China and Hong Kong are home to more than 600 billionaires , and Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen each have more resident billionaires than either New York or London. Individuals as varied as tech entrepreneurs Zhang Yiming and Jack Ma , property developer Yang Huiyan and business magnate Li Ka-shing have all amassed incredible fortunes. Yet none have a position of financial primacy like Howqua, a Qing dynasty merchant who on the eve of the First Opium War (1839-42) was believed to be not just the foremost Chinese tycoon but the richest man on Earth. Howqua and his family origins Although he would eventually be known to foreign traders as Howqua (or Houqua), the world’s one time richest man was born Wu Bingjian in 1769, the third of four surviving sons. He would in fact become the second Howqua since his father, Wu Guoying (1731-1800), was the first to hold that title. Howqua’s family was originally from Fujian province, but the clan moved south to Guangdong during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722). Without ancestors here, the Wus were viewed as outsiders in Guangdong and originally had to settle for living in Xiguan, a suburb outside Canton’s (modern Guangzhou’s) city walls. Who is the richest Pink Floyd member? The band’s net worths, ranked Despite their position as outsiders, the Wus’ move to Canton was a shrewd decision. Throughout the 18th century, the port grew in wealth and importance as it attracted the bulk of international trade with Europe and the US – a position that was cemented in 1757 once the Qing government barred Western trade from all other ports. Then, in the 1780s, Wu Guoying founded the Yihe Company, the trading house that would bring his son Howqua to pre-eminence. Rise to fortune Howqua inherited the Yihe Company in 1801 and, under his leadership, it soon became highly profitable. In 1834, Howqua’s wealth was estimated to be US$26 million, the equivalent of several billion modern US dollars. “In other words, he was the Chinese Bill Gates of his day,” wrote historian Alain Le Pichon. The source of Howqua’s wealth lay in what became known as the Canton System, which governed all of China’s foreign trade from 1759 to 1842. This system restricted foreign merchants to a small area outside Canton and dictated that they could only deal with 13 Hong merchants, known collectively as the Cohong, who were officially appointed by the Chinese authorities. In 1834, Howqua’s wealth was estimated to be US$26 million, the equivalent of several billion modern US dollars In theory, this granted Hong merchants a monopoly on foreign trade. It promised great wealth but bankruptcies were not uncommon. Not only did the Hong merchants have to pay handsomely for their position, they were expected to bankroll local officials on an ongoing basis. And none of this guaranteed these merchants wouldn’t make mistakes that could ruin them. Howqua, however, became renowned among the foreign traders for his acumen and honesty. And his name has been most remembered among foreign historians and writers. To Westerners, he embodied the best of the romantic “Old China Trade” that ended soon after the First Opium War with the opening of the Treaty Ports. Meet Walt Disney’s billionaire-bashing grandniece, Abigail Disney In his homeland, though, Howqua is a more problematic figure. His connections and close dealings with foreigners made him a suspect figure for some. Meanwhile, decades after his death, his family’s contributions to the Qing state’s efforts to crush the Taiping Rebellion – viewed as a proto-Communist revolution – cast him and his descendants as an enemy of the people. The wealthiest man on Earth Howqua amassed his fortune – where other Hong merchants failed – through shrewd business dealings rather than any great innovation. The Yihe Company had risen to prosperity mainly through its dealings with the British East India Company, which was the largest foreign buyer of tea at the turn of the 19th century. When he took over in 1801, Howqua made sure to maintain good relations with the East India Company’s agents in Canton and expanded his wares beyond tea to the likes of Nankeen cloth. He maintained a firm attitude with East India Company representatives, though. Unlike his brother Puiqua, who had worked with him before his death in 1801, Howqua was less acquiescent towards British haggling over the quality of goods. As well as ensuring the East India Company continued to rely heavily on him, Howqua also made expert use of the growing American presence in Chinese trade at this time. The United States had declared independence from Great Britain in 1776 and was thus still a young country at this point. Shorn of its links to the British trading network, it took time for American traders to establish themselves abroad. How rich is Lady Gaga really? Inside her gigantic net worth Other Hong merchants were reluctant to deal with these new and unproven American traders, but Howqua saw an opportunity to use them as leverage against the dominant East India Company. Another benefit of dealing with Americans was their use of “the most daring business practices available at the time”, according to Le Pichon, such as the use of credit, all of which lent Howqua an edge compared to his rivals. How he spent it Despite acknowledgement of Howqua’s great wealth, historical records mention little about how this great trading magnate actually spent his fortune. Contemporaries did note the impressive nature of Howqua’s mansion with its imposing ancestral hall and beautiful gardens, but it seems there was little in the way of conspicuous consumption – no great jewels or excessive mansions like the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore Estate. Rather, Howqua trusted his American partners to invest his money for him in their country. This was known as Howqua’s “American Stock Investments”, an early example of Chinese investment in America and a portion of Howqua’s estate that remained invested in the US for decades under the direction of future railroad magnate John Murray Forbes. Decline and fall Howqua passed away in 1843 soon after the First Opium War concluded. Sadly, his great wealth would not last long for his descendants. The aforementioned war was just the first of several conflicts that would batter Qing China in the 19th century, all of which contributed to the collapse of the dynasty in 1911. 6 Hong Kong celebrity restaurateurs who lost millions due to Covid-19 Conflicts like the Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion caused massive destruction and disruption to business and Howqua’s family was not immune. Compounding these issues were the crippling “contributions” the Qing government demanded of wealthy merchants to finance its war and rebuilding efforts. In 1858, in the midst of the Taiping Rebellion, NM Beckwith reported on the strained circumstances of Howqua’s descendants, remarking, “War is a calamity which changes the conditions of all, and the wealthiest most.” The result was Howqua’s descendants gradually liquidating their holdings in the US to pay for their expenses in Canton. This process was complete in 1891 when Russell & Company, who had handled much of Howqua’s investments, collapsed that year. By this time, Howqua and his heirs were no longer the richest on Earth. Ironically, that title had been usurped by a series of Americans – the likes of John D. Rockefeller – those same sorts of entrepreneurs that had brought Howqua so much wealth in the first place. Want more stories like this? Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .