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Then & now: the Canton spirit

Before 1842, business with the outside world was conducted through an oligopoly upon which vast fortunes were built, writes Jason Wordie

 

During the Canton trade period, which had its high point from the 1750s until 1842, Chinese mercantile dealings with foreign trading entities were conducted, under official Chinese regulation, through a consortium known as the Thirteen Factories. Popularly known as the Co-Hong, and also as the "hong merchants", it controlled every aspect of foreign trade, from product sourcing to eventual export. Fortunes accumulated on the basis of commissions and other kickbacks were spectacular.

A common (and, on the face of it, logical) modern misconception is that the members of the Chinese mercantile oligopoly that operated in Canton (modern Guangzhou) must have been, perforce, Cantonese. In fact, of the 13 merchants who operated just before the outbreak of hostilities with Britain, in 1839, 10 hailed from Fujian province.

This is hardly surprising: prior to the concentration of foreign trade in Canton in the 1750s, the port of Amoy (modern Xiamen), farther up the coast, in Fujian, was also open to foreign trade. In particular, Dutch and Spanish merchants had frequented this and other nearby tea-exporting centres, such as Foochow, for several decades. This, in turn, is unsurprising: neighbouring Formosa (modern Taiwan), just across the strait, had a long trading history with extensive Spanish and Dutch connections.

Whatever modern Chinese historians might wish to claim, Formosa almost became part of the Spanish Philippines; and geologically and botanically, Taiwan has more in common with the island of Luzon, several hundred kilometres to the south, than it does with Fujian. Before large-scale Han Chinese colonisation started from that province in the mid-18th century, Formosa was ethnically more similar to Luzon, too: the indigenous highland Negritos on both islands are basically the same people.

In old China coast paintings, and in many original documents relating to the 18th-century Canton trade period, the names used for prominent Chinese merchants are - to modern eyes - a bit unusual. Nicknames were acquired (mostly) for the convenience of foreigners, and the practice goes back a long way. Most had the suffix "qua", which has often puzzled those unfamiliar with regional variants of Chinese. Kwun, in Cantonese, means "business"; the same character, pronounced in the Southern Min (or Minnan) language, popularly known in Southeast Asia as Hokkien, is "qua".

Howqua - as Co-Hong intermediary Wu Bingjian was known - was reputedly the richest man in the world by the time of his death, in 1843. There were many others with similar appellations; Mowqua, Namqua, Moankeequa, Chetqua - the list goes on. Gradually these were supplanted by the now ubiquitous ying mun maang ("English name"), which has spread from Hong Kong into the mainland in recent years. A first generation of freshly monikered Peters, Pauls and Marys can be found in any mainland city; but in some respects the trend is a continuation of the old Canton trade phenomenon - nicknames contrived for the convenience of foreigners. And, when deemed necessary, their deliberate confusion.

Widespread use of these labels, instead of a full Chinese name, means an individual's identity can be artfully concealed. When business community leaders' donations for the last chief executive's "election" campaign were publicly listed some years ago, many individuals only gave their English name and no other details, which made identification almost impossible. "Victor" Li, "Albert" Chan and so on are far from unusual given names in Hong Kong - so far, so obscure. Just like the old days in Canton.

 

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Then & now: the Canton spirit

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