Around China with a Movie Camera: A Journey from Beijing to Shanghai (1900–1948)

Compiled in 2015 by the British Film Institute National Archive from their collections

Presented at A Day of Silents 2015
Live Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin

Adapted from notes by BFI curator Edward Anderson

Excerpts from documentaries, newsreels, travelogues, home movies, and missionary films shot by pros and amateurs alike chart the geography and culture of pre-revolutionary China from the perspective of British and European visitors.

Part of a large-scale digitization project headed by the British Film Institute, Around China with a Movie Camera is culled from a larger set of about one hundred films made available online to UK audiences. These excerpts travel across time and space from Beijing to Shanghai and from 1900, in the last days of the Qing dynasty when the oldest surviving footage is believed to have been shot in China, through 1948, the year before the Communists came to power.

Modern China | 1910
The only surviving part of an epic —but unrealized—travelogue filmed for the Charles Urban Trading Company before the 1911 Xinhai Revolution overthrew imperial rule, this tinted and toned fragment captures the city’s vibrant street culture.

Street Scenes in China | c.1925
Chinese city life traditionally converged at the foot of city walls or wooden archways and these excerpts from a Methodist Missionary Society film show the bustling markets, street peddlers, and tradesmen of Dongsi (marked by its pair of wooden archways) and Chongwenmen (with its city gate).

Forbidden City | c.1933
Amateur cameraman Reginald S. Clay ventures only fleetingly inside the Forbidden City, by 1933 empty of its emperor and turned into a museum for Chinese national treasures. The outer gateways are relaxed, social places, without the teeming tourists that throng there today.

Wanderings in Peking | 1939
Trams jostle with camels and motorcars, a herd of sheep gather by the Qianmen gate, lantern shops cater to tourists, vendors peddle hot snacks, and acrobats perform outside the Forbidden City in this amateur footage shot by young visiting scholar Sidney Howard Hansford.

Eng Personal Films | c.1933
These excerpts of S.K. Eng’s trip back to China show Beihai Park and the Temple of Heaven and are part of the only footage known to have been made by a Chinese-British family in the 1930s.

China | c.1928
An unknown British couple filmed their honeymoon to Southeast Asia and China, what must have been an incredibly exciting (and expensive) trip. Among the views of the palaces and pagodas of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall at Badaling are striking images of local people and customs. The film wasn’t edited, instead each shot is separated by a white flash marking when the photographer stopped and started the camera.

Peking and Its Surroundings | 1910
Scenes of the cargo-laden beasts snorting plumes of hot breath into the mountain air evoke a centuries-old way of life on the Silk Road as this Pathé Frères newsreel traces a caravan traveling from the Great Wall to Beijing.

A Trip on the Imperial Canal | 1908
A Pathé Frères newsreel captures sights along the world’s longest man-made waterway, including a water-buffalo-powered system for irrigating the paddy fields and the arduous loading of a ship with salt, basket by basket.

Chinese Scene | c.1920
Often dubbed the “Venice of China,” Suzhou (Su-chow in the film) is popular with tourists for its network of canals and gardens. Excerpts from Stockwell Cine Short and Williams and Ivey Films travelogues document a gentler pace of life: the elaborate irrigation systems used in surrounding rice and lily fields, the ancient practice of fishing with cormorants, and a glimpse of some of the city’s famous bridges, temples, and pagodas.

An Oriental Venice | c.1925
Some deftly applied stencil-coloring adds to the extraordinary beauty and naturalism of these scenes of a canal cruise beginning at the Gong Chen bridge in the eastern city of Hangzhou. Watch for curious onlookers along the way, including one man taking shade under an archway.

Travel Scenes in Hunan | c.1935
One of six films shot by J. G. Pearson for the Methodist Missionary Society, it paints an unromantic picture of peasant hardships in Hunan Province, along with some delightfully unexpected moments, including a fleeting segment filmed aboard a moving litter.

China II | 1930
Shot from a riverboat, probably on the Yangtze, during a Quaker mission, this amateur film makes for slightly haphazard viewing, but the reward is a wealth of fascinating imagery, such as the strenuous action of standing rowers urged on by a singing coxswain. It is believed to have been photographed by John Cuthbert Wigham, a retired businessman and active member of the Friends Service Council who accompanied missions to Syria, Palestine, India, and Madagascar.

Chongqing (A Stilted City) | 1928
Stripped of its original intertitles, which spun a fictitious story about the taxi porters threatening to tip non-paying passengers down the steps, this British Screen Tatler footage shows an unrecognizable Chongqing (known as Chungking), then an ancient city with precarious dwellings jutting out of the mountainside.

