The Steamy East (3)

The China Seas

By Mark Schreiber

Mainichi Daily News
8 September 1986, page 9

Port pidgin language actually became something of an art form. Pidgin English Sing Song, by Charles G. Leland, an author famed for his dialect humor, was published in London in 1910.

"Although the Portuguese were the first to set up a permanent colony in East Asia, their supremacy was to be short-lived. The Dutch, bitter enemies of Spain (and of Portugal as well, which was annexed by the Spanish from 1581 to 1640), launched a major expedition to Java in 1595, and the English were to follow with their own expedition a year later. The first English ships to the East carried with them a letter of introduction to the Emperor of China from Queen Elizabeth 1. Unfortunately, no one knows what became of those three English ships, except that they vanished without a trace.

"Distraught at the prospect of losing prospective Asian markets to the Dutch, a group of London merchants petitioned the crown for assistance. This resulted in the 15-year charter of "The Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies." Better known as the East India Company, it received a new perpetual trading monopoly from King James I in 1609, after which it embarked on a course which was to change history.

"The 1630s to the 1840s were the golden era of the China Traders, as English, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish sailed up and down the China coast, often ignoring Chinese restrictions on trade as they exchanged their various goods for tea, silks and rhubarb, the latter much in demand as a purgative. Amoy, Fujian Province, was one of the major trade centers; other ships sought goods at the ports of Swatow, Ningpo and across the straits in Taiwan.

"But the center for large-scale trade remained Canton, where the Peking government assigned a hoppo (trade commissioner) and allowed the "fan qui" (foreign barbarians) to set up "factories," which were really basically warehouses, in an isolated area of Canton City. Western women were forbidden, and family men had to leave their wives and children in nearby Macao during the trading season

"As Chinese were prohibited to teach their language to foreigners, the co-hongs (Chinese merchant traders), Western sailors and traders worked out a lingua franca known as pidgin, a mixture of English, Portuguese and Chinese that came to be the language of business (the word "pidgin" itself is derived from the English word "business") throughout Eastern ports.

"Pidgin, nearly extinct today except for a variety spoken in Papua-New Guinea, is a fascinating tongue, and many samples of instructions on its usage can be found in travel guidebooks published before World War II. "Get me a rickshaw" is "Catchee my one piece rickshaw;" while "Tell the cook to prepare dinner for three today" is "talkee cook three piecee man dinner." Pidgin words easily still recognized today include "joss" (luck); "kumshaw" (a tip or bribe); "chop-chop" (at once); "godown" (a warehouse); and the catch-all term when things never, seem to go right - "maskee" (never mind, forget it).

"A number of novels concentrate on the exciting - and often perilous - life of a sea trader on the China Coast. One of the earliest examples to this reporter's knowledge is a curious old book, my copy of which is undated, entitled "A Cruise In Chinese Waters, Being the log of "The Fortuna." This book, whose contents suggest it was written about the time of the Taiping Rebellion (mid-19th century) represents one of a select number of old novels about the adventuresome seamen who plied the waters off the coast of China. As one story by Captain Augustus F. Lindley begins,

"My Queen Mary was a smart little lorcha of one hundred tons burden, and shortly before the great river, the... Yangtse Kiang, was opened to foreigners by the jealous Government of China, I was foolish enough to venture on a trading trip up its almost unknown, and comparatively unexplored waters ....

"Several other books introduce the days on the China coast in the years just prior to the Opium War. English author James Leasor's 1973 novel Mandarin Gold is the story of one Robert Gunn, a young ship's doctor who prevails over some forn-ddable rivals to establish the Mandarin-Gold trading company in 1833. Further accounts of Dr. Gunn's adventures followed in Leasor's sequels, The Chinese Widow (1975) and Jade Gate (1976).

"Many of the merchants were aware of what the drug opium did to its users and for moral reasons eventually came to oppose its sale. E.V. Thompson's 1981 novel The Dream Traders is about one such man, Luke Trewarne, a Cornish trader who fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a hoklo, a Chinese water gypsy.

"The China Coast remained hazardous long after the founding of the colony of Hong Kong and other concessions at other treaty ports from the 1840s onward. Piracy - kidnapping, robbery and murder - was rampant. Those wishing to read of true accounts of Chinese piracy - which extended well into the present century - will find a 1932 work of nonfiction, Vampires on the China Coast that amply demonstrates the hazards risked by the old-time seagoing traveler.