John K. Sague in China 1918

Jump to

Disagreement on China Trade Tariffs?

Local Man’s 1918 Trip to Shanghai Shows Some Things Never Change

By Bill Jeffway

Images of the 1918 trip to Shanghai by Poughkeepsie native John K. Sague, his wife, Helen, and 20-year-old daughter, Katherine tell an interesting story. The former Poughkeepsie Mayor who was active in Democratic politics, Sague (rhymes with "you") was appointed to be US Representative to the China Tariff Revision Commission meetings held in Shanghai in 1918, at the height of World War One. It was a critical time for China as they were looking at the disruption of War as an opportunity to engage with the global community. China had become a Republic in the overthrow of a 4,000 year dynasty only six years earlier, in 1912.

Use left and right arrows to advance or reverse slideshow. From the DCHS Sague Family Digital Collection, a 2019 Gift of Trish Taylor.

An early version of this story appeared in the print editions of the Northern/Southern Dutchess News / Beacon Free Press in June, 2019.

Disputes about trade tariffs between the United States and China are nothing new. In late 1917, Poughkeepsie native John K. Sague, descendant of early, local, French Huguenot settlers,  was appointed by President Wilson to represent the United States at the meetings of the China Tariff Revision Commission to be held in Shanghai in 1918.

Given the protracted nature of such negotiations, Sague attended with his wife, Helen, and 20-year-old daughter, Katherine.

The first step was to get there. They travelled on December 15, 1917 on the steamship USS Venezuela. The trip took 28 days in what could be described as very good accommodation, but very rudimentary by our standards. The photos show daughter Katherine mounting a mast to pass the time.

More orderly than today’s bilateral tit-for-tat “slapping” of tariffs by tweet and television news, the Tariff Revision Commission involved the United States, Belgium, the British Empire, France, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal, and China. It was actually this “orderly” pace of negotiation that frustrated the restless and ambitious Sague who was critical of the process at the time saying, “they would meet for an hour and adjourn for a week.”

From Mayor to Assessor, Port of NY

Sague’s political ambition is reflected in his three consecutive Mayoral wins in Poughkeepsie in November 1907, 1909, and 1911. That run would be topped in November 1927 by an historic fourth term as Mayor. He ran for Congress in 1912. But having lost that election, he managed to win appointment to the influential position of Assessor, Port of New York. This put him in a good position to be effective in the China Tariff Revision Commission meetings in Shanghai.

Sague was a familiar speaker in Dutchess County, given his political interests, and he continued that practice in China. Almost immediately on his arrival in China he spoke to the American Women's Club on “Woman’s new responsibilities, from the standpoint of a man.”

Among the last two countries to engage in the War (the US entered in April 1917, China entered in August 1917), China saw its participation as a way to emerge from a final peace treaty more globally engaged, with a stronger footing against Japan that had taken significant portions of China territory through war.

Sague returns to Poughkeepsie

Sague returned to the US in late 1918, maintaining an interest in China by founding the Chinese American Society in New York. He gave talks on business opportunities emerging in China, especially with the war over.  His wife, Helen, gave a talk upon her return at the Women’s Missionary Society of the First Baptist Church in Poughkeepsie on the topic of “Women of China,” citing religious and educational movements in that country.

C. T. Wang

Chinese native C. T. Wang, after receiving a degree at Yale University in 1911, had served several key positions in the government of the newly emerging Republic of China. In the United States for discussions in Washington, Wang accepted an invitation from Sague to come to Poughkeepsie to speak about China. He spoke to a packed dining room at the Nelson House on Market Street, at a meeting of the Poughkeepsie Automobile Association on December 2, 1918. In his comments, Wang said, “China has taken her new inspiration from the liberty loving nations of the world, and has looked especially to the United States.”

Wang took a leading and visible role in Chinese politics from that moment forward. In the months leading up to the treaty of Versailles in June 1919, China expressed a very positive view of the United States.

But China’s optimism about the US and hopes were dashed on June 29, 1919. The final treaty of Versailles ending World War One, allowed Japan to keep the Chinese land it had acquired in war. China was the only country not to sign the treaty.

In 1920, the New York Times reported, “Popular opinion in China ascribes to Dr. [C. T.] Wang more than to any member of the delegation credit for the fact that China did not sign the Treaty of Versailles…”

Wang and Sague worked together to launch the Chinese American Society at the end of the War as reported in the January 18, 1919 Shanghai Times (right).

C T Wang
Nelson House, where C. T. Wang spoke Dec. 2, 1918.
Chinese newspapers on Sague back in US

Click on any image below to enlarge

China's Role in WW1

In The New York Tribune, November 19, 1918 C. T. Wang refers to China’s contribution during WW1 as:

200,000 coolies used for various constructional purposes in France and Europe.

30,000 Chinese enlisted in Red Cross.

The Siberian Expeditionary Forces.

Sague's Prior Experience in Asia Pacific

Sague had prior experience in the Asia Pacific region. In nearly two years in active service in the Spanish American War where he ultimately achieved the rank of US Army Major, he led troops into Hawaii for about three months In 1898 (late August to early December). Although fighting in Cuba had stopped, fighting in the Philippines continued, albeit for only a short time. In a well publicized trip from Honolulu to the island of Hilo, in part because of the photographic skills of Pine Plains Private Fred Knickerbocker who won a national photo contest covering the trip, Camp Sague was set up for that purpose. See photo below. He met several times the deposed, former Queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokawani, photo below, during the period of recent annexation of Hawaii by the US.