Among the Tribes in Southwest China | c.1948
R.E. Kendall shot this spectacular trek by a Western missionary and his armed guides through the remote mountains of Yunnan Province to the isolated villages of the Miao tribes, where the party bears witness to a vanishing rural culture.

Scenes in China | c.1902
Auguste François’s position as French consul in south China between 1896 and 1904, which earned him the moniker “White Mandarin,” allowed access to subjects that would have eluded other visiting cameramen. These fragments include a bustling market in Kunming, a gaggle of Miao soldiers practicing military drills, a wealthy couple dining, lounging opium smokers, and an opera performed at a private party.

A Visit to Canton | 1936
Fishing boats, floating shop-fronts, and trading vessels glut the Pearl River on the way to Guangzhou, then known as Canton, which China was forced to open up to trade after its defeat in the Opium War of 1840. Amateur cameraman Edwin G. Phillips lived in Hong Kong in the 1930s.

Riverside Scenes China | c.1920
Who shot this footage of the Guangzhou waterfront, when, and why remains a mystery. The film shares its long takes, wide-angle shots, fixed tripod, in-camera editing, and nautical theme with another title shot circa 1921, suggesting that the two films might be from the same unrealized project.

Guangzhou: Water Transport | c.1933
Women work with babies strapped to their backs while boatmen row with bare feet on the Pearl River. The film was long misidentified as having been filmed in Shanghai.

A Gate of China | 1927
Excerpted from a nine-minute British Instructional Films documentary, this footage captures Hong Kong’s surrounding verdant hills, English-style buildings and squares, the vertiginous drop down a teeming hillside street, a coal train puffing through a residential area, and typhoon damage along Causeway Bay.

Hong Kong East Meets West | c.1940
A glorious jumble of street and river life, this amateur footage directed by S. Norman Trevan for the Methodist Missionary Society captures the brisk pace of commerce along Hong Kong’s thriving waterfront.

Eng Personal Films | c.1933
Views of a changing city, from the roof of Shanghai’s unfinished Broadway Mansion hotel.

Nankin Road, Shanghai | 1901
A window onto the heart of cosmopolitan Shanghai more than a hundred years ago, it shows a Nanjing Road bustling with crowds of Chinese, Sikhs, and Europeans. It is the only known surviving example of the film reportage shot by British war correspondent Joseph Rosenthal for the Warwick Trading Company during the Boxer Rebellion in China.

Marines Arrive in Shanghai | 1927
Newly arrived British troops march through the rainy streets of Shanghai in this rare foray by Topical Budget (Topical Film Company’s newsreel) into serious international news. Allied troops were brought in to protect European nationals and their assets from nationalist forces as China slid toward civil war.

A City of Chaos | 1927
Shot five days before the Shanghai Massacre, a brutal purge of Communists, this Topical Film Company newsreel focuses on the Chinese reaction to the threat of violence between Communist and Kuomintang forces as ordinary people flee the conflict. One man is seen carrying a traditional shoulder yoke, with one basket full of belongings and the other holding a small child.

High Jinks | 1929
Topical Film Company made this lovely record of the newly opened Great World Amusement Park, often referred to as Shanghai’s Coney Island (active until at least 1936). The camerawork is poetic by newsreel standards, capturing the rhythms of the Ferris wheel, waltzer, and swing carousel and lingering on a family riding the Caterpillar.

China Today | 1936
Born to missionary parents in China and later married to a British consulate official, Lady Dorothea Hosie knew more about 1930s China than most other Britons. While researching her 1938 book Brave New China, she shot an hour-long film, a highly unusual length at the time for an amateur. These excerpts include Shanghai streets where shops cater to Western and Chinese tastes and cars and electric trams share the roads with rickshaws and pedestrians, as well as more intimate moments with her friends.

The Face of Shanghai | 1937
Although largely filmed in 1937, this Cadman-Ormand production was reworked in 1940 into a two-reel sound documentary, of which only one reel survives. These excerpts, taken from the 1944 re-release, capture the Shanghai Racecourse, founded by Western expats in the nineteenth century. The land now hosts People’s Park but the shape of the old track is still visible in maps. The men with captured birds are taking their pets for a walk, an old Shanghai pastime.

Chinese Men | c.1900
Two rolls of negative 35mm nitrate with Lumière- style perforations were found among the Mitchell and Kenyon reels discovered in milk churns in a Blackburn basement in 1995, quite possibly the oldest surviving footage shot in China. The subjects seem genuinely Chinese, but who filmed them, when, and where? Perhaps the cameraman’s flying hat is a clue.