Extract – see inside!

This is the start of my trip to China, and one of my favourite chapters in the book, recreating the old life of the Canton factories….


Chapter II: China

Most Hong Kong belongers accept that they get their head for business from the mother city. Just 90 miles up-river from Hong Kong, mainland Canton does in many ways seem more fit for the business role. The air that blows there reeks of trade, and beyond doubt the Canton tradition is for turning a deal.

It is a tradition so profound that the Chinese have a saying: everything new comes from Canton. It is not, strictly speaking, a compliment: rather the peasant’s mistrust of the city slicker and his portable craftiness and pretension. New always meant Trouble: foreigners and money, hustling and independence; it meant secret societies, money again, revolution and crookedness. Cantonese is double-dutch to most of China. Canton, almost a thousand miles from Peking, has the world on its doorstep. China is a nation of peasant farmers living off the land, but Canton lives on the movement of people and things. Nestorian Christians got a toe-hold here in the seventh century; Arabs built themselves a mosque. When the Emperor decided to confine all foreign trade to a single port he placed it here at arm’s length like a stink.

A drum of ink has flowed on the iniquities of the Canton system – the confinement of foreign trade — whose usefulness did diminish over the years. But that indignation belongs to a later period, the late nineteenth century, characterised by what became known as the ‘Shanghai Mind’ — the foreigners’ impatience with things Chinese, disillusionment with the pace of Progress. When the tea trade flourished at Canton, Shanghai was still only a clutch of fishermen’s huts, and if the system of pettifogging rules and regulations that governed the Canton trade was exasperating enough, at times, it was also rather like being at school again, and with their pranks and antics the younger barbarians found it almost larky.

China resembled a stately home, open – noblesse oblige – for a certain period each year, carefully cordoned, guided tours only. Like the owners it peered out to see the char-a-banc draw up on Open Day, and thought gloomily about those dreadful people who were about to disbus with their big feet and crass remarks, their faces all red and beery and covered in fuzz, asking how much everything cost. But what could you expect? China was the Middle Kingdom and her people were the Han who didn’t smell and had all the advantages civilisation could bestow, while the fanqui, the barbarians, who only grunted and scrawled, needed rhubarb and cassia for constipation and tea for their health, and would inevitably want to honour their divine ruler in their simple oafish fashion. The main thing was to keep a lid on it and not let in too many at a time.


I came off the Hong Kong—Canton hydrofoil at a jetty where a certain revolutionary chic allows visitors their first glimpse of China inside a concrete shed with an opaque green roof of corrugated plastic, and a relaxed guard of juvenile militia in baggy green fatigues. Rain stained the walls. My visa was stamped, and when the customs officer unzipped my bag, tucked her hands down to sock level and came up with an old pair, she waved me through. The Chinese yuan had not been suddenly revalued, and I received a wad of Foreign Exchange Certificates, ‘funny money’, which have to be used in hotels. Only when I stood outside the building in the rain did I realise that I had no idea where to go next; no guidebook, only the name and address of a single hotel in Canton, Marwick’s. A tea merchant, Dr Downing, put up there in 1836. It was destroyed by an anti-foreign mob twenty years later.


Musing, wet, I noticed two young men in dark glasses and open jackets encircling me. ‘Taxi?’ they whispered. The word is a concentrated whiff of destinations: salts for the traveller. I considered. ‘Canton Hotel?’ There was bound to be a Canton Hotel. ‘Twenty yuan,’ one said.

I shook my head, and they prowled away, disgusted. An elderly woman in a square-rigged trouser suit trod carefully by, stooped over an empty string bag. Shades returned. ‘Sixteen,’ he said.

At least we were haggling. The car sat in a yard round the back of the customs shed, an old Chinese limo upholstered in a sort of greyish-beige fabric, like nicotine and dust, which you can see everywhere from train windows to girls’ legs. We settled at twelve yuan, a good day’s wage. The hotel was five minutes away. They didn’t smile but I could tell they were pleased.

I deserved to be duped, and I might have been gulled as easily wherever taxis ply with broken meters. Only in Canton it recalled the impression the city seemed to have given travellers and tea men years ago, when all the tea in China came through the port. The port of Canton is approached from the sea through a maze of watery alleys, creeks and defiles, a welter of false perspectives and confounding distances, where the Pearl delta itself loops sluggishly across paddy and embankments. It mingles with earth, with salt. The Pearl is not flushed straight into the sea, but idles in backwash and salt tides, twisting and looping so much that the Whampoa anchorage is at hand when the ship still has half a day’s sailing to reach it. In the Bogue the river defiles between mountains, but even in the shelter of the high hills there are curious sidewinds, coming from nowhere. A bumboat starting down a short cut might find itself treacherously beached by a receding tide (a sitting duck for hostile locals). A motionless reed would suddenly shoot forward and emerge into the river as the pinnace of a mandarin boat: in the game between smuggler and customs, it was local knowledge that counted.

On the delta the visitors found mists and miasmas, honest men and outlaws; innocent children running along the bank who swerved to the foreigner of a sudden and sliced the air with their outstretched hand. Dr Downing found babies fastened by their necks to the river bank, rising and lifelessly falling with the tides. It was shifting and uncertain territory, and it breathed the muddle of rooted sin.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the East India Company, John Company, had established itself as the most important foreign trader in China. As well as governing large parts of India it had the monopoly on the carrying trade between Britain and all countries east of the Cape, and could effectively fix the price of tea. Its operations were conceived on a magnificent and lavish scale with the cost passed on to the home market. Its hospitality was legendary, and it dealt liberally with its friends. In China it haggled but didn’t quibble, and it put the trade on a regular, predictable footing.

