“The Dragon and the Eagle”, exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum

HK Maritime Museum

Western complaints about Chinese-manufactured copies are nothing new. In 1801, a certain Captain John E Swords approached Gilbert Stuart to purchase a copy of the painter’s famous portrait of George Washington. Stuart, who had burned before, extracted a promise from Swords as a condition of the sale that he would have no further copies executed.

A Canton-produced reverse-glass copy of Gilbert Stuart's George Washington
A reverse-glass copy of Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington

But Swords, in the words of a lawsuit filed against him by Stuart,

 

did shortly afterwards take the same with him to China and there procured above one hundred copies thereof to be taken by Chinese artists and hath brought the same copies to the United States, and proposes to vend the same to your orator’s great injury.

 

Swords had indeed taken the painting to Canton and had copies painted on glass. Stuart won the suit. But a Canton-produced reverse painting on glass copy of the familiar likeness can be seen at the current special exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Highlights include an example of John Hancock’s john hancock.

John Hancock
A famous signature

“The Dragon and the Eagle: American Traders in China” is yet another in a long series of well-organized and well-displayed exhibitions at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. It contains paintings, porcelain, furniture, papers, instruments and other objects that display the commercial interaction between the United States and China. Pieces have been sourced from such institutions as the Metropolitan and Philadelphia Museums of Art, the Peabody Essex Museum and Harvard Business School and well as a number of Hong Kong and American collections.

Chinnery's portrait of Mowqua
Chinnery’s portrait of Mowqua

Highlights include a clutch of paintings by the Macau-based George Chinnery, including the famous 1828 portrait of the Chinese merchant Mowqua—which really should be on permanent display—as well as portraits of the American Harriet Low, Benjamin Chew Wilcocks (or Wilcox) and a tanka boatwoman. Paintings of ships abound, as might be expected, as do so-called China trade paintings but there is also an incongruous rendering in oils of a scene from The Taming of the Shrew by Chinese painter Sunqua.

Cup showing the Philadelphia Waterworks c1820-30 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Cup showing the Philadelphia Waterworks c1820-30 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Some of the smaller pieces are the most fun: on a ship’s register for the schooner “Sally” from 1784, one can the see the prominent john hancock (or “signature” for non-Americans) of then Massachusetts governor John Hancock. There is a made-to-order porcelain cup and plate from the third decade of the 1800s whose design consists of a rendering of the Philadelphia Waterworks. American civil bureaucracy evidently set in fast.

The shadow of the Sino-American trade war is never far away.

Politics, even (or perhaps especially) in museums, is never far away. The exhibition is being held in the shadow of the smoldering Sino-American trade war; republican American traders are portrayed as different that their imperial British cousins. “Although some Western merchants were involved in opium smuggling,” goes one of the exhibition’s descriptive panels, naming no names, “American merchants including Nathan Dunn, Olyphant & Co and Wetmore & Co expressed their firm opposition to such acts.”

It is true that America, unlike Britain, had products that were in actual demand in China, notably ginseng and Pacific sea otter pelts—indeed, the latter was almost hunted to extinction to supply Chinese demand for fur—and thus had some alternatives. The museum has displays of these and other products.

Another panel, somewhat plaintively in light of the current impasse, draws a line between Chinese tea, the British trade monopoly thereof, the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. “This victory finally freed the Americans from British colonial rule,” it reads, making the Revolution sound like a sort of Brexit-in-reverse, “and cleared the barricade to America’s economic freedom.”

The past, it has been said, is a foreign country. Not always, this exhibition seems to reply.

Then as now, America had China do its manufacturing: housewares, fabric, furniture were sourced by American companies for sale to American consumers. The heyday of American manufacturing seems to have been an interregnum between periods of intense outsourcing. The recycling of Chinese trade surpluses into American capital investments is also nothing new: the Chinese merchant Howqua was an early investor in American railroads.

But the exhibition also illustrates, perhaps inadvertently, the subtle development of China as a style-setter to a style-taker: older products are closer to Chinese models, but designs set by American purchasers slowly begin to take over, culminating not just in porcelain displaying the highlights of American civic engineering, but also in a dainty 19th-century parasol, while some of the later Chinese designs begin to display the sort of kitsch one can still find at shops frequented by tourists.

The past, it has been said, is a foreign country. Not always, this fine and attractive exhibition seems to reply.

 

“The Dragon and the Eagle: American Traders in China” continues at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum through 14 April 2019

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.