Shanghai’s White Russians (1937)

A photo showing a Russian hair salon on the streets of Shanghai—as for the nationalities of the passers by, your guess is as good as mine (source: Katya Knyazeva’s blog )

A photo showing a Russian hair salon on the streets of Shanghai—as for the nationalities of the passers by, your guess is as good as mine (source: Katya Knyazeva’s blog

I found this article while researching what became my first book, Shanghai’s Dancing World. The White Russians played an enormous role in the cultural life of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Marcia Ristaino’s book Port of Last Resort is the best academic study of the Russians in Shanghai. Katya Knyazeva is also working on this fascinating topic. This article contains many fine details about the history of Russian refugees in Shanghai including their growth, their occupations, their social and financial status and earnings, and their status within the hierarchy of Shanghai society. It is a gem of an article rich in information and insights and its prediction at the end is very accurate. Indeed, the settlements were returned to Chinese sovereignty by 1943, and by the late 1940s, the bulk of the city’s Russian refugee population had left the city for other horizons. 

Shanghai’s White Russians

E. H. Anstice (Contemporary Review, Feb 1937 pp. 215-220)

In 1914 there were, perhaps, 100 Russians living in Shanghai; by 1918 the number had risen to over 1,000; at the end of 1924 it was 8,000; early in 1936 it was 22,000; and it was predicted that before another twelve months were out the 22,000 would have become 30,000. The story behind these figures is one of the tragic epics of the Great War. It is the story of a people’s flight before a conquering and intolerant ideology, and how, penniless, in a strange people they struggled and struggled successfully to maintain their national identity and self-respect, and to save themselves from the abyss of destitution and economic and social degradation which threatened to engulf them.

A disorganised mob gathered together into Shanghai from all parts of Russia—that is how local Russian leaders saw the Russian population of Shanghai in 1923. According to a report rendered to the League of Nations in the same year, out of the total number of 8,000 at least half were destitute, living on the one meal a day of soup and bread supplied by community soup kitchens. To-day, out of a total of 22,000, the number of indigent unemployed is placed at 2,000, while the incoming Russian finds an organised Russian community ready to absorb and assist him, a community which has its own schools, hospitals, shelters and other benevolent institutions, its own social clubs and churches, its own Light Opera Company, its own newspapers. It has, too, its own official body to see to his registration with the Chinese.

The Chinese Government, sympathising apparently at the moment with the Russian refugee’s natural desire to retain Russian nationality for himself and his children, has set up a system of registration which while ensuring that a proper check is kept on Russians in view of the fact that they are subject to Chinese law and the Chinese law courts, allows them to remain Russians. Every Russian entering Shanghai is obliged to register within ten days with the local Bureau of Public Safety and to renew his registration at certain intervals. To obtain visas and a passport he has to have a certificate of identity, which he can obtain either from the Russian Emigrants Committee or the Council of the United Russian Public Organisations. This latter body has been officially recognised by the Chinese authorities, and is looked upon them as the proper medium through which local Russians should approach them, especially where failure to register has involved a fine which the delinquent wishes to be excused. It is also authorised to solemnise and register marriages, to issue birth certificates, to grant divorces, to register business agreements, to draw up wills, in fact, it fills for the White Russians vis a vis the Chinese Government very much the same place that his consulate does for the Englishman or Frenchman.

The Russian Emigrants Committee also grants identity certificates and assists Russians to register and to obtain passports, but its main function is to co-ordinate the community’s social and charitable activities and to act as a focalising point for local Russian opinion. It has fifty-two different Russian societies affiliated to it—charitable organisations, unions of ex-soldiers, social clubs, mutual help societies, schools, cultural societies, study groups, trade and professional organisations. The Council of United Russian Public Organisations (or S.O.R.O. as it is generally known) has only seventeen affiliated organisations. On the surface this would appear to weaken its position in its relations with the Chinese, but in reality it is a convenience. As an officially recognised body it has to be extremely careful of the propriety of its actions, and indiscretions on the part of a ny of its constituent bodies, or members of those bodies, might prove a serious source of embarrassment. China, it must be remembered, has recognised Soviet Russia and maintains friendly relations with her. Shanghai’s White Russians, on the other hand, are far from being reconciled to Soviet institutions; are, if not actively, certainly passively, opposed to the existing regime in Russia, always looking forward to some miraculous turn of fortune’s wheel which will bring back the imperial Russia of their recollection and allegiance and enable them to return home. If they do not plot a counter-revolution, they talk of one and drink to one. As long as this is confined to private individuals and clubs the Soviet authorities can hardly complain, but if indulged in by members of a semi-official Chinese body, such as S.O.R.O., it would become a legitimate cause for protest. The fewer societies and individuals S.O.R.O. can be held responsible for the better it is pleased.