The Chinese approved, because they, too, ran a monopoly through the Hong, a body of about a dozen merchants who alone were allowed to treat directly with foreigners. In return for the privilege, which cost them up to £55,000, they had to bear responsibility for anything that went wrong: a swingeing fine would usually settle the matter. The Hongists lived in a state of perpetual anxiety that they would be bled dry. It was seldom allowed to happen, of course, and they were left to enjoy their huge mansions, their ‘curiously laid-out gardens, with grottoes and lakes, crossed by carved stone bridges, pathways neatly paved with small stones of various colours forming designs of birds, or fish, or flowers’, as long as they submitted to an irregular ‘squeeze’.


The position of Hong merchant descended in a fairly erratic manner from one generation to another, and many of the Hong families had roots in the tea trade. Howqua, Pwankeiqua and Pwan Suy Lan’s forebears had been planters in the Bohea Hills in Fujian Province; the fortunes of the families had risen, particularly in connection with the foreign trade, and they had gravitated towards Canton after the restriction of foreign trade there in 1755. Ancestor-worship and business practice coinciding, they had maintained their contacts with the tea-growers. Now the Hong merchants worked from the Hongs, a series of long godowns on the Pearl River next door to the foreign factories, from where the teas and silks could be loaded directly into lighters.

The teas came down from July onwards; plucking began in March and continued into autumn. The up-country merchant or agent would assemble a chop or batch of chests from a single region and period, made up of about 500 chests of black or 200 chests of green, each chest weighing 100 catties -133 pounds – until the size was reduced to make stowage on the ships more flexible. The chop came down to Canton by river and coolie to be examined by the Chinese Hong before being offered for sale. The tea might arrive in a finished condition, but otherwise facilities existed in Canton ‘pack houses’ for rolling and retiring the leaf; for bulking – mixing the teas of one or more chop to ensure even quality – and repacking. Packing alone provided employment for thousands, because tea is bulky and easily damaged. The original Useful Box was sent out of the country by the million, an effort in mass production which must rank the tea-chest with the Bic Biro and the Coca-Cola bottle. Just before its abolition in the 1830s the English East India Company, which had the lion’s share of the tea trade, shifted 31 1/2 million pounds of tea a year. The new chests held about 100 pounds each. So 315,000 tea-chests had to be made for each season, since they were non-returnable. That’s a lot of tea-chests. Every attempt since to find a replacement for the wooden tea-chest, which gobbles forest at an alarming rate, has come to nothing: and 31 1/2 million pounds a year is chickenfeed compared to the 530,000,000 pounds that India alone produces today. Over the years, tea-chests by the billion must have gone to keep homes warm. Millions must have been used, as they still are, to move the household to a new address. The attics of England creak beneath their collective weight.


In Canton carpenters were employed to build them of wood that was relatively odourless. Skilled plumbers fashioned lead canisters to hold the very best sorts of tea, and their apprentices worked to produce the thin lead sheeting that lined every chest to keep the tea free of damp and foreign odours. The sheeting was made by pouring molten lead over a tablet wrapped in heavy paper and dropping its mate on top. Then there were paperers, who made and fitted paper linings — European masons used the paper to rough out their ideas. Plain chests were for second-quality teas; better stuff came in painted chests, so an army of painters was required to ‘adorn the exterior with grotesque flowers and fanciful devices’. Every chest received a paper label on which was printed, in English, the name of the vessel that would carry it. Finally the chests were sewn up in rough matting and secured with rattan, after which another label had to be stuck on.

Much of the work had to be done at top speed, for once the teas had been tasted and paid for the ships would be eager to sail.

Foreign ships would be waiting at Whampoa, 13 miles down-river from Canton. Only shallow-bottomed craft, including sea-going junks, could proceed higher. Foreign ships in the China trade were leviathan for their time, and the Company ships, the famous East Indiamen, were more magnificent than any. Few institutions could venture the capital locked into the ‘tea wagons’, as sailors called them, and few shipyards could have handled their construction. They were generally Thames-built, at a cost in 1800 of £50-70,000, and displaced anything up to 1400 tons. They were not Company property but chartered for members of a gentlemanly ring known as the Shipping Interest. Members who could afford it might own a ship themselves, but usually they formed syndicates to share expenses and risks, spoken for by one appointed ‘ship’s husband’, or manager. The Interest was of course a closed shop, connected dynastically and socially with the Company directors, and hugger-mugger with the shipwrights, who usually owed them money and would have found it unwise to accept orders from anybody outside the ring. One cosy monopoly, the Company, thus spawned another, the Interest, and everyone was happy.

Size was valued over speed. In common with all ships of the time, and unlike the later clippers, an East Indiaman could do little into a wind; she had to work her passage with the trades and monsoons which brought her over on the round trip in a year. The English Channel was always dicey, but thereafter it was a plain run to Madeira, and the Atlantic was taken on a wide loop that often brought the ship within sight of the Brazilian coast to cross the Equator. After dawdling again in the Variables the idea was to pick up the southeast Trade which took her down to a latitude where westerly gales could be expected, driving almost to the Australian coast beneath the Cape, to the Roaring Forties, where the China-bound ship would catch the southwest monsoon up through the Straits of Malacca to the China coast. India-bound ships, or those doing the ‘double voyage’ — to India, then to China — would have a choice of routes at the Cape, depending on the state of winds and whether their destination was Bombay-side or Bengal.

