Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Strong Need for Change in 19th C. Hong Kong

A couple of days before, I had posted a story about receiving mail during World War I in Hong Kong. Today I take us three decades further back in time to 1886, when the Honourable Postmaster General, Mr. A. Lister, was the man in charge. He had an extraordinarily interesting account in his report that year of his responsibilities with the mail just as the world was standardizing upon an International Postal Union. An example of his efforts as head mailman:

Siam has entered the Postal Union, and a properly organized Post Office has been opened at Bangkok under the direction of H.R.H. Somdet Phra Chow Nong Ya Tho Chow Fa Bhanurangse Swangwongse Krom Hluang Bhanuphanduwongse Woradej, Minister of Posts and Telegraphs. A kind of unrecognized agency of the Hongkong Post Office used to be maintained in the Consulate General at Bangkok, where Hongkong stamps were sold, and where a letter could be registered. The new service is in every way an improvement, and completes the chain of Post Offices which may now be said to encircle Asia, at least from Aden to Hakodate.
Mr. Lister evidently took pleasure in providing the full name of His Royal Highness of the Kingdom of Siam, although Royal prerogative was not incumbent upon him to do so. Imagine, though, a 19th century postmaster having to get Hong Kong stamps to faraway places so people there could send a letter! Perhaps it was slightly easier in the high age of imperialism, where 20 countries determined the fate of the world.

Mr. Lister'’s headaches were greater, though, with the issue of specie. Hong Kong for most of the 19th century did not have a mint, nor did local banks create a standardized currency. People for that reason used silver dollars and silver coins struck in Britain, or in Mexico. This caused enormous headaches for Mr. Lister, who had also become head of the Hong Kong Treasury and the man in charge, especially around Chinese New Year:

The Treasury.

Hongkong, 8th May, 1883.


I have the honour to suggest that the Crown Agents be instructed to send out to this Colony $50,000 worth of subsidiary silver coinage every half-year, without special instructions for each shipment. The proportion of 20, 10 and 5-cent pieces should be the same as in recent shipments, and no copper should be sent on any account. This plan of a half-yearly supply is the same as that adopted with regard to Postage Stamps, and if vigilance be used against over-stocking it works well.

But there is not the slightest risk of any over-stock of these silver coins, even if we got double the amount suggested. They disappear into the interior of China, and I am informed that they may be seen in the most remote parts of the Kwangtung province, converted into buttons and all kinds of similar small articles. If this coinage were a source of loss to the Government, it would become a very serious question how the absolutely indispensable supply could be kept up, but as we make it at least fiver per cent. On it we can afford its steady absorption into China. Still, in view of the possibility that this correspondence may be submitted to the Imperial Treasury, I should like to say plainly that there coins are not asked for because, incidentally, they yield a profit. We desire the keep the Public Offices reasonably supplied with change, which is still difficult, and to have sufficient small coin left for the wants of the Public, the Army, and the Navy. I pledgemyselff to stop the supply on the very first symptom of the coins falling to a discount, but there is not at present the least reason to anticipate anything of the kind.

Poor Mr. Lister. His first request for standardized specie shipments, from May, went unheeded, so he wrote again in July:

I have the honour to request that the Crown Agents be directed to order and forward to this Colony as soon as possible $60,000 worth of Subsidiary Silver Coin.

My reason for making this requisition at this time is that unless it be forwarded at once the coins will not arrive before the Chinese New Year, at which time there is always a run on them.

I would call your attention to the following facts with reference to the last shipment, which speak for themselves.

$50,000 worth of small coin was ready for issue at this Department on April 17th last. No notice was issued to the public.

The military and naval authorities at once requisitioned for $22,000.

The subsequent issues in the next four weeks were as follows:-- April 21Â….$12,600; April 28thÂ….$4,500; May 5thÂ….$2,100; May 12thÂ….$2,100.

The issue was stopped on May 16th, as the balance on hand (after 4 weeks only) was reduced to $6,800, which it was absolutely necessary to keep for Government use. Since suspending the issue of these coins, the following applications have been refused, within little more than a month, totalling, $16,000.

A trifling incident tends to shew what the scarcity of these coins is. A lady presented herself the other day at the Post Office window and begged to be allowed two dollars worth of small change. She was a stranger, and was unable to get change anywhere in the Town. Had the applicant been a man, I should unhesitatingly have refused, for I had with difficulty spare $80 from the scanty reserve in the Treasury for the wants of the Post Office and Stamp Office.

Had the shipment which is now to hand arrived but a week or two later, we should have had to purchase small coins at a premium of about one per cent for the use of the various Departments.

A profit of about 5 per cent accrues on these coins.

I have the honour to be,


Your most obedient Servant,

A. Lister.

5% though. Not bad at all!

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