Christopher Bo Bramsen, Open Doors. Vilhelm Meyer and the Establishment of General Electric in China

A large house overlooking the port of Copenhagen and, next
to the sea in Sokdsberg, an enormous summer residence, full of children and loyal
domestic staff, where elegant young girls dream as they write in their personal
diaries. Their fathers, uncles and friends are all important merchants, ministers
or diplomats—the scene is reminiscent of an Ingmar Bergman film, a taste
of Wild Strawberries maybe. So what does China have to do with this Scandinavian
family saga? It acts as the setting, the backdrop for the destiny of a couple
of “Shanghailanders” born into this Danish high society. The story of
Vilhelm Meyer and Kirsten Bramsen is told to us by their grandson, Christopher
Bo Bramsen who, in 1995 and in keeping with the family tradition, presented Jiang
Zemin with his credentials as Denmark’s ambassador to China.

Vilhelm Meyer arrived in Shanghai in 1902, where, a few years
later, he founded Andersen, Meyer & Co., which was to become one of the largest
companies in China. Almost immediately, the company began to specialise in the
import of building materials—iron, steel and glass. When World War I closed
down European supply markets, Meyer placed his orders with the US, where he also
found new capital and new partners. Andersen, Meyer & Co. thus became an American
company, registered in New York, and the General Electric Company’s sole
agent in China. The company broadened its horizons—it created half-a-dozen
branches in the coastal provinces, began processing and exporting wool, leather
and carpets, and extended its business activities to Manila.

The chronicle of commercial success alternates with that of
family life—between 1910 to 1920, four little girls came into the world,
each new birth resulting in the hiring of additional nannies, amahs and
governesses. As he never actually knew his grandparents, the author’s main
sources are notes, letters and diaries written by Kirsten Meyer, her four daughters
and one of her nephews. Other than some texts published in 1959 by one of the
Meyer daughters, these documents have so far remained unpublished. The author
also relies heavily on correspondence from the young girls’ Danish governess,
who was with them in Shanghai from 1920 to 1923.

The nature of this documentation means that the account tends
towards a semi-domestic/semi-society story. It includes touches that are found
in the memoirs of all wealthy expatriates—the tribute paid to loyal and ingenious
Chinese servants and the descriptions of birthday, Christmas and New Year celebrations.
The parties are lavish, as demonstrated by the sophistication of the menus and
the quality of the orchestras that make the guests dance. These guests include
various business acquaintances of the master of the house, key figures from the
foreign concessions, and European and American dignitaries who happen to be passing
through town. There are also Chinese guests, of whom only two are identified by
name—the banker Li Min and the opera singer Mei Lanfang. The book’s
title Open Doors, which makes reference to the Open Door(1)
policy, should also be understood as a tribute to the warm hospitality extended
by Meyer.

In the summer, the family and its army of domestic staff decamp
to the seaside at Wei-hai-wei, a British enclave on the northern coast of Shandong.
Sometimes, when Vilhelm set out on one of his many business trips or family gatherings,
his wife, children, nannies and governesses would follow in his wake. These could
be very long journeys that took the entire party across the Pacific, the United
States and Europe, giving them the chance to form pleasant relationships with
people they met on the way.

The lifestyle described in this chronicle is much the same
as that evoked in many other accounts given by former residents of the Shanghai
concessions, except maybe for the ostentation that the Meyers exhibit and their
preference for musical rather than sporting activities. The upheavals in Chinese
political life and the dramas taking place in Shanghai in the period from 1920
to 1930 (revolutionary struggles, the police’s reign of terror and Japanese
aggression) are evoked by the author but they do not appear to have much impact
on the circles in which the Meyers move. As one of the governesses wrote to her
mother, “Do not worry if you hear about problems in China…these do not
affect us” (p. 160). And so, in this family saga, it comes to pass that the
visit of a nephew in the autumn of 1926 eclipses the revolutionary uprising of
Shanghai workers.

Even though his wife Kirsten seems to keep abreast of her
husband’s business dealings, the rest of the family content themselves with
their admiration and respect for the capacity for work shown by the big boss.
Given the absence of any archives from Andersen, Meyer & Co., which were apparently
lost, we would undoubtedly know little more about the company if the author had
not come across a booklet published in 1931 to mark the occasion of its twenty-fifth
anniversary. At its height, the company had nine branches in China. It had undertaken
significant diversification of its business activities which were grouped in specialised
departments—textile equipment, electricity, general tooling, plumbing and
heating, building materials, chemicals, agricultural equipment, etc. Andersen
and Meyer gradually moved from being a simple importer of materials and equipment
to the construction business. Even in China itself, they built industrial plants
(cotton mills, electricity plants and dockyards) that were delivered “ready-to-use”.

Kirsten’s premature death in 1934, followed a few months
later by that of her husband, brought an end to this great Danish family’s
Shanghainese adventure. The family business was thus taken over by its main American
partner, General Electric, whose first steps into the Chinese market the company
had fostered.

More than just a history book, Open Doors is a family
album, abundantly illustrated and carefully narrated. You can easily let yourself
be captivated, or not, by the charm of its pictures and its accounts drawn from
another century and another world—that of the “happy few” for whom
Shanghai was “a paradise”. 

Translated from the French original by Bernie
Mahapatra

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