In