- Historic Sites
Once again, Americans are learning the delicate art of trading with the biggest market on earth. Here’s how they did it the first time.
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
At Whampoa, the Americans began their accommodation to the Chinese trading system. The chief customs officer, called the “hoppo” by foreigners, came aboard to measure the ship and determine the considerable charges that would be levied on the vessel and its cargo. It was an established custom that at this point the ship’s captain would display some gifts, such as clocks or perfume (“smellum water” in pidgin English), and those chosen by the hoppo would shortly be sent to him. To maintain pretense, the hoppo would then ask the price, and Shaw wrote that the Chinese merchant handling the ship’s affairs, “who understands matters perfectly, tells him about one twentieth part, or less, of their value. ” Innocent of such niceties, the Americans had brought no gifts. Although the hoppo accepted the explanation that they were not familiar with the custom, he “did not forget to enjoin it upon us to bring some when we should come again.” Despite this breach of etiquette, the “grand mandarin” sent on board as a present to the ship “two bulls, eight bags of flour and seven jars of country wine.”
Also at Whampoa the Americans took on a comprador, who would be responsible for provisioning the ship, and a “linguist.” The latter term was a gross overstatement, but the linguists were able, with considerable effort on everyone’s part, to interpret through pidgin English.
Foreign ships were forbidden to sail upriver from Whampoa, so Shaw and Captain Green took a Chinese “fast boat” to Canton, twelve miles away. All the newcomers were fascinated by the river traffic. Another American later described the scene: “Myriads of boats moored in long, regular streets … salt junks discharging their cargoes … immense rafts of timber and bamboos floating down with the tide, managed by a few miserable little wretches.… Revenue cruizers rowing in every direction, painted with the brightest colours.… Thousands of small ferry boats.… Immense junks of four or five hundred tons, gorgeously embellished with the fascinations of dragons, paint, gold-leaf and ginger-bread-work, with a huge eye painted on either side of the bow, to enable the vessel to see her way… the night… is disturbed by the … discordant music from the flower boats, in which the women of the town reside,” as he discreetly phrased it.
Passing the Chinese forts known as Dutch Folly and French Folly, the Americans reached Jackass Point, from where they could see the strip of shore on which foreigners lived and worked. The foreign factories—from “factor,” as an agent was called—were two- or three-story buildings in a long line set back about one hundred yards from the river. Godowns (warehouses) occupied the first floors; living quarters, often elegantly furnished, were on the second and third. The square in front of the factories was enclosed by an iron fence and reserved for foreigners. The streets immediately adjoining—Thirteen Factory Street, Old China Street, and Hog Lane—contained retail stores selling a wide variety of native goods. Sailors were particularly attracted to Hog Lane, which offered a potent wine called samshu.
Although occupied by foreigners, the factories were built by members of a remarkable institution called the cohong, a group of Chinese merchants who were the only ones authorized to trade with foreigners. Usually numbering about a dozen, these hong merchants had many functions: they purchased the goods brought in on foreign ships, sold the tea and other Chinese products, acted as a guarantor for a ship and its crew, provided servants to the foreigners living in the factories, and shared responsibility for any debts of fellow members of the cohong. Since Chinese mandarins would seldom deal officially with “foreign devils,” hong merchants had to act as buffers and middlemen between the foreigners and Chinese officials. These merchants paid enormous sums for the right to trade with foreigners, and they were also subject to official levies and unofficial “squeeze,” which they would pass on to foreigners by adjusting the prices of the goods they bought and sold. A few went bankrupt and were exiled in disgrace to some inhospitable border area; others made great fortunes. In later years, the most famous hong merchant—his likeness was in Madame Tussaud’s wax museum and a clipper ship was named after him—was Wu Ping-chien, commonly known as Houqua. A man of great ability and integrity, he was reported to be worth $26,000,000 in the early 1830’s, perhaps the largest mercantile fortune in the world. Shaw said that although the “small dealers”—the shopkeepers in the nearby streets—”are rogues, and require to be narrowly watched, it must at the same time be admitted that the merchants of the co-hong are as respectable a set of men as are commonly found in other parts of the world.”