Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I have been very slowly catching up on Homeland. Slowly mostly because of the inconsistency of Netflix: in one country, one set of shows would be available, and in another it would be a different offering. So I would follow Carrie Mathison’s adventures for a third of a season and not be able to find out what happened next for weeks or months.
So I was five years late to the remarkably thinly veiled reference to the British bank HSBC in season 3 episode 2 of the series. “HLBC,” the fictional bank on the show caught laundering money for terrorists (as HSBC was charged with doing in real life), one character says, “has been trafficking in human misery since the Opium Wars.”
The Opium Wars! That’s a turn of phrase enough to prick up any pair of Chinese ears. The history of modern China, as told in textbooks both foreign and domestic, typically begins with the First Opium War or simply “the Opium War,” which ended in 1842 with the first of many “unequal treaties” that would plague China for over a hundred years to come — the so-called “Century of Humiliation.” (The Second Opium War or the Arrow War of 1856-60, though also significant, did not mark the beginning of a new era.)
The war is typically seen as the beginning of the modern political age for China because for the first time it forced that country, traditionally the undisputed political center of the Asian world that it knew, to face the fact that other powers lay farther afield in Europe and America that could more than challenge its traditional supremacy and even threaten its existence. Chinese politics today remain rooted in the history of that conflict, so much so that it is impossible to understand Chinese policy or rhetoric without knowing something about it.
In this post and the following, however, I’d like to submit that the Opium War, though little remembered by people in the Western world, has shaped their lives no less than it has shaped those in Asia. Indeed, the fact that it happened and the way that it happened has substantially shaped not only modern China but the modern world.
In this post I’ll begin with a few small things, appetizers, if you will. The HSBC reference on Homeland is in fact unfair, because HSBC wasn’t formed until 1865, after the war. Moreover, if HSBC assisted opium dealers back then, then so did Parliament and the British Royal Navy. But the reference highlights something that most people don’t think about very much: “HSBC,” the name of Europe’s largest bank and the seventh-largest bank in the world, stands for “Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.” Imagine if the largest bank in the United States was named “the Bank of San Juan and Havana.”
The bank is called that because it was originally incorporated in Hong Kong in the wake of the Opium War. Hong Kong was the prize in the 1842 treaty, under which China ceded the territory to Britain as a colony. And HSBC was formed to provide financial services to British opium traders and other businesses operating from the new colony.
Take a walk around Hong Kong and you’ll find numerous references to this history of the construction of our modern economy by international drug cartels. One of the great skyscrapers in Central Hong Kong, one of the most prestigious office buildings in which to claim an address, is the Jardine House. It’s named after William Jardine, the Scottish cofounder of the greatest opium companies of them all, Jardine Matheson. During the Opium War, the Chinese had a nickname for Mr. Jardine: “the Iron-Headed Rat.” Jardine Matheson has since gone legit, reincorporating in Bermuda. It’s now a conglomerate with endless holdings and is listed on the London Stock Exchange. As of 2016, it employed 440,000 people and had revenues of $37 billion. And it’s still controlled by Jardine descendants.
Quiet reminders like this are everywhere in Hong Kong. A short walk from the Jardine House and you cross Wellington Street (as in “Duke”), Peel Street (as in “Sir Robert”), and Staunton Street, where modern expats working in Jardine House like to stop for their happy hour drinks. Staunton Street was named after Sir George Thomas Staunton. In 1792-94, as a boy, he accompanied his father and Lord Macartney on the famous embassy to Beijing. Young Staunton managed to learn enough Chinese on the voyage over to speak the language with the Qianlong Emperor, making him the first Westerner in history to speak Chinese with a ruler of China. The scene might not have been too dissimilar from Arabella Kushner singing for Xi Jinping last year. Later in life, as a Member of Parliament, Staunton would play a major role in the development of Anglo-Chinese relations, including in the Opium War.
Staunton Street then intersects with Morrison Street, named after Robert Morrison, the compiler of the first-ever Chinese-English dictionary.
In subsequent posts I wish to show how, beyond big corporations and names on street signs, the Opium War shaped not only China’s outlook on the world and the world’s outlook on China, but also such unexpected consequences as how we think of Afghanistan.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."