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G. Prat photograph album of China and Japan, 1874-1900

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Prat (G.) Photograph Album of China and Japan

Scope and Content of Collection

The collection comprises an album compiled by G. Prat containing 151 albumen photographs, some of which are hand colored; 21 loose albumen prints; and a manuscript list of photographs to be obtained.

The untitled album is half bound in dark green leather with gilt stamped decorative banding; the spine is mostly lacking. The boards are covered in dark green leatherette. Inscribed on the free front endpaper is the compiler's name, simply recorded as "G. Prat." The album has 149 pages with eight blank pages in the middle and one blank page at its end. While most of the pages contain a single image, six pages hold two photographs, and two pages hold three photographs.

The album's visual focus is on the ports and trading centers of China's Pearl River Delta. Present are 98 views of Guangzhou (Canton), one of the five original Chinese treaty ports; six of Hong Kong; and 11 of Macau. Additionally, there are 16 images on eight pages depicting the Canton Amateur Theatrical Society's (CATS) productions, and 20 photographs of Japan, 19 of which are hand-colored. To date, a handful of the photographs of China have been identified as being by Lai Fong and it is likely that further research will confirm that the bulk of them are in fact by this Chinese photographer or his studio, known as Afong Studio, which was based in Hong Kong. It is also possible that some of the China photographs could have been taken by Prat himself, although this argument is weakened by the fact that Lai Fong (or his studio operatives) frequently documented the events and outings of the denizens of the Western settlements in the treaty ports. Lastly, Kusakabe Kinbē has been identified as the maker of most of the photographs of Japan in the album.

Captions are written in French above the photographs and are continued below the image. The upper portion of the caption usually contains a location and a date, while the one below the image is usually descriptive of the photograph and often has additional notes written immediately below it. Most of the titles of the individual photographs were derived by combining the two captions. Prat's spelling has been retained and transcribed as written with the exception of distinct words linked by ligatures which have been divided into separate words.The date in the caption above each photograph has been used to date the image it is associated with, although in some cases the descriptive text indicates that these dates may be of a more general nature rather than being strictly specific to the image.

Although the dates in the upper captions range from 1874 to 1896, the album is not organized in chronological order. Rather, Prat seems to have started compiling the album beginning with photographs taken in or related to 1878, and then adding groups of photographs from both before and after that date as his project progressed. The first six photographs in the album document the aftermath of the cyclone (which Prat refers to as a trombe) that struck Guangzhou on April 10, 1878. The emphasis on the destruction of buildings in the European settlement on Shamian Island, specifically that sustained by the European trading houses, sets the tone for Prat's focus on documenting the Western business communities established along the Pearl River Delta.

The island known as Shamian (also Shameen; Shamin; Prat uses the French spelling Shamien) is where Prat spent a significant amount of the time covered in the album. In 1859, the foreign community in Guangzhou was moved from the banks of the Pearl River to the island, a former sandbar that was separated from the mainland by the creation of an artificial canal or river (now called Shajichong) and built up to encompass twenty-seven hectares. Britain leased three-fifths of the island from China, using it for their concession or settlement, while France leased the remaining land. Leasing the land from China allowed the settlements to exist autonomously, essentially exempt from local Chinese control. The island was connected to the mainland by two bridges, one located in each settlement, that were locked at night. By 1873, Shamian boasted ten foreign consulates, numerous western banks, and the local headquarters of the most prominent European and American trading companies present in China.

