By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Having covered the re-invention of China starting with the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China, we now turn to revolutionary discourse and anarchism in China, British Malaya, and its wider region.

Very different from the Revolution in Russia, the May 4, 1919 protests in China was a Nationalist reaction objecting to the victorious Allied powers at the Versailles conference to award former German possessions in the Shandong Peninsula to Japan. Yet the shock of defeat at the hands of foreigners had not only ignited nationalist sentiment it also slowly and fitfully led to a recognition that fundamental political and economic changes would be necessary if China were to survive, let alone compete, in the modern world. The Chinese Communist Party was founded two years later with, as we shall see, even the Nationalist Kuomintang developing a relationship with the Bolshevists in Moskau.

The British Malaya, which consisted of the Straits Settlement colony (Singapore, Penang, Malacca), the Federated and the Non-Federated Malay States under the British protectorate, at the beginning of the 20th century, turned into one of the centers and a kind of foreign base of the Chinese revolutionary movement. Chinese immigrants began to appear on the Malay Peninsula in the first half of the XIX century, but at the end of the century, their inflow increased sharply.1

Then on Friday morning, 23 January 1925 an anarchist bomb was planted in Kuala Lumpur. The perpetrator was a young Chinese woman named Wong Sau Ying. She was alone, dressed in a white jacket, black skirt, white shoes, and white stockings. She was carrying a small briefcase which she placed in front of Daniel Richards and his junior, Wilfred Blythe, who were seated at a table. ‘There is someone threatening me,’ she said in Cantonese dialect, the patois of the town, or so it seemed to Blythe’s ears. Richards asked what it was all about and she offered him the briefcase, saying that a friend had told her to give it to him. As she placed it on the table, Richards saw two ridges on the case, as if a tin had been squeezed into it. As she appeared to fumble with the catch, Richards noticed that there did not seem to be one on the case. She then withdrew her hands and stepped back slightly. She turned and spoke again, but almost immediately there was a loud explosion.

No single event heralded the arrival of the Asian revolution so much as the advent of the ‘Modern Girl’. Across Asia, women were suddenly visible on the city streets, working in shops and factories, taking public transport, talking in a direct way, raising their hemlines, rouging their cheeks, crossing their legs in public and – above all – cutting their hair. The year 1925 was when the ‘Modern Girl’ became a global phenomenon, and in this the women of Asia took the lead.

The British government in London only heard about the bomb three months later when the injured Richards arrived home on leave. The police however found out about the anarchist group involved through an agent of the Chinese Protectorate who was in touch with the Kuala Lumpur leaders, and who in February 1924 visited Penang, where they held a meeting. The anarchist were men from a variety of industrial towns of Malaya’s west coast: a fitter from Kampar, a mechanic from Ipoh, the secretary of the car hire guild, a tailor from Seremban and three shop assistants from a goldsmith’s in Penang. Another delegate came from Siam, but was arrested in Penang with a very detailed account of bomb-making in his possession and banished to Canton. The meeting was, in any case, not so secret: it was even reported in a Canton anarchist journal titled Chun lei 春雷. Yet it was not clear, even to detectives who were eager to unravel a large conspiracy, that this meeting had authorized the Kuala Lumpur attack.

In their raids, the police intercepted alarming tracts. The main recipient was the Kuala Lumpur newspaper Yik Khuan Po. Most of them came from the Soviet news agency, ROSTA; there were reports from China and Moscow, but also manuals that explained communism in a Chinese context. One such, Communism and China, came from a Hong Kong press, and claimed that a communist state could be achieved in less than ten years, without the need for a period of capitalism. There were translations of anarchist classics such as Kropotkin’s Anarchist Morality, and detailed descriptions of how to make a bomb.


The international intervention in China

The result of international intervention in China in 1924 the border between colonial and free Asia was a 100-foot-wide canal in southern China. On one bank stood the continent’s largest self-governing city, Canton; on the other was one of its oldest colonial enclaves, Shamian Island. Lying on a reclaimed sandbar of around fifty-six acres in the heart of the Chinese city, this western outpost was home to perhaps 500 Britons and 100 or so French residents, together with smaller numbers of Germans, Americans, and Japanese. Ever since the Anglo-French intervention in China in 1860, the treaty port of Canton had comprised two extraterritorial concessions: one, covering about four-fifths of the island, was administered by the British, the other by the French. Each concession possessed its own bridge to the shore, guarded by Sikh and Vietnamese troops respectively. They also protected the island’s grid of wide, tree-fringed boulevards interspaced with formal gardens, tennis courts, and a football pitch. The streets of Shamian were lined with consulates, banks, and missions which dated from the heyday of the China trade which during the last years of the nineteenth century had seen a frenzied competition for contracts and concessions in China when  George Macartney had been deputed by the government in London to request ‘fair and equitable’ trading rights and Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest presented the Qianlong Emperor with a superbly obsequious message from an alleged Dutch king.

