Old Shanghai was a city based on trading with the world, communicating with the tools of the time… airmail and telegram. I recently found one telegram from 1947 in an antic market. 1947 is only 60 years ago, but communication was using means that are so different from today. Touching this old piece of paper is like a trip through time. Images of morse code floating around and cruise ship travel come instantly to my mind. This reminds me of the first page of the “Lotus Bleu”, where Tintin painfully listen to and decodes morse transmissions.
Being a telegraphist was one of the crucial jobs for the community. A telegraphist would listen to messages, uncode them and write them down. The enclosed telegram was received in Shanghai from London on the 6th of February a 6:35 pm, and delivered the next morning at 7:00am to the receiver, a trading company in Shanghai. Telegraphists would also resend messages that they received, as the communication around the world was not necessarily direct, the message would be relayed from one operator to the other until destination. The network or relay used was often displayed on the telegram, in that case The Chinese Government Radio Administration, or CGRA.
With high technology costs and lot’s of people needed to operate it, sending a telegram was expensive and charged by the number of words sent. This why “telegraphic style” of writing was invented, to carry the most information for a minimal cost. Telegraph was also generating error in the transmission, as one can see on this one. The receiving telegraphist hesitated or corrected on the CIF bit and on the name of the sender.
In the days of internet, email and VO-IP phones, it’s difficult to even imagine how it must have been to live and work with so little ways of communicating. They were the days of a slower pace, when time had a different value, and life in the remote outposts like Shanghai was spent waiting for the next arriving ship or telegram. For a travel into time, I recently found a website where one can send a telegram to anywhere in the world. I have not tried it yet, but it’s sounds like a fun way of travelling through time.