The Life & Times of a Taiwan Tea Trader

The diary of British tea trader, and DanShui resident, John Dodd forms the basis of the book “The Life and Times of John Dodd”. Guest contributor Milton Hill provides a summary.

John Dodd, at the age of 26, arrived in Taiwan in 1864 after being advised that the best opportunities for a young man to make a fortune would be by living in one of the Treaty Ports.

This arrangement, of Treaty Ports, had been forced on the Chinese after they lost the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856- 60. Originally there were three ports, but over the years they expanded to 80 with France and US joining Britain. The Treaty allowed the British to pay minimum duty on imports, establish trading houses, clubs, schools, churches, and even race courses, without any reference
to local authorities.

This attitude did not endear them to the locals as in some places they paid for trade-able goods with opium rather than hard currency. When Dodd first arrived he was advised by the British Consul, Robert Swinhoe, that the probable trade-able goods could be found amongst rice, indigo, coarse sugar, tea, ground nut cakes, camphor, coal, wood, wheat and barley. He chose tea, despite being advised that the Oolong tea was inferior to that grown in China.

By financing and encouraging farmers to grow larger crops, he was able to build up a successful business exporting to the US, where it was successfully blended with other teas. After nine years and  near bankruptcy he decided to diversify into other products.

As a successful trader, he was regarded by many locals as abrasive, but by fellow foreigners as a cultured and generous man whose house was always open to visitors. He provided accommodation for the newly arrived Canadian missionary doctor  George Leslie Mackay, and assisted him to establish the first hospital in DanShui. He made numerous trips around Taiwan and had a wide knowledge of the inhabitants as well as the local flora and fauna.

On one of these trips he discovered oil seeping up through the earth and contemplated establishing an industry in collecting and selling this new resource. However, he was warned off by Chinese officials who claimed he and his workers could be in danger from the “savages” who bordered this area. The oil concession was not fully developed for another ten years, by which time it was well and truly in Chinese hands.

In 1884-5 the Sino-French war was fought over France’s desire to get control over North Vietnam (Tonkin) from China. France, which controlled Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam, believed that this would give them entry into China,
avoiding the Treaty Ports controlled by their long time rivals, Britain.

A large segment of this book is John Dodd’s diary covering the nine months of the French naval blockade of DanShui (Tamshui) and Keelung Harbour. When the war broke out, the French Navy decided to increase pressure on China by blockading foreign supplies, particularly guns and ammunition from arriving
through its main ports. Several of these ports were in Taiwan.

Despite the interruption to his business, John Dodd describes his travails in somewhat muted tones. He regards his “neutrality” seriously and expresses no support for either party in the dispute. The French carry out only two sustained bombardments of the Chinese fortifications in the nine months, but by constantly moving their vessels closer to the shore, sailing away, or replacing some of the ships, they keep defenders on edge.

The blockade, apart from preventing the merchants from exporting their goods, also caused a shortage of creature comforts. This included mail, whisky, cigarettes and a variety of western food. Eventually this created a drop in morale,
particularly when they were prevented from “walking on the beach” or by “holding snipe shooting parties”.

An interesting legal quandary arose when the British Consul, after hearing of a rumour of a pending bombardment, advised the merchants and their families to evacuate to a British warship that had arrived to protect them. Dodd and several other merchants, fearing that their homes and warehouses would be looted, wrote to the Consul asking him to indemnify their losses if they took his advice. He didn’t, so they didn’t leave.

This had the unexpected bonus of gaining the respect of the locals especially as two of the British doctors were treating wounded and sick Chinese soldiers, of which there were many. (The Chinese army was not providing any support and any sick soldiers had to fend for themselves). All this stood the British community in good stead, when everything had returned to normal.

Scattered throughout the diary, Dodd expresses in the language and mindset of the times contemporaneous western perceptions of the local indigenous Hoklo and Hakka communities, as well as unflattering remarks about Chinese mandarins.

John Dodd left Taiwan in 1890 after 26 years, having built a fortune trading in numerous commodities.

Perhaps the greatest legacy Dodd left for Taiwan was his middleman Li
Chunsheng, who acted as his interpreter, buyer and chief negotiator. Li took over much of Dodd’s trade and grew into a wealthy and well-respected local philanthropist. He was a Christian and a forward thinker and helped establish many schools and colleges.

In later life Li was also a renowned writer who had several books published on
faith, philosophy and life. After a visit to Japan he realised that China was backward and needed modernising. After Japan’s annexing of Taiwan in 1895, Li Chunsheng persuaded the people to co-operate and accept the changes being brought to the island by the Japanese. It is not recorded here what the average person thought, or how they fared under these new arrangements.

The author, Niki. J.P. Alsford puts a rather positive spin on this change of circumstances, stating, with some conviction that:

Li established himself as a bridge between the local population and the Colonial Government. Li’s relationship to the foreign community during the nineteenth century, conceivably altered the perception of “others “ by the local  Taiwanese and this relationship to “outsiders” was a major proponent in the success of Taiwan’s industries throughout the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century.

Li Chungsheng remained Dodd’s comprador throughout Dodd’s stay in Taiwan, and continued what Dodd had started and developed it into a vital industry that has continued to this day.

Despite all of the questionable assumptions in the previous paragraphs, and the obvious overlooking of the millions of dollars poured into the country by the US in the last 60 years, in his well researched book, Alsford has compiled an
impressive number of photographs and statistics, even down to a complete list of all the people buried in the foreigners’ cemetery.

This book reinforces my original observation that there is a good story to be told about these and earlier somewhat chaotic times. Maybe Alsford is correct in his
belief that these colourful characters who ran the various trading houses in the nineteenth century provided the building blocks for the dynamic business culture that is Taiwan today.

More research still needs to be done on this proposition.

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2 responses to “The Life & Times of a Taiwan Tea Trader

  1. Pingback: Top Taipei Day Trips: The West District of Old Taipei | Syurati-vision the Blog

  2. Pingback: Finding the Perfect Tea Experience in Taipei | Syurati-vision the Blog

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