Old China Trade

When foreign ships arrived in Whampoa, during the days of the "Old China Trade," they carried a Chinese pilot, who boarded at Macao. The ship was then required to report to the local authorities: the Hoppo, or chief Chinese customs inspector. The Hoppo measured the vessel and imposed a direct tax on it and its cargo, to be paid to the Emperor before the cargo could be unloaded. Often the Hoppo had to be bribed with gifts before determining this tax. Before the cargo was placed on riverboats, called "chop" boats, and taken upstream 12 miles to Canton, the foreign captain and his supercargo would travel ahead to make arrangements with a hong merchant to unload the ship and receive the cargo. A permit to reach this location was called a "chop." The cargo was then stored in warehouses known as "hongs," or factories. Inside the hongs were storage areas called go-downs, where merchants could inspect chests of tea and bales of silk. Upstairs were living quarters that could be rented to visiting foreigners. In the hongs, prices were set by the Chinese, influenced by the success of the tea crop or new taxes levied by the Emperor. The hong merchants had assistants, including the agent, or "Fiador," cashiers and accountants, or "Compradors," and silver masters, or "Schroffs," who weighed and tested the gold and silver currency used by the traders. Life in the hong district was filled with activity. Sailors of all nationalities could visit shops selling wide varieties of merchandise, including fireworks, bird cages, medicines, ivories, silks, pets, and a fiery local wine called "samshu," meaning "thrice-fired." The area open to foreigners was very small, however, and there were many restrictions placed on Westerners by the Chinese government, including a ban on women in the hong area. The Manchu government threatened death to anyone who taught the Chinese language to a foreigner. Interpreters were used to communicate for business purposes, or sometimes pidgin. There was a complicated system of Chinese middlemen, with a set of duties, gifts, and taxes to be paid to each. Some Chinese middlemen became very wealthy under this system. The Pearl River and Whampoa Harbor were filled with a variety of Chinese, as well as western, vessels. Some of the largest Chinese junks were bigger than western vessels. There were also flower boats, tiny sampans carrying cargo, thousands of houseboats, and official mandarin patrol boats. Once in Canton, western merchants dealt with a special group of 13 Chinese merchants known as the Cohong. Each member was called a hong merchant. Although these merchants were not well-regarded socially, some acquired great wealth. Houqua was one of these; he handled much of the American trade in later years. His real name was Wu Ping-chien. The suffix "qua" was derived from the Chinese symbol "kuan," indicating an honorary title.