Hong Kong’s Maritime Trade, Part I: Bubbly Beginnings

What happened to all the champagne? It’s a question that came to mind as François Drémeaux was looking into the history of French maritime trade with Hong Kong. In 1918, for instance, a total of 11,457 imperial gallons of champagne were recorded as passing through the colony, equivalent to 68,471 standard bottles. That was a lot of wine flowing into a city of just 600,000 people, not to mention all the cognac and claret (a general British term for red Bordeaux wine), the volumes of which were even larger than those of champagne. 

“The consumption of champagne in Hong Kong was absolutely incredible in the interwar period,” says Drémeaux, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong and researcher at the Université Le Havre-Normandie in France. “That led me to the conclusion that either colonial society was very often drunk or they imported great quantities of champagne to be exported.”

The answer was likely a combination of both. Expat life in Hong Kong has always been boozy, and the Chinese population was particularly smitten with fine French bubbles. “Both colonials and the Chinese bourgeoisie were very fond of champagne,” says Drémeaux. “It was a way to show off.” But even an enthusiastic drinking public couldn’t explain the vast quantities of French wine and spirits imported to Hong Kong. According to records examined by Drémeaux, local consumption accounted for just under 28 percent of the imported champagne in Hong Kong, and an even smaller fraction of the cognac and red wine. 

So most of that bubbly was going somewhere else, disappearing not long after it arrived in Hong Kong’s port. It was largely re-exported — likely often smuggled — to mainland China, which had higher taxes and more trade restrictions on overseas imports than Hong Kong. And that, in a nutshell, is the story of Hong Kong’s maritime trade. “Trade is an excuse to study many more things,” says Drémeaux. At its most basic, it’s the story of goods coming and going. But more than that, it’s a window into the things that make this place what it is.

Over the years, Zolima CityMag has explored Hong Kong’s industrial history, its pirate history and various overlooked communities like the Portuguese and Eurasians. What we haven’t yet examined is the thread that links all of this together: maritime trade. “The history of the territory is really a maritime tale,” notes Tam Kwong-lim, a veteran of the shipping industry, avid collector of old maritime maps and amateur historian of Hong Kong’s seafaring trade. It goes back to the earliest days of human settlement in Hong Kong and continues to shape the city’s economy, politics and culture today. It’s impossible to truly understand Hong Kong without understanding the maritime trade that shaped it. 

It’s worth starting at the very beginning. People have been living on the land now known as Hong Kong for at least 35,000 years. And with hundreds of sheltered coves and bays, it’s obvious the sea has always played a crucial role in the lives of people here. But the oldest archeological evidence of maritime activity in Hong Kong waters dates back just one thousand years; an old anchor uncovered by divers in 2016. “[Hong Kong] is 60 percent water, and yet nearly no archaeology has been done underwater here,” said Bill Jeffrey, who led the team that uncovered the anchor, in an interview with Live Science magazine. “Lots of archeology in Hong Kong has been done on land but they stop at the waterline, so really nothing’s been done underwater.”

But it’s still possible to trace some of that early maritime trade. More than two thousand years ago, the Pearl River Delta was inhabited by the Baiyue people, who were renowned seafarers and whose sphere of influence reached throughout Southeast Asia. In 1974, archaeologists in Guangzhou unearthed evidence of a shipyard that operated around 200 BC and was capable of building seafaring vessels up to 30 metres long. This naval tradition endured even as the Baiyue were gradually absorbed into China, first through the vassal state of Nanyue, then by outright conquest by Han Dynasty forces in 111 BC.

Guangzhou emerged as the main commercial and administrative centre of southern China, but Hong Kong’s strategic location gave it an outsized importance in the trade that was being conducted with countries as far away as the Persian Gulf. As Tam notes in a text commissioned by the Marine Department, ships leaving Guangzhou would travel along the deeper eastern side of the Pearl River, turning into the sheltered bay of Tuen Mun for repairs and provisions before hitting the open ocean, their sails buffeted by the winds of the northern monsoon. That made Tuen Mun one of the area’s most important ports, with a whole ecosystem of businesses that emerged to service overseas trade. In particular, there were many kilns that burned seashells and mixed the resulting lime with tung oil in order to create a caulking putty that was used to seal the hulls of ships.

