This fascinating work, by Georgy Georgievich Siunnerberg, the former Commercial Attaché of the Russian Consulate in Shanghai, provides an incredibly rich and valuable ‘insider’s account’ of the Russian community in that city during the tense times in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, detailing the well-developed and, to a good extent, self-contained social, economic and religious life of the Russian ‘Circle’. The publication features copiously illustrated Russian text, with a focus on the commercial realm, painting an authentic picture of Shanghai on the eve of its Roaring ‘20s boom, featuring a wealth of information that, in many cases, is available in no other single source. A highlight of the work is the wonderful large-formal custom-made plan, ‘The New Map of Shanghai City’, that follows the text.
The Russian community in Shanghai played a key role in the life of the city, and indeed the economic history of the Far East, from the 1890s until the 1930s. Russia formed commercial ties with Shanghai shortly after the International Settlement was established in 1860, making the city a freeport. Meanwhile, Russia established a major fixed presence in the Far East upon the foundation of Vladivostok that same year. However, for a long time scarcely any Russians settled permanently in Shanghai, their presence being transitory.
A breakthrough occurred in the wake of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5), whereby China was further weakened and forced to give major concessions to foreign powers. Russia assumed de facto political control over Manchuria, founded the boomtown of Harbin in 1898, and the same year was given the Liaoning Peninsula (with the great harbour of Port Arthur) as a sovereign leased territory. Meanwhile, numerous Russian banks, insurance companies and trading houses established offices in Shanghai, with Russia founding a consulate in 1896. This created a sizeable and growing settled Russian community in Shanghai (that by 1905 numbered 350 persons), that came to hold outsized economic importance, as it was the nucleus of a Pan-Far Eastern trading network. Notably, while the Russians (unlike the French and British) did not enjoy extraterritorial rights in China, they tended to be wealthy, well-educated and highly respectable figures, and the Chinese and Western authorities generally showed them a great deal of deference.
The loss of the Russian-Japanese War (1904-5) seriously weakened Russian power in the Far east, yet the Russian community in Shanghai was undeterred, as their trade and investment in China soon recovered, while the community doubled in size by the beginning of World War I. During the early period if the war, Shanghai was an oasis of peace and prosperity far from the front lines. Around that time the community matured, and had well-developed and self-contained religious, educational and commercial institutions, with close relationships with the other international communities, as well as the local Chinese population. By this time, a stretch of Avenue Joffre in the French Concession sported so many Russian restaurants and shops that it was deemed ‘Little Russia’.
However, the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and the Russian Civil War (1917-22), saw the Red Army progressively take over Russia. The established Russian community in Shanghai, being mainly businessmen and their families, was ardently ‘White’ and despised the Communists. By the time that the present work was issued, thousands of Russian refugees had flooded into Shanghai (by around 1921, 7,000 Russians lived in the French Concession alone). This changed the complexion of the Russian community, making it more economically and socially diverse. Most Shanghai Russians soon found themselves stateless, as the soon-to-be victorious Soviets withdrew the citizenship of all expatriates. Yet, many of the
Shanghai Russians continued to prosper, even as they were barred from any contact with their homeland. The community reached its greatest size in 1937, reaching 25,000 persons.
World War II placed the Shanghai Russians in a difficult position, as they were uneasy with the Japanese occupation, yet despised the Soviets even more. While some emigrated, many remained, making accommodations with the occupation regime. The postwar period brought new challenges, and a large percentage of the Russian community emigrated, mainly to the Americas and the Western Europe. The Chinese Communist takeover of the city in 1949 guaranteed the death knell of the Russian community in the city. Russians would only return the Shanghai to live in sizable numbers beginning in the 1990s.
The Present Work in Focus
This fascinating detailed and well-organized work provides a stellar picture of Shanghai in general as it appeared in 1919, on the eve of its Roaring ‘20s boom; and perhaps more importantly, it yields an authentic ‘insiders account’ of the city’s Russian community in the heady period in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The book’s sections are listed in the ‘Table of Contents’, with the text enlivened by copious photographic illustrations. It commences with ‘Shanghai’ (pp. 1-24), giving the background of the city, its history, geography, and the rise of the International Settlements.