As long as the monopoly held, the Company’s teas feared no legal competition at home. Speed was unimportant. All that mattered was maintaining a year’s supply of tea in storage in Britain at all times, as the Company was legally required to do. The ships moved slowly, occasionally anchoring at night, and aimed to be quite self-contained for six months. Since pirates, then as now, infested the China Seas, and French and Dutch privateers were often hostile, each ship carried enough powder and shot to fight at least two engagements.

Only men-of-war could match the tea waggons for size, but had larger and inferior crews. The Company always took first pick of the sailors, who were then exempt from the Navy press gangs. Company crews were first-rate and well paid (which amounts, literally, to the same thing), and were permitted a certain amount of ‘private trade’ which, apart from giving them a large bonus (larger if the goods escaped customs and excise and sold directly to smugglers operating in the English Channel), linked the interests of the company and its employees, making traders of them all.

‘Traders’ isn’t quite the word. Foreigners were buyers rather than sellers, and for most of the Company’s time the trade was one-way. There was miserably little that the Chinese could be induced to buy from the West’s stock-in-trade, as the Emperor wisely observed in his letter to George III. Woollens, England’s mainstay, were sluggish sellers in sultry Canton, though the Company dumped them at a loss to make up a bit of a cargo and to please the wool lobby in Parliament. The Hong merchants were prepared to underwrite the trade to an extent since they sold tea rather over the going market rate. Automata, called ‘singsongs’ in pidgin, sold better, things like ‘snuffboxes concealing a jewelled bird which sang when the lid was opened’, and clocks, too, the only Western product that ever much impressed the Celestials. But shawls and singsongs weren’t much set against millions of pounds of tea, and the balance had to be paid in cash (pidgin word, from the Portuguese caixa). An American, W. C. Hunter, recalled arriving in Canton in 1830 aboard the Oriental, which had left Boston carrying a cargo of lead, furs, quicksilver, bar and scrap iron, and 350,000 Spanish dollars in kegs. (From Boston, too, the Oriental carried an evangelical cook. He read loudly from a Bible while he stirred his pots, and missed no opportunity of gloomily haranguing his captain and the crew, who gave him a wide berth. Twenty-five days out of Boston he sprang suddenly to the rail and leaped overboard, crying: ‘You’re all going to Hell, but I’m going to Guadeloupe!’).

A China-bound ship put in at the Malacca Straits, and picked up a cargo of rice, tin, pepper and rattans, which sold well in Canton. Then it would cross the South China Sea. Before the look-out sighted land, the ship would swarm with dragonflies. She arrived in Canton, all being well, in late summer.

As soon as the sail could be seen from the Ladrones, the outside pilot would come up to direct the ship through the islands to the Macao roads. His boat would forge ahead with mail and passengers for Macao, where it would pick up permission in the form of a chop, or stamp of the presiding mandarin, for the ship to proceed higher up the estuary to Whampoa under the guidance of the inside pilot.

The Bocca Tigris, the Tiger’s Mouth, marked the neck of the estuary, where the famous Bogue Forts guarded the approach to Canton with fixed cannon, and where another chop-house guarded it with paper permissions to enter the Pearl River. The river itself meandered through paddy, and you saw Whampoa over several reaches long before you arrived: tall masts, flying pennants, some sixty or so great ships drawn up in a crescent formation as if for battle, and flags of nations drooping from the sterns.

The ship’s band, when there was one, struck up an anthem, and everyone gazed for familiar acquaintances — maybe an American vessel, moored at the top of the reach by custom, or lower down, among the yellow flags of Spain, the tricolours of the Dutch or French, or under the Company flag itself, very like the Stars and Stripes, but with a Jack for its field. Nations foreign to one another were united here in utter foreignness to the Chinese. ‘Commerce herself must rejoice to see so many of her votaries collected together,’ wrote Dr Toogood Downing, who came here to buy teas in 1836, ‘and must feel proud of their station and importance, and that it is through her means that nations are enabled to send so large a fleet yearly to China, and to return almost wholly laden with one single article of luxury.’

Everywhere is colour and clamour. Half a dozen washboats have attached themselves to the ship, and the wash-girls are bawling for custom: ‘Ah, you missee chiefee matee, how you dooa? I saavez you long tim, when you catchee Whampo last tim. You saavez my? How missee captainee? I saavez him werry wen. I makee mendee all same you shirtee last tim!’ — and she will, too, mend and patch and darn and wash, and bring all your laundry safely back — and if your ship should leave of a sudden she’ll keep your clothes in her covered sampan, under the floorboards, until your next visit. William Hickey, who had a nice ear for these things, heard them say: ‘I washy washy your three piece’, which he thought ‘implied bawdy, which they are fond of talking’.

There are the egg boats, which carry passengers under egg-shaped awnings of reeds. Dr Downing found his manned by ‘two good-natured pretty-looking young women . . . One of them seemed to have taken a good deal of pains in adorning herself, and had arranged some artificial flowers in her hair.’ The Doctor had been five months at sea. ‘As I sat close to her, in trying to make myself understood, I happened to catch hold of her arm.’ The girl jumped to the very conclusion Dr Downing wishes us to avoid. ‘Na! Na!’ she cried, shrinking away with a worried glance towards the shore. ‘Mandarin see; he squeegee mee! he squeegee mee! Mandarin see!’ By squeegee she meant that money would be extorted from her. Dr Downing would have us know that he then enquired, in a spirit of abstract curiosity, whether the mandarins were always so strict. ‘Na! na! nightee time come, no man see!’ she replied feelingly.

