Trade and treaty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am

Treaty ports and concessions - the very names evoke some long-ago, far-away historical epoch. Yet these places are much nearer to us, in both time and place, than many of us imagine. Canton - alias modern, bustling Guangzhou - is the closest early treaty port to Hong Kong.

The China Coast: Trade and the First Treaty Ports by Robert Nield offers numerous insights - many unexpected - into the development of the first five treaty ports opened to the world after the first Anglo-Chinese war was concluded in 1842. The treaty port era only lasted for a century - foreign-held treaty rights in China were abrogated by a series of mutually agreed treaties in 1943, at the height of the Pacific war.

A retired partner at global accounts PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Nield has lived in Hong Kong for 30 years. He developed a deeper interest in the city and the region early on in his time here.

'When I came to Hong Kong in 1980,' Nield recounts, 'the statistic everyone quoted all the time was that Hong Kong was the 10th-largest trading economy in the world. Walking about in the city, it was more modern than tomorrow - at least on the surface. But somehow I thought there had to be more to the place than just that aspect, glittering though it was. I wondered how it was that this late-20th-century anachronism of a thoroughly British place on the south coast of China first came about.'

The process of wondering soon led to wanderings around China in search of answers. More answers led to further questions, and 'many years ago I went to Amoy, Shanghai and other places, and saw all these remnants of the European presence, and my interest in all this was piqued even further'.

An extensive bibliography covers a wide range of source materials - some of these are quite obscure and hard to find, even in reference libraries. As befits the current president of the Royal Asiatic Society branch in Hong Kong, Nield has made extensive use of research articles contained within its annually produced Journal.

But what exactly was a treaty port? 'There was a distinct hierarchy of foreign settlements in Qing and Republican China,' Nield says. 'These ranged from Hong Kong and Macau, the only two places that were actually owned by foreign powers. These were formally recognised as such by successive Chinese governments - whatever the political static about 'unequal treaties' and so on may suggest to the contrary today.

'There were, in total, some 75 treaty ports in China by the time they were all relinquished in 1943.'

Given the number of treaty ports, easy categorisations and simplifications are impossible. Similarities existed, but many of the settlements were united by difference as much as sameness.

'Hong Kong was the 'headquarters', in a way, of the whole treaty port system,' Nield says. 'This is why it was included in this book, despite being a crown colony and therefore subject to a completely different system of sovereignty and administration to the treaty ports.

'Then there were the British-leased territories, such as Hong Kong's New Territories, Weihaiwei in north China, and then there was the French-leased territory at Kwangchow-wan [on the Liuzhou peninsula near Hainan] - these were directly administered by foreign powers. Then after that there were the treaty ports, which were officially known by that designation, then the customs stations.

'The Chinese Maritime Customs Service was itself very unusual - it was foreign-staffed, in the main, but the foreigners were employed in the service of the Chinese government, not their own. Then there were 'landing stations', various locations where goods from another customs jurisdiction could be landed in bond and then taken on to a customs station or a treaty port for discharge - it was all much more involved than many people think or know about.

'The question asked by most people - what is there still to see in these places now? - I think I've managed to answer in some detail.'

Nield visited all the treaty ports covered in the course of his research for his book, 'and quite a few more besides'. An additional volume on other ports is forthcoming 'when I eventually get down to it!'

Well illustrated with a range of contemporary and historic images, The China Coast: Trade and the First Treaty Ports offers some wonderful visuals - or rather it would have done, with a more appropriate design and overall format. Joint Publishing was once notorious for poor-quality, mainland-influenced book design; think big empty spaces, thumbnail-sized images too small to properly see - much less appreciate - blindingly small typefaces, impractical paper choices, such as blotting-paper covers, and other easily avoided design atrocities.

General production standards have greatly improved in recent years, but nevertheless, a book of this scope, with such excellent illustrations, should really have been produced in a much larger format. It has also appeared in a well-received Chinese-language edition.