Carl Crow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am

Carl Crow - A Tough Old China Hand: The Life, Times and Adventures of an American in Shanghai

by Paul French

Hong Kong University Press, HK$250

Carl Crow couldn't have picked a better time to arrive in Shanghai. His ship docked in the small trading enclave on the Huangpu River in August 1911; two months later the 28-year-old US journalist was covering the uprising that would bring down the Qing dynasty.

He was a hardened reporter, but five years on the crime beat in Texas hardly seem an appropriate background for his new job, covering diplomatic affairs for the recently launched American-style daily China Press.

China was seething and the Qing tottering but few foresaw the end of Manchu rule. French captures well the mood of the day with his account of the uprising that brought an era to its end. In the Russian concession in Hankow, 850km up the Yangtze, a careless revolutionary dropped a cigarette and set off a bomb. A nervous German butcher heard the explosion and called police. Probing the blast, they discovered a plot by soldiers in the twin city of Wuchang and, faced with arrest, torture and beheading, the conspirators rose in rebellion.

Crow swiftly became known among expats in Shanghai as pro-Chinese. He neither ignored the millions of people who surrounded the 31 sq km of foreign settlement nor despised them. From the initial chaos of the 1910 uprising came the establishment of the first republic a year later, with Sun Yat-sen as president. Crow was to become a knowledgeable observer of developments, interviewing Sun during his brief presidency, then later spending time with Chiang Kai-shek and his bewitching, scheming wife, Soong May-ling.

It was an era of hope and heartbreak. Crow looked on as the Manchu's grip on power failed, ushering in an age of warlords, bandits and provincial powerbrokers with Japan waiting in the wings, making increasingly arrogant land-grabs.

In 1913 Crow published The Handbook for China, a reliable guide to the country. A prolific author, he produced such titles as The Chinese are Like That, Four Hundred Million Customers, China Takes Her Place and I Speak for the Chinese.

By 1918 he moved into advertising and Carl Crow Inc was to become the largest advertising agency in China. In the turbulent years that followed, his success allowed Crow to spend time China watching. It was the era in which Shanghai, a gangster-ridden city in the 1930s, made its reputation as the Paris of Asia or the Whore of the Far East; each title was equally apt.

By 1937, Japan came into the open and the long and savage attack on China began. In Shanghai, 350,000 Chinese fled, thousands of expatriates lining up at the docks to board a hastily improvised evacuation fleet. Crow was among them - after 26 years he was leaving China 'with the suit I am wearing, a suitcase and an overcoat'.

Crow's China odyssey wasn't at an end though and he returned via the Burma Road. He drank whisky with future premier Zhou Enlai, he worked for US intelligence and he wrote passionately pro-China books before spending his final years in the US, where he died of cancer in 1945, not long before the Japanese were defeated.

With A Tough Old China Hand, the Shanghai-based French renders a vivid portrait of the times.