Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Thanksgiving in Hong Kong

Image of Cantonese BBQ pork being sold from a small store in an alley, in Hong Kong.
Dear Gentle Reader,

Yesterday, I was asked what we have for Thanksgiving in Hong Kong.

This is a more difficult question to answer, for numerous reasons, than you might have expected.

You need to remember that the Hero of this blog, Pommes the Wonder Cat, eats fish.

So, from Pommes' perspective, Fish and Chips is mandatory before anyone starts to even talk about thanks. And the only giving he wants is a one way transaction. Fish to Chips.

(Pommes, the name, is German for chips, what my American friends would call french fries, and what my French friends would call pommes frites.)

And, when it is time to start thinking of thanks, Pommes' idea of giving of thanks is an insouciant feline sniff of 'whatever' whenever that fish has *finally* come his way.

I should note, of course, that Pommes does remove his claws from your leg when you actually hand him the fish; for that, your humble scribe always gives thanks.

The Heroine of this e-house is German. They don't celebrate Thanksgiving.

Finally, your humble scribe, like the Hero, is Canadian. So, technically, my Thanksgiving was a month or so ago.

So the easy answer would be, we don't celebrate Thanksgiving in this house, at least not in November.

But, that would be a cop-out for the question of what do people eat in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving.

The challenge in answering, however, is that that question must be phrased in the conditional future subjective.

Hong Kong, being, previously, a British colony, never had Thanksgiving as a holiday.

And I seriously doubt that the Chinese will be bringing Thanksgiving, as a holiday, to Hong Kong, or to the mainland, anytime soon.

So, the question has to be framed as "What would people in Hong Kong have for a Hong Kong Thanksgiving, if and when they were to celebrate such a thing?".

The Mayflower never stopped in port here.

Hong Kong never had Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, only to, upon arrival, rob the locals of their cached food and desecrate local burial grounds.

True, Hong Kong had economic migrants, sojourners mostly, that came to Hong Kong for quick cash.

And, sure. Hong Kong's sojourners were willing to rob the locals, and each other, likely, and, presumably, had few concerns for local funerary, or other, customs.

But, there was no Mayflower compact to help us figure out when to start considering setting a date for a Hong Kong Thanksgiving.

And, before we set a menu, we do need to set a date for a Hong Kong Thanksgiving--to know what would be in season.

But, there was a compact that we can go by. One that, in some ways, mirrors the cross-cultural talks between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans...

The earliest agreement that Hong Kong would become British was reached on Jan 20, 1841, during the Convention of Chuenpi.

The Convention of Chuenpi called for the British to remove their men and boats from Chusan and, in return, to receive Hong Kong.

The British negotiator, Captain Charles Eliot, thought the Agreement in Principle would be binding and final so he proceeded to remove his men from the isle of Chusan, southeast of Shanghai, to Hong Kong Island--much farther from both Shanghai and Beijing.

The British landed on Hong Kong Island on Jan 25, 1841 and drank congratulatory toasts. They were thankful for a possession, even if it was a barren rock.

That landing and those toasts were repeated the next day, to be official, at Possession Point on Hong Kong Island.

(Strangely, Possession Point is not signposted anywhere in Hong Kong--I am still searching for clues as to where it was.)

So, maybe one of those two landing dates could be seen as Hong Kong Thanksgiving dates; dates for being thankful for having a harbour, a place to get out of the boats.

Of course the Convention of Chuenpi was renounced by the Chinese and, on Feb 24, 1841, hostilities were resumed by the British, but the British kept Hong Kong, at least until midnight of June 30, 1997.

If I had to choose a date I would go with the unofficial landing, and subsequent libation, of Jan 25.

(Hong Kong has always been a bit unofficial around the edges.)

Having set a date we can now set a menu.

Here, no one celebrates anything with turkey (although the hairy crab festival has just ended).

(Maybe I'll write about hairy crabs next week. Or brothels. They're both related. Take your pick.)

But, returning to the moment, I was asked what we would eat in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving.

