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4 June 2024

Colonel Carter Shares His Memories of the Shanghai Club

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Colonel Carter Shares His Memories of the Shanghai Club

One of my favorite scenes in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Chapter XVI, “An Evening at Mah Jong.” Yes, the gossip around the game table provides plenty of red herrings for us to consider, but what I love are the homey little details about Caroline, Miss Gannett, and Colonel Carter. 

It’s so easy to visualize the no-longer-young neighbors arriving in “goloshes and waterproofs” and settling down to play their game. They play politely, of course, but each is determined to best the others. Can’t you just imagine Caroline getting snippy when Miss Gannett keeps winning, and everyone trying to ignore Colonel Carter every time he brings up another old story about the Shanghai Club?

I had much to research for this chapter, including how to play Mah Jong. The history behind the Shanghai Club was especially interesting. Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts is the current owner of the beautiful Baroque Revival building that was the Shanghai Club in 1926 when The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published, but it may not be the club Colonel Carter remembers. 

The present-day building was erected between 1909 and 1911 to replace the old Club built in 1864. The organization itself was founded in 1861 and was originally named The Correspondent’s Club. Formed to support British men living in Shanghai, China, the reasons why British men were in Shanghai is complicated. 

Throughout the 1800s, several European countries and the United States were intent on staking claims within less-explored nations. Merchants from Great Britain were eager to trade with China for tea, silk, and other luxury goods. China, however, wasn’t as enamored with European goods and insisted on silver in exchange. As the silver reserves dwindled, merchants sought something else they could offer in trade and came up with opium. 

China had their own opium industry, but opium from India, which Great Britain controlled due to previous colonization, was preferred. To halt both the increase in addiction and the general intrusion of Europe, China went to war. Several times. 

They were defeated in the 1840s, the 1850s, and again in the 1860s. After each defeat, Great Britain demanded more concessions and increased their influence. Shanghai, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, was well-situated as a base of operations, and England wasn’t the only country to set up expatriate communities. Settlements were also established by the Americans, French, and other Europeans. 

While the military certainly had a presence in Shanghai during the mid-1800s, there were also many non-military, trade-related operations. Workers such as clerks, accountants, and other support personnel were needed, and many brought their families along. These settlements were developed as their home-away-from-home, including a men’s club just like they enjoyed back in London. 

Dr. Sheppard tells us that King’s Abbot is “rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers,” which seems to include Colonel Carter. One of the clues to Carter’s age comes when he arrives at the Sheppard’s home and comments on the cold weather: “Reminds me of the Afghan passes.” 

The First Anglo-Afghan War was from 1839-1842, but that would make Carter over 100 years old at the Mah Jong party! There were, however, also conflicts in 1878 and 1919. It’s possible that the Colonel served in either of those wars as the British army moved into Afghanistan from bases in India. 

Later, Dr. Sheppard also says that he and Caroline suspect Carter “has never been farther east than India, where he juggled with tins of bully beef and plum and apple jam during the Great War.” That seems to preclude the Colonel’s participation in the 1919 Anglo-Afghan War, making the 1878 conflict likely when he served and experienced the Afghan passes.

In Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks, John Curran points out a 1924 letter from Lord Mountbatten of Burma that may have inspired Christie to write The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and since the book was published in 1926, the fictional dates seem to agree with the real ones. Using some very loose math, if Carter was 20 years old in 1878, he’d be around 45 in 1914 when WWI started. Retirement after the War seems logical, so perhaps he was in his late fifties during the time of the novel. 

While the Colonel might have seen the old Shanghai Club during the early days of his army career, the years of construction and war meant Carter had very little time in which to patronize the new Club. Dr. Sheppard and Caroline also seem  imply that, even if Colonel Carter did get as far east as China, his final assignment in supplies makes it unlikely that he ever was a candidate for membership in the exclusive Shanghai Club. I reached out to several WWI experts, but have not confirmed that this implication is correct. I’d love to hear the opinion of a Great War authority!

So did Colonel Carter play Mah Jong at the Shanghai Club? And was that at the old Club or the new one? We’ll never know for sure, but as Dr. Sheppard says “in King’s Abbot we permit people to indulge their little idiosyncrasies freely.”
 

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... has been a huge fan of the works of Agatha Christie her entire adult life. Christie's vivid descriptions of picturesque English life in the early-to-mid twentieth century fascinated Kate, but many of the people and places were unfamiliar to her. A writer herself, as well as a researcher and historian with several local history books to her credit, Kate began a list of these strange words and set out to define them. Now, Christie fans like you and all those who come after will be able to fully enjoy the richness of Agatha Christie novels with their own copy of Agatha Annotated.

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