By the time of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), there was enough maritime trade passing through Hong Kong that imperial officials established a customs office. There is some dispute as to its exact location — it was either on Tang Lau Chau or Fat Tau Chau, islands near present-day Tseung Kwan O — but it was an important marker of Hong Kong’s increasing importance. “No matter where its precise location was, such a government institution was the first-ever known office in the Hong Kong region set up to check, regulate, and levy taxes on the coastal sea traffic travelling in Hong Kong waters,” notes Tam.

The location of the customs house on the eastern side of the harbour was an indication that it served not to regulate international trade, but rather the growing amount of domestic trade between Guangdong and Fujian. Guangdong supplied its northern neighbour with rice, in exchange for ceramics, ironware and tea. This trade began to attract more and more settlers to Hong Kong, many of whom took advantage of the territory’s abundant shoreline to start farming pearls, cultivating incense and making salt. Salt production in particular established Hong Kong not just as a waystation for trade but as a source of one of China’s most valuable and important commodities. Salt produced in Hong Kong made its way through the Pearl River Delta’s expansive river system, reaching inland as far as Guangxi, and it also travelled up the coast to Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province.

Tam notes that Hong Kong’s strategic location for interprovincial trade, along with its notoriety as a centre of salt production, is likely what drew the Song emperor and his court in 1276, when they were fleeing the Mongol invaders who had established the Yuan Dynasty five years earlier. The young emperor soon met his demise, and Mongol rule lasted for just under a century before giving way to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Perhaps traumatised by 100 years of foreign rule, Ming leaders turned China inward, banning all foreign trade, making an exception for the Portuguese, who established Macau as a trading post in 1557. 

This simply had the effect of pushing things underground, and an archaeological dig in 1975 revealed huge deposits of porcelain at Penny’s Bay on Lantau, which is now occupied by Disneyland. Archaeologists theorised that this was the site of an illicit trading post that collected ceramics from the renowned porcelain hub of Jingdezhen before sending them overseas. Some of the porcelain that passed through Hong Kong in the late 15th century was collected by the Shah of Iran; it later ended up in the hands of Portuguese nobility, who used it to create the remarkable ​​Porcelain Room in Lisbon’s Santos Palace.

Porcelain trading wasn’t the only illegal activity happening in Hong Kong at the time. The territory’s craggy, mountainous coastline, not easily patrolled by officials, made it the perfect place to evade the imperial monopoly on salt production. Even with the Ming Dynasty turning its back to the sea, Hong Kong’s waters still bustled with activity. But the fall of that dynasty dealt the maritime trade a lethal blow. In 1661, in an attempt to eliminate contact with Ming loyalists who had set up base in Taiwan, the ascendant Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) required the evacuation of all coastal areas. This had the effect of emptying out nearly the whole of Xin’an County, equivalent to present-day Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Imperial troops marched through the area, uprooting families and villages. Anyone who remained was executed. 

The evacuation order was rescinded in 1683 and Hong Kong’s original inhabitants were allowed to return; they were joined by growing numbers of Hakka migrants. By then, however, China’s maritime presence was a shadow of its former self, and most trade in the region was passing through Macau. When Qing rulers reversed the ban on foreign trade in 1685, Guangzhou reclaimed its title as China’s window to the world. Hong Kong, for its part, became a bastion of piracy: not so much a place of commercial exchange as a redoubt for the people who looted it. 

But the resumption of foreign trade sparked a competition between various Western powers who were keen to supply China with one product in particular: opium. China’s resistance eventually led to the First Opium War, in which Britain emerged victorious, with Hong Kong Island claimed as spoil in 1841. Not because the island itself had anything of particular interest to the British, but because of the same reason the Song Dynasty had established a customs house just off its shores: it had an unbeatable location for the trade of goods going to and coming from China. Goods like opium, tea – and eventually, champagne.

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