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South Street Seaport - "Made in China"?

by Michael Begun

A few miles uptown from the location which we now call the South Street Seaport, an unassuming glass structure housing the Chinese Consulate of New York overlooks the Hudson from its 42nd Street and 12th Avenue perch. Many proud New Yorkers have probably never even noticed this innocuous landmark to a foreign nation on the other side of the world. Isolated, it occupies a solemn waterfront ghetto much less ostentatious than the city's bustling Chinatown. Nonetheless, the building houses an important office with the extravagant title of "The Economic and Commercial Section of the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China." The mission of this office, according to its English website, is "to promote the economic and trade cooperation between China and our consulate states." With the current atmosphere of recalled toys and contaminated imports from the Chinese mainland, it is fair to say that this office walks a perilous tight rope. Despite this, China's economic future in terms of the global economy can perhaps be best summed up with New York's own state motto: excelsior, higher and higher.

Throughout its history, China has often been viewed by the West as a prized trading partner despite various perils. Today, the global community is concerned about the health risks posed by Chinese products; in the past, safety concerns were different. Oftentimes, merchants and explorers alike would risk financial and personal security in order to partake in the lucrative trade with China. Due to shipwrecks, many merchant ships sank with their wares and many more failed to turn even a marginal profit for their investors.

For instance, the American China Trade, spanning from the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1789 to the signing of the Treaty of Wangshia in 1844, was "a perilous business in its early years, one beset by uncertainties"i. These concerns included basic logistical questions necessary in an age before airports such as What route offered the fastest and safest passage to the Orient?

Some are more relatable to modern economics: What could America offer China? What could China offer America? And of course the most capitalistic of inquiries: Is there profit to be made?ii

However, thanks to the efforts of these early trade pioneers, New York would become the most prominent port on the eastern coast due in part to its importance in facilitating mercantile relations between America and China. In other words, without China, there would be no South Street Seaport as it developed during the heyday period. More than any other American city, New York's future would be shaped by the strengthening of a trade relationship with China.iii

In light of the significance of this China Trade, one might naturally assume that China possessed some valuable commodity that America simply could not manage without. At the very least, the goods transported to America should at least have fulfilled some essential need. Perhaps not, as historian Jack Putnam explains the issue:

INSERT Jack Putnam clip on exotica

Why then, has trade with China been so prized throughout the history of Western Civilization? Surely, human beings are not quite so vain as to covet something simply because it lends the owner the air of sophistication and exoticism. Or perhaps they are. Rather than by any essential need, the history of Western trade with China has in fact been promulgated by a desire for exotic, colorful and shiny objects that served no real purpose other than to be beautiful or to increase the owner's pulchritude and charm. Of course, the venture has been lucrative for those merchants who have supplied such exotica to vain consumers; it would be rather foolish to ignore the way in which these trade relations tended to be lucrative for at least one of the parties involved. But without the demand for such things, the supply would never have had any reason to exist.

Just Follow the Yellow Silk Road...

When did this impetus for trade between the West and China emerge? Three years ago, the Asian American Business Development Center, Inc. issued a report on the "New York in China Trade Mission" on efforts toward the goal of "breaking new ground for small and mid-sized companies doing business with China." The report summarizes the overview of the mission in an attempt to draw a crucial parallel to the past:

"On November 5, 2004, a diverse group of sixteen New York business leaders and government officialsrepresenting manufacturing, financial services and investments, management consulting, marketing, communications, imports, jewelry design, education and governmentembarked on a unique ten-day Trade Mission in China. Much as the merchants who journeyed across the historic Silk Road' trade routesextending from China to the Mediterraneanto trade spices, silk, tea and other valued commodities more than 700 years ago, the members of this 21st century trade delegation sought to explore and develop new possibilities for doing business with people from different cultures, traditions and governments."iv

While the Silk Road is a good place to begin searching for the origin of Western trade relations with China, it is necessary to go back significantly further than 700 years ago. For the purposes of this examination, the Western preoccupation for exotic luxury goods from China emerged most profoundly during the heyday of the Roman Empire, an age marked by decadence and overindulgence in sensual pleasures.

Rome and the Silk Trade 90 A.D.-130 A.D.

Although Julius Caesar possessed silk curtains, it was not until the glorious reign of Augustus that trade with China "increased rapidly in consequence" and until its fall, the Roman Empire would never be without the goods it desired from the Far East.v For the most part, what Romans (particularly Roman women) desired was silk, an item defined by Pliny the Elder as merely "a luxurious clothing material for women." Humorously, the Roman Senate saw silk importation as a decadent practice and launched many efforts to end the trade; Seneca the Younger provides the following description in Declamations:

"I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body."

Despite these efforts to end it, the silk trade persisted. After 90 A.D., silk only needed to pass through four states: China itself, the Kushan Kingdom, the Parthian Kingdom, and the Roman The Parthian Kingdom, which had little to offer itself in terms of trade, seemed to have acted as an intermediary between the Chinese and the Romans. For the most part, China desired gold and silver, two precious metals that they possessed very little of and that the Romans were able to maintain from Spain and the Balkans.vii The Chinese also valued such items as coral and glass, which were prized almost solely for their beauty rather than as constructive materials.viii

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of this period was the fact that Chinese traders were often fooled into buying back their own silk by conniving Parthians. There are records of Chinese merchants returning to China with "silk cloth of various colors" under the false belief that this colored cloth was a product of the Roman Empire; this cloth was in fact Chinese silk cloth that had been treated in the workshops of Syria to resemble a "lighter, transparent gauze, often with other materials woven into it," in processes that the Chinese were unaware existed. Parthian merchants became rich on account of Chinese gullibility while Rome poured its treasuries of gold, silver, and other precious stones into Chinese markets for an item that the Chinese thought the Romans already possessed!ix

From Song Junks to Marco Polo ~1100 A.D. -1300 A.D.