This is followed by the section ‘Modern Shanghai’ (pp. 25 – 52), explaining the city’s administrative and technical matters, including the police, defense organizations for the International Settlements, fire brigade, sanitary measures, water supply, electricity, mail, communications, schools, orchestra, city finances/budget, etc., with a special focus upon the International Settlements.
Next, is the ‘Detailed Description of Modern Shanghai by District’ (pp. 53-94), an extremely valuable account of the physical appearance and state of the city, district by district. There are then three sections on ‘walking tours’ of the ‘French Concession’ (pp. 95 – 103), ‘Chinese City’ (pp. 107 – 119), and ‘Out-of-Town Walks’ (pp. 120 – 124).
The section ‘Trade and Industry of Shanghai’ (pp. 125 – 151) features tables on foreign imports into Shanghai, as well as domestic inward trade; tables on total trade volumes; information on the export of Chinese goods; as well as ship building and shipping in Shanghai and in China in general. This is followed by an entertaining discourse on the ‘Characteristics of Chinese Merchants’ (pp. 152 – 162).
The section ‘The Russian Community in Shanghai’ (pp. 163 – 186) is the perhaps the most important aspect of the text, as it is here that Siunnerberg provides amazing ‘insiders’ view’ into the daily life of the community at a key time. Here are detailed descriptions of the various community institutions, including the Russian Meeting Circle, Russian Educational Circle, Russian Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, Russian literary and artistic circles, Russian Chamber of Commerce, Russian Post Office, Shanghai Russian Orthodox Church, Voluntary naval corps in Shanghai, Operations of the Chinese Eastern Railway (a key link connecting China to Russia through Manchuria), the influence of Russian community upon the greater city of Shanghai, and the Bolshevik Revolt in Russia.
Of note, the Russian Meeting Circle in Shanghai, the nucleus of social life in the community, was formally founded in 1917, with both male and female members invited to join by recommendation, with its officer elected by secret ballet. As Siunnerberg explains, “During the first two years of its existence, the Russian Circle hosted a number of dance evenings, performances and lectures, and the premises often hosted meetings of various Russian public organizations, trained Russian Boy Scouts, and opened a course for cooking classes for girls, whose lunches (on Wednesdays) were very popular with the Russian residents of Shanghai” (p. 171).
The text features an ‘Address Book’ (pp. 187 – 215) of commercial and industrial firms relevant to Russian trade in Shanghai, as well as other major Chinese cities including Beijing, Chefoo, Hankou, Tsingtau, Dalian, Harbin and Vladivostok
The work is rounded out by a General Index; Alphabetical Index of Commercial and Industrial Enterprises, Firms and Professionals (categorized by industry, partly in English); Lexicon of Important Terms in Russian, English, Chinese and Japanese (all in Russian phonetics), as well as section relating to the map that follows (see section below).
Prominent mention should be given towards the 85 pages of commercial advertisements that appear both before and following the text that showcase an amazing array of business, in a variety of languages, many with curious and engaging illustrations. Collectively, they grant a vivid, authentic insight into the economic history of Shanghai on the eve of the Roaring ‘20s.
The Map in Focus
A highlight of the work is surely The New Map of Shanghai City / 最近實測上海地圖, a magnificent, large format, bilingual (English – Chinese) plan of the city, made expressly for the book. While the coordinate/finding letters in the margins are in Russian, it was then probably too ambitious to have such grand map of Shanghai locally made with Russian toponymy. However, the text concludes with an 8-page ‘Street Pointer’, or gazetteer, that locates all main points on the map as per the coordinates, translating them from English to Russian. While the map was surely printed in Shanghai, its author/publisher is not known, although future specialist research may be able to enlighten the matter.
