As you know, I’m working on a collection of stories about people from different times and places whose lives have been shaped by tea. I’ve been inspired to start sharing bits of these stories. This piece is set in 19th century China, shortly before the Opium War.
From the Opium War story (a selection)
Uncle Gu’s way of business was nothing like Father’s. Father’s tea trade was talk, calculating and recording figures, paying the bribes promptly and as expected, arranging for the transfer and delivery of cargoes.
Uncle Gu’s was taking the right man to dinner, sending his men to do favors for the foreigners who bought the tea–whether that was arranging for a ship captain’s private trade allotment of opium or sandalwood or cotton to be sold, arranging for night trips to the “pleasure boats” that lined the river. Tonight’s task was to smuggle an American tea trader’s wife into the foreign compound.
And so Chao Xiang stood at the harbor front in the dark. Water lapping. The shapes of sampans and junks stood out against the dark sky, bobbing gently. He imagined the families asleep on the houseboats, their chests rising and falling in a similar rhythm as they slept. All dark, but for an ember of light on the nearest boat–the glow of an opium pipe.
Those foreigners–they brought opium in their ships from India, and Chinese men bought it, smoked it, until vast numbers of them were wasting away from addiction. His father would have nothing to do with opium, would not contribute to that wasting lethargy that destroyed men and wives and families, but Chao Xiang could see that his uncle was not the same. He had seen the books and heard the conversations; he knew that for all his surface rectitude as a hong merchant, his uncle was a silent partner in an opium smuggling venture. If there was money to be made, Uncle Gu would make it.
Chao Xiang stared down the dark river. The night felt shadowed with danger. If they were discovered, surely they would be destroyed. Smuggling a foreign woman into China against the Emperor’s decree—certainly Father would never have taken such a risk. He shifted his feet nervously.
Of course he was more honor guard than actual smuggler—here to give face through his position as Uncle’s relative. Uncle’s old servant Ah-Chiong would handle the foreign devil woman. But still, to break such a rule—Chao Xiang was putting his own family at risk.
Might this be a set-up—Uncle’s plan to disgrace Father’s son and cause Father to lose even more face? No, Father was defeated—there was no need to go through such trouble for Father. Uncle was testing him. Seeing if he could handle the demands, fit into Uncle’s way of trading.
…A faint sound on the river caught his attention. Beyond the crowded shapes of the boats at rest, the long shape of a sampan moved against the water. Chao Xiang stiffened. The foreign ghost-woman was arriving.
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