These were the egg boats, then, which carried people; there were duck boats with ducks, flower boats, the most colourful sight on the river, which were floating brothels, and snake boats, which carried water-borne highwaymen. Perhaps the most beautiful of all were the mandarin boats, painted ultramarine and white, with red ports pierced by long white oars, an awning raised on slender pillars, fringed with scallops of vermilion and golden leather, fluttering with pennants and a white ensign splashed with characters in red; these carried customs officials, and patrolled the creeks with a complement of sixty soldiers on the lookout for ‘smug boats’, vessels like them in build, but varnished brown, and not half as smart, in the contraband trade. They looked like insects skimming the water’s surface.

The ship drops anchor in the first convenient space once the tide which brought her up begins to ebb. Down then come the upper standing gear, sails and running rigging, the topgallant and even the top masts, lest in unloading she become top-heavy and risk overturning in a breeze; it will be a long wait for the teas. Now the pilot claims his cumshaw from the captain, a bottle of rum maybe, and scrounges what he can from the other officers — a piece of rope, some oil of peppermint, some salt beef. It is as well to hide wine-glasses, which please him altogether too much.

load tea

Landfall means fresh food and the comprador visits next, a bulwark of the control system whom it is best to befriend because your provisions for the next three months depend on him. You have a choice of compradors, but not an extensive one; it is another monopoly, and compradors rank second only to Hong merchants for wealth. Olo Acow compradored many Company ships, and Boston Jack, who had visited that city, and liked to talk about the horrors of the journey, served most Americans. ‘Too muchee strong gale,’ he would say of the Horn. ‘Sea all same masthead — no can see sky, no can see water.’ The comprador would take a glass of wine with the officers, gossip a little, and talk over old times. He was busy running between ships and he generally left his deputy to cover the day-to-day wants of the crew, a man called Sampan Sam, who came down by sampan in the morning and left by sampan in the evening, a favourite of the crew. He was, after all, responsible for the huge sides of beef which hung from the mainstay.

A yellow houseboat with neat brown doors and window frames hangs from the ship’s stern: Hoppo Jack is in it. He is the customs officer who performs the ceremony of measurement and cumshaw; each ship pays port duties calculated on the size of her deck, regardless of her cargo, which usually comes to about £1000, and the cumshaw is a traditional something for the Hoppo. Hoppo Jack stays to ensure that nothing is smuggled over the side, but as Dr Downing observes, ‘there seems to be some little defect in the management of these officers by their superiors, as the Hoppo is generally privy to these transactions, and is in fact, the best person to effect the business.’


A couple of days after the ship’s arrival the hatches can be opened. The linguist comes down from Canton, a functionary so named, as the joke goes, because he speaks no language but his own. He fastens his houseboat to the ship, and two clerks fasten theirs to his. They are little boats of Dickensian snugness, with a high, railed stern and a gangway encircling the square house built amidships. There is a door at the front, so that the two rowers sit on the threshold, and along the side are sliding shutters painted green. The whole is carved and ornamented and tipped in white and gold, and a smaller ladder by the front door ascends to the roof garden, which is painted black, with blooms and evergreens arranged in pots. Inside you find a bedroom, parlour and altar, as well as the kitchen, where the boatman and his family stretch out at night. There is a small mast, but the sail is only set when the wind is blowing directly astern.

The clerks set up on deck small folding tables with abacus and writing implements, in order to note everything that comes out of the hatches. Their accounts will have to square when everything is again unloaded from lighters in Canton, because temptation exists among lightermen to pilfer from the cargoes. The lighters here are known by that useful pidgin word, ‘chop’, though known in Chinese as watermelons because of their oval shape and circular sides; the origin of the name must be their capacity to hold 500 chests of tea, otherwise a chop. They are heavy and built of wood, with a great matting sail and a long steering oar.

Under an awning the clerks sit scribbling down the particulars of the load as it swings by, and making out, with the lingo’s help, a request to proceed to Canton which must be granted by the Whampoa chophouse. ‘Their servants hand round to them and the strangers little cups of tea made weak, and which is drank without milk or sugar.’ When the ship has been unloaded, ‘the whole apparatus of tables, chairs, clerks, tea pots and linguists, vanishes with great speed, and all is left again in its former quietude’.

It will be a fairly unruffled quietude in the anchorage and a good three months before the teas come down – six, if a large cargo of silks is wanted. A few Company ships will sail early in November with a selection of teas ordered in advance at the close of the last season, so-called winter teas which go to make up the stocks held in London at all times. The other ships will be gone by the New Year, barring the odd out-of-season ship which carries off the season’s leftovers and late arrivals at knockdown prices. But these ships are rare, for the winds are turning against them.

In the meantime there is Whampoa life, and things to watch, not much to do. ‘No finer sight of the kind can be seen in any part of the world than the Company’s fleet collected at Whampoa, with their inland cargoes discharged, and every ship in beautiful order, waiting for teas,’ declared the American, Hunter. The Company captains keep splendid tables, and send a boat up to Canton every day by rote. There are walks to be had on French and Danes Islands, slightly melancholy, one supposes, because the islands are also the European graveyards, and frequent visits have to be made there to bury a shipmate who has succumbed to idleness, boredom and the vaporous exhalations of the place. A cortege of boats rows to the beat of a funeral drum, each ship sending a boat out to fall in behind as the procession passes to the top of the reach.

There is some light relief, too: paddling a sampan, for instance, which seems easy enough when the paddle is in the hands of a little girl, but which sends Jack Tar into a whirling confusion as the light craft whips round and round at every stroke, to the hoots of his shipmates. There is the barber’s boat paddled from ship to ship, and the barber himself peeping up from under a wide-brimmed hat; he shaves eyelids and carries a selection of metal picks for cleaning out ears as well — which explains why the Cantonese are half deaf and always shouting, for their ear-drums have been perforated. Boys come scavenging, ready to dive for a bottle lobbed overboard, and in fact everything is scavenged, and nothing wasted, by the boat people. On a dark night, with everyone asleep, and the clustering sampans silent, Dr Downing mooning about on deck with a cigar drops a ball of paper from the poop, which falls without a sound on the water, and is carried away by the stream. And before it has quite vanished, a hand reaches out from beneath some mat covering, and fishes it hopefully in.