The roughly cross-shaped map is highly detailed and labels all streets, and outlines parklands and all major buildings. The International Settlement zones are shaded, with the French concession in the centre, in orange, and the British Concession, to the north, in pink, while the old walled Chinese City lies to the south of the Gallic quarter. Of note, are the named grand edifices, incusing banks, insurance companies, clubs and consulates that line The Bund, in the British Concession, as well as, located across the Suzhou Creek, the Astor House Hotel, one of the favoured meeting places for wealthy Russians. Special attention should also be paid to Joffre Avenue, the throughfare that runs to the southwest from the French Concession that was at the heart of Russian life in Shanghai (the inset, lower left, shows Joffre’s continuation off the main map).
The Author: Georgy Georgievich Sunnerberg
Georgy Georgievich Siunnerberg [Георгий Георгиевич Сюннерберг] (1880 – 1957) was a diplomat and businessmen of mixed Russian-Scandinavian ancestry. A native of Finland (which had been part of the Russian Empire since the Napoleonic Wars), he entered the Russian Army, becoming a Captain of the Russian Imperial Guard. In 1910, he graduated from the prestigious Nikolaev Academy of the General Staff.
In 1912, Siunnerberg entered the diplomatic service and gained a prime posting at the Russian Consulate in Shanghai, where he was promoted to Commercial Attaché in 1914 (serving until 1916). In that capacity, he developed unparalleled connections with Russian business figures throughout China, as well as being an honoured member the Russian circle in Shanghai. This made him the ideal person to write the present ‘insider’s account’ of the Russian community in China’s most vibrant city.
Siunnerberg was deeply disturbed by the Bolshevik Revolution, and worked tirelessly to help his fellow Russians in Shanghai, especially the refugees who were forced to flee their homeland. As he was due to lose his Russian citizenship, Siunnerberg gained Finnish papers (Finland had just gained its independence). He served as the Finnish Consul General in Shanghai from 1922 to 1925, before becoming the local agent for the major Swedish commercial enterprise, Moberg & Co. Despite his allegiance to Scandinavian concerns, Siunnerberg remained a Russian at heart and always preserved his links with Russians in Shanghai. He was able to remain, and even prosper, in the city during the Japanese Occupation, but in 1947, seeing the writing on the wall, he immigrated with his family to Berkeley, California, where he passed away ten years later, having lived the experiences of many lifetimes!
A Note on Rarity
The work is extremely rare. We can definitely locate only 2 institutional examples, held by the National Library of Russia (St. Petersburg); Russian State Library (Moscow); while some sources cite a further example held by the University of Hawaii at Manoa Library (Honolulu) but we have been unable to confirm its existence. Additionally, we are aware of 2 examples of the plan, The New Map of Shanghai City, as being held separately from the book, with an example held by the Library of Congress, and another imaged by Virtual Shanghai (online database, virtualshanghai.net). Moreover, we are not aware of any examples of either the book, or the map alone, as appearing on the market.
References: National Library of Russia (RNL): Т3(5Кит-2Ша)я23; Russian State Library (Moscow): FB V 565/283; Amir A. KHISAMUTDINOV, Биографии Книг Штампы и экслибрисы Русского Китая [Biographies of Books, Stamps and Bookplates of Russian China] (Vladivostok: Far Eastern University Vladivostok Publishing House, 2018), p. 116; Amir A. KHISAMUTDINOV, Русские литераторы–эмигранты в Китае [Russian Émigré Writers in China] (Vladivostok: Far Eastern University Vladivostok Publishing House, 2017), p. 109; Amir KHISAMUTDINOV, Русские Страницы Шанхая (Монография) [RUSSIAN Life in SHANGHAI (Monograph)] (Vladivostok: Far Eastern University Vladivostok Publishing House, 2016), pp. 10, 23, 37; [re: Map only:] Library of Congress: G7824.S2 1916 .Z5; Virtual Shanghai (online database, virtualshanghai.net]: Map ID: 326.