How the British obsession with tea shaped Hong Kong
Pirates, smugglers, opium, silk. Silver bullion and trade deficits. All these are part of the story about how tea-drinking reached Europe and became part of the British lifestyle.
This is an old post. I wrote it after re-reading James Clavell’s Tai-Pan for the nth time. If it weren’t for that novel, I might have gone through life unaware that there was a time when transporting tea from Asia to Europe was immensely bloody, and rife with intrigue and machinations.
This isn’t about the novel. The reference is just to explain the beginning of my journey to learn about a fascinating part of history that placed Hong Kong at the center of world trade.
April, 2016. Three girl friends and I were flying out to Hong Kong for a short vacation. The night before the flight, I couldn’t locate my trusty old Canon Powershot G10 and I wasn’t about to punish myself by bringing the heavier dSLR. With only my Sony Xperia to take photos with, I lost interest in my intended Victoria Peak adventure. I simply did what almost every tourist in Hong Kong does — eat, shop, eat and shop some more.
But what’s the obsession with photos of Victoria Harbour anyway? That harbor is what Hong Kong is about. Hong Kong literally translates to “Fragrant Harbor” and that harbor, to a large extent, shaped what Hong Kong is today.
If you like pirate stories — if you feel that the life of pirates was steeped in adventure and romance — you’d probably enjoy the tales about pirates and smugglers that are irrevocably intertwined with the story of Hong Kong.
The British introduction to tea
Chinese civilization is old —one of the oldest in the world. While our ancestors were hunting for food, the Chinese were already acquainted with refinements like drinking tea since the 10th century BCE.
Despite references to it as early as Marco Polo’s time, the Western world’s introduction to tea happened much later. The Portuguese who were the first foreign traders in China had established a colony in Macau by 1557 and quickly developed the habit of drinking the Chinese “chá”.
By the 1600s, tea entered the ports of Amsterdam, France and Britain. When the British King Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1661, the new queen brought her tea-drinking habit to the British court. By 1750, tea had become a national addiction in Britain.
In Britain, the tea was shipped by the British East India Company which had a monopoly so no goods could enter British ports unless the importation was done through it. Meanwhile, the Chinese traded with the British only through the Merchants Guild or the Cohong, and trading in the Chinese mainland was limited to the port of Canton (now Guangzhou).
The opium trade
By the end of the century, there was a huge trade deficit. The tea was cultivated and harvested in China, and brought by the British East India Company to Britain. The tea was paid for with silver bullion — the only form of payment that the Chinese imperial government would accept. China enjoyed a self-sufficient economy and it had little interest in Western goods. So, only silver was the acceptable form of payment for the tea. But despite the perilous trade deficit, the British demand for tea kept going higher.
Opium had been in use in China, purportedly for medicinal purposes, but only by the very rich who consumed the little home-grown supply. How the opium trade started is unclear. What is known that is that opium grew and thrived in Bengal, an area controlled by the British East India company. Opium importation was illegal in China but there was a demand for it, and the British exploited this demand.
The British East India Company could not sell the Bengal opium in China so it auctioned the opium to independent foreign traders (pirates, really, in those days) who shipped the contraband to Canton via Calcutta. The traders demanded payment from the Chinese Cohong in the form of tea and silk and, if there were not enough supplies, in silver. Magically, the British trade deficit became a trade surplus.
After the British government ended the monopoly of the British East India Company in 1833, the independent foreign traders took over the opium trade and made huge fortunes. They came to be known as tai-pans.
The First Opium War
In the same way that tea had become a British addiction, opium became a Chinese addiction. Not only had millions of Chinese become opium addicts, silver bullion was being handed over to the British in vast quantities and the Chinese imperial government wanted the opium trade stopped.
In 1838, Lin Zexu (Lin Tse-hsü), the newly appointed Commissioner in Canton, demanded a halt in the opium trade. When the British refused, he issued an embargo on all British trade. The channel leading to Canton was closed leaving the British traders on the port hostage.
After Charles Elliot, British Commissioner of Trade, promised the traders repayment by their government for the loss (construed as an official admission of the approval of the illicit opium trade), they surrendered the opium to the Chinese. It took over a month to destroy a staggering 1.2 million kilograms of opium.
Britain felt insulted and decided to go to war (which came to be known as the First Opium War) by sending an army to Canton. With steam-powered iron warships, coastal towns were laid waste, Canton was taken and tax barges were confiscated.
Humiliated, the Chinese sued for peace and signed what must be one of the most lop-sided treaties in history. Under the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing and its supplemental treaties, China agreed to allow free trade (no more dealing with the Cohong), open four other trade ports (Fuzhou, Xiamen, Linbou and Shanghai in addition to Canton — all allowed to have one military ship on port), exempt British subjects and all Chinese in their employ from Chinese law, pay war indemnity and cede Hong Kong to the British Crown.
The free port of Hong Kong
When Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, it was described as a barren rock and no one could understand its significance. But the tai-pans who lobbied for the inclusion of Hong Kong in the treaty knew what they were doing. They looked beyond the tea and the opium, and set their eyes on the wealth that China had so far kept secret from the world. What the British and the rest of the industrialized Western world really wanted was to open China to free trade. After all, China was rich in natural resources that could be imported. It was also a vast market for Western products. Tea and opium just happened to be the “currencies” of the time.
Central to this vision of opening China to free trade was the control of Hong Kong, the gateway to mainland China. With its location and sheltered deep waters, Victoria Harbour was the perfect site for a free port.
So, you see, there is so much more to Victoria Harbour than what you see. In fact, it is what you don't see — the story about how it came to be — that makes it so extraordinary. And all that I learned because once upon a time, I picked up a tattered paperback copy of James Clavell’s Tai-Pan from a second-hand bookstore.