The creation of the globe-trotter and his increasing numbers have not been the only cause of the decline in the hospitality for which Shanghai was famous of yore. There has been a great decline in business, and profits are no longer princely; ergo the hospitality must follow the fate of the profits. When telegraphs were not and steamers were rare, a few houses had the most, and practically all, of the trade. Fast steamers were kept solely for the purpose of bringing the market quotations from Singapore and Hong Kong, and some of the most exciting races ever known were between the steamers of rival establishments. The party who knew the quotations for tea, silk, rice, and cotton a day in advance of anybody else had a good point, which he was pretty sure to use to advantage, and by the time the actual figures were known to the public he had the market all his own way.|
For years the firms of Dent & Co. and Russel & Co. operated in this manner. The mails would reach Hong Kong by the Peninsular and Oriental ships, the private boats lay there with steam up, and as soon as they had their letters for Shanghai they were off like race-horses. They had no passengers, no freight, and no mails but their own—nothing that would make an extra burden, and I am even told that their Captains and crews were selected from the smallest men that could be found. Fast as steam and wind could drive them they sped up the coast. At Yangtse Point, the mouth of the river, a swift runner waited, and to him the letters were confided. The steamer did not come immediately to the city, lest some of her sailors or waiters or stokers might be carrying surreptitious messages; she waited below, and leisurely made her way up the Whampoa a day or two later.
On several occasions the pecuniary advantages thus gained were sufficient to pay the entire cost of the steamer and the expenses of her trip. Russell & Co. are said to have cleared $500,000 on one trip, $400,000 on another, and little trifles of $250,000 on several occasions. But the telegraph has changed all that, and the days of races are gone, probably forever. For a few dollars any one may know to-day's quotations in London or New-York, Paris, or St. Petersburg, and no one has any, or at all events much, advantage over another. Before the days of the telegraph all the trade was in a few hands, and no small fry operator had any chance whatever. Now, any one may speculate as much as he pleases, and no great house can crush him out in consequence of exclusive news, sometimes for several days.
I fancy that these old-time monopolists must regard the new state of things with a feeling not unmixed with disgust. How often do they sigh for the days that are gone, and heap maledictions on the new-fangled notions that have captivated and encircled the world!...
The profits are far less than of old, and frequently they are altogether the wrong way. This was the case last season with the tea busines, when the markets of Europe and America were very bad, and nearly every cargo was sold for less than the cost of delivery. Several small houses failed and went out of sight, and larger ones were compelled to make disagreeable entries on their ledgers and balance-sheets. All parties are obliged to operate on small margins, and the days of large fortunes, accumulated in a few years or earned in a single year, seem to be gone, with little prospect of return. Men who formerly laughed thousands to scorn are now glad to consider hundreds and even tens.
Of old, the dinner hour in Shanghai was resonant with volleys from the necks of champagne bottles, and the accumulated corks are said to have required scores of broom-bearing coolies to sweep them up and away. Now one hears only an occasional shot, and there are days when the pickets are altogether silent. The contrast between the old times and the new is very great and not altogether without advantages. Men live more soberly and seriously than was their wont, but there is yet a sufficient amount of dissipation, and the "awful examples" of fast living are decidedly more numerous than is desirable.
The China tea trade has suffered in several ways. First, by the causes I have mentioned, which took the business from few hands and threw it into many, and, by increasing the competition, diminished the profit on each pound or each chest.
When the China tea trade first began, Japan was practically unopened, as the small quantity brought from that country by the Dutch is hardly worth considering. At present Japan sends out a great quantity of tea, and reduces by so much the demand for the Chinese product.
The British Government long ago began the cultivation of tea in India, and labored hard to make the Indian article popular in England. In the last few years the Indian teas have rapidly grown in favor, and are consumed to such an extent as to make a serious inroad upon the Chinese trade. Englishmen in business in China have told me that if the Assam tea and other Indian teas continue to grow in favor as they have already grown, there will be no market in England for Chinese teas by the end of this century.
The exports from Shanghai have declined considerably in the last few years, and though many merchants are confident of a revival, many others are not at all hopeful, and think the probabilities favor a worse rather than a better state of things.
The importing business is likewise not particularly promising, but from all I can gather it is nore so than that of exportation. The English have the lion's share of this, as they have a monopoly of the opium traffic, which annually sends many thousands of Chinese to the grave. The Chinese Government labored long and earnestly to prevent it, as all the world knows, but British cannon compelled China to doom her people to debauchery and horrible death, in order that English trade should prosper. England continues to have the monopoly of the opium trade, and I presume there is no other nation that wishes to take it from her. Then, she has the best of the trade in cloths, iron, steel, lead, and other metals.
The Americans once had a considerable trade in cottons, but a combined effort on the part of the English makers took it away from us. Our marks were counterfeited and placed upon Manchester goods of the poorest quality. These goods were sold as "American" by English houses, and thus our reputation was ruined, and as the same houses had plenty of "English" goods on hand of superior quality, they stole, or rather secured, the trade. I think, from what I can learn, that we could now get a large part of this trade back again if our manufacturers and merchants would make a proper effort. English cottons have greatly declined in quality in the past few years, and there is good reason to believe that we could now undersell them with goods of a better quality than they are furnishing.
The principal American product now imported into China is petroleum, and the demand is yearly increasing. The Chinese have petroleum wells, but make little use of the oil, and are quite ignorant of the mode of refining it.
Of machinery, they take very little, their chief demand in this line being for weighing apparatus and simple machines for agricultural operations. They buy much of our silver and quicksilver, and will probably buy more in the future; they have bought some of our lead, but very little of any other metal. Some of those with whom I have conversed on the subject think that the United States ought to secure a portion, at least, of the lead trade in China, and also that of bar-iron. The consumption of the latter is very great, and if we can send iron to England, as we have already done, and sell it at a profit, we ought to make an effort for the Chinese business.
Last year the foreign imports at Shanghai were 47,000,000 taels [1 tael = 1.3 ounces of silver], in value over $60,000,000; of this amount the United States had about $1,000,000 worth, exclusive of coined silver. Surely, we should be able to make a better showing than this.
T. W. K.
The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1877 was equivalent to $20.17 in 2008.
TIME Magazine, June 10, 1946, p. 32:|
CHINA: Bad Government
The Nationalists were winning China's Civil War. Prospects of Government control of all Manchuria (the sine qua non of a strong, independent China) were brighter last week than at any time since liberation. Yet the news from China was bad—appallingly bad. China was hurtling into economic disaster and political anarchy. Its causes: 1) Communist rebellion; 2) failure of the U.S. to send enough prompt aid; 3) the corrupt inefficiency of the National Government. Last week, TIME correspondent William Gray took a long, hard look at China. His report:
The old quandry—how much to talk about the bank on the verge of its collapse—seems to apply to all of China this week. To tell the truth might start a panic and wreck the bank for certain. Not to do so makes you a conspirator in the eventual bilking. The best hope in such a situation probably is to tell the truth in time to reorganize the institution before disaster.
The most important truth about China is that hardly anybody in China seems to retain any faith in the ability of the present Government to run the nation wisely, well or honestly.
Economically, China is decadent, living by an incestuous economy in which public officials sanction, if they are not leaders in, all depraving business practices of the day. It is an economy of printing-press inflation and Government-supported black markets. The inflation's effect on national morale was seen today in Nanking, when China's Supreme Court judges decided to strike for higher wages. They asked the Government to raise the basic pay of civil servants 1,000 times.
Sovereignity for What? It doesn't seem to matter much now whether a truce (with the Communists) will come or not. Real peace is nowhere in sight. The military prospect is predominance in the field by the Nationalists, and guerilla disruption of communications by the Communists...
Grab and Run. An ardently anti-Communist American lawyer in Shanghai remarked to me the other night: "The Government is not a government. It is a dirty, venal lot of officials trying to get what they can while the getting is good. They have lost their confidence."
Venality, it must be added, extends to Americans too. The desire to grab and run is almost universal in Shanghai today and transcends racial and national lines; the faith that prompts long-term investment is lacking...
Inside the Kuomintang, liberal elements—men unhappily without much power—are starting to demand changes. Founder Sun Yat-sen's scholarly son, Sun Fo, President of the Legislative Yuan, asked Premier T. V. Soong to attend the Legislative Yuan's meeting and answer questions on the economic plight of China. T. V. didn't show up.
Then Sun Fo sent China's highly regarded Kuomintang economist, Ma Yin-chu, the Generalissimo's [Chiang Kai-shek's] old economics teacher (who was confined during the war for his criticism of the Central Government), on to Shanghai to continue the attack on "bureaucratic capitalism." Before such semi-official and private organs as the Chinese Institute of Banking Studies and the Chinese Institute of Agrarian Economics, Ma spoke of the concentration of capital in the Government and the use of public funds for private speculation in commodities and gold—a practice that makes the scandalous a routine matter in China today. Shanghai's Chinese press reported Friday that the police forbade Ma to make a subsequent scheduled speech.
Only a Good Government. What can be done to change all this, and what should America's position be? Our position in China is undeniably bound into our global military strategy, increasingly so because or the worsening of relations with Russia. It is probably this fact that gives confidence to the Kuomintang's bitter-enders. These men smugly ask themselves: What can the Americans do but continue to support the Central Government, in view of the ideological tie between China's Communists and Soviet Russia? They assume that our strategic military position binds us to the Central Government, whether we like its attitude and its economics or not.
On the other hand, another suggestion is being discussed in Kuomintang liberal circles: the U.S. should get into Chinese politics deeply enough to set the Kuomintang house in order—or else the U.S. should get out. The Kuomintang has the military power to preserve itself now, but it cannot forever hold the lid on 400,000,000 unhappy people. If the Americans cannot somehow bring a liberal revolution within the Kuomintang, then it had better clear out. China's Communists are not likely to be halted in their revolutionary tracks by anything but a good government...