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Expats history in Tianjin: Tientsin's Race Course
| Updated: 2012-05-04 10:11:18 | (Jin Magazine) |

As we enter the month of May, it is appropriate to consider the excitement which this month held for previous people in Tianjin as it meant the racing season…

It was noted that an indication of a treaty port in China being firmly established was the setting up of drains, dairies, horse-racing and golf courses! In all the larger treaty ports, which included Tientsin, the races were among the most important social events of the year and many people eagerly anticipated the spring and autumn meets:

Expats history in Tianjin: Tientsin's Race Course

Peking and Tientsin Times, Thursday October 5, 1922

While Tientsin's meetings were considered neither as grand nor important as those in Shanghai and Hong Kong, there was a keen racing fraternity. Initially a race course was founded by a manager of Dent's (a trading company) and was called Hanna's Course after him. Flooding around 1868 led to races being held on a straight of one-third of a mile beside the Taku Road in a lonely and exposed place several miles from the city. This location meant that few Chinese attended although there were often enthusiasts from Peking, Chefoo and Shanghai. In the spring of 1870, the Taotai.* His Excellency Chunghow and the head of the Imperial Arsenal both attended. The Taotai offered patronage and presented the Cup. Not long afterwards, there were anti-foreign anti-Catholic riots in which lives were lost and the Taotai replaced. This and the exposure to dust storms, led to another couple of moves. The atmosphere at the races also changed so that in 1872-3 Tientsin ponies and riders turned out in force in Shanghai. From 1873-6, the course was some nine miles out of the city beyond the village of Se-low by the Treaty Joss House where the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin had been signed.

Expats history in Tianjin: Tientsin's Race Course
1938 Race card courtesy of Desmond Power

The distance was a limiting factor and when there was once more flooding in 1876, the races returned to the Taku site. In 1878, the new Taotai attended and presented the cup while the Viceroy of Chihli, in which Tientsin fell, made a donation of $200. Finally, a more permanent course was provided in 1887. The land and much of the development finance was given to the Tientsin Race Club by the notable Austrian, Gustav Detring. He was then Commissioner of the Tientsin Customs and later Chairman of the British Municipal Council.

Expats history in Tianjin: Tientsin's Race Course

Gustav Detring and a credit given in the editorial of the Peking and Tientsin Times Saturday April 11,1896

Along with the help of his German brother-in-law, Constantin Von Hanneken, the course was developed. It was designed from the outset as "a classically correct course" so that "in some ways it was the best of all the China racecourses" (Coates 1994: 93). It was a dirt track, with 1 ½ mile circuit, wide enough for 14-18 horses abreast. Within it was a training track of similar length and within this ran a canal which helped drain it. Another cinder track was within this. The entire area was surrounded by creeks. On modern maps, the oval track site can still be seen (see maps).

Expats history in Tianjin: Tientsin's Race Course

Expats history in Tianjin: Tientsin's Race Course

It has also been noted that Tientsin took a lead in using the Tientsin Press to print out proper cards detailing probable starters with their riders' names. Tientsin race books were also printed annually. They were of a high standard, a uniform size for ease of shelving and elegantly bound in calf leather with gold print (see picture from Coates p.155). Expats history in Tianjin: Tientsin's Race Course

By 1896, the Race Club was doing so well financially that it was in a position to acquire the Country Club and develop the surrounding area by the race course into a park – "the finest demesne of its kind in all China" (Coates p.99). It was some 3 miles from the British concession at the end of Racecourse Road in the area now used by the Gan Bu Ju Le Bu, and bordered by the Sheraton, Marriott, Crystal Palace Hotels. Again, it was Detring and Von Hanneken who facilitated.

By 1896, the Race Club was doing so well financially that it was in a position to acquire the Country Club and develop the surrounding area by the race course into a park – "the finest demesne of its kind in all China" (Coates p.99). It was some 3 miles from the British concession at the end of Racecourse Road in the area now used by the Gan Bu Ju Le Bu, and bordered by the Sheraton, Marriott, Crystal Palace Hotels. Again, it was Detring and Von Hanneken who facilitated.

In March 1898, these two men who represented the continental members, made a significant proposal that - in the face of a shortage of jockeys – Chinese riders be allocated two races per meet. Until then, they had only participated in the Taotai’s Cup. The British members were against the idea and suggested the weight be raised to 3 pounds. A furore was temporarily averted but at the next Race Club meeting, the British motion was carried and Chinese riders had one race only.

Expats history in Tianjin: Tientsin's Race Course
The first race Club building destroyed by Yihetuan/Boxers in 1900.

Tientsin came into its own. It was "for the Races of the North what Shanghai was for the South, indisputably first-rate" (Coates p.101). Wealth abounded and with the railway through to Peking, racing ponies could travel between the two racecourses, as could those attending the events. This is seen in the plans to build a new grandstand for which some 20,000 taels were earmarked. This was duly constructed but destroyed along with many other buildings in the concession areas under heavy bombardment by Imperial troops and Yihetuan forces in 1900. Some 2,400 expatriate men had defended themselves against some 10,000 Imperial troops until relieved by the Allied forces under Seymour in what is known in the West as the Boxer Uprising (Yi He Tuan movement to the Chinese). In 1901, a new stand was built, with an enlarged stand alongside it in 1925.

Expats history in Tianjin: Tientsin's Race Course

The new grandstand (left) was built in 1925 alongside the previous grandstand (right) built in 1901. Photos from Rasmussen, 1925.

By the 1920s, the racing cities of China had gone racing mad. In 1917, an extra meeting was introduced over New Year and was popular despite the freezing weather. According to Baron von Delwig writing about Tientsin (quoted in Coates p.154):

"There were usually about 25 race days in the spring, and just as many in the autumn, usually ten races a day. Thus in theory an amateur rider in China had a chance to ride in 500 races a year…

In the good old days – say from 1923 to 1930 – the official four days of the Spring and Autumn Meetings were a holiday for the whole town. All offices and banks would close in the afternoon, and all the foreign community and a great deal of the Chinese population would drive in an unending column to the Race Course [down Racecourse Road], women wearing their new spring dresses and hats, and Chinese wearing their smartest silk robes. Large lunch parties would be arranged with lots of champagne, and gold and silver trophies displayed on the lunch tables."

The Tientsin community had a number of racing men. Among the more notable horse owners were J.M. Dickinson (the main proprietor of William Forbes and Co. which started as a shipping agent and then diversified), William Forbes himself, Colonel Johan Munthe with his cropped red hair and long handlebar moustache (a Norwegian in the Imperial Maritime Customs) , O. Joerg (Swiss). Harry Bush stabled his horses here as well as in Newchang where his family were key figures. There were some well-known jockeys too. Fritz Sommer was perhaps one of the best. Riding his own horse, Moribund in 1897, he was within a fifth of a second of the All-China record (1896). James Watt, riding Palo Alto, achieved such a record. He is perhaps better known for his historic ride of 20 June 1900 on the same horse to Taku. He alerted the naval forces there of the impending peril facing the inhabitants of the besieged foreign concessions in Tientsin. C.R. Morling and Hunt, along with Sommer rode three horses for the British Minister, Sir Claude MacDonald, in the Peking races of May 1897 winning first (on Attaché), second (on Messenger) and third (on Cypher) places respectively! Later Major Kirkpatrick was a regular jockey. Mike Boycott, Tientsin born and raised, rode here before ending up in Hong Kong and an appointment as steward of the famous Hong Kong Race Club. There were also those who trained horses such as Rudolph Tismar who was commended by the Club.

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