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.

Richard Maurice Tinkler, recently demobbed from First World War service, is back in England looking for work. He had lied about his age to join the army in 1915, had been in the thick of the killing, and was decorated for bravery. He sees positions advertised for the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) in a magazine and successfully applies. As author Robert Bickers explains, the Shanghai Municipal Police recruited from outside of China rather than take foreigners with local experience:

“Recruiting in Shanghai was always tricky. Local foreign recruits knew the cabarets too well, and were often violent in their attitudes to the Chinese.”

In August 1919 Tinkler arrives in Shanghai’s International Settlement, a de facto British colony with its own governing body and police force. Although he climbs quickly to the rank of inspector, things start to unravel for him. There are demotions for disciplinary reasons (alcohol is involved). After eleven years, Tinkler resigns, though what he does next is unclear. He disappears from view in 1931. When we see him again, he’s working as a labor supervisor at a textile mill in Shanghai. In June 1939, he is savagely beaten in a confrontation with Japanese marines and dies in hospital.

For author Robert Bickers it’s a fitting end for Tinkler and a nice analogy for imperial decline in the East:

“This was how he lived. This was how he died. He’d lived a forward life, of force instead of reason, of violent language and violent action. He bullied and blustered, but did so now with the wrong people, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. Shanghai 1939 was no longer a city in which the servant of British empire held sway by force.”

Although brave and honest, Tinkler was racist, arrogant, and prone to violence; in short, he was an unlikeable figure, but one that serves Bickers’ agenda of presenting empire as an exercise in force. Of this violence Bickers writes: “It shattered the societies it subjugated, but it also shattered and disoriented British society.” He believes it brutalized and used up the men employed to carry out the violence. I think Bickers is a little unfair in these assertions and also with the choice of Tinkler as a representative of the imperial footman.

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.

Although Bickers, a history professor at the University of Bristol, is an expert on the subject of Britons in treaty port China, you can guess from the book he hasn’t lived among the Chinese, not had to get his hands dirty working among its criminal classes, not had to put the stick about. I suspect the closest he has come to policing the Shanghai streets is checking the essays and dissertations of his Chinese university students for plagiarism.

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.”

Were the biographical details too flimsy for a book? Bickers’ genius is in turning such weakness into strength. Empire Made Me reads in part like a detective story, the clues meticulously assembled. Putting aside the question of whether a gentleman should read another gentleman’s mail, there’s the moral question of whether it’s fair to resurrect a man so completely from so little. If it sounds like I’m criticizing the book, and the author, well, that’s more a measure of how thought-provoking it is. A neater book would lack as much edge. Empire Made Me is a wonderful read, a hybrid academic–popular account of the best kind, combining beautiful prose and meticulous research. It’s an automatic choice for my top-ten list of China titles.

I found Empire Made Me an unsettling read. It didn’t shake my tendency to imperial nostalgia; no, barely a ripple on that score. (Incidentally, for an unlikely indictment of the British Empire, I recommend the quietly subversive travelogue, The Great Hedge of India – Englishman Roy Moxham’s search for the remains of a Raj-era customs hedge used to enforce the salt tax). Empire Made Me did, however, shake up my personal world. My good friend – we’ll call him H – had read the book first and passed it on to me. It was a traumatizing read for both of us; there was the identifying with Tinker’s downward spiral, and how his solace in the bottle had been central to this; the examination of one’s life, seeing how very little we leave behind; and there was the irony that despite Tinkler’s life story being held up as a tragedy, it seemed enviable in many ways.

H and I, both living in Taipei at the time and our teaching careers slow-motion shipwrecks, were obsessed by the book, knew lines by heart. Many a silence was broken with the exasperated curse, “Maurice Bloody Tinkler.” Many a drinking session ended with lamentations that we’d been born too late:

“By God, you’d swap, wouldn’t you?”
“Maurice Bloody Tinkler. He had it easy!”
“Demoted to the riot squad. You’d take it.”

Empire Made Me was one of the final pushes that saw H make a clean break; he left Taiwan, gave up the drink, and retrained for a new career. A fate not much better than sobriety soon befell me – marriage.

Bickers, for all the faults of colonialism, expresses respect for the men of the Shanghai Municipal Police, ending the book with an evocative image of them on the beat. Visiting a museum in China, Bickers scoffs at the life-size waxwork representation of a Shanghai policeman for being undersized. “To get it right, to catch it as it really was, well, you really have to remember the size required of these men, and how they stood tall, back then, back there, in those miles and miles of crowded, stinking, noisy Shanghai streets.”

Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai
Robert Bickers
ISBN: 978-0141011950
Publisher: Penguin (2004)