On the north and east, Shamian’s two bridges linked it to the old western suburb of Canton, with its labyrinthine markets and artisan workshops, and to a city of more than 1 million Chinese. For them, Shamian was a ‘semi-banned’ place: they needed permits from the Shamian town council to enter the island; even then, they could access only particular areas, and not after midnight, and they certainly could not walk on the grass. Yet Shamian was not entirely forbidden: it was a refuge in times of turmoil, a place for private banking and a destination for pleasure trips, where the Cantonese would promenade and enjoy the gardens, fascinated by the curious lives of the foreigners. However, at this time, the island had become a focus of Chinese patriotic anxiety and was virtually under siege. As one local writer put it: ‘Whenever one sets foot on this island branded with a shameful mark, who, except those Chinese collaborators, would not be inflamed in his heart with anger and hatred?’2

This frenzied competition for contracts and concessions in China as the Qing government began a programme of reforms and modernization culminated in a further incursion in 1900, the first ‘international’ intervention of its kind when troops of seven western powers and Japan marched on Tianjin and Beijing to protect their citizens and their interests during the Boxer Rebellion. In its aftermath, ten nations possessed territorial enclaves in China, including the United States of America, Italy, Belgium, and the Habsburg empire, which gained first foothold at Tianjin in 1901–2. Sun Yat-sen, a leading voice for a new, free China, was to call the city a ‘hypo-colony’ using a prefix borrowed from chemistry for a compound of an inferior kind, which he used to denote a degraded colony of all the western empires.3 Although a revolution in China in 1911 had overthrown Qing rule, the western powers held tenaciously to their extraterritorial privileges, which seemed, to patriots, to mock China’s claims to sovereign status and to block its entry into the modern world.

Many Asian intellectuals felt that the international system's rules had been established merely to help the existing imperial powers hold on to what they possessed and exclude others. In 1912 China became a republic, but as its central institutions in Beijing weakened, the divided port cities became symbols of the western powers' collusion to uphold the imperial system for all time.

Canton was not merely a border zone. In 1923 it became the seat of the newly established Nationalist Government of Sun Yat-sen. Yet, beyond the six provinces Sun controlled in the south, China was still fragmented into rival alliances of military commanders – the so-called ‘warlords’ – who battled for the Qing's inheritance. In early 1924, the crucial decision was taken to create an independent military base for the Nationalist Government with the founding of Whampoa Military Academy some fifteen miles outside the city. Political education was to be one of its distinctive functions, and young radicals from China, Korea, and Southeast Asia flocked to enrol, there. Now, as the exemplary center of the new nation, Canton was a place of an intense social experiment in the name of unity and progress, exporting ideas and practices, a beacon of free Asia.4

Yet, there was a brittleness to this achievement. In recent years, China had experienced some of the most brutal civil wars of modern history, and there was more to come: the fighting for Shanghai and for the north from the summer of 1924 would see the mobilization of around 420,000 troops.5 Politics was dominated by ‘the purse and the sword’. To consolidate his power in the south, Sun Yat-sen had allowed ‘guest armies’ from other provinces into Canton, and the so-called ‘bayonet thieves’ ran loose in the city, robbing houses on the pretext of searching for gamblers and opium smokers. Soldiers were well known for forcibly occupying the best seats in cinemas and shows; a British theatre and Bostock’s Circus were particular targets.6 Sun Yat-sen had looked to the west for diplomatic recognition and loans in 1923. But now, he was increasingly frustrated by western support for the northern militarist coalition that controlled the old imperial capital of Beijing. In mid-1924, starved of cash, Sun tried to seize control of the Canton customs, which were run principally by the British, but he had been faced down by a flotilla of twenty-one western warships. He had been expelled from Canton on two previous occasions, and intellectuals and other elites were gripped by anxiety that China might fall apart like ‘a heap of sand’ in the face of imperialist invasion.