When the White Russians began to arrive in considerable numbers in 1921 and 1922 they provided a very serious problem for the local foreign population, on whom devolved the responsibility of assisting them. The vast majority arrived practically penniless, and there was grave danger of the creation of a class of “poor whites,” driven down by sheer destitution to the level of a Chinese coolie. The newcomers had first to be kept alive, and then to be found employment. Charity could and did do the first, tiding many thousands over the especially bitter years of 1923 and 1924. To find them employment was a far more difficult task. For any community to absorb such a sudden influx would have been difficult; for Shanghai the task appeared at first almost insurmountable. The newcomers had to be accorded, if possible, foreign status, to be employed in tasks compatible with that status. The type of employment open to foreigners was, however, strictly limited. The foreign community, including Japanese, did not exceed 40,000—if it even reached that figure—and it is obvious that posts for another five or six thousand could not be found at once. Every month, too, saw new arrivals from the North. Manual and casual work, for example, in the factories or as day labourers at the docks, was debarred the refugee. This work in Shanghai is done by Chinese coolies for wages on which the refugee could only exist by sinking to the coolies’ level and living among and as them to the complete sacrifice of his national identity and self-respect.

The language difficulty was an additional bar, for the greater number of the refugees spoke neither English nor Chinese. It was very, very slowly that the ever-growing Russian community managed to become self-supporting, and even then it had to be content with a standard of living far below that demanded by other foreigners. Russians became chauffeurs and garage mechanics, bus drivers and tram inspectors, bodyguards for wealthy Chinese in fear of kidnapping, and night watchmen. In time a number found employment in the foreign municipal services as park-keepers, sanitary and health inspectors, in the public works department, in the municipal orchestra, as policemen. Both the International Settlemet and the French Concession also maintain paid Russian detachments which to-day have between them 600 men on their rosters. The women became nurse girls, cinema attendants, shop assistants and professional dancing partners in the city’s numerous cabarets and dance halls. This last was only too often a polite camouflage, for in the early days the sale of her favours was the only thing that lay between many a Russian woman and starvation for herself and her family. Thus arose a problem which still remains in spite of the improved conditions of recent years. Though there are far fewer Russian dance-hall hostesses than there were, there are still too many and the position of Russian women in the Far East has been thought to demand a League of Nations inquiry.

Self-help and mutual assistance have from the beginning distinguished the attitude of the Russians to their situation, and the provision of funds to allow individuals to set up in small enterprises of their own has been one of the principal means of helping each other that they have adopted. To-day there are hundreds of small Russian business undertakings especially in the French Concession, where the majority of the refugees have made their home. The growth and development of that Concession in the last decade has been to a considerable extent the work of the Russians. Avenue Joffre, its principal shopping street, is practically two long rows of Russian shops—cafes, dressmaking, millinery and hairdressing establishments, shoe stores and small drapers’ shops, provision stores and photographers. Russian signs are everywhere, Russian is as commonly heard as French or English; “Little Moscow” is its local nickname.