MichaelO asked if we would have duck, rather than turkey.

I think not, MichaelO.

I think Hong Kong would go with something more traditional, more historical, and with much more of a kick.

Until Hong Kong finally went cold turkey, the raison d'etre of Hong Kong was opium.

I think a Hong Kong Thanksgiving, to be historically accurate, would have to involve opium.

Possibly shaped like a duck, but then smoked.

Hong Kong, you must remember, was created for one thing only.

The offloading, storage, and transshipment of opium from India into China.

(Sometimes that is shortened, the way things in English can be, to read: Hong Kong, you must remember, was created for one thing only--money.)

Opium helped stem the phenomenal outflow of silver from the British treasury to China.

The Chinese State had refused to purchase any goods from foreigners. The Chinese were happy to export only their own goods, and to receive silver, only, in payment.

The Chinese State controlled all importation and exportation so, for industrial goods, at least, what the State said, went.

The British, like the rest of Europe, liked many things produced in China, but the imperial coffers started to empty themselves, at an accelerating rate, to pay for imports from China.

British merchants then discovered that they could sell Indian opium (especially Bengali opium) to China.

The opium was smuggled into China by British merchants and sold to Chinese partners, illicitly, who completed the logistics of distribution to the masses.

And what did the smugglers receive for their opium? And what did the British Empire receive for its opium, when it sold it in India to private firms?

They received silver.

The British government made money on the sale of opium from its holdings in India and these sales alone reversed the net outflow of silver from the Imperial coffers. Further, that reversed flow of silver became a deluge of silver swamping the British Empire's Imperial treasury.

These revenue inflows afforded the luxuries and development of India, by the British, and of England, and much of the Imperial holdings.

The traders, both British and Chinese, also made fantastic sums.

How much opium are we talking about?

In 1830, the trade of opium into China was around 19,000 chests per year. By 1838, that trade had grown to around 40,000 chests of opium.

A chest held a picul of opium. This translates to between 60-65 kilograms, or 132-143 pounds, ish, of opium, per chest.

At 40,000 chests we are talking about up to 2,600 metric tonnes of opium, or 5.72 million pounds of the stuff.

In Hong Kong, today, and then, what matters is money.

And 5.72 million pounds of opium, per year, brings in a lot of money.

That is what drove the trade, and the founding of Hong Kong, and what people, Chinese and Western both, were thankful for, even when they found the opium trade distasteful.

Opium made the wheels of Empire spin round.

In North America, at Thanksgiving, after consuming the tryptophan glut that is turkey dinner, people pass out.

In Hong Kong, after filling your lungs and gut with opium, you pass out too.

And there is no need to eat.

That is why Opium den habituées are so thin and why Yves Saint Laurent never had to round up plus-sized models for his Opium fragrance collection.


Short question with a long answer.

What would a Hong Kong Thanksgiving look like if there were to be one?

It would look just like an American turkey glut, but with less food, skinnier bellies, and only opium on the menu.

I hope that helps.

Chris iTunes

Click to hear 'Nuevo Mexico' from the album 'Opium' by Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra


murat11 said...

Brother Chris: What a droll rave you laid down for us all. I love how all the merry talk takes a quick left down the alley into opium territory: entrancing, for sure.

In keeping with the cherished American tradition of reneging on treaties and other agreements, my vote for Thanksgiving would be February 24th, when the convention collapsed.

Can't wait for the hairy crabs and the brothels! Maybe for Weihnachten?

As we are the ones giving Thanks today, let me thank you for your wonderful friendship and all the wonderful cards you have sent my way. Your words and wisdom and the wicked-wondrous slaloms of your prose are blessings to us all. My best to you, the Heroine, and His Lordship, the sniv(ff)eling Hero.

murat11 said...

Chris: Just ran across your pascalian / paschalian lamentations over at Michael's. Fret not: I am many names, mostly of my own choosing: when writing poetry and prose, I am Paschal; when drawing or painting, I am Pascal; when corresponding with Teresa, I am Murat. To the Armenians I met this past weekend, I introduced myself as Pascual.

