Hong Kong’s Maritime Trade, Part III: The French (Indochina) Connection

On June 6, 1931, Hong Kong police staged a raid on a tenement in Kowloon City. Inside, they found the man they were looking for: Sung Man-cho, described by then-governor William Peel as one of “the most dangerous of Moscow’s agents in the Far East.”

You may better know him as Hồ Chí Minh, the future revolutionary leader of Vietnam. He had been living under a Cantonese pseudonym in Hong Kong for a year, rooming with his niece, hiding out after being exiled from Vietnam by French colonial authorities and from China by the anti-Communist dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, who had seized power in 1927. He was arrested by request of France, who had sentenced him to death for anti-colonial agitation in Vietnam and wanted him back to face the executioner. But things didn’t go to plan.

Hồ — who was born as Nguyễn Sinh Cung and changed his name several times before settling on his famous revolutionary moniker in the late 1930s — was held at Victoria Prison for 20 months as he awaited his extradition trial. Thanks to a vigorous defence by local British solicitor Frank Loseby, who had represented a number of other Vietnamese dissidents in Hong Kong, Hồ was acquitted on the condition that he no longer remain in Hong Kong. To throw France off his trail, Loseby spread the rumour that Hồ had died in custody, and after a night in the Chinese YMCA on Bridges Street, he set sail for Singapore in January 1933. 

For most people, Hong Kong’s only connection to Vietnam comes through the long saga of refugees fleeing the devastation of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. But the city’s connection to what was once known as French Indochina goes far deeper than that. “The first harbour of French Indochina was Hong Kong,” says historian François Drémeaux, who studies the history of French involvement in the former British colony. 

He explains that, although there were several seaports in French Indochina at the time, their infrastructure and high duties made them less attractive than Hong Kong. And so a significant amount of the trade between France and its Asian colonial possessions — along with trade between China and Indochina — passed through Hong Kong. 

“There is no line of direct navigation between France and Indochina on the one hand,” observer Yves Bachelier wrote in an account of French trade with China. “French imports pass through Hong Kong or Shanghai. The goods are unloaded for re-embarkation on foreign vessels, most of them [registered as] British.” As another French colonial observer, Henri Blerzy, wrote in 1871, “The Hong Kong islet is the centre of Far East business operations. It is the end of the line for steamship liners and postal services, the departure port for ships that sail between Asia and Europe or America.”

This situation was a result of France’s colonial designs on China. As Britain built up its colonial possessions in Asia over the course of the 19th century, France engaged in what some historians call “semi-colonialism,” using Catholic missionaries in particular to establish a bulwark for French trade. France was the world’s leading importer of raw Chinese silk, for example, which was a big reason why the country opened consulates in 15 Chinese cities in the 19th century, as well as establishing the French Concession in Shanghai in 1849.

In 1884, France launched a war against China, hoping to claim its Indochinese vassal states as its own – likely to serve as a future springboard to an invasion of southern China, as historian Mathilde Kang explains in her book Francophonie and the Orient. France’s victory led to the creation of French Indochina, which included present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and a small portion of Guangxi that France leased in 1898 and named Kouang-Tchéou-Wan or Guangzhouwan. 

As with many European powers, France exploited the raw materials of Indochina — notably rice, coal and rubber — while establishing protectionist economic policies so it could serve as a captive market for French manufactured goods. But the paucity of its ports and that restrictive trade regime only reinforced Hong Kong’s importance as a midpoint for trade. 

“There were harbours in French Indochina but the infrastructure was not as good as in Hong Kong,” says Drémeaux. “The second point is that the taxes and free port aspect of Hong Kong attracted a lot of French traders because French Indochina was under a regime of protectionism. Third, all the great maritime lines were going through Hong Kong. French lines were calling in Saigon and sometimes Haiphong, but most of the important French shipping companies were not calling in Indochina.”

What this meant, he explains, is that “if you wanted to export your goods to indochina, you had to go through Hong Kong. For the French colonial government it was really a problem – Hong Kong was at the same time a rival, they were always struggling against the Hong Kong economy, but it was also a model for infrastructure.”

And it wasn’t simply trade between France and Indochina that went through Hong Kong. Local labour shortages meant France struggled to develop its colony’s infrastructure, and so it recruited masses of Chinese workers. Combined with an already well-established Chinese community in Vietnam and its neighbouring countries, that served to reinforce links with China, which was a far bigger market for Indochinese materials than France – especially rice, for which there was only a small market in Europe but a huge demand in China. (Indochinese rice was used mainly as animal feed in France, and opposition from local grain producers led to gradually decreasing imports.) As historian Jonathan Bone notes in his 1992 paper “Rice, Rubber, and Development Policies,” the economic links between France and French Indochina were often rather tenuous, at least until the global economic crisis in 1929 led to geopolitical and economic shifts that favoured more trade with Europe.

Chinese connections, on the other hand, were more robust. In 1919, trade with French Indochina accounted for 16.9 percent of all trade in Hong Kong, making it the city’s number two economic partner, after China. “We have a tendency to think that only colonists were travelling in the area, invading, conquering, et cetera, but local people were also very active and dynamic,” says Drémeaux. “The Chinese were very important in French Indochina – the most important economic players. This is something we were studying at the moment because we’ve had a very Eurocentric view of trade in this area for quite a long time.”

Most of the goods being transported between French Indochina and Hong Kong were being done so by Messageries Maritimes, a shipping company to which Drémeaux has devoted a book. But there were many smaller players, too, and beyond the big-ticket items like rice and rubber, they all transported a host of materials that were highly sought-after in China: “bamboo, cassia, feathers, galangal, hair, chinaware, shells, star anise, skins, tobacco, silks, curios, wolfram or antimony ore, camphor, hemp or even mats,” writes Drémeaux. Even salt, a product once made in Hong Kong, was largely imported from Indochina.

World War II and the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 to 1975, marked an end to this era of trade and exchange between French Indochina and Hong Kong. But the legacy remains – and as Drémeaux and other researchers dig into this history, there is still more to understand and uncover. 

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