The remainder of the photographs in the first half of the album alternate between views on Shamian and views of the Chinese city. Attention is given to areas where the two communities were likely to meet, such as the docks and wharves, and to the assorted Chinese and European vessels plying its waterways. Informed by his profession as a silk inspector, Prat naturally focuses on the numerous British, French, German, and American trading companies established on Shamian. These companies were housed in so called "factories" which combined trade offices, warehouses, and living quarters for their male employees. Nothing was manufactured in these buildings, which had facades that gave them the appearance of large villas. Rather, the term factory comes from the English word factor, used to mean commercial agent. The Chinese term for these establishments was "hongs." Across East Asia and the East Pacific they were also referred to as "godowns." Prat calls them "maisons." In the album, Prat includes photographs of or mentions all of the important houses: W. Pustau & Co. Siemssen & Co.; Jardine, Matheson & Co.; Olyphant & Co.; Russell & Co.; Coare, Lind, & Co.; Carlowitz & Co.; Birley & Co.; Deacon & Co.; Vogel Hagedorn (Vogel & Co.); and Thomas, Rowe, & Smith (Thomas & Mercer Co.). The earlier images often show the "junior men" of the company seated on porches and verandas or standing on upper balconies. Prat identifies the men, noting his close friends. Photographs placed later along in the album depict the state of the trading houses after the anti-foreign riots that took place on September 10, 1883.

While the overarching background to the anti-foreign riots on Shamian Island was the growing tension between France and China due to the increasing French encroachment in northern Vietnam (Tonkin) that culminated in the Sino-French war (April 1884 to April 1885), two local incidents involving Europeans that resulted in the death of Chinese persons were the immediate causes of the uprising. In the first, which occurred on August 13, 1883, J. H. Logan, an English tidewaiter or customs officer, confronted a group of Chinese men and boys who were gathered on the steps of the house where he was drinking and playing cards. An argument ensued when the partying men tried to send the Chinese men away. Logan ran back inside the building, retrieved a rifle, and fired it, wounding a Chinese man and woman and killing Pak Wa Kung, a twelve-year-old Chinese boy.

The second, known as the "Hankow incident," began when Luo Fen, who was attemping to secure good berths for boardinghouse guests on the steamer Hankow early in the morning of September 10, was accosted and brutally kicked by Faustino Caetano Diaz, a Portuguese watchman, causing him to fall overboard. Luo's death was due either directly to the blows or to drowning. In response to Luo's death, Chinese rioters set fire to the wharf and sheds where the Hankow was moored, but the steamer itself escaped harm by sailing quickly upriver. Failing to destroy the vessel, the rioters moved on to Shamian Island where they looted and burned numerous buildings. Most of the European women and children fled to other steamships anchored in the harbor, while the male population patrolled the island. Charles Seymour, the American consul at Guangzhou, began his understated dispatch written at ten p.m. on the night of the riots to John Russell Young, the American minister to China (later the seventh Librarian of Congress), "Sir: I have the honor to inform you that the Europeans and Americans residing in Canton and on the Shameen have had an interesting day during which some lives were lost and considerable property has been destroyed, amounting in value to about $200,000…"

The Chinese army was called in to help protect the settlement from further rioting. Several photographs record its encampment and groups of soldiers on the commons with burnt buildings in the background, while other images record the beefed up presence of foreign warships in the harbor. Some views show the beginnings of reconstruction with bamboo scaffolding erected around the damaged structures.

The trials of both European men took place after the riots. Logan, whose trial began on September 20, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years of servitude, which was widely believed among the Chinese to be too lenient of a punishment. In November, Diaz was sentenced to three months imprisonment. In both cases the trials were conducted and sentencing delivered according to European rather than Chinese law, and their outcomes led to increased resentment of the European presence in China.

The first half of the album concludes with various scenes of Chinese Guangzhou. After a break of eight blank pages the reader is transported to Japan in the year 1896. Nineteen of the 20 photographs in this section are by Kusakabe Kinbē, a Japanese photographer who worked for Felice Beato and Baron Raimund von Stillfried as a studio assistant and colorist before opening his own studio in Yokohama in 1881. Around 1885, he acquired the negatives of his former employers and those of Uchida Kuichi, as well as some of Ueno Hikoma's negatives of Nagasaki. By 1893, Kusakabe was one of the most prominent Japanese photographers and his work was sought after by Western customers who knew him by his first name, Kinbē or Kimbei. His images of Japanese women, three examples of which appear in Prat's album, were especially popular. Most of the photographs in the album, however, are delicately colored views of Japanese cities – Nagasaki, Kobe, Yokohama, Tokyo, and Osaka – and of iconic Japanese locales such as Mount Fuji and Lake Biwa. With the sole exception of an uncolored view looking down a Yokohama canal towards the French consulate, Prat's self-referential choice of images, so prevalent in the first half of the album, is lacking in his selection of Japanese photographs.

