Vancouver has been a popular emigrant destination for Hong Kong Chinese for decades, and migration to Canada’s west coast accelerated in the 1980s and ’90s as the territory’s 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty loomed. Many Hong Kong residents scrambled to obtain a foreign passport, then decamped for home almost as soon as their “back-pocket insurance policy” had been issued.
The large-scale influx into Canada – and Vancouver, in particular – was not without teething problems; to some wits, the scenic British Columbia city became known as Van Kong, or Hong-couver, due to its sizeable Hong Kong Chinese migrant population.
But how many of Hong Kong’s passport-bearing “Canadians” know that their scenic, rule-of-law respecting, Anglosphere bolt-hole, safely situated on the other side of the Pacific, became a British territory in the first place as a direct result of burgeoning 18th-century trade links with China? And the particular commodity sourced from there? Sea otter pelts.
A key problem for traders attempting to establish commercial links with China was finding something Chinese consumers actually wanted, and could afford to purchase in sufficient quantities to make their importation economically viable.
In addition, trade goods had to be something China was not in a position – either through lack of natural resources, an inappropriate primary production climate, or want of technology – to manufacture domestically.
For millennia, fur skins were used to line winter coats all over China, and were particularly sought after in colder northern regions. Sea otter pelts became known as “the ermine of the sea” due to their soft fur and perennially high price. Their relative scarcity meant pelts were initially traded for almost the same weight in silver.
Nootka Sound – also known as King George’s Sound – which separates Vancouver Island from the Canadian mainland, was the main source for these marine creatures; they existed there in the wild in uncounted millions. Native Inuit peoples trapped sea otters for use in their own garments, but no serious commercial exploitation of the species had hitherto been attempted.
All this started to change from the 1780s. British navigator Captain James Cook’s third voyage of Pacific exploration, starting in 1776, saw the coast of what subsequently became British Columbia extensively surveyed and mapped, and its economic potential assessed.
An underlying reason for the maritime survey was to find something – anything – to help redress Britain’s growing trade imbalance with China, largely caused by demand for tea, silk, porcelain, fans and other luxury goods.
Fur pelts were the main natural resource identified, and northern China, with its bitter winter weather, was the principal anticipated market.
High-quality woollen goods had been a major British export item since the Middle Ages, but only small quantities were ever successfully traded in China. Other British products had little market appeal – the only really profitable demand was for French watches and chiming clocks, and similar luxury novelty items known in Pidgin English as “sing-songs”.
Indian cottons (which had been traded with great success in Southeast Asia for several centuries by Arab, Indian and European merchant groups) also met with little direct demand in China.
Fabrics that were successfully traded there had often detoured through port towns on the northern coast of Java, such as Cirebon and Pekalongan, where they were transformed into beautiful Chinese-style batik cloth lengths, known in the trade as pintadoes (from the Portuguese, meaning “painted ones”), for the Chinese export trade.
Fur trading between British Columbia and China continued profitably well into the 19th century, but declined steadily as sea otter numbers plummeted. Other imported furs also became popular with Chinese consumers; in particular, cured rabbit pelts from Australia, which were soft, warm, easily dyeable, and sold for a fraction of the price.