Crazes for the material culture of far-off societies periodically transform the world. Responses to these market-force requirements were slower centuries ago, given slower transport links over great distances and more primitive means of communication. Nevertheless, products hitherto unknown, or reserved for the wealthy, eventually became mass-market within a few decades.
The first Asian craze to become widespread in Europe was that for Indian manufactures, in particular textiles, which took off in the latter part of the 17th century. From about 1660, as the effects of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia series of treaties took shape, steadily rising levels of material prosperity across Europe followed on from political stability and the end of decades of religious-based conflict.
The quality of Indian textiles was high; the colours and designs were unusual, and a wide variety of silk- and cotton-based fabrics were produced. European manufacturers could not even begin to compete on price or quality; from the 1720s onwards, prohibitive tariffs and direct prohibition of imports – a trade war, in other words – saw this craze swiftly decline for lack of affordable recurrent supply.
Among the greatest cross-cultural crazes the world has ever seen was the 18th-century European mania for Chinese goods; modern Hong Kong exists as a direct consequence. Tea was popular, of course, but so were items such as silk, porcelain, fans, lacquer and enamel ware, all of which were imported into Europe and North America in massive quantities. Anyone with the financial means would have a Chinese room; few sizeable English country houses or French chateaux from this period are without one.
After the 1868 Meiji Restoration, in Japan, and the new era of international openness that followed, a craze for anything Japanese swept the Western world. Initially known as Japonisme – the trend was initially French influenced – it saw a powerful impact of Japanese artistic and cultural influences on the West, far beyond what is usually recognised today.
Late 19th-century French Impressionist painters were greatly influenced by this fin-de-siècle craze. Claude Monet, most notably, was quite taken with Japanese motifs; visitors to his magical home in Giverny, outside Paris, are immediately struck by the Japanese influence, from the water lilies and ornamental bridge in the garden to the colourful ukiyo-e prints that line the walls of the house.
This enthusiasm was warmly reciprocated; Japan’s late 19th-century love affair with France was profound, and the influence on contemporary material culture remains obvious. Patrons in Hong Kong’s dainty Japanese-style coffee shops, with their recognisably French-influenced (yet clearly not French) decor and patisserie, cannot fail to notice this cultural connectivity.
Another popular culture was influenced by the early 20th-century Moorish craze, which – in the public eye – broadly encompassed anything vaguely Middle Eastern. Turkish coffee, Egyptian cigarettes, Moroccan lamps – there was even a fad in Europe, just before the first world war, for wearing a fez.
Gramophone records and the cinema popularised these fashions, as the trend could be “canned” and experienced vicariously by people with otherwise limited direct access. Lilting themes such as The Desert Song, first performed in 1926, and heartbeat-raising silent films such as The Sheik (1921), which catapulted Rudolph Valentino to international stardom, all raised an echo in Hong Kong.
Moorish-styled architecture, with distinctive pointed arches, was also a rage between 1910 and 1935; the long-demolished Alhambra cinema, in Kowloon, was a striking local example. Little else remains in Hong Kong from the Moorish enthusiasm, but numerous examples survive in Macau, most notably the so-called Sun Yat Sen Memorial House; actually the residence of his discarded first wife, Lu Muzhen, until her death in 1952.