Canton remained in a volatile state, and there had been talked on the back-alley telegraph for weeks that Sun Yat-sen was dead. At the end of May, a Chinese newspaper editor was arrested and banished for publishing the rumor for ten years. In the face of new war taxes, the streets were full of resistance to authority: sedan-chair carriers were on strike against their license fees. Even the pawnshops were on strike. There were around 160 labor unions in the city. Employers were organizing their own unions and volunteer militias to back them up. The left was doing the same.7 Although by no means was all of this aimed at the large western shipping and trading concerns; westerners feared that should the situation deteriorate – in the words of one visiting American journalist – the guarded bridges of Shamian and ‘the barbed wire entanglements along the sea wall were no more protection than a silken thread.’8 For young radicals, they were places where (in the old saw) ‘xīng xing zhī huǒ , liáo yuán’ (星星之火可以燎原), ‘a single spark can light a wildfire’, and the deeds of a few could set an entire society – history itself – in motion.9


When glass shattered

Into this tinderbox, on 19 June 1924, stepped His Excellency M. Martial Merlin, the Governor-General of French Indochina. He arrived in the evening from Hong Kong, where he had stopped on his way home from a visit to Japan and northern China. He was to attend a dinner on Shamian Island in the British Concession.

Merlin was a first-generation colonial civil servant who had risen to his current position after a long and increasingly controversial tour of duty in France’s new imperial possessions in Africa. He had begun as a proponent of the policy of ‘association’ with native elites, the so-called évolués. But in his final post in Africa, in Senegal, he had repudiated it, with dire warnings that the évolués had become uprooted déracinés, and that France needed to restore social cohesion in the face of the ‘self-interested calls and fallacious promises of professional agitators’.10

A principal goal of Merlin’s tour of Japan had been to secure the cooperation of the Japanese authorities in curbing the political activities of Vietnamese exiles on their shores. There were reports in the Japanese press that seven Vietnamese had left Shanghai for Seoul, in Japanese-occupied Korea, and that ‘a serious conspiracy’ had been reported to the local police.11 The urbane foreign affairs adviser of the Nationalist Government, Eugene Chen, was heard to say that he anticipated trouble. For this reason, Merlin left his wife and son in Hong Kong. But these warnings had not been passed on to the British authorities in Canton. Nor had they been told of the banquet in the British Concession.12

The Frenchman had arrived in a despatch vessel escorted by a gunboat. After a drinks party at the French consulate, the French community in Canton entertained M. Merlin at the Victoria Hotel. It was not much of a place, but it was the only hotel on Shamian. The American journalist Hallett Abend reported that ‘the food, even in times of peace and plenty, was always the worst to be found in China’, excepting possibly, he added, the Hotel Nicotine in Manzhouli, Manchuria.13

The dinner for some fifty guests took place in the hotel’s lounge, its high windows open to the street. Because of the visit, the Canton government had placed stringent security on both sides of the canal. The two stone bridges that linked the island to the Chinese city were closed and guarded. There were police agents along the street, although none of them was armed. The guests sat down to dinner at 8.30 p.m.; then, ten minutes later, just as the soup was being served, a man ‘rather luxuriously dressed’ appeared at one of the windows. According to one eyewitness, he surveyed the scene within, ‘just as anyone, a gentleman or a coolie, might do’.14

Suddenly, the man hurled an attaché case through the window. It landed on the table, shattering glasses and plates. After a few seconds, it exploded. The blast was heard across the island. Some thought a chandelier had dropped down, or that it was a bad joke: in the chaos of the breaking tableware and glass, few had seen the plunge of the briefcase. Others sat where they were, stunned. The blast was to the left of Merlin.15 It killed three people immediately: a young French couple who had arrived a fortnight previously and an elderly clerk of the Banque de l’Indo-Chine. The two men were ‘shockingly shredded’, the woman with ‘a sliced carotid artery dying in a sea of blood’.16 Knives and forks sent flying by the blast inflicted injuries as terrible as the bomb itself; forks were stuck in the wainscoting and walls. Two people died later, the senior partner of a French silk firm and another businessman. Five other guests were seriously injured, including the deputy consul, Dr. Casabianca, whose left arm was almost completely blown off. Three Chinese serving ‘boys’ were also wounded.17

A local resident called Laynaud ran after the attacker with a policeman and a cook. The assassin twice fired a revolver at his pursuers and then headed towards the French Bund, where two Parsis joined the chase, backing off when they were warned the man was armed. They then proceeded to chase the assassin in and out of the French Garden until he was seen walking along the bund with a revolver in hand. Challenged by a Sikh inspector of the French police, he hid behind a hedge. The policeman began to beat the bushes in the dark; there was another shot, and the assassin rushed out and jumped into the river near the landing steps of the French Concession. It was dark, the tide was ebbing, and there were no sampans or patrol boats around.18

Some thirty-six hours later, a bloated body washed up on the south side of the Pearl River. It was identified by a gun cartridge in a pocket, the same calibre as those found in the French Garden. A pocket watch on the r corpse had stopped at 8.47 p.m., about the time when the assassin jumped in the river.