I share your passion for getting things right, particularly people's names: in my case, there are plenty to choose from, and all of them are cherished.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Murat,

Not a bad call on dates, Murat, although it will always follow Chinese New Year, which is a multi-day glut of food and family--not to be interfered with...

We'll see when the hairy crabs arrive, you are more than welcome for the cards, and your words of praise make me blush.

Pommes is merely keen on knowing where the fish is.

Cats. Go figure.

As per the Pascal, Paschal, Pascual trichotomy you could be a gamboling lamb, a paschal offering, but that seems too naïve for you, to me.

My raising of Pascal, at MichaelO's blog, relates to the engineering joke I tried to slide in about Mohr's circle when suddenly I realized that a Pascal is the SI unit for stress: 1 Pa = 1 Newton (force) per square meter (unit area)...

...And I have never meant to imply that you are a stress case.

Pascual must also relate to Easter, in the Armenian tradition.

Ah. It does.

Maybe, then, you will like the singer that comes up as the music on tomorrow's post.

And thank you for waiving sorrow at my conflation of your name trifecta.

It is a pleasure to have met you via the web.


MichaelO said...

Chris, if I felt for a moment that this dissertation was anything like a chore for you, I would owe you an apology. However, your passion for verbosity is quite evident. And greatly appreciated! By me and others I'm sure.

I suppose it comes from my own ignorance that I asked the question. As all questions might, I suppose. But I made a wrong impression that you were a Yank. Perhaps your Canadian experience living under the umbrella of American media has shaped this. But you appear to me, anyway, to have a very "American" social perspective. First impressions what they are.

I am happy to know that much more about you! And this essay is rich in cultural world history! Thanks for taking the time and effort to enlighten me.

And go easy on the opium ducks, eh?

Fireblossom said...

Bang a gong, get it on la la la.

Oh, sorry, you caught me singing.

For whatever reason I always find stories of the British Empire engaging, whether they deal with Hong Kong, India, Burma, or wherever. I suppose part of me wants to transplant in time and twirl my parasol as I walk around the local English enclave.

I suppose there is always the press release about how things are run, and then the reality beneath that. The stated mission to "make the world England" doesn't mention opium. Bad form if you did, sir! ;-)

PS--I must be losing my grasp of my high school French. I remembered "pommes" meant apples. "Pommes de terre" apples of the earth, or potatoes. Anyway, that's why my earlier haiku had Pommes the Wonder Cat loving apples and applejack.

Teresa said...

Bravo! Bravissimo! Encore! Encore! (Virtual Standing Ovation, which means I'm just imagining it from my comfortable chair.)

When you get to hairy crabs, I'll see if I can find a way to get you a Hakka song about the hairy crabs and the shrimp going to pay their respects to the Lobster Dragon Emperor. I liked today's opium-laced song. It was quite peaceful and relaxing.

I am so glad to know that Sir Couch Potato Cat can be induced to "unclaw" (feline equivalent of unhand) your leg, if you bribe him with some fish. He has certainly assimilated well into Hong Kong and Chinese culture. (You might want to remind him that I do like ketchup on my Pommes Frites, hairy or otherwise.)

After reading your magnificent exposition on the origins of the British in Hong Kong, I realized that I had been an idiot. I always wondered how Hong Kong had gotten the name "Fragrant Harbor." I once foolishly thought that it was from all the incense burned to Matsu and other deities to protect the sailors putting out to sea. Now, I realize that it must in part come from the sickish-sweet fragrance of the opium dens (burning duck-sized bricks of the drug). But even more it comes from the elusive smell of money, lots and lots of money.

Then I also realized why I had missed out on that smell. It seems that only certain breeds of people can catch the scent of money to be made in obscene rivers and torrents. These people, like bloodhounds, track down the "sweet spots" in the world, the places with market dissonance where they can buy low and sell astronimically high. They stay in the spot milking the cash cow until she keels over from exhaustion and the market readjusts itself to a more equitable distribution of costs and prices, or the entire surrounding countryside is wasted like scorched earth.

