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SHANGHAIS: Then and Now No. 9

Extracts  from Australian colonial newspapers, with modern links

When I was a schoolboy in New Zealand in the 1930s, my mates and I made shanghais (small catapults) from Y-shaped tree branches and pieces of car inner tubes, and fired them with devastating effect (until our parents discovered these lethal weapons, and confiscated them). A good marksman could kill a rabbit by day or hit a street light or a neighbour's milk bottle at night from a range of 100 yards or more. Shanghais have been popular with teenagers and a menace to their elders for generations.


Letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 1867.


Sir, In casting my eye over the columns of your paper this morning, a letter, headed as above, took my attention; and in struck me immediately that I could account for the unerring accuracy with which your correspondent states the stones were thrown at him by the lads, viz.- that they had in their possession an extremely dangerous toy, called a "Shanghai."

It consists of a piece of stout wire, V-shaped, set in a wooden handle, with a thick elastic band attached to its ends. The stone is placed in the centre of this band, which is then stretched to the fullest extent and allowed to go suddenly. It carries the missile an immense distance, and with alarming exactness in aim.

The depredations committed by the Melbourne boys with this instrument a short time since were of great extent; fowls were shot dead, and windows broken by scores, while several persons were severely injured.

The authorities were at last compelled to take the matter up, they prohibited both the sale and use of this dangerous article, and any boy in Melbourne now seen with one in his possession is at once arrested by the police.

Since I have been in Sydney, I have noticed a number of these toys exhibited for sale in several shops, so I presume there is no restriction respecting them here similar to the one existing in Victoria.

During the past month, no fewer than three windows have been broken at the back of the house I am residing in, and as the stones must have come from a distance, I have no doubt that they were propelled by a "Shanghai."

I consider the toy quite as dangerous as an air gun, and the sooner the police put their veto on it the better it will be for the inhabitants of your city.

While in Tarnagulla, Victoria....

The heads [of street lights] were removed and stored during the summer to prevent boys from breaking the glasses with shanghais. On one occasion, following complaints of damage to street lamps, a raid by the police at the State School produced 76 shanghais taken from the boys.
- Tarnagulla Historical Articles 

At night when the butterflies had gone to bed and there were no moving targets to hit, they'd pot fireflies. We don't get fireflies down the back of the Southern Cross; fireflies were street light globes. Somebody put little shields round the globes to keep out rocks from shanghais or the human arm, but BBs or slugs couldn't be kept out. Sometimes the street was in darkness for a mile in both directions. They were sodium lights. Perhaps that was the difference. - Extract from The Glass Canoe, by David Ireland (Penguin paperback edition, 1986) a novel which. won the Miles Franklin Award in 1976.

... you need some sort of catapult thing to get it over. Now that could be arranged. I'm sure I've got the makings out in the back shed - left over from the last boy friend - I know there's an inner tube and wire and there's plenty of old branches - the gum tree next door drops them all the time - you know, to get that V shaped bit. Mmm, leave it with me, we used to make these things when I was a kid. Dad taught us all to make shanghais - Mum wasn't real pleased - came to a stop when brother Bert hit the girl next door on the side of the head. Yeah.. real fuss that caused...
- Battling Betty and the Big Bad Bikies (scroll down to 10th paragraph).


2002: Flying sinkers may turn lethal: police.

Someone could be killed by hoons using high-powered shanghais to shatter windows of Toowoomba homes and businesses in drive-by shootings, police say. One city centre business has been hit six times by the offenders, who have shot fishing sinkers through plate glass as thick as 20mm...

"We surmise they're using a slingshot, because at the scene of all the incidents sinkers are being located," [a police officer] said. "It's wanton vandalism; it's an extremely dangerous practice where someone may be killed. It's more than likely the offenders are in a motor vehicle at the time these offences are committed.''
- Toowoomba (Queensland) Chronicle , March 2, 2002. 

(another kind of shanghai)

Muggers, rapists, pickpockets, grifters and prostitutes roamed the streets... Sailors arriving in San Francisco would immediately bolt to the "Gold Country" in the hopes of striking it rich, creating a shortage of sailors.

So, a ruthless industry developed known as "Shanghai-ing". A dumb-ass rummy sailor would stumble into Kelly's Joint at 33 Pacific, a rotting ship that served double duty as boarding house and bar. The sailor would order a rot-gut and water, but Johnny Devine, Kelly's right hand man, would serve him an opiate-laced cocktail or a laudanum cosmopolitan.

When the sappy seaman hit the deck, they would lower him through a trapdoor on to a waiting boat, row him to an outbound ship and sell him for chump change.

Once a ship called the "Reefer" needed 40 men for a voyage and couldn't find any takers. (Shocking, given the name of the ship.) Kelly put out the word that he was planning a birthday party on a paddle wheeler called the "Goliath". "Free Party...Free Booze" his sign proclaimed. Needless to say, the boat was overflowing with more drunks than the Chicago Cubs bleachers. As fast as you could say "Alcoholics Unanimous" they were dosed with enough downers to tranquilize Bobby Knight.

Kelly and his crusty crew cruised over to the "Reefer", collected his cash, and scooted home. Another hard day at the office.

Kelly plied his trade for years until the health department closed him down for allowing cigarettes to be smoked at his bar ...or something like that...
- Shanghai Kelly's Saloon website.  


Copyright 2003

Eric Shackle

Story first posted April 2003

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