Merlin was unharmed, partly because he was fortuitously seated away from the briefcase. If he had been sitting at the head of the table – as might have been supposed – he would have been directly hit. Also, one of his entourage had the presence of mind to shout ‘Under the table!’ and thrust him to the ground just before the explosion. Uncharitable British reports had him hiding beneath the tablecloth.19 The view of the vociferous local press in Saigon was that he had irretrievably ‘lost face’. As the writer André Malraux, normally an acerbic critic of Merlin, commented: ‘For the Vietnamese perhaps; to the French, he was simply being sensible.’20

Merlin’s conduct after the incident won him few admirers. Following a night in the French consulate under close guard, he returned to the gunboat and left for Hong Kong, canceling a planned lunch with Sun Yat-sen ostensibly to avoid attracting further attacks.21 At the funeral for the victims, the eulogies claimed them as patriotic fallen of the Great War.22 There was resentment that Merlin had not stayed long enough to bury them or visit the injured in hospital. In the Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Canton, a crucifix had fallen from its wall mounting just two hours before the attack; some saw it as a portent or a miracle.23

When Merlin embarked for Saigon a few days later at Hong Kong’s Blake Pier, the bund was lined with Chinese and Indian police officers standing shoulder to shoulder. Police launches with guns patrolled the water; a detachment of the East Surrey Regiment was stationed on the pier; and the sidecars of the motorcycle outriders escorting Merlin’s car carried crack shots, each man a colony champion: ‘no possible anarchist could have got to him except from the air’.24

Rumour abounded as to the identity of the assailant, and, above all, to his origins. The French would not entertain the idea that he came from their colony of Indochina, still less that he might be an educated man. Instead, in protests to the Nationalist Government, they insisted that the attacker was Chinese. They argued that he could not be Vietnamese because his feet were not disfigured by the pressure from a sandal strap between the big toe and the others, as those of a Vietnamese might be. This was a man who habitually wore western footwear, and a pair of fashionable white shoes were recovered from the corpse. Early press reports had both the assassin and the recovered corpse dressed in white shorts and shirt. But these proved mistaken. His teeth were not enameled black, as a coolie’s might be; his hair was en brosse. Canton officials stressed that he had ‘the appearance of being at least a middle-class man’.25 His clothes – white trousers, grey jacket – were well made locally. The label led the police to his tailor, who was interrogated along with all other known associates. When a revolver was dredged up from the riverbed, the French then maintained that he was a paid assassin and that the three Hong Kong dollar notes in his pocket were proof of this.26 British diplomats took up the cry that the Chinese republican government harbored ‘anti-European societies of all sorts – Indians, Malays, Annamite [Indochinese], etc … Canton is full of these people’s bomb factories.’27

These protests to the Canton government merely enflamed the Chinese press: after all, at no point had Merlin set foot on Chinese soil.28 Just a few days before the attack, the new Whampoa Military Academy had formally opened. The cadets now demanded that Shamian Island be recovered from foreign rule by force. This cry was heard on the streets of the city, and most loudly from the 2,000 male and 300 female domestic servants on the small island itself. When the Shamian authorities increased security in the wake of the attack by insisting that all Chinese working on the island carry a photographic identity card and only walk on certain streets, a strike broke out. By 6 p.m. on the evening of 15 July, only thirty servants remained with their employers, and all had left by the 17th. The sampan men and women and the stevedores came out in solidarity and would not ship or unload any goods for Shamian. At a meeting of the strikers, one labor leader was heard to demand that foreigners weighing over 150 pounds should be banned from taking rickshaws in the city, that those of them unable to swim should not ride sampans in Chinese waters, and that they should submit three photographs to the authorities in order to be allowed into the city.29 Cooks, houseboys, even those in the European police force, all stayed off the island and picketed the bridges. It was a boycott of the entire western community. This was at some personal sacrifice for the workers: their employment on Shamian exempted them from being press-ganged into military service and sent to fight; meanwhile, the local middle classes could not access their bank accounts, and the bosses lost trade with the island.30

The strikers, however, found wide support in the city, and a ‘People’s Association against the Shamian Regulations’ united left and right in a common anti-imperial front, even as far as Hong Kong.31 It drew in high officials and the military and was funded by popular theatrical performances. The strike headquarters was a theatre, and players and schoolgirls collected donations which, three weeks into the protest, were to the tune of 1,000 silver dollars a day.32 Suddenly starved of supplies, Shamian’s westerners had to be brought food by a warship, and marines had to man the island’s water and electricity plants, damaging them in the process. The women and children were evacuated to Hong Kong. Ironically, the key beneficiary of this was the Victoria Hotel, which offered succor for Europeans who now had no one to cook or clean for them.33 The strike ended in a long-drawn-out compromise on 20 August when the servants paraded back to work to a salute of bells and firecrackers.34 This wave of boycotts and strikes across the Chinese seaboard was a full dress rehearsal for some of the most pivotal moments of China’s revolution and its relations with the west that would reverberate across Asia. 



