Russians in China

Russian “New Year” in 1928 was one more handy excuse for a piss-up for the fun-loving foreigners of Shanghai’s International Settlement. As the Orthodox church still insisted on using the Julian calendar, a Russian New Year was a fortnight behind everybody else’s – a brilliant reason to dress up, go out and ring it all in again at the Kavkaz restaurant, complete with Georgian nibbles and a “gypsy” violinist.

It’s here that authors Hon-lun Helan Yang, Simo Mikkonen and John Winzenburg press pause on a riotous party night, zooming in on the music, and the musicians – what was played and what was heard, and how it affected the lives of those all around. Just published by the University of Hawaii Press, Networking the Russian Diaspora: Russian Musicians and Musical Activities in Interwar Shanghai peels back the curtain on a whole lost world of émigrés in China – not merely the sounds of the city in its clubs and concerts, but of their long-term influence on the Chinese.

The Russians started arriving in earnest after the Far Eastern Republic, the last stand of the Whites in the Revolution, fell to the Bolsheviks in 1922. Initially they flocked to Harbin, the “Moscow of the East”, but as Japanese invasion loomed in Manchuria, anyone with any sense headed south. By the mid-1930s, there were 30,000 Russians in Shanghai, a number soon to be boosted by 18,000 Central European Jews – as the authors note, even republican Russians often had a rather imperial attitude towards the former vassals of the Tsar, thinking of aspects of Polish or Czech culture, or indeed Romani music as also somehow “theirs.”

Every now and then, you’ll find the Russians of the Far East confined to asides and footnotes, but dropped from most accounts that have eyes only for the Asian-ness of Asian history. There were the dashing Mukden Lancers, an all-Russian cavalry squadron, working for a Manchurian warlord; Manchu matrons with blue-eyed slaves, and former duchesses working as “taxi-dancers” in Shanghai clubs. There were the Jewish emigrés who founded cake-shops and patisseries (a stop at the cake shop is always a surprise for people I take on my personal tour of London’s Chinatown, because nobody expects a diversion through the history of Jewish bakers). Russians even sneak into the history of anime in the 1940s, when Tadahito Mochinaga, a Japanese exile working in China, set off to Harbin like a pilgrim on a magic quest, hoping to obtain a hair from a red-haired girl to use in his home-made hygrometer – apparently, Asian hair threw off the calibration.

In Shanghai, they were often split between the International Settlement and the French Concession, the French having decided to have their own special area apart from everyone else’s, and the Russian upper-classes being predisposed to use French language in their daily life. In fact, many of the early Russian arrivals in Shanghai, no matter how poor they were at the time, had usually come from money – which meant that they were often impoverished but well-educated, and many of them could play musical instruments.

“Many of these people,” write the authors, “simply vanished sometime after the late 1940s,” repatriated to the Soviet Union, or fleeing ever onwards, to form new émigré communities on the US west coast or in Australia – a topic addressed in Antonia Finnane’s Far From Where? Some ended up in Hong Kong – there is a heart-breaking cameo, in Martin Booth’s 1950s memoir Gweilo, of the “Queen of Kowloon”, a senile old white woman in rags, who occasionally lets slip through a drug-addled haze that she was once a lady of the Russian court. She mistakes the young Booth for a long-dead crown prince, and pursues him through the streets yelling: “Alexei! Alexei! Why did you leave? Where did you go…?”

But I digress. The authors are interested in the way that music knitted the community of Russian émigrés together in Shanghai, as a means of entertainment, but also cultural education, keeping elements of their native culture alive in their children and their social life. Sometimes this took odd forms, like KhLAM (“rubbish”), the bohemian collective who would jam on Wednesdays, and hence called their club Wednesday.

The authors dig into the archives of local newspapers to dredge up long-gone concerts of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, multiple revivals of the opera Boris Godunov (which is, you may recall, about an Asian man who conquers a European territory), performances by Russian choirs and happenings set up to promote new business ventures. They note the palpable difference between musical choices – the Russian musicians play different tunes for their own amusement than the ones they play for foreigners at recitals, and different tunes again from the ones they want their children to learn.

Accomplished Russian musicians packed out the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, a long-established cultural institution that offered employment for refugees who had lost everything except their talent. The authors go beyond newspaper reportage here, using other materials to reconstruct a history of the pay scales and labour disputes behind the scenes, as musicians fought to get their dues from a penny-pinching impresario.

Later chapters move away from the Russians’ squabbles and relationships among themselves and onto the topic of their lasting impact on Shanghai, not the least with the Chinese students they would teach about Western music. Within a generation of knocking on the Shanghai doors of Russian piano teachers and voice coaches, we see the results of their classes, with Russian-trained musicians and composers forming the frontline of early Communist arts – the composer of the opera The White-Haired Girl, for example (pictured above), and the chairman of the Chinese Musicians Association. Relatively obscure composers like Alexander Tcherepnin exerted a considerable degree of influence on the next generation of Chinese pianists (not the least Lee Hsien-ming, who would become Mrs Tcherepnin). The book finishes with a chapter on Aaron Avshalomov, whose fusion of Chinese and European influences would lead, among other things, to operas about the Tang-dynasty beauty Yang Guifei, the Goddess of Mercy, and the legends of the Great Wall.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier Spy.

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