So the Whampoa billet is pretty quiet. The winds outside will not carry them home; and the wind that brought them up has to carry the monsoon to the tea country; they can only wait here for the right winds and the last chop down.

Meanwhile the sailors, when they are not dying of river fevers, or keeping the ship smart, or negotiating with the barber to smuggle a bottle of the local firewater, samshoo, aboard (success in this respect, Dr Downing thinks, is a preamble to the river fever), get their chance to visit Canton. It goes by rote, and most get in a couple of day-trips before they sail. They set out as early as possible to row the longboat 13 miles upstream under the nervous eye of a junior officer, whose anxieties they intend to justify in full before daylight or their money runs out. The journey up is a scramble through a city where everyone has keels for legs, and every stroke brings a fresh obstacle. Nets are stretched across the stream from pole to pole to entangle fish and sweep unwary barbarians from their seats; the girls whisper and giggle from their balconies on the flower boats which are barred to foreigners by law and prudence; once inside it is certain that the lusty lone barbarian would be robbed and murdered. The unfettered memoirs of William Hickey, though, recall a small inlet halfway up to Canton, known as Lob Lob Creek, where covered boats are invited to pause, and met by girls in sampans who ‘lob-lob’ happily until a mandarin boat sweeps past.

Sea-going junks are moored side by side forming watery alleys running across the river, their painted eyes staring towards the Bogue – ‘have eye, can see; no have eye, no can see’, as the explanation goes; sampans bustling to and fro through the alleys, trading fruit, bellowing for trade, paddled by anyone, homes for families; log rafts manoeuvred by punters, moored by the boatyards and guarded by someone who builds a shack on top and lets space to all comers to make a floating shanty town, which further blurs the already confused distinction between land and water, with ships drawn up on the banks, and houses on the river, and balconies out on stilts over the mud, and the shoreline obscured by masts and sails and the difficulty of distinguishing between a bamboo house ashore and a bamboo boat afloat. Everything is in perpetual exchange. Rice boats, egg boats, duck boats, salt junks, plying and shouting, and laden chops running down the tide with a wind behind — unstoppable watermelons scattering everyone before them. And where the press is thickest, and the black water is scarcely visible between the jostling craft, rise flagpoles between the masts. Among them, looking very small indeed, the Union Jack proclaims the Factory.

There are thirteen factories in all. They run barely 1000 feet along the bank, bounded to the west by a fetid creek; at the eastern end the Danes are separated from the Spanish by an alley of curio shops, New China Street; then French, which is all but empty during the Napoleonic Wars but which gets going again when the French decide that tea is a cure for cholera; then a building used by Chunqua, one of the Hongists; Old China Street; the American factory; the Imperial factory, which is actually a convenient device for Englishmen to evade the Company monopoly rather than for bona fide Austrians; the Swedish factory; the Old English Factory; the chow-chow (mixed) factory; then Hog Lane and the New English, the Dutch, and Creek.

Smack opposite Hog Lane is a sloping stage for sailors and Chinese, handily placed because Hog Lane is where the sailors plan to spend the day. It runs the depth of the factories — 400 feet – and offers every vice but women.

Women — foreign or native — are strictly forbidden in the Factories, where foreigners may conduct their business for the six months of the season. The rest of the year they should spend on the voyage home or in Macao, and the no-women rule is one way to ensure their departure. The joke goes that the mandarins doubt their own ability to resist the charms of European women; but secretly some factory men cherish the clubby atmosphere. W. C. Hunter recalls an unauthorised visit by some American ladies to the factories in 1830. ‘The second day after they arrived several old codgers were seen in immense coats, which had been stowed away in camphor trunks for ten or fifteen years, and with huge cravats on, and with what once were gloves, on their way to make visits!’ The locals were overwhelmingly curious, but not hostile, and an evening stroll down New China Street had to be curtailed when at a shout of ‘Foreign Devil Women!’ a huge crowd pressed round with lanterns. When the ladies finally left, ‘an inveterate bachelor said, “I hope we shall not be bothered with ladies in Canton again”, but he was a notoriously crusty old fellow.’

The Company Factory, known simply as the Factory, has the atmosphere of an old-fashioned college, and is in fact built as a series of small courts. A garden, more gravel paths than grass, leads up from the river gate. There is a chapel with Canton’s only public clock, by which everybody regulates their watch, and behind it Thames eights and sixes hang on a wall. The narrow facade of the factory is colonnaded, crowned by a pediment bearing the arms of England and the Company motto Pro Regis et Senatus Angliae; beneath this, beyond the verandah, lie the billiard rooms, the library and the great dining room with the full-length portrait of George IV that the Emperor refused to receive from Lord Amherst, and bedazzling chandeliers, and candelabra on the table, where thirty guests may eat off silver plate with footmen behind each chair. The first floor is given over to sitting rooms and supper rooms, each approached from the courts by separate staircases, while the top floor contains comfortable sets for visitors and the two dozen gentlemen who make up the permanent Factory settlement. These are the Chief Superintendent and his two deputies, who form the all-powerful Select Committee; a chaplain; two surgeons; an interpreter, when one exists; about twenty writers or clerks; sometimes a silk inspector called ‘grubs’; and always an inspector of teas, entitled the Expectorator. He is paid well not only for his skill but also for ‘the abstemious life which preserved it’. The whole investment – the factory, the ships, the men – rolls across his palate, so it had better be clean.


