“China Bound: John Swire & Sons and Its World, 1816-1980” by Robert Bickers

China Bound: John Swire & Sons and Its World, 1816 – 1980, Robert Bickers (Bloomsbury, May 2020) China Bound: John Swire & Sons and Its World, 1816 – 1980, Robert Bickers (Bloomsbury, May 2020)

The name Taikoo—or Taigu in Mandarin—means “great and ancient” and was adopted by John Swire & Sons in China in the 19th century when the UK company was relatively new and still minor. Historian Robert Bickers’s latest book tells the story of how this Liverpool trading house that initially dealt in cotton, apples and turpentine from America became an international conglomerate centered in Asia.

Today, the Swire group might not exactly be great or ancient, but in Hong Kong, its businesses are almost everywhere. A day navigating the former British colony without encountering one of its products, services or employees is rare. The firm controls flagship carrier Cathay Pacific and, around the Taikoo Shing development alone, has millions of square feet of property and a hotel. Its businesses bottle your cola, sell sneakers and swimsuits, packets of sugar and tea. A venture it has with CK Hutchison, another sprawling company with early Hong Kong roots, can probably fix your yacht.

 

The exact origins of the choice of Taikoo as a name are still a little unclear. China Bound: John Swire & Sons and Its World 1816-1980, however, uncovers just about anything else anyone should want to know about this firm’s past (within the period it addresses). It is a corporate history, of course, one in fact that directors of the company invited the author to write. But this isn’t a dull, image-burnishing exercise. Bickers says he was allowed free rein, and there’s no obvious reason to doubt it.

In over 530 pages, including pictures, extensive endnotes and index, the book details in quality prose Swire’s embarrassments, defeats and victories. It begins in the era of British imperialism in Asia that enabled firms like it to thrive, but circumstances change faster than any firm can. World wars, racism, revolution and rivalries, as well as steam, sugar, telegraphs and airplanes—it’s all part of the story.

This is globalization. But the book’s level of local, personal detail—at times dizzying—resists such a general term. Pirates stalk profits and plunder on the Yangtze, associates squander small fortunes, sugar workers strike, and family members argue. The author illustrates the vital Liverpool network of people the Swires relied on throughout their lives. And without an analogous web of Cantonese compradors, including Zheng Guanying, whose writings would influence Mao Zedong, it’s hard to imagine business in China being possible at all.

Bickers notes that there is no evidence that Swire, unlike rival Jardine Matheson, ever traded opium, although it most certainly transported it. It also shouldn’t “be assumed, as it routinely is, that foreign firms operating in China all engaged in the opium trade,” he writes. “They did not.”

Competition between the British hongs was good for business. It was a desire to outdo Jardine Matheson that helped push Swire to buy acres of waterfront land in Quarry Bay to build Taikoo Sugar Refinery. Jardine Matheson had earlier taken over a local refinery seeking to capitalize on a shift in demand for Asian sugar after failures of European beet crops in the late 1870s.

John Samuel Swire, son of the founder and the engineer of the firm’s early China presence, admitted in 1879 that “nothing has pleased me more than beating Keswick.” He refers to William Keswick, then the Hong Kong partner at Jardine.

 

Around the Taikoo refinery, at one point the biggest in the region, a Swire company town eventually went up, with housing, schools and community centers. An expansive dockyard would come later. Swire had moved its Asia headquarters to Hong Kong in 1870, anticipating a telegraph connection between London and the colony. Yet it would not truly become a fixture on the island until it got into sugar. Spite, as well as good business sense, played a role.

War changed everything. The Second World War left the sugar refinery and dockyard in ruins. Profitable Swire ships that once trawled the Yangtze were sunk or captured. The Communist revolution in China forced Swire and its competitors to withdraw: no more river routes, coastal trade and rights under treaties signed after the previous century’s battles.

As Britain itself retreated from much of the world, Bickers explains, Hong Kong wasn’t a “capsule of China, as tourist marketing had it,” but a place where an “outmoded British colonial past” could still be found. This included an unwillingness on the part of some British firms, businesspeople and administrators to mix with or attempt to understand the Chinese people they often employed.

 

The relationship between the big British hongs and the colonial administration was close, too close for some observers… A useful myth (in British minds) endured that Hong Kong’s Chinese residents actually had no interest in politics, and were content to leave it to others, if efficiently done.

 

Swire’s post-war decisions would nevertheless have a major effect on Hong Kongers. Lots of options were explored. The book recounts the trials that the company, under John Samuel’s grandson, Jock, went through getting the refinery and the dockyard running again, opening new routes for its ships, returning to trade, and its leap into aviation with a stake in local airline Cathay Pacific.

The refinery and the dockyard were eventually closed, and the overall Swire group reorganized, unlocking a vast plot of land that’s now one of the most densely populated locations of the city. Many years before, John Samuel warned against real estate investment, wanting, instead, “his money moving.” But things were changing, the city was evolving:

 

A stronger sense and articulation of a particular Hong Kong identity became more prevalent, too, fueled by the film industry, television and Cantopop. It was also informed by increased tourist travel to China, where Hong Kong’s differences could more keenly be felt. And Hong Kong’s people also increasingly travelled much further afield, and often they travelled on Cathay Pacific.

 

The first sentence of the book is “All history begins in the present.” It’s not a bad idea for someone who wants to know more about modern Hong Kong—the good and the bad—to start by figuring out what Taikoo means. It’s complicated.


Timothy Sifert is a Hong Kong-based journalist.