1. V.A. Tyurin. Istoriya Malaysii. Kratkiy ocherk. Moskva, 1980. P. 93–95, 119.

2. Virgil K. Y. Ho, Understanding Canton: Rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Period, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 50–53.

3. For Tianjin as ‘hypo-’ and ‘hyper-colony’ see Ruth Rogaski, Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004, p. 21

4. Michael Tsang-Woon Tsin, Nation, Governance, and Modernity in China: Canton, 1900–1927, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2000. 

5. We have taken this summary figure from Arthur Waldron, ‘War and the Rise of Nationalism in Twentieth-Century China’, Journal of Military History, 57/5 (1993), pp. 87–104, at p. 98. Issues of scale and the industrialization of war are discussed at more length in Waldron’s From War to Nationalism: China’s Turning Point, 1924–1925, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, esp. pp. 53–71.

6. The UK National Archives (hencefort TNA), FO 228/3276, ‘Canton Intelligence Report, March Quarter, 1921’.

7. Hans J. van de Ven, From Friend to Comrade: The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, 1920–1927, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 156–7. 

8. Dorothy Dix, My Joy-Ride Round the World, London, Mills & Boon, 1922, p. 129. 

9. For this phrase, Yoshihiro Ishikawa, The Formation of the Chinese Communist Party, New York, Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 14. 

10. Alice L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1997, pp. 190–92. 

11. The Japan Times, 21 May 1924. 

12. TNA, FO 371/10293, Bertram Giles, Consul-General Canton, to Peking, 27 June 1924. 

13. Hallett Abend, My Years in China, 1926–1941, London, John Lane, 1944, p. 14.

14. France, Archives nationales d'outre-mer (henceforth ANOM), INDO/GGI/65533, ‘The Canton Outrage. Protection of the Shameen’, Hong Kong Daily Press,? June 1924. The date is not legible on my copy. 

15. Ibid., Le Capitaine de Frégate Seychal à le Contre-Amiral Commandant les Forces Navales en Extrême-Orient, 22 June 1924. 

16. Ibid., M. Beauvais, Gérant du Consulat de France à Canton à de Fleuriau, Ministre Plénipotentiaire, China, 21 June 1924. 

17. China Mail, 21 June 1924; North China Herald, 18 June 1924. 

18. ANOM, INDO/GGI/65533, ‘The Canton Outrage. Protection of the Shameen’, Hong Kong Daily Press,? June 1924. 

19. See the Canton Phenomenon, 21 June 1924. 

20. As translated and cited in Richard A. Cruz, ‘André Malraux: The Anticolonial and Antifascist Years’, PhD thesis, University of North Texas, 1996, p. 113. 

21. Canton Phenomenon, 21 June 1924. 

22. Hong Kong Daily Press, 24 June 1924. 

23. China Mail, 26 June 1924. 

24. As reported in the North China Herald, 12 July 1924. 

25. China Mail, 23 June 1924. 

26. Hong Kong Daily Press, 24 June 1924. 

27. TNA, FO 371/10293, L. Collier, Minute, 4 September 1924. 

28. Lorraine M. Paterson, ‘A Vietnamese Icon in Canton: Biographical Borders and Revolutionary Romance in 1920s Canton’, in Caroline S. Hau and Kasian Tejapira (eds), Traveling Nation-Makers: Transnational Flows and Movements in the Making of Modern Southeast Asia, Singapore, NUS Press, 2011, pp. 69–70. 

29. China Mail, 18 July 1924. 

30. Ibid., 24 July 1924. 

31. Yuan-tsung Chen, Return to the Middle Kingdom: One Family, Three Revolutionaries, and the Birth of Modern China, New York, Union Square Press, 2008, p. 129; Daniel Y. K. Kwan, Marxist Intellectuals and the Chinese Labor Movement: A Study of Deng Zhongxia (1894–1933), Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1997, pp. 107–8. 

32. China Mail, 29 July 1924; ibid., 30 July 1924; ibid, 7 August 1924. 

33. For the Victoria Hotel see Jonathan Fenby, Chiang Kai Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost, London, Simon & Schuster, 2009, p. 71; North China Herald, 2 August 1924. 

34. China Mail, 20 August 1924. 


For updates click homepage here





shopify analytics