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