In the pages following the photographs of Japan, Prat returned to adding earlier images from his time in China to the album. He devotes much of the last part of the album to documenting the European community on Shamian Island and locating himself within it. Dating from 1877 to 1883, the photographs include large group portraits of the community gathered outdoors, as well as images of Prat and his circle of friends casually arranged on the porches and verandahs of their communal residences. Most of the images of the CATS players are found in this section of the album, along with three group portraits of the costumed attendees of the masked ball given by Mr. and Mrs. G. M. Smith of Jardine, Matheson & Co. in 1879. Also included here are the images of Hong Kong and Macau, all of which are dated 1879 (in the first part of the album there is a lone photograph of Hong Kong dated 1874). As Prat was working in Guangzhou at the time, it is likely that he traveled to these two locations for either business or pleasure.

Throughout the album, the photographs and their immediate upper and lower captions are enclosed in elaborate geometric or floral borders hand drawn in red or black ink. Prat used the margins outside these surrounds to write extensive commentaries. Those written below the borders often, but not always, refer to the image on the page, while those written above the image, and frequently also in both side margins (sometimes written sideways), form Prat's compendium on China in which he addresses any number of topics from history, geography, climate, agriculture, religion, language and dialects, and business practices to family life, sedan chairs, etiquette, costume and dress, and opium. Each subject is noted in the top margin of the page where it begins, and topics often continue on several successive pages. The last entry in the album is a small lexicon spanning several pages that Prat labels "quelques locutions pidgin english."

Cross references to the album's photographs are often made in the marginalia, as well as in the image captions. The dates included in these texts frequently refer to events that took place later or earlier than the dates given in the upper captions for the images, which suggests that at some point after the album compilation was well underway, or perhaps even completed, Prat decided to add his general treatise on China.

The album is accompanied by 21 loose albumen prints, falling into three distinct groups, and a manuscript list of photographs. The first group comprises eight group portraits of members of the European community taken in Guangzhou between 1877 and 1883. Six of these portraits are also present in the album. The other two photographs in the group are formal studio portraits. One of these portraying four mustachioed young European men is by Li Yong, while the other of six men, more casually arranged and dressed, is by an unidentified photographer. Some of the men appear in both portraits.

The second group of loose photographs comprises seven views of Guangzhou. While all of them are dated on their versos "Canton 1900," the photographs themselves were likely taken at an earlier date, as indicated by the fact that several of them relate directly to, or are variants of, photographs found in the album, and are assigned a number following the page number on which a corresponding image appears. Lastly, six views of the Rhône Valley in France taken in the 1880s by one or more unidentified photographers form the third group of loose photographs.

The list of photographs is headed "Liste de vues à demander à Canton." In it, Prat gives detailed descriptions of 19 views of Guangzhou, including sites within both the Chinese city and the European settlements, which he wishes to acquire. At the end of the list he explains that these photographs could be sold to residents of Canton or to "globe trotters" as souvenirs, and that he hopes to be the one to facilitate this. He also explains which photographs would be easy to obtain and which would require permission of the subjects represented, or as in the case of number 17, the festival of the dragon boat, would need to be taken on a specific date, here "le 5me jour de le 5me lune." As evidenced by his description of the first image, a view of the central lane of the French Concession, Prat compiled the list sometime after 1884 ("qui, m'a-t'on dit, est aujourd'hui complètement garnie de maisons, alors qu'en 1884, il n'y en avait encase aucune"), and possibly as late as 1900 when he assembled the group of loose photographs of Guangzhou.


The collection is arranged in a single series:
Series I: G. Prat photograph album of China and Japan, 1874-1900.

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