Book Review - Champions Day
James Carter, an historian at St. Joseph’s University, takes us into the horse racing world of antebellum Shanghai, culminating in the last competition for the Champions Cup on Nov. 12, 1941. He depicts a city of contrasting wealth and poverty, kindness and snobbery, where a great clash and melding of occidental and oriental cultures played out for over a century. As we all know, this came crashing down less than a month later on Dec. 8, 1941 when Imperial Japanese troops attacked and occupied the Western settlements across China. Carter frames the rich history of this most cosmopolitan of cities and the final glory days of ‘Old Shanghai’ against the Shanghai Racing Club in the early twentieth century.
In Champion’s Day Carter introduces us to Shanghai, which stands at the head of the Yangtze River basin, China’s vital commercial artery. In the mid-19th century the city became the center of the ‘China trade,’ in which Western trading houses (primarily British and American) gained control of the lucrative bounty that China offered. This came at the expense of China herself, as these Western firms and their expatriate employees not only benefited handsomely, but they were accorded extraterritoriality, a concept unique to China at the time that practically bestowed diplomatic status. Crimes Westerners committed in China could not be tried in Chinese courts, for example. And needless to say, they paid no taxes to the Chinese government. Chinese customs and collections were overseen by a British national (Inspectors-General) for over eighty years.
Carter also introduces us to the “Shanghailander” families, who were often of mixed Western and Chinese heritage, and who lived in the city for generations, often dominating commercial and social agendas. Here we meet a colorful cast of citizens, such as Nils Moller, an eccentric Norwegian whose son founded a shipping empire, and Gussie White, who came to Shanghai from Hong Kong with a common-law Chinese wife and with whom he fathered eight children after starting a successful brokerage firm. We also read about the various Sephardic Jewish families (such as the Sassoons and the Hardoons) who were so instrumental in building Shanghai into a global city. Along with more traditional British families, these Shanghailanders started racing horses soon after the founding of the treaty port in the 1860s. The tradition, the pageantry, and (especially) the betting became so popular that soon Chinese fans of the races came to outnumber Western spectators. But since Chinese were barred from joining the racing social club (the Shanghai Racing Club), they formed their own clubs and built their own tracks. Sadly, Chinese entrepreneurs and merchants were gradually building their own successful version of Shanghai before the Sino-Japanese War brought this experiment crumbling down in 1937.
Carter’s book is almost two different histories. We get the history of Shanghai which rose from a small fishing village to a massive international financial and trading depot within several decades. We learn of the political role the city played in the founding of the Republic of China, and its importance in the subsequent civil war against the communists. The latter part of the book focuses specifically on Nov.12, 1941, the last Champions Day (though not the last race) in a ‘free’ Shanghai, long past its glory days but before it fell under the boot of Japanese occupation. Carter goes into vivid detail of the races on that fateful day, as well as various events happening around Shanghai at the same time. It is a great read for those with an interest in the fascinating history of this city, as well as the history of the early and ill-fated days of the Republic of China.