Robert Nield, The China Coast

Book Cover
Book Cover

With the summer coming and a little less traveling, I finally have to actually read the books I picked up during the Shanghai Literary Festival in last March. One of the most interesting event was the literary lunch with Robert Nield. As with all Old Shanghai related event, it attracted the usual crowd of Shanghai history enthusiasts and authors. I always enjoy is these events as they take me away from business questions and activities to get on a time travel for a few hours. The presentation was excellent as well as lunch and I was looking forward to read the actual book.

Robert Nield’s approach is quite similar to mine. He is not a cleric or a professional historian but a retired businessman who got interested in the topic of Asia colonial history. Readers are assumed to know little about the topic and that makes the book a very easy read. At the same time, the author has done in-depth research that make it really credible from an historical point of view. The aim of the author is to visit every single treaty ports in China, but the current book focuses on history of the trade on the China Coast before creation of the treaty ports, as well as Hong Kong and the 5 original ports (Canton, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai).

The first part of the book is focused on the pre-treaty port period, which has been much less studied than later treaty ports time, making the book even more interesting. Since Robert Nield is a business man, his point of view is oriented toward an economic view of history that is truly relevant to this case. The same period was studied from a different angle in Foreign Mud by Maurice Collis. However, The China Coast starts from a much earlier period describing the unsuccessful attempts from Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch and British to be recognised as trading partner by China. Products such as tea, silk and porcelain (also called China!) were in the highest demand in Europe. Trade had been going on between Europe and China for centuries and traders were in the center of the political process that led to the Opium Wars and the opening of Treaty ports.  Through is position in Hong Kong, Robert Nield also had access to archives of the early trading companies and banks that were also part of the colonial process, including HSBC, Jardine & Matheson and Butterfield & Swire giving us information and illustration that was previously very difficult to find.

The second part of the book is focused on the history of the treaty port, that received each a chapter of equal length. This leaves very little space for well documented places such as Shanghai and Hong Kong, but the challenge was to find enough information about the other ports, in particular Foochow (today Fuzhou) and Ningbo. A lot of time and effort has been spent to find information about these smaller ports that never really reached a large size. Fuzhou was a place for shipping tea, but did not really succeed in it for a long time. Ningbo specialized in religious evangelists as trade was also not the best due to the competition of Shanghai and better places like Hangzhou. One of the most interesting part of the book is surely about Xiamen and Kulangsoo (Gu Lan Yu island today). Surprisingly, Kulangsoo international settlement and Xiamen British Concession were too separate entities. Trade in Xiamen was never really great due to the impoverished population of the hinterland but the scenery and location are some of the best in China and foreigners there enjoyed a great life. Ultimately, the port specialised in shipping people as Chinese coolies became in high demand after the ban of slavery in Africa, paving the way for the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia, Australia and many other locations.

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