Transnational Merchant Diaspora in Modern East Asia: British and Cantonese cooperation in the treaty ports seen through the case of the Tongshuntai Firm

Nov 28 12:00–1:30pm
Common Room, 2 Divinity Ave., Cambridge

Kang Jin-A (Professor, History Department, Hanyang University; HYI Visiting Scholar 2018-19)
Chair/discussant: Victor Seow (Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University)

Co-sponsored with the Harvard University Asia Center

This research examines the expansion of the British merchant network and the Cantonese merchant networks in Modern East Asia and their relationship as representatives of two transnational merchant diaspora groups. Apart from the two merchant groups’ conventional identification as imperialist economic intruders or nationalist capitalists respectively, this research tries to capture their common characteristics as a transnational merchant diaspora, developing business and expanding their networks interdependently. This process could be interpreted as a long way of imitation and assimilation for both groups. With the formation of a treaty-port system, their cooperation worked effectively in East Asian trade before meeting the growth of Japanese industrial capitalism and the Shōsha capital. The increasing presence and influence of Japan both in politics and trade in East Asia dissolved the long-lasting partnership between Cantonese and British merchants, leading to a reshuffle of Cantonese capital both in China and the rest of East Asia. This talk highlights the history of theTongshuntai firm, the biggest Chinese/Cantonese capital firm in Korea from 1885 to 1937. Its trade partners, personal connections and business styles were deeply inter-connected with the Cantonese compradore group in China, high-ranking officials leading the Self-Strengthening Movement in the Qing court, and British companies, especially with Butterfield & Swire Co., Taikoo. Their story could elucidate the dynamic cooperation and competition among the migrating merchant groups across national borders in modern East Asia.