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Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai
This riveting "biography of a nobody" offers a rare view of empire from the glimpse of everyday life in China and an unvarnished portrait of the colonial experience.



From the Publisher

Richard Maurice Tinkler was an ordinary man in an extraordinary time and place. This riveting "biography of a nobody" offers a rare glimpse of imperialism and the making of modern China seen from the perspective of a working-class Englishman enforcing the order of everyday life on the streets of Shanghai. Culled from Tinkler's many personal letters, Empire Made Me meticulously documents his astonishingly revealing life in the service of the British Empire between 1919 and 1939, one of hundreds of young men who joined the Shanghai Municipal Police. Responsible for maintaining order in Shanghai's International Settlement, the SMP expanded and enforced British dominion in China's most important political, commercial, and cultural center.


Tinkler would have remained just another anonymous and forgotten colonial policeman were it not for his unexpected death, at the hands of Japanese marines and an incompetent local doctor, in June 1939. His suspicious death created a noisy diplomatic incident that was picked up by journalists and splashed across the front pages of Britain's newspapers. Many of Tinkler's personal letters survived, and they describe his personal life in unusually vivid detail, including his relationships, his knowing masculinity, his travels, and his bitter meditations on his lowly position in a powerful but waning empire.


Robert Bickers absorbing biography uses Tinkler's letters as well as extensive archival research to tell the story of this man's everyday life and violent decline in a colonial world -- a story that offers an uncommonly candid history of twentieth-century imperialism.




Empire was also rooted in collaboration. Even the vilest colonialist police state required indigenous partners. The British empire was minimally staffed, and relied on establishing relationships with local power holders, or on placing its allies in power. The fewer Britons it sent out the better (and the cheaper).


The luxury of paid leave was one of the new perks of empire for lower-class men.


Even if he had savings the changing exchange rate was working against him; his Shanghai earnings amounted over the years to less and less in pounds sterling.


Empire culture was sociable, fuelled by drink the globe over and on the ships that linked it.


Eastern European and American women had staffed Shanghai brothels until the huge refugee flow caused by the defeat of the White Russian Armies in Siberia.


Often, however, men moved on because Shanghai had spolied them for life in Britain. They'd moved on, and moved up, and a return to the certainties of British life and society would have cramped up men who had lived well in China.


The British communities in China, as elsewhere over the seas, wrote their history, finding within it elements that justified their present positions, and whichh also linked them tightly to the greater imperial enterprise. India was the real model for the south-east and eastern outposts of British empire. Britain and China had more than a fair share of Raj style. It spoke a pidgin English peppered with Anglo-Indian terms (bund, tiffin, shroff), and it imported Sikhs as policemen (even in tiny Amoy) and to provide "spectacular" colour at its all-too-frequent ceremonial.


Empire was always a matter of bluff. The resources available for effective and sustained repression were always overstretched and the ideological quirks of imperial living so very central to its success and persistence. The agents of empire created or adapted baroque rituals to make manifests - and exaggerate - their strengths, confidence, power.


Tinkler had no problem with empire's dirty work, but no sense of perspective about it. There were no midnight doubts. For Tinkler it wasn't merely that empire was the geopolitical status quo, or functionally useful to British trade: empire was a serious, necessary business close to the heart of civilization. Empire ascendant could contain such loyalty, but empire challenged needed a defter touch.


Colonialism, therefore, was often about failure, and about moving on, trying something else, somewhere else, and about loneliness, longing, debt, disease, disaster and death.


Despite the tightening of entry requirements across the world in the 1930s, a man with a little capital, or some relatives, or the offer of a job, could still move on within an open empire world to try and better himself.


All of them were citizens of empire. They moved within it and within the broader world of empire opportunity, and empire anonymity.



Columbia University Press, November 2003-Robert A. Bickers







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