With the growth of a Shanghai-educated generation, speaking and writing English and possibly Chinese as well as Russian, the Russians are now making their way into offices and in professional circles. This has been assisted by the depression, which has compelled foreign firms drastically to reduce expenses. One way of doing this has been (in less responsible posts) to replace men brought out from home by local products, and this has been the Russian’s chance. He is willing to accept a quarter the salary demanded by the man from home, and at the same time does not expect home leave with his passage paid by the firm. In the same way Russian stenographers are replacing English and American girls in offices, because of the much lower rate of pay they ask. The depression has helped, too, the Russian professional man—the doctor, the dentist, the architect, the engineer. Many of the these had been struggling for years to establish themselves, and now, with their lower scale of charges, they are attracting patients who formerly patronised the expensive English, French or Americans.

Thus the Russians have made a place for themselves in Shanghai, though admittedly not too comfortable a place. The pay of the bodyguard, the watchman, the chauffeur, the garage mechanic ranges between $30 and $60 a month—that of the Russian stenographer, cinema attendant and shopgirl from $40 to $60. The Russian male business employee earns from $100 to $200 a month. The Russian shopkeeper’s profits are on the same scale. According to the Russian Emigrants Committee the average family income lies between $100 and $300 a month, but other observers are of the opinion that this estimate is too high. In any case the figure indicates a standard of living far below that of other foreigners. The average Englishman would give $400 a month as the very lowest income for a married man compatible with decency, while twice that amount only allows modest comfort. Many a Russian family, however, has still to live in a single room, off the cheapest of food.

That they have managed, in spite of hardships and privations they have endured during the past twelve years, to retain their national consciousness and identity, and have gained from all sources a reputation for orderly conduct and decent behaviour in the face of great temptations to the contrary, speaks very highly of the character and determination of these Russian refugees. Despite the hard times Russian beggars have been remarkably few. Through the various societies adults keep alive their national spirit and at the same time see that the children get, in Sunday and night schools, if nowhere else, an education in Russian culture to supplement the more Western training they must have if they are to gain a livelihood in Shanghai. There has been no tendency so far for Russians to intermarry with Chinese.

So much for the present, but what of the future? The Russians have established themselves; can they maintain their present status and position? As one surveys the situation one is bound to feel doubtful. Both politically and economically the scales would seem to be weighted against them. Everyone to-day admits, though with a hope that it will not happen in their lifetime, that ultimately the system of extraterritoriality must end and the foreign settlements and concessions be handed back to the Chinese. At the moment the Chinese do not press too hard on the Russians, being content apparently to allow them to retain their Russian national consciousness, indeed, they refuse to grant Chinese nationality to the occasional Russian applicants for it. As long as the present regime exists this will probably remain the case, but ultimately the Government can hardly continue to tolerate, still less to further, as it now does, the existence of a separate group in the State, not only not Chinese but priding itself on the fact, whose institutions are alien, which feels no sense of loyalty to the country or kinship with its people. China must strive to assimilate such a group, to break down its racial distinctiveness and to convert Russian refugees into loyal Chinese citizens.

Economic forces, too, must operate in the same direction. As business and administration fall more and more into Chinese hands so the foreign community must dwindle, and the support, not only political and moral but economic, which the Russians have derived from the presence of other foreigners will be withdrawn. The present tendency is for Russians to replace the Europeans from home, the next stage will be when Chinese replace Russians. As it is, it is the considered policy of the Shanghai Municipal Council to employ Chinese where possible even in the higher posts, and when the Chinese take control the inevitable result must be the steady ousting of all foreigners in favour of a purely Chinese personnel. The Russian shopkeeper gets most of his custom from the general foreign community. As that community dwindles, so will his business, unless he can attract Chinese custom in competition with Chinese traders. While there is a place for the Russian in the International Shanghai of to-day, there will be no place for him in the Chinese Shanghai of the future—as a Russian that is. There may be, indeed, most certainly will be, one for him as a Chinese citizen.

The White Russian has to face the fact that the future, though possibly the distant future, holds for him three choices—leaving Shanghai, becoming Chinese, or starvation. To leave Shanghai is for the vast majority hardly possible. In their present mood they cannot return to Russian and emigration to other lands requires more capital than they possess. Since, therefore, no one willingly starves, sinisation is the only thing left. Ultimately the White Russian will have to merge himself in the ranks of the Chinese people.