Monday, November 28, 2005

Ketchup and the Manufacturing Myth

Hong Kong, according to conventional wisdom, went through three phases of development. The first basically lasted a century, from 1841 to 1941, and comprised the "entrepot port" period, when Hong Kong made its wealth from trade, and trade alone. The second was after World War II, when the Shanghainese and other mainland entrepreneurs fleeing the Communist takeover of China came to Hong Kong and set up factories. This was the "manufacturing" phase.

The third phase of course started in the 1980s when China was opened to foreign investment. the factories swiftly shifted from Hong Kong to Guangdong province, leaving the former city with the more value-added tasks of logistics, services and finance. This, so far, has been the 'service hub' phase (though some shops and restaurants in the city may occasionally make you wonder).

However, there has been some good recent research done that shows that this generalization has been overdone. There has been a strong degree of manufacturing activity that began in the 1920s and 1930s; however, much of it slowed or ceased altogether during the war, and it was when the northern immigrants came and found activity at a standstill that they revived an industry. The British colonials saw the Shanghainese entrepreneurs as an ideal class of collaborators (particularly since quite a few of the Hong Kong Cantonese had in turn collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation). They therefore went along with the story that it was this class of Shanghainese entrepreneurs that were responsible for Hong Kong's postwar recovery.

As being part-Shanghainese myself, I was nurtured on this historical narrative as well. And certainly to a good extent it is true that the Shanghainese entrepreneurs, particularly in the textiles businesses, played a major role in enlarging and enriching Hong Kong's industrial sector.

Yet to be fair to the older Cantonese inhabitants, it may be only fair to play a 'what if' game - What if the Japanese Occupation had never happened? Would the existing manufacturers not have been wiped out or had their factories nationalized? It is difficult to say, as always, in hypotheticals, but it certainly is worth thinking about.

Particularly since I stumbled upon a report by Governor John Pope-Hennessy from 1881, demonstrating that there were already manufacturing businesses here in Hong Kong, thriving, in the late 19th century. Granted, they were not Ford assembly lines, but few factories in those days were. Consider this quote from a report by the Governor:
There is another question that we may fairly ask. It has often been said, and there is hardly a directory or guide relating to Hongkong in which you do not see it recorded, that Hongkong has no local manufactures whatever. Is that true? Well, on turning to the census returns, I find many local Chinese manufactures in this Colony. Bamboo workers have increased from 93 in 1876 to 121 in 1881; Boat builders, from 48 to 110; Carvers, from 59 to 70; Cigar makers, from 21 to 31; Engineers from 10 to 121, and Gold beaters from 41 to 60. Glass manufacturers appear for the first time; there are now 16 in the Colony, and I believe at this moment the glass manufactory to the west of the town is capable of turning out such glass as some of the European storekeepers here are themselves prepared to sell; and when a service of glass may get injured, they can now send to our local glass manufactory and get tumblers to replace those broken in the set. I find image makers have increased from 10 to 15, lantern makers from 50 to 63, leather box makers from 39 to 53, lemonade and soda-water makers from 28 to 30. Watch manufacturers did not appear in the former census; they now number 13. Oar makers have increased from 30 to 43. Opium dealers have declined from 108 to 103, but that is not coincident with any decline in the revenue the Government of Hongkong derives from the monopoly of prepared opium, which was $132,000 in 1877, but was sold in 1879 for $205,000 a year. Paper box makers have declined from 21 to 10, and rattan workers from 596 to 448. Of rifle makers we have five in the Colony. Sail and rope makers have increased from 100 to 141, and sandal-wood dealers and workers, from 74 to 76.
Pope-Hennessy's list goes on and on, to make his point, but I rather enjoyed his anecdote about Hong Kong's secret sauce:
I went with [Mr. Kwok Acheong] and two or three other Chinese gentlemen interested in the factory in Yau-ma-ti, to examine the factory, which was in a more or less rude state, the buildings not being then completed [three years ago]. I was glad to see what they were doing. In addition to making soy, they made ketchup for the European market, and they had also a manufactory for preserving fruits. Now, the ketchup is sent in hundreds of barrels every year direct from Hongkong to a well-known house in London, - that well-known provision merchant whose good things most of us have, from time to time, enjoyed. He sends out thousands of little bottles of his ketchup to Chinese as well as to Europeans storekeepers here, so that, in short, the ketchup we consume as English ketchup is manufactured by Chinese in Hongkong, sent to England, and this famous provision merchant in England returns it to us for retail. I am bound to add, that the latest advices are that the peculiar article which is produced by the Chinese manufacturer at Yau-ma-ti was regarded at the recent sales in London as the best in the market, and our little local manufactory is very successful.
Well, there you have it. Manufacturing, contrary to popular belief, did not begin in Hong Kong in 1949, with the late Mr. Kwok and his partners having beaten the Heinzes to the punch. And for all of you orthodox British spelling fanatics, please do note that the Governor's spelling of the condiment 'ketchup' conforms to the American standard, rather that referring to some sort of feline comestible or simply, boringly, 'tomato sauce'.

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