Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Box of Booze Arrives in Shanghai

The BBC has been following a container on a container ship, the MV Copenhagen Express, for some time from Southampton to Shanghai via Suez. As a lover of all things ships I’m interested but mystified as to what the BBC is trying to tell me – surely people know things mostly move by sea don’t they? Also, sadly the BBC didn’t cough up for anyone to accompany the box so we get no sense of life at sea, just a container bouncing from one place to another as they do – pretty pointless really and all fairly bloody obvious.

However, there is an interesting historical point that could be made about the box as it is unloaded at Shanghai – it’s full of Scottish Chivas Regal whisky for the Chinese market.

The ability to sell whisky and other western spirits to the Chinese is actually a business success for the west. After China was forcibly opened for trade following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 wines and spirits were one of the products western merchants found themselves virtually unable to sell (except to other foreigners). Only towards the end of the Qing dynasty did some weak beers and sweet wines became popular at all.

My old hero Carl Crow sold the Chinese cigarettes, cosmetics and perm kits but never really bothered with booze, the market just didn’t exist in any worthwhile way outside of resident foreigners. Foreign firms now sell the Chinese cigarettes, cosmetics and perm kits again but also booze, which they didn’t before.

Why are they selling more now (though not really the stellar amounts some boosters claim) than before? What deterred sales back then? Nobody seems to be quite sure – some say the acidic taste of most western wines and spirits, others say the Chinese propensity to the red alcoholic flushed face, some have argued it was down to cheaper opium and some even that the Chinese are more susceptible to alcoholic poisoning.
Of all of them I suspect the opium one was important. Personally having tried both opium and whisky I would rather sit around smoking a pipe or two than drinking bitter firewater - perhaps most pre-revolutionary Chinese would agree. We'll never know as the no fun governments of the world have got themselves all in a state over a little opium consumption while making fortunes in tax revenues off Scottish rotgut.

The relatively small role of alcohol in pre-revolutionary Chinese culture remains to be seriously examined as far as I know.

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