By 130 A.D., however, this "lucrative" arrangement came to an end as Roman-Parthian relations deteriorated and Han China began to lose ground to Turkic tribes; the conditions for trade between China and the West during this forty year period were more favorable than they would ever be until the establishment of the Pax Mongolica around the 13th Century.x However, an important development occurred about a century earlier in the time of the Song dynasty when for the first time maritime trade eclipsed overland foreign trade;xi the use of ships well designed for trade, a practice that took off in China for the first time during this period, would have tremendous implications for the future of international trade between New York and China. Chinese junks, such as the one below, were much larger than competing ships from India and the Middle East and had many advances such as "waterproofing with tong oil, watertight bulkheads, sounding lines to determine depth, and stern mounted rudders for improved steering"; at the same time, the compass was perfected by Chinese navigators.xii

These ships most commonly carried Chinese ceramics which merchants were able to trade for such goods as "pearls from the Persian Gulf, ivory from Aden, myrrh from Somalia and pepper from Java and Sumatra";xiii this would mirror future developments in New York's own China trade when Chinese porcelain would serve as one of the most precious imports. To draw yet another parallel, Chinese merchants of this period shared with their later New York counterparts the knowledge that "much money could be made from the sea trade" along with the painful awareness that there were "great risks." Like the merchants who "financed this commerce through multiple small scale investors to limit exposure to limit individual exposure to risk"xiv, Song merchants made efforts not to lose everything on a single voyage by dividing their investment among many ships.xv

The famed Marco Polo later wrote extensively on this thriving Chinese trade. Polo, who reputedly served as a diplomatic advisor to Khublai Khan, was "awed by the wealth and splendor of Chinese cities" and reflected on these impressions of majesty in his writing.xvi As Ebrey relates, "the great popularity of his book in Europe contributed greatly to familiarizing Europeans with the notion of Asia as a land of riches."xvii This depiction would whet the appetites of merchants for centuries to come for products associated with the majestic Orient.

Western Europe and the China Trade- Part 1: ~1400-1600

The history of early modern European trade with China perhaps begins with the nation of Portugal and arguably with the efforts of one man: Prince Henry the Navigator. Many attribute Prince Henry with the responsibility for the discovery of a sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hopexviii, a discovery which ushered in the Age of Discovery. Prince Henry declared that he had three aims in life: "To gain knowledge about unknown seas and countries for the benefit of Christianity, to convert the heathen, and develop commerce," and as Eric Axelson argues, he certainly accomplished the last one.xix The Portuguese first reached the coast of China in 1513; after initial altercations with the Chinese government, they were eventually able to settle on the island of Macao in 1553. In 1557, Portugal obtained an official lease from Beijing to create a settlement on the island. This 1639 illustration depicts the walled trading community they established.

Macao enabled the Portuguese to monopolize trade routes to the orient during the sixteenth century and thus Portugal became the intermediary by which other European nations satisfied their penchants for Chinese exotica: the spices, silks, and porcelains of Marco Polo's account.xx In 1594, however, Portugal closed the port of Lisbon to the Netherlands, prompting the Dutch to risk voyages to China in order to obtain Chinese goods if they truly wanted them. And of course, in spite of their relative Protestant austerity, they craved these luxury items. Early 17th Century Dutch merchants initially used the Portuguese route around the Cape of Good Hope. Scouring the South China Seas from 1602 onwards, the Dutch East India Company sought out silks and porcelain in addition to Indonesian peppers and spices.xxi Since the Dutch were not able to trade directly with China, they would obtain these things by either looting Portuguese ships in the vicinity or by buying them from Chinese traders in nearby European colonies.xxii However, the Dutch soon realized that there must be a less treacherous route by which to conduct trade in Asia and thus began the search for the Northwest Passage, which led to the European discovery of the colony that would become New York.xxiii

For now, let's skip ahead a few hundred years to the New York port ca. 1780, a time after America has won its war for independence from Great Britain.


i. Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society. 1984. P. 23

ii. Ibid. p. 23

iii. Ibid. p. 18

iv. A Tale of Four Cities - A Report on the New York in China Trade Mission

v. Thorley, J. The Silk Trade between China and the Roman Empire at Its Height, 'Circa' A. D. 90-130. Greece & Rome. Vol. 18 Number 1 1971

vi. Ibid. p. 73

vii. Ibid. p. 76

viii. Ibid. p. 77

ix. Ibid. p. 78-79

x. Ibid. p. 80, 71

xi. Ebrey, P. (ed.) Pre Modern East Asia: To 1800. p. 158

xii. Ibid. p. 159

xiii. Ibid. 159

xiv.Ibid. 159

xv. Ibid 159

xvi. Ibid. p. 233

xvii. Ibid. p. 233

xviii. Axelson, E. Prince Henry the Navigatior and the Discovery of a Sea Route to India. The Geographical Journal, Vol. 127, No. 2 (Jun., 1961)

xix. Ibid. 148

xx. Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society. 1984.p. 19

xxi. Boxer, C.R. The Dutch East India Company and the China Trade p. 742

xxii. Ibid. p. 742

xxiii. Howard, D. New York and the China Trade. New-York Historical Society. 1984. Ibid p. 20

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