Compradors in British Hong Kong

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A review of The City of Intermediaries: Compradors in Hong Kong from the 1830s to the 1880s, by Kaori Abe

Kaori Abe’s Ph. D. dissertation offers an excellent examination of the emergence and consolidation of the comprador system in Hong Kong from the 1840s to the 1880s. Abe argues that British colonial rule in Hong Kong was based on the coordination and intermediation of various groups existing in Hong Kong. This system of intermediation and negotiation was coordinated by “compradors” – a new group of Chinese managerial elites working for the colonial government and foreign business firms emerging in Chinese treaty ports in the late nineteenth century. The compradors, often educated in Western schools and fluent in English, worked as the brokers of interests between the colonial administration and European merchants, on the one hand, and the Chinese community in Hong Kong on the other hand. While playing the role of the intermediary that was essential in the maintenance of the colonial system, the compradors became wealthy and influential in the British colony.

Abe’s work builds on the insights provided by Hao Yenping’s pioneering work on compradors in Chinese treaty ports in the late nineteenth century, which highlights the multiplicity of the prominent compradors’ roles as merchants, intellectuals, and leaders of the Chinese community (The Comprador in Nineteenth Century China: Bridge between East and West (1970). Abe also continues the recent scholarly examination of the function of Chinese elites as intermediaries between the colonial government and the Chinese community in late-nineteenth-century Hong Kong, exemplified by Elizabeth Sinn’s Power and Charity: A Chinese Merchant Elite in Colonial Hong Kong (2003). In five chapters, The City of Intermediaries examines in chronological fashion the origin and activities of the Hong Kong compradors as well as their relations with the British and Qing Empires in the late nineteenth century.

Chapter 1 examines the emergence of the comprador merchants in southern China in the mid-eighteenth century. Originally, the comprador (Chinese maiban) was one of three groups of intermediaries that the Qing government licensed to accommodate foreign merchants coming to trade in Canton, the only Chinese port open to international traders. The other two groups were 1) the licensed foreign trader, the hong merchant, and 2) translators (tongshi). The compradors performed various functions for foreign merchants – supplying provisions, keeping the accounts of their factory house, and handling business transactions between foreign traders and Chinese hong merchants. Privatization of this licensed comprador system began in 1830 as the smuggling of opium and other illegal articles increased in the Pearl River Delta. The increasing number of foreign ships involved in the contraband trade anchored at various locations outside Canton provided new opportunities for unlicensed actors. The official comprador system finally came to an end when the Qing government’s monopoly on foreign trade in Canton was lifted after the Opium War (1839-1842).

Chapter 2 examines the emergence of a new group of compradors working in the British colonial administration in Hong Kong from the 1840s to the 1860s. Referred to as “government comprador” by Abe, they worked as official and unofficial staff members of various institutions comprising the colonial government, including the British Navy, Post Office, and Colonial Treasury. They also worked as privately hired hands of high ranking colonial officials. They used their connection to the colonial government and the information they gained while working in the government to expand their sideline businesses such as real estate management. However, these government compradors would soon lose ground in Hong Kong. The numerous charges of corruption levied against them resulted in their losing credibility as intermediary elites representing local Chinese society. The colonial administration’s introduction of a new employment system, which hired British official fluent in Chinese and Cantonese, further limited the scope of activities of the government compradors. However, most responsible for the decline in the influence of government compradors was the rise of new leaders of the Chinese community in Hong Kong, namely, “company compradors,” – wealthy, influential, and semi-independent manager-intermediaries working for large foreign banks and firms beginning in the 1860s.

Chapter 3 examines the formation of company compradors. Most hailing from Xiangshan county in Guangdong Province and overseas Chinese communities, the company compradors were primarily educated in Christian schools and fluent in English. They worked as cashiers, bankers, agents, and heads of Chinese staffs within foreign firms. Running the “comprador office” or “comprador department” of famous foreign banks and companies such as Jardine Matheson & Co. and the Oriental Bank Corporation, company compradors gathered information about the local market for foreign merchants; they also helped the foreign merchants in various business transactions – purchasing, storing, and shipping Chinese goods. They were not merely Chinese staff members of foreign firms, however. They also concurrently ran their own external businesses. For instance, not only did compradors handle the cash transaction of foreign banks and merchants, they also provided loans to foreign firms, effectively serving as native bankers to foreign firms.

Chapter 4 examines the scope and structure of the “external business” operated by company compradors. Typically, the comprador merchants ran Sino-foreign joint ventures based on their ties with foreign merchants. The most important sectors of comprador business in this regard were shipping and sugar refining. However, as a whole, comprador business was characterized by its diversity. In addition to shipping and sugar refining, they also invested heavily in the land property business in particular, operating real estate companies and managing hotels. Another important characteristic of the comprador business was its international scope. Especially those compradors with experience in overseas Chinese communities from Southeast Asia to America built impressive international networks that linked various locations including China, Australia, Southeast Asia, Japan, and America.

Chapter 5 examines the compradors’ activities as leaders of the Chinese community in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong compradors ran various Chinese associations such as native place associations and temple committees. They also participated in the operation of the hospital for Chinese (Tung Wah Hospital), a joint project between the colonial administration and the Chinese community. Their role as leaders of Chinese migrants in turn elevated their position within larger colonial society in Hong Kong. This helped them secure influential political positions within the colonial government such as unofficial membership in the Legislative Council. At the same time, the compradors also maintained productive relations with the Qing government. Especially after the Self-Strengthening Movement began in China in the 1860s, Hong Kong compradors frequently contributed to famine relief in China and purchased official positions from the Qing government. However, in the final analysis, the Hong Kong compradors’ willingness to cooperate with the Qing was more limited than their willingness to work with the British colonial government. In the end, in the British colony of Hong Kong, the connection with the British government was much more important for the success of the comprador business.

The system of intermediation coordinated by the compradors was firmly established by the 1880s and continued to function until the mid-twentieth century. However, a decline in the influence and wealth of the compradors began almost as soon as it was established. Perhaps worried about a conflict of business interests, foreign firms increasingly limited their comprador associates’ external businesses. At the same time, some Japanese firms even trained their own staffs in the Chinese language in order to directly handle business transactions with Chinese merchants. Furthermore, as the compradors’ sons and grandsons became lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, they emerged as the new leaders of the Chinese community and replaced compradors as the chief intermediaries in Hong Kong.

All in all, by examining the comprador merchants and their contribution to British colonial rule in Hong Kong, The City of Intermediaries sheds new light on the complex, multilayered nature of European colonialism in Chinese treaty ports in the late nineteenth century. In so doing, Abe opens up an opportunity to examine the history of Hong Kong as well as that of Chinese treaty ports within the broader context of global history. The picture of the comprador elites emerging from Abe’s study is reminiscent of the “native” collaborators, especially merchants, who played crucial role in the expansion of European empires in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea since the 1500s. These resilient and resourceful Asian merchants were willing and able to utilize the expanding European empire to advance their own commercial agenda at the turn of the twentieth century. What Abe’s excellent study does is to show that China was not an exception to this broad pattern of European colonialism in Asia.

Kwangmin Kim
Department of History
University of Colorado, Boulder
kwangmin.kim@colorado.edu

Primary Source
National Archives, Kew Gardens, UK
Jardine Matheson Archive (Cambridge University Library)
Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank Group Archives (HSBC Holdings, London)
Hong Kong Public Record Office
China Mail

Dissertation Information
University of Bristol, 2014. 238 pp. Primary advisor: Robert Bickers.

Image: Accountants or businessmen by Lai Afong c1890s, University of Bristol Historical Photographs of China (Wikimedia).