So inevitably, I have arrived at the epilogue to Part II of my Grand Tour, on the Treaty Ports and Imperial Cities of China, Korea and Japan. 15 glittering cities of the Far East – Hong Kong, Macao, Canton, Amoy, Shanghai, Hankow, Tsingtao, Tientsin, Peking, Dairen, Seoul, Nagasaki, Kobe, Yokohama and Tokyo – in 15 months.
It’s been a blast.
I’ve learnt that all of these cities – the treaty ports in particular – are far more similar and connected to each other, than they are to their respective hinterlands.
That makes complete sense since these cities were “founded,” so to speak, by the European powers – the British and the Americans, mostly, with the Portuguese and the Dutch arriving slightly earlier but eking out a precarious toehold, and the French, the Germans and the Russians arriving in the wake of the Anglo-Saxons.
The nature of their “colonization” or “occupation” was slightly different. Some of the cities were Colonies proper – Hong Kong by the British, Macau by the Portuguese, Tsingtao by the Germans, Dairen and Keijo (Seoul) by the Japanese.
Others – particularly the treaty ports in Japan – were Foreign Settlements, wherein a single power, America, had opened up the settlements to trade, and European traders of all races set up shop there. Even the Imperial Cities were not immune to this – with Tokyo having a foreign settlement in Tsukiji, and Peking seeing a Legation Quarter right at the doorstep of the Forbidden City.
Yet others – particularly the treaty ports in China – were Concessions, or territories governed by a single foreign, European power. Shanghai had two concessions – the International Settlement (the British and American) and the French Concession; Hankow had five – the British, the French, the German, the Russian, the Japanese; Tientsin had a whopping 8, including the usual suspects, but also the Belgian, the Italian and the Austro-Hungarian!
What else have I learnt?
I’ve learnt that these cities were at the forefront of modernization in China and Japan. It was through these ports that new technologies and new ways of thinking were brought into these age-old empires of the East.
In particular, for almost 200 years when Japan was sealed off from the world, their only source of learning from the outside was through the Dutch trading settlement of Dejima, in Nagasaki. So much so that the Japanese called ALL Western thought and technology Rangaku 蘭学 – or “Dutch learning.”
In China, Shanghai was the foremost city of its time, a gleaming metropolis of skyscrapers, international finance and big-time entertainment – the New York City of the East. Even in today’s Capitalist China, it continues to lead in attracting new ways (and waves) of business, international trade and entertainment.
I’ve learnt more about myself, of course. In the Southern Chinese treaty ports of Amoy (Xiamen) 廈門 and Canton 廣州, especially, I’ve seen, firsthand, the links between South China, Southeast Asia (known as “Nanyang” 南洋 or the Southern Seas to the Chinese) and Singapore.
In these two port cities – the same traditional Chinese shophouses stand with their five-foot ways and their merchant traders on the ground floor selling, wholesale, everything from toys to grain to Chinese medicine; sending these goods to all over the world as they have been doing for the last three hundred years since they were founded.
In these two cities I ate food that also exists in Singapore and wherever the Chinese are to be found in the world: ha gau, siew mai, feng zhau (my typical dim sum staples) in Canton; oyster omelette, poh piah, fish ball noodles in Amoy.
Of all the cities on the tour, I had a particular feeling for Amoy, primarily because my grandfather hailed from this island-city, and in their lilting Hokkien dialect – which I understood completely and which everyone spoke in the streets and restaurants – I heard his voice speaking to me back home in Singapore.
I also loved the food here best – because it was most like the food I ate in Singapore: oyster omelette, carrot cake, steamed blood cockles, fish ball noodles, poh piah… but I repeat myself.
[Incidentally, there is also a famous street in Singapore known as Amoy Street!]
So what next?
The first thing to consider, of course, is to explore ways to get The Grand Tour II published, as the rightful second volume to my just-published Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia. The way to accomplishing this is unclear since my present own publishers’ own publishing focus and market is Southeast Asia, and East Asia is out of its ambit. I shall have to strategise.
In the meantime, the other thing which is equally important to consider doing, is to continue travelling; to commence Part III of my Grand Tour of Asia, this time in the Ports and Palaces of the Indian Subcontinent… Calcutta, Benares (Varanasi), Chennai (Madras), Colombo, Goa, Bombay, Delhi, Rajasthan, Lahore…
The deserts and the glittering waters of the Indian Ocean beckon…and I find myself dreaming evocatively of sweltering heat and heady spices.
I have decided that by profession, I am to be a traveller and a writer. And in order to do that, I have to continually travel and write.
So I’ll be taking a short break to regroup and rethink The Grand Tour, with a view of returning soon with tales of India. In the meantime, I will continue my usual blogposts here on Dream of a City.
Thank you for your readership and to a brand new journey!