In the 18th and 19th centuries Canton was the only Chinese port conducting foreign maritime trade. During this period the “Thirteen Hongs” of Canton emerged as the main drivers of economic and cultural interaction between China and the West, enabling the Hongs’ leading merchants to become very wealthy. To showcase the prosperity of Canton trade and culture of Guangdong during this period, the “Thirteen Hongs of Canton: Selected Pictures and Documents Exhibition” will feature digital images of precious historical pictures and documents including Canton trading vessels, the tea trade and scenic views of the Thirteen Hongs trade areas.
Jointly presented by the Hong Kong Public Libraries (HKPL) of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) and Sun Yat-sen Library of Guangdong Province, the “Thirteen Hongs of Canton: Selected Pictures and Documents Exhibition”, will be held from tomorrow (January 9) to February 5 in the Exhibition Hall of the Hong Kong Central Library (HKCL).
The exhibition marks the culmination of joint efforts between the HKPL and Sun Yat-sen Library and follows close cultural collaboration between the two cities. It is also a tied-in event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the HKPL and the centennial of the Sun Yat-sen Library of Guangdong Province. The Hong Kong Museum of Art and the Liwan District Archives of Guangzhou have also given their support by providing digital images of historical pictures and research information respectively.
The opening ceremony was held on January 8 at the HKCL with officiating guests including the Under Secretary for Home Affairs, Ms Florence Hui; Chairman of the Public Libraries Advisory Committee, Professor John Leong; Deputy Director of the Sun Yat-sen Library of Guangdong Province, Mr Ni Junming and Chief Librarian of the HKCL, Ms Rochelle Lau.
Speaking at the ceremony, Ms Hui said that through the various Thirteen Hongs collections, the exhibition would offer the public an opportunity to enrich their understanding and appreciation of the history of Canton’s foreign trade and the culture of Guangdong region.
“I hope that libraries in Guangdong and Hong Kong will continue our close collaboration by organising more fabulous exhibitions and programmes in future to promote the cultural development of the two places,” she added.
Canton has been China’s southern gateway and a centre of foreign maritime trade since ancient times. In 1757, Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty ordered the closure of all trading ports to foreign trade except Canton, making the merchants of the Thirteen Hongs of Canton the sole agents conducting foreign maritime trade. The Hong merchants were also known as “yanghuo hangshang” (Hong merchants dealing with foreign trade) or “guanshang” (official merchants), and the Thirteen Hongs were called “yanghuohang” (commercial firms selling foreign goods). The Hong merchants’ monopoly of foreign maritime trade ceased upon the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which allowed five ports to conduct foreign trade, namely Canton, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo and Shanghai. Nonetheless, Canton remained an important overseas trading hub and continues to play a key role in economic and cultural interaction between China and the West.
The exhibition includes precious pictures and documents from Guangdong and Hong Kong, with digital images of pictures and documents from the Sun Yat-sen Library of Guangdong Province, collections from the HKPL and 28 historical images from the Hong Kong Museum of Art portraying the history of Canton trade, the trading routes of foreign vessels, scenic views of the Pearl River, Bocca Tigris, Whampoa and the Thirteen Hongs, maps of Canton and nearby areas during the Qing dynasty, prominent Hong merchants, the trade and life of the Thirteen Hongs, the tea trade, the destruction of opium by Official Lin Zexu, the Opium War, the signing of the Treaty of Nanking and more.
Other exhibits include images and information relating to 15 documents including “Guangdong Xinyu” (New Accounts of Guangdong) by the scholar Qu Dajun in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, and others depicting economic and trading activities and social customs in Guangdong. Many of the rich Hong merchants were interested in collecting calligraphy, rare books, paintings and even published anthologies and documents. Examples on display include “Lingnan Yishu” (Books on the Past of Lingnan) by the Hong merchant Wu Chongyao and “Haishan Xianguan Cangzhen” (Anthology of Calligraphy and Paintings stored in Haishan Xianguan) by Pan Shicheng as well as “(Panshi) Heyang Shixi”, the genealogy of the Pan Clan of Tungwan Hong, providing a glimpse of the history of Canton trade and the cultural life of the Hong merchants.
The exhibition also displays 26 local Guangdong documents such as “Guangdong Yutu”, the first atlas of Guangdong; “Zhuyue Baqi Zhi”, a gazetteer on the Baqi troop in Guangdong during the Qing dynasty; “Yue Haiguan Zhi”, the first Chinese gazetteer on local customs; “Xuehaitang Zhi”, the first gazetteer on Guangdong schools and “Daoguang Guangdong Tongzhi”, a Guangdong gazetteer from the Qing dynasty, featuring a history of Guangdong culture, as seen from various angles.
To supplement the exhibition, a thematic talk titled “From the Factories to Shameen: A Glimpse of 19th and Early 20th Century Canton” will be held at 3-5pm on January 19 at the lecture hall of the HKCL. Dr Joseph Ting, Adjunct Professor of the Department of History at the ChineseUniversity of Hong Kong, will introduce the development of the Thirteen Hongs and the landscape, infrastructure and the growth of Shameen. The talk will be conducted in Cantonese.
Interactive touch-screen kiosks will be available at the exhibition for visitors to access digital versions of the historical pictures and documents. The HKPL’s related book collections will also be on display. To enhance students’ interest and knowledge of Guangdong culture, the HKCL has arranged guided tour services for schools as well as the public. Admission to the exhibition and subject talk is free.