WORRIED ABOUT Hong Kong's seemingly terminal economic malaise and its future direction? Then ponder for a moment the dilemma faced by Guangzhou in the years after 1843. When the Treaty of Nanjing was negotiated in that year, ending hostilities in the one-sided rout otherwise known as the Sino-British Opium War, Guangzhou lost its centuries-old monopoly over all trading between China and the West. The negotiated settlement ending the Opium War forced the opening of four so-called treaty ports: Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai. A further 11 ports would be forced open in the late 1850s. A mere fishing village in the early 1840s, Shanghai prospered from its proximity to key tea, silk and cotton areas. By 1860 it was China's largest treaty port - a position further solidified by the opening of the Yangtze River to foreign trade in 1861. If it sounds familiar it should. Another 20-year fishing-village-to-riches phenomenon, Shenzhen, is today benefiting in a similar manner from its proximity to China's manufacturing heartland. The Treaty of Nanjing also ceded Hong Kong to the British, thereby planting an upstart rival in Guangzhou's backyard. Hong Kong's establishment, however, was to prove less immediate a threat to Guangzhou than to Macau, which since the early 16th century had been the primary staging post for Western vessels bound for Guangzhou. There Chinese pilots would be taken on board for the 112 km journey north to Whampoa (Huangpu). Situated 19 km south of Guangzhou proper, Whampoa acted as a sort of bonded zone where ships' cargoes would be registered and taxed. In a sign of how little some things change, a surviving stone tablet from that period warns Chinese customs agents not to take bribes. On the face of it, the advent of so much new competition so quickly was a blow to Guangzhou. But then prior to 1843 Guangzhou prospered from a myopic foreign trade regime that irrationally stunted China's trading potential. Though no one would today condone the manner in which China was forcibly opened by the colonial powers in the mid and late 19th century, Guangzhou was better off with a more modest piece of a growing pie than it had been with a lion's share of a much smaller one in the years before 1843. Similarly, today Hong Kong stands to benefit generally from a more open, competitive post-World Trade Organisation China and specifically from a more integrated Pearl River Delta. But this is not to suggest that Hong Kong need only stand still to reap the benefits of a changing China. The small traders and middle-men who characterised Hong Kong's role as the chief economic mediator between China and the outside world over the past 20 years need only consider the example of one of their more unlikely antecedents - the late 18th and 19th century American clipper ships. These sleek, graceful and - most importantly - fast 'greyhounds of the sea', as they were known, seized a unique opportunity during the Napoleonic Wars of 1793 to 1815. With the European continent under British naval blockade, the sail-driven clipper ships were able to wrest much of China's trade with the West away from the previously dominant European East India companies. By 1825 the recently independent United States had supplanted Britain and Europe as the largest buyer of staple Chinese exports such as porcelain and furniture, and its neutral vessels came to dominate the carrying trade between Europe and Asia. The clipper ships had a knack for arbitrage that would be the envy of even Hong Kong's modern day middle-men. Plying the Southwest Passage around Cape Horn, the clipper ships could collect seal skins in the South Atlantic and Pacific; trade (illicitly) with Spanish settlements in South and North America and (licitly) with the Indian tribes of the American Northwest; and re-provision and stock-up on even higher value goods such as sandalwood and mother-of-pearl in Hawaii and other Pacific island groups. Ships could spend years trading up the value chain - if one may soil so romantic a period with so tawdry an MBA cliche - in order to get the most for their cargoes in tea, porcelain, silk and other Chinese wares upon reaching Guangzhou. But the era of the clipper ship was as brief, in historical terms, as it was glorious. Though it continued into the 1870s, its ultimate doom was signalled decades earlier by the introduction of regular steamship services between Britain and China. Over the same period, foreign commercial interest in China was switching from trading to larger scale investment in China's nascent transportation, modern manufacturing, banking and insurance industries. It was a shift not without its 21st century echoes, as multinational corporations prepare to bet billions on the mainland's newly opened service sectors and ever larger petrochemical, car and other capital-intensive investments.