Inside the Wattis Collection: A Famous Junk and a Mysterious Mandarin

British antiquarian Jonathan Wattis has been based in Hong Kong for nearly 40 years.   He began collecting ephemera shortly after his arrival. These are items of short-lived usefulness, tickets, concert programmes, menus, postcards, paper pieces often thrown away – or kept, taking on a historic resonance decades later. In his latest exhibition, Wattis goes right back to 1842 and through to 1983 with a collection of pictures, ephemera and memorabilia. And there is a story behind each one of them.

To the eyes of the curious, how exotic it must have been on a drizzly day on the banks of the River Thames in London suddenly to see a Chinese wooden trading junk at anchor, with three masts, 160 feet long and weighing 720 tonnes. The Keying was named after the Chinese Imperial Commissioner who negotiated a number of peace treaties with Western powers, including the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, the terms of which ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain. The junk was a massive attraction in the late 1840s. Tens of thousands of people visited the vessel, including Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington and the author Charles Dickens – who dismissed it as a “floating toyshop” and portrayed Chinese culture as stagnant and trivial. 

Lithography of the Chinese Junk Keying, 1848, Jonathan Wattis collection

The junk had been purchased in China in 1846 and smuggled to Hong Kong by a group of investors, whose plan was to make it the first Chinese junk to sail from Hong Kong to London and to recoup the costs by opening the junk to visitors who could admire the ship, the crew, a theatrical troupe that was also on board, and a mandarin named Hesing or Xi Sheng who wore full Chinese regalia. (Whether he was a real mandarin, the name used for imperial Chinese cadres, is a little unclear.  Maritime historian Stephen Davies, who wrote a book about the Keying, says Hesing worked in the shipping industry. Hesing appears in a coloured lithograph portrait created in Boston.) 

 The junk departed Hong Kong in December 1846 under Captain Charles Kellett, and a crew of 12 British and 30 Chinese sailors after being visited by then-governor John Davis, key members of the community and the Commander in Chief. It would prove to be a troubled voyage. When the junk rounded the Cape of Good Hope in March 1847, she was already behind schedule due to a hurricane; she then dropped anchor on the remote island of Saint Helena, known as the site of Napoleon’s second exile. Afterwards, winds blew the Keying off-course, so Kellett decided to take the junk to New York and Boston first to exhibit her there.   

A lithograph shows her in New York Harbour on July 13, 1847. She was there for a while, through an icy winter, and thousands came to visit. But the ship was about to lose most of her manpower when 26 Chinese crew members took the captain to court over arrears in wages. They won the case, were paid and left. On the plus side, the junk was a marvel to behold, and Hesing would stand majestically on the bow to please the crowds. He also did a spot of advertising. In addition to his job as the mandarin, it appears he was also a dab hand at mixing teas. His face and costume started to appear on tea bearing his own name. It was a good advertising opportunity to sell Hesing tea as a souvenir for visitors and another way for the junk to make money.

Lithography of Hesing, mandarin, seaman, tea preparer and unofficial ambassador, circa 1850, Jonathan Wattis collection

The Keying arrived in London in 1848 where the vessel was so popular there could be 5,000 visitors in a day. Queen Victoria was so impressed she had some special medals made to commemorate the junk. Both depictions of the Keying and Hesing at Wattis Fine Art are lithographs – a print that would have been done after a drawing or watercolour. The lithographer would then draw it on a waxy surface in reverse and then print, producing a negative to be printed positive.   

In 1851, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, helped create the Great Exhibition in the purpose-built Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, where all countries of the world were represented, including China. How each country was depicted will surely have reflected the stereotypical social mores of the time and a Victorian curiosity for the exotic and foreign.  At the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a painting of a pavilion at the exhibition. This huge portrait shows all these representatives from all over the world, so hundreds of people and there at the centre is Queen Victoria. And not so far away from her is Hesing: mandarin, seaman, tea preparer and now, for the purposes of the exhibition, unofficial Chinese ambassador.  

It was a long journey for the man – and for the Keying. The original idea of the enterprising businessmen in Hong Kong was that the junk would be converted into a floating museum. While that didn’t happen, the Keying was still visited by huge numbers of people. She was eventually scrapped in Liverpool. 

Hong Kong Around and About: A Collection of Pictures, Ephemera and Memorabilia 1842-1983 is on show at Wattis Fine Art until June 3, 2023. Click here for more information.

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