smells; the girls, in their long slit Manchu gowns, slide past so sleek and so slim; the cookshops concoct the most peculiar things to eat amid the feet of the passersby; and the men wear nothing but pyjama trousers, cut a little short by western standards. It was disappointing to see so few pigtails. Evidently, in these enlightened times, only a few ignorant countrymen wear them anyway.

You settle very quickly. If you have a flat, everything is commodious and your boy takes charge of your things. All you have to do is to shave yourself, and perhaps you don’t even do that if you like Chinese barbers. With the older established whites, those whose families have been in China for generations, there is a wholly English life led in English houses, English gardens and with Chinese servants. The smell, everywhere, however, is typically Chinese. This is a land that has been fertilized for countless ages by human ordure; and it is unmistakable. For the first few months, the formal white-clad tennis parties and outdoor teas are almost unbearable, but you forget it after a while and when you go away you almost miss the atmosphere.

The Chinese policeman on his beat is very slow and lazy. There is none of the officiousness of the Japanese. The country is infinitely old and humorous, and the policeman blandly smiles as the daughters of joy pass and ply their wares. He gets ten per cent and perhaps more personal favours. It is always good for a girl to seem to know at least one policeman. She is, thereby, protected from the attention of street loafers. Racketeering is as old an art in China as are their records, and these go back for many thousands of years. The enormous Sikhs – police assisting and separating the white administrative police from the Chinese police – have large brown liquid filled eyes. With their beards and turbans they look peculiar as they go hand in hand like children. Their belief is that Christ will next come to this earth through the union of a Sikh and a small boy, and they all wish to be Joseph. The force of the International Settlement comprises some five hundred Sikhs, three thousand Chinese police and three hundred whites.

For the first few days you don’t dine because you can always have something at the bars. These abound, and serve steak to chili con carne, or whatever you wish. Later, when you become friends with the Chinese owner, he will always wish for you to dine with him if you like Chinese food. Later still, he will become so hospitable that it is difficult to enter his bar. Insisting on entertaining you, instead of you spending money, is surely not the way to do business. In his interest, you stay away a little. And there can be nothing quite so charmingly affectionate as the Chinese girls. Their slimly beautiful carriage and perfect bloom put any western woman, no matter how perfectly groomed, to utter shame. And they know it. The white women look expensive and useless, without being beautiful. They all look class conscious, and race conscious, because the Chinese girls beat them at their own game. All the white’s drink too much – enough to kill mere mortals – for they have little to do and hitherto they have been well paid for what they did. They all get stomach ulcers, or some social disease, and have to go home on long leave and die of sheer boredom.

When all of the flags are flying half-mast in Shanghai, and it seems almost every second day, you know that it is some National Humiliation Day. For generations they have commemorated some defeat. The police stand by when the humiliation concerns the Settlement Authorities. At certain times, notably in 1927, strong measures were necessary to preserve law and order in the Concession. But, no matter who the conqueror, it will always be China for the Chinese.

Where is any city quite so gay throughout the whole night as Shanghai? It is the Russian, the French and the English dance ‘hostesses’ who are hard and want drinks and extra money and try to clean a man out. They will take any man. The Chinese won’t, even if the Japanese-Koreans will, under the direction of their Russian mistresses. If they part-love you, and know you, and have talked with you, they will look after you all night even if you don’t want them or have no money. It is this spontaneous affection and charm that so endears them to you. Every male loves flattery of this sort. Life in the bars is wholesome and good. Because you know you can do whatever disgusting evil you wish, such freedom give you balance. With the lack of restrictions you just sit and talk. And in the dying night you go home in a whispering rickshaw and it is good and comfortable and the air fresh.

It is difficult to find precisely what religion the Chinese affect. Your Chinese friends never speak of it, and there seems little public worship of any kind. There were few Buddhist monasteries. I should imagine, though, they will be a people easy to sell insurance. What small steps they take toward religion are to the propitiation of gods. Who knows what spirits might be about in the Middle or Upper Air and who knows where they might carry your messages. This may not have been of the older China, where the belief in ancestors was so grand and strong a thing. In the enlightened towns, however, it had become a form of realism. The gods are reviled and rebuked if the harvest is poor. If, on the other hand, it is good, then candles will burn and little red flags flutter in the breeze. (To be continued)

Categories: Battle, Memory


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