Factories of this sort make nothing, of course, unless it is money, which they seem to make almost literally, for the air rings with the sound of coin poured out of copper scuttles, dancing on the floor, in the corridors and the counting room and in front of the fortified treasury. Every coin coming in or out has to be passed by a shroff who has learned, from shroffing school or bitter experience, the difference between all pieces, native or foreign, by their weight and their feel, the purity of their silver, and the sound they make when rung on stone. The shroffs can spot a fake among thousands; perhaps a coin shaved very lightly, or hollowed out and filled with lead, or a straightforward counterfeit.

The Chinese, who invented paper money in the eleventh century and lost it again in the thirteenth, did not recognise coins as tokens of value, except the small copper cash, which had a hole in the middle, and was used for common transactions. The rest was bullion, carried in small blocks called shoes from their resemblance to the shoes worn by women with bound feet, which could be cut into exact weights with a dexterity that never failed to astonish foreigners. Their coin, Spanish, Mexican, or US silver dollars, was accepted for its silver content, and as the purity of each piece was verified by the shroff it was stamped with his mark, or chop, for which he stood security. He seldom made mistakes. There was one, though, which derived from his exaggerated respect for tradition. Though all coin was accepted for its weight, the Chinese had a curious regard for the Spanish dollar of Charles IV, called an ‘Old Head’, which had been in circulation for a long time and commanded a premium over its silver value of about 15 per cent. It was inexplicable — the American firm of Russell and Co. once traded 60,000 dollars’ worth of Old Heads for 78,000 New Heads, realising for their purposes a clear profit of 18,000 dollars.

At the season’s end the shroff sells his floor to a speculator, who combs it for specks of silver, and replaces it with new wooden boards at his own expense.

Technically the shroffs do not work for the foreigners: nobody does, for imperial subjects cannot be subject to the whim of a barbarian. The Hong merchants appoint a comprador, and the comprador appoints the servants. Like his Whampoa equivalent, the factory comprador is in charge of provisions, domestic accounts and discipline among the servants; he is also responsible for examining the coin, for which he receives 20 cents in 1000 dollars. A busy man, he farms out the work to shroffs, whom he pays 10 cents per thousand dollars.

As at Whampoa each factory is appointed a linguist by the Hoppo, or customs, to manage all communication between the authorities and the merchants, and to act as a fixer. He takes messages and petitions, via the Hongists, to the provincial governors; their reply comes to the Hongs, who pass it on to the linguist, who explains it to the Chief of the nation concerned, ‘that he might reverently inform himself of it and be duly obedient’. The lingo tells foreigners of any change in regulations, or of new edicts, and arranges permissions for an outing sanctioned by ‘oula custom’ (old custom) to the flower gardens of Fattee, or the Honan temple, or a visit to Macao. Foreigners are strictly forbidden to enter the walled city of Canton itself, as they are forbidden to learn the Chinese language. In season the lingo organises the loading, checking that goods are ready and that the chop-boats are standing by with permissions to go down to Whampoa.

The teas were released in October, chop after chop, putting everyone’s nose to the grindstone. The Hongs advertised their stock. All teas, other than those which had been contracted for at the end of the last season, were traditionally offered first to the English East India Company. This may be why the Americans, also known as ‘Flowery Flag Devils’, were often referred to as the ‘second-chop Englishmen’. China’s experience suggested that culture and language were the basis of political unity, and all Han people, speaking Chinese, were the Emperor’s subjects (to this day, ‘overseas Chinese’ are included in the official census of the People’s Republic of China, as if Australians and Marylanders were to be returned in figures issued in London). Political independence, even over a matter of tea tax, was not a concept furnished by Confucian thinking. It was easier to fall back on the evident distinction, that one lot got a crack at the teas before the other lot did.

The Company divided its purchases between the Hong merchants on a system of shares; Howqua, for example, had fourteen and sold the Company twice as much as Pankweiqua, who had seven. The allotment could, of course, vary. That was the point: in the absence of a free market it discouraged the tendency of Hongists to combine through threats and the promise of rewards.

On the whole, though, the atmosphere was one of trust, and relations between foreign and Chinese traders were cordial. They understood each other, and had nothing to gain from playing tricks, and they were at least united in their impatience with the Hoppo, on whose goodwill the trade rested. W. C. Hunter records a typical chat with Howqua, up at his Hong, in the 1830s:

‘Well Howqua, have got news today?’

‘Have too muchee bad news,’ he would reply. ‘Hwang Ho [Yellow River] hav  spillum too muchee.’

That sounded ominously. ‘Mantalee {Mandarin] have come see you?’

‘He no come see my. He sendee come one piece chop. He come to-mollo. He wantchee my two lac dollar [200,000 dollars].’

‘You pay he how muchee?’

‘My pay he fitty, sicky tousand so.’

‘But s’pose he no contentee?’

‘S’pose he, Number One, no contentee, my pay he one lac.’

The Tartar Hoppo didn’t exactly hobnob. Dr Downing was fortunate enough to be present at the only known visit of a Hoppo to the factories. He had been sworn in the day before, and it was thought that he wanted to have something to tell the Emperor in a forthcoming interview, should he be asked about the foreigners.

The barbarians in the English Factory had prepared him ‘a first-rate breakfast after the English fashion’. Blancmange, jellies, fruits and seasonal ‘viands’ had been laid out on a snow-white linen tablecloth. The foreigners stood behind a rail at a little distance, to see and be seen. The Hoppo ensconced himself at the head of the table, ‘an old man of about sixty years of age, and of rather a prepossessing countenance’. He wore a small beard, and a peacock’s feather in his cap to signify the Emperor’s personal favour; a ruby there indicated his rank and he was dressed in court robes of red and blue embroidered silks. He sat on a small throne, surrounded by secretaries, linguists, friends and servants, while downstairs the Hong merchants waited anxiously in armchairs set out in the reception room.

The old man eyed the good things upon the table, and, as he had the whole of them to himself, no one presuming to take a seat, he whispered to his attendants to fetch them for him. As each dish was brought successively, and held up to his eye, he examined it very carefully all around as an object of great curiosity, and then languishingly shook his head, as a sign for it to be taken away. Thus he proceeded for a considerable time, until he had looked at everything on the table, without finding a single article suitable to his delicate stomach.

The foreigners all this while were looking on with very different feelings. Their appetites were wonderfully sharpened by viewing so many good things, especially as it was now the usual time for luncheon. Many of them, were witty in their abuse of the old gentleman for his want of taste; and some called him an old fool, and were sorry that they were so situated that they could not show him how to eat. However, the Hoppo understood none of these sayings, but quietly proceeded with his examination of the exotic dainties, and when the table had been entirely ransacked, he shook his head once more in sign of disapproval, and then called for a cup of tea. The Fanquis could not bear this; but the greater number left the room, leaving the prejudiced old Tartar to drink his national beverage by himself.

Perhaps the Hoppo at least enjoyed his tea, which must have been selected by the Expectorator.


The trust that existed between Hongist and foreign merchants allowed for whole cargoes of tea to be bought on the evidence of a ‘muster’, or small sample, drawn from each chop. The overall weight of a chop was calculated from a random selection of chests, measured against weights held in the guild offices of the Chinese tea merchants. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Company dealt in five broad classes of black tea and three green; the Americans, retarded perhaps by their experiences in 1776, began to buy black teas only in 1828. These, in order of quality, were Souchong, Campoi, Pekoe, Congou and Bohea, which the Chinese called da cha, big leaf, coarse and cheap and common. The best green tea was imperial, or bloom, tea, made from the smallest leaves; Singlo, from the Singlo Hills; and Hyson. Gunpowder was a better quality of Hyson. There were varieties and qualities of each — Canton Bohea, for example, which grew locally, was particularly poor, while Padre Souchong was almost priceless, and never offered for sale.

Padre Souchong came from the Bohea, or Wuyi, hills of Fujian Province. Bohea tea had once meant teas of Bohea origin, but over the years the name was extended to mean any black tea the fanqui supposed to have been made in the Bohea style, which included just about every bad black tea in China. Canton bohea sounded something like Bolivian Champagne. Padre Souchong, though, must have been the tea Balzac was thinking of when he gave his friends the spiel about virgin pluckers and the Emperor of China, for Padre was made for the Emperor’s sole use. It came with a paper, on which was written:

In a deep recess of the Wuyi Hills, surrounded by shrubbery and trees, almost impenetrable to the human eye, stands the Temple of the Silver Moon. Its antiquity is so great that all traces of its origin are lost. The temple has been inhabited from time immemorial by a family of the Tea Sect which, at the period of the year coinciding with the maturity of the leaves, makes offerings of fine tea to its patron saint. Close by the temple stand three small tea trees, which are tended by the family. They produce but one catty each. These trees were originally planted thousands of years ago by divine hands, and they have never been known to yield more nor less than three catties.

The foreigners understood that it was produced by monks; hence the name. Padre Souchong appeared from time to time in Canton as a gift, in fractional amounts – possibly the same tea described by J. Ovington in 1689 when he was in India on Company business. Brought to India by a Chinese ambassador, the tea was ‘so valuable in China, that a single Catte of it was reputed a noble Present for the chief Ministers, however he brought with him a Taste of it for our President . . .’ In Canton, a Hong merchant who received some down a line of favours would find it made more sense to advertise the fact than to drink the tea, so he divided it up and passed it on at New Year, when the Chinese traditionally distribute presents. Like any work of art, it had come to possess a value beyond profit and cost, beyond even pricing the pleasure it gave as a taste, since it was scarcely ever touched.

Foreigners were stumped for suitable presents to give in return. ‘Smellum water’ — lavender water and eau-de-Cologne — was appreciated. Tea itself wasn’t a bad idea. ‘The natives rarely use even the black tea immediately after it has been manufactured, but keep it by them for a twelvemonth. You cannot, in fact, make a more welcome present to a Chinaman, than a chest of his own tea which has been a voyage to England, as they consider it by that time very much improved’, said Dr Downing. Another author explains: ‘Well-to-do Chinese drink black tea, but not usually new tea. They keep it closely shut in earthen jars for a couple of years before using it. This moderates the acrid or pungent quality which new tea possesses more or less, and renders it softer and more acceptable to the palate.’ Nothing wrong with that, either: no more than you expect from a good wine. But good teas, like good wines, commanded a premium — and the temptation always existed to help their development along.

Mr Barrow, who accompanied the great postman Lord Macartney to Peking in the 1790s, wrote:

Having one day observed my Chinese servant busily employed in drying a quantity of tea-leaves, that had already been used for breakfast, and of which he had collected several pounds, I inquired what he meant to do with them; he replied, to mix them with other tea and sell them.

‘And is this the way,’ said I, ‘in which you cheat your own countrymen?’

‘No,’ replied he, ‘my own countrymen are too wise to be so easily cheated, but yours are stupid enough to let us serve you such like tricks; and indeed,’ continued he, with the greatest sang froid imaginable, ‘anything you get from us is quite good enough for you.’

Affecting to be angry with him, he said he ‘meant for the second-chop Englishmen’, which is a distinction they give to the Americans.

Perhaps the Americans were more easily gulled. After all, the Company had a longer experience of buying teas in China, and its tasters saw more musters than anyone else. The Americans, for example, caused a crisis in the 1820s by looking for more Young Hyson ‘than could be properly manufactured. The natives supplied them according to their wish, but with a vile substitute. The imposition, however, was immediately detected by the inspectors, when it was offered to the English.’

Nonetheless the Company ran a monopoly, and was itself prey to the obvious temptations. Perhaps the Company was not too nice in its examination, having nothing to lose by accepting the Hongists’ merchandise without a fuss. In Britain itself a whole industry was devoted to the adulteration of tea, which even had a name, smouch, and was widespread enough to dilute the Company’s contribution. Only after the abolition of the monopoly did free trade bring the Chinese end of the business into the public eye, and, after a shaky start in which inexperienced free traders were palmed off with the worst sort of Chinese smouch, competition began to improve the quality of tea drunk. But by then, arguably, it was too late to restore the reputation of Chinese tea.

Meanwhile the Company employees took every care of the tea once it had been paid for. Writers and linguists worked into the small hours to draw up the manifests, check accounts, and ensure that everything due to be shipped next morning was ready at the Hongs, with the necessary clearances. Down at Whampoa Chinese stevedores (another pidgin word, from the Portuguese estivar, to pack close) would be laying down the ballast; sometimes it was shingle, laid in the ship’s bottom with a smoothness that would delight the most pea-shy princess, but more often, in the eighteenth century at least, a cargo in its own right, mercury, copper, and porcelain, because anything that could be packed tight and heavy and remain unaffected by a rinse in bilge water would do, and a cargo was better than deadweight.

With the hatches down, an East Indiaman carried not only the tea, but also the cups and saucers and pots to drink it with. Chinese porcelain had no peer in Europe before the end of the eighteenth century, when it was replaced (rather than matched) by cheap pottery developed in Europe in response to Chinese competition. Henry Hobhouse calculates that between 1684 and 1791, when porcelain imports were dropped, some 24,000 tons of fine porcelain – perhaps 215 million pieces — were brought to Britain in Company vessels. Every sort of European commission was undertaken by the Chinese manufacturers, with the sole caveat that the shapes should stack tight and that the cargo should present a completely fiat surface on which to start stowing the tea chests.

The porcelain was ludicrously cheap. William Hickey recalls breakfasts with his friend Bob Potts in Canton in 1767, in a story which testifies either to the value of porcelain, or to the liberality of the Company establishment, or to the iconoclasm of Hickey’s friends. Or to all three:

If he [Potts] took it into his head that Maclintock was too long at the meal, or drank too much tea, he without the least ceremony overset the table. The first time he practised this, I was very angry at such a quantity of handsome China being thus mischievously demolished, and expressed my displeasure thereat, which only excited the mirth of young pickle. ‘Why, zounds!’ said he, ‘you surely forget where you are. I never suffer the servants to have the trouble of removing a tea equipage, always throwing the whole apparatus out of the window or downstairs. They easily procure another batch from the steward’s warehouse.’

In 1730 a tea service for 200 people, made to your design and bearing your coat of arms, cost just over £7.

The sailors cheer the arrival of the first chop-boat at Whampoa. The tea chests disappear down the hatches. Any gaps will be stuffed with dunnage — cassia probably, a laxative. Reeking camphor, a profitable export, is forbidden on tea ships. Finally the chow-chow chop comes down with all the last-minute muck and truck (paper lanterns, umbrellas, lacquerware). The clerks pack up their tables and teapots and the comprador gives cumshaw to the officers and crew — baskets of oranges and pots of sweetmeats for which nobody has enough room in their cramped quarters. ‘I chin chin you werry fine voyage,’ he says, shaking hands as the capstan bars are manned and the anchor is raised to the sound of a shanty; and as the ship heels to the ebbing tide, and sail after sail unfurls to the wind, the comprador’s floating house drops astern, until only the light of joss papers can be seen, and the sound of firecrackers and a gong is heard, imploring the gods of wind and water to grant the barbarians a safe voyage home.

Up at the Factories, now that the market is cleared of teas, the ships gone and the business done, contracts are negotiated with the Hongs for the next season. With this dealing goes the chin-chinning, and ‘chopstick dinners’ at the Hong merchants’ mansions, and reciprocal dinners at the factories. The fanqui have a schoolboyish desire to tease, and they linger in the Factories while the authorities want to get them out for the winter. The annual ceremony begins when the Emperor sends an order to the Viceroy of Canton to wind up business and send the fanqui away until the next season. The Governor, Lieutenant-Governor and Hoppo of Canton publish an edict and the Hongs transmit it via linguists to the Factories, who promptly make their excuses. After a while the Emperor sends to find out if they have gone, and the fanqui’s excuses are forwarded to Peking, in the company of excuses from the Governor, the Lieutenant-Governor and the Hoppo. The edicts grow more alarming: ‘Say not that you have not been forewarned . . . tremblingly obey it — take warning by it — a special edict.’ The barbarians have reasons to doubt the vaunted power of the Empire and its dragons, but when, almost cringing and very much afraid now, the Hong merchants suggest ‘more better you go Macao’, they order up the chop-boats, converted nicely into sleeping apartments and sitting rooms, and set off, to a cacophony of Chinese crackers.

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