The money hounds move on to the next "fragrant spot" and repeat the process all over again.

So today on America's Thanksgiving, I am so grateful to you, dear scribe, for providing me the answer to a 26 year old question. Hong Kong is a fragrant harbor, not because it is filled with incense on Chinese holidays, but because it reeks of the elusive scent of silver, perfumed with a hint of the delicately sweet smell of opium smoke!!

I hope you have a wonderful day with many things that make you thankful.


Anu said...

What would be an after-opium special in Hong Kong? . . .

Anu xox

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear MichaelO,

There can rarely be a mea culpa for a question asked, Michael.

As per my loquaciousness, I'm never quite sure what the world at large thinks of verbosity. Strike that. I know very well what the world at large thinks but I try rather hard to not be overly concerned.

No worries about the national identity issue. America is not a political/cultural monolith and neither is Canada. And the whole reason why so many Canadians are touchy is that, although there are some deep differences, there are many, many commonalities.

Frequently Canadians are not sure of how to differentiate themselves and thus take offense when the distinctions are missed.

I, generally speaking, am not to worried by these things.

No harm, no foul.

An efriend, Floreta, quoted Ann Frank the other day saying “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.”

I am not sure that I buy what Ann Frank is selling, there, but I do like the sentiment.

It is a pleasure to meet you. Welcome back to the house anytime. And bring your guitar. Or come join me and the others in the kitchen.

Dear Fireblossom,

Pax Brittanica covered heady times, and popular times, too; the very definition of jingoism.

But you might be surprised by morpine's acceptance in the English upper classes of the day. Think laudanum, a tincture of morphing (10%) and alcohol (90%) [Doh. It is a tincture, so that pretty much has to be the measure.]

Think of "Ode on Indolence" by Keats or "The Lotos Eaters" by Tennyson... ...or "Kubla Kahn; or, A vision in a dream. A fragment." by Coleridge.

Or, bang a gong, get it on, the ether and opium parties (orgies) in the Victorian country houses...

As to your French, no worries.

You are correct on both apples and potatoes. But, chips are pommes frites, or even frites, in France. OK. The full name is pommes de terres frites, but I have only seen that once, so is it the rightful full name (I think not), or merely an archaic name?

It's just the way it is.

Like cough, slough, through, hiccough, though, tough, plough, nought etc. in English...

Dear Teresa,

You are very welcome.

I know nothing about this song that you speak of.

Do tell... Or prepare to tell after I do a piece on hairy crabs, which is probably being made too much of, about now.

As regards Pommes (ooh, clever jibe with couch potato... I'll tell him it was another Teresa that said that, when you come and visit), I think he only removes the claws of despair because he cannot, otherwise, eat the fish. There is no inducement here, sadly.

And your impromptu essay on scenting money---I love it.

Fantastico. I hope your day was wonderful, too.

Dear Anu,

Sleep, blessed sleep, would be the after opium special. Opium, if you read Keats or Tennyson or others, slows your pulse, your sense of time, and induces a deep lethargy...

Tschuess all,

Teresa said...

Dear Chris,

I felt I needed to come back here to set the record straight on the ability of Chinese to come up with some traditions for Thanksgiving. Here in America on Thanksgiving, as I was reminded today when my phone began to ring and ring, many in the Chinese community call people who have done them favors to say "thank you!" A very Asian networking, relational take on our very interesting holiday.

Thought you might be interested.

I enjoyed writing about the sweetly scented money. And I have been pondering the origins of the name Hong Kong for more than a quarter of a century. I'm glad to finally have an explanation that makes sense to me on many levels.


Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Teresa,

I am very interested by that. How very Chinese, especially the concept of paying off the debt of gratitude with thanks... so similar to paying monetary debts off by lunar year end in time for the new Chinese New Year.