From the mid-18th century onwards, large numbers of foreign (mostly European) merchants and traders came to live on the China coast. Until the establishment of Hong Kong as a British colony in 1841-42, and the opening of the first treaty ports such as Shanghai, they operated out of Canton (modern Guangzhou) and Macau.
Most expatriates didn’t return home for at least a decade – if they survived that long. Without direct personal experience, friends and relatives had only the sketchiest of ideas about the realities of foreign community life on the other side of the world. Before photography was invented, oil and watercolour paintings were all that offered them an impression of what these far-flung places were like.
Paintings served as illustrations (of a sort) for letters sent home. People who would never visit the Far East were able to visualise, to some degree, the remote place where Uncle Harry had gone to work. When he eventually returned, either on leave or to retire, these images provided a point of reference for his earlier China life.
Canton’s foreign factories and the Pearl River waterfront, along with Macau’s Praia Grande and other local landmarks, were stereotypical scenes depicted for “the folks back home”.
After Hong Kong was established, Victoria Harbour and the mountainous Hong Kong skyline also became commonplace subjects.
Regionally famous ships that operated on the Calcutta-Canton run were popular with artists, too.
Few China-trade paintings were – even when judged by prevailing contemporary aesthetic standards – particularly artistic.
As China’s early foreign community existed only for money, explicitly philistine tastes predominated.
Most paintings were churned out in local artists’ workshops for a (numerically small) mass-market audience.
Scenes that sold well among the foreign community tended to be widely copied. In due course, Chinese artists started to produce works, in quantity, that utilised Western methods, art materials, techniques and perspectives.
Viewed objectively, many of these paintings are the early 19thcentury equivalent of the colourful daubs-on-canvas of sailing junks and illuminated skylines that can be seen piled up in Stanley market, along Temple Street and in other places where undiscriminating tourists acquire a “distinctive souvenir” from their visit to the fabled Orient; less a piece of art, with personal meaning and broader cultural significance, than a picture to fill up some wall space.
Early China-coast residents purchased artworks and decorative objects in the same formulaic manner as they lived the rest of their lives. Standing out too much from the crowd wasn’t really done; unusual personal tastes often brought negative consequences in a small, inwardly focused community. Consequently, nothing too avant-garde was ever produced and, given the distances involved, contemporary tastes in Europe – whether in terms of art, dress or modes of thought – took at least a couple of years (sometimes several decades) to arrive on the China coast.
Large numbers of early Chinatrade paintings ended up on the walls of drawing rooms from Massachusetts to Sussex, and in due course these transitioned into family heirlooms and then auction house staples. Over time these once-commonplace items became scarce, prices rose, and collectors of China coast artefacts started to display serious interest in a once-dismissed regional art form.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong