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From the shore of a young republic to the edge of an ancient empire: Trekking in the footsteps of early American traders in Hong Kong (in Cantonese)

30 Mar 2019 14:30 – 17:00
The Pearl River Estuary has always been a gateway to and from China for traders of all countries of origin. It was no exception to the 19th-century American traders who came all the way from the harbours of Boston, Salem, or Ipswich in New England where their great appetite for tea and the dispute over how tea should be taxed had incidentally led to a revolution and the founding of the United States.
Growing up along the harsh water, these American traders were adventurous, enterprising and nimble as both sailors, speculators, and deal makers. When the Dutch, British or even French organized their trade in the Far East through state-chartered monopolies since the 18th century, the Americans set sail for China as independent, private merchants who were far more flexible and opportunistic in reaping any profits that might exist. From the Napoleonic Wars to the Opium Wars, the neutrality of the United States helped them fill the void left by the European counterparts. They quickly established footholds first in Canton and later in Hong Kong, built their connection with the hong merchants and subsequently the compradors, and provided a wider range of goods and services. In particular, their advanced know-how in shipbuilding, that helped them build narrower and faster clippers, benefited their business with faster turnaround time from order to delivery between Asia, Europe, and North America.
It was against such a backdrop that the American maritime traders found their footings in this new colony, with famous and influential trading houses such as Perkins & Company, Russell & Company, Augustine Heard & Company, and Olyphant & Company setting up their offices, godowns, and residences. In the city of Victoria, these seamen befriended local Chinese merchants who acted as their agents and extended their business networks. They found companions with Tanka women who ended up becoming their protected women. They brought along missionaries and teachers, many of whom Ivy League graduates, to this “great highway to all foreign ports” where they could be sent to “preach and teach in the villages.” Other than goods, commodities or Mexican silver dollars, these American traders also brought with them books, medicines, sciences, ideas and religion that groomed and shaped the first generation of intellectuals and social elites in Hong Kong and China.
Setting off from Queen’s Road Central where Augustine Heard first found its office and residence, we shall wander across the heart of the City of Victoria along Hollywood Road, into the back lanes and around the street corners. Along the way, we follow these early-day American traders’ footsteps to reminisce, reimagine, and re-enact the ways they lived, worked, taught, got entertained and inspired. Buildings might be torn down and artefacts might have gone, but their memories last forever while our imagination transcends beyond time and space. Moving all the way up from Battery Path to Hollywood Road, bending into Cochrane Street and getting up to Bridges Street, we trek a long and arduous path towards modernity from the edge of an ancient empire, laid down by some of the young and brave citizens of a juvenile republic.
Free with museum admission.Registration required.
Central and Western Concern Group
Speaker’s bio