Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai

Kim-kwong Chan

Like a spider web, using the Champion Day horse racing in November 1941 as the hub and the Shanghai Race Club as the frame, James Carter weaves a lively tapestry of Old Shanghai with multiple dimensions: its emergence, its East-West interactivities, its role in contemporary China, its people and life, and its legacy under the People’s Republic of China. Champions Day provides the readers a rare glimpse of Old Shanghai through various figures evolving with the Shanghai Race Club—one of the most important institutions of the Shanghailanders who made up the International Settlement as an autonomous enclave beyond the jurisdiction of China for a century from mid 1880s until the late 1940s. This institution had been as important as, if not more important than, the official government council of the International Settlement. Those involved with this Club represented a much wider sphere of influential people than what the governing council members could represent.

The first part of the book traces the various foreigners who began to congregate in Shanghai and which gradually developed an expat community (Shanghailanders) that commercially linked China with the outside world.  Among these expats, one of their important pastimes was horse racing, a tradition carried from Great Britain to different corners of its Empire. The Race Club institutionalized this pastime. Based on this Race Club, Carter introduces various important figures that shaped Old Shanghai along with their memberships with this Club, some with ambiguous ethnicity and nationality, and many, such as the Chinese, were simply not allowed to join. The tension between the foreigners and the Chinese eventually led to the Chinese having their own Race Clubs with complimentary as well as animosity with the Shanghai Race Club. This part examines the emergences of Shanghailanders or Shanghainese who eventually defined Shanghai.

The second part examines the activities of horse racing as China-Japan military conflicts escalated since 1937, when Chinese nationalism was on the rise and while most of the foreign nations were  neutral on this issue until end of 1941 as the Pearl Harbor event tipped the tide. Carter described the International Settlement of Shanghai, although situated right at the epicenter of the Sino-Japanese conflict, as a parallel universe living alongside China with different politics and different cultural and social aspirations.

The third part focuses on the last important race of this Club, the time that marked the end of Old Shanghai before Japanese occupation of the International Settlement. Carter not only examines the whole race from different angles in detail, including an almost minute by minute reporting of the final Races—a familiar  scene for this reviewer when he was listening to the radio horse racing commentators in Hong Kong during the 1960s. The book also describes the social life of Old Shanghai during this turbulence period of time.

The Final part describes the Old China fading into history under Japanese Occupation, where almost all Shanghailanders lost their privilege under the new master of the orient. Carter also follows up the fate of those characters he mentioned, as the new Chinese authority liberated Shanghai and transformed Shanghai into a nationalistic and socialist society. 

Carter meticulously researched many of these important characters with a lively narration on both of their colorful lives and the inter-active relations between them. These people, all related to the Shanghai Race Club, shaped Old Shanghai when, on the one hand, China was in the midst of struggling for its national identity vis-à-vis imperialistic exploitation, and on the other hand, Shanghai served as an autonomous enclave inhabited by foreigners beyond the jurisdiction of China.

This text reads more like a novel than a historical book, although it is in fact thoroughly researched in every detail, and the contextual connection with the current events are well established.  As one reads Champions Day, the readers is easily transported into the imaginary scene of Old Shanghai as if one could almost hear the cheering crowd at the race track, the jazz band at Peace Hotel, or the various languages spoken at the restaurants. It is definitely a volume for both the serious historian on contemporary China, especially the complex Sino-Western interactions through the paradigm of the International Settlement in Shanghai, and also for anyone who likes to enjoy a historical narration of Old Shanghai with lively characters and scenes.

However, the lengthy moment-by-moment commentating on the final race may be appreciated by horse racing enthusiasts well versed in British Horse Racing tradition like this reviewer, but this will not necessary be the case for all readers. One also wonder why there was not mention of the Japanese vis-à-vis the Shanghai Race Club, especially because they were part of the ruling nationalities with representatives in the governing council, and many had been seen in photos at the race. Furthermore, it may be interesting to look at the relation between the Race Club and the other equally important institutions at the International Settlement/French Concession areas—such as the powerful religious establishments like the Catholic Church and the Jesuit institutes as well as many Christian missionary establishments with their China headquarters established in Old Shanghai (e.g., YMCA, Bible Society, etc.). Perhaps those Christian leaders—bishops, priests, pastors, other than those YMCA members mentioned in the book—would distance themselves from the Race Club for religious or social reasons? After all, the former Queen Elizabeth II, the head of the Anglican Church, attended the Ascot Race whenever her health permitted. Would not the Anglican Bishop in Shanghai be a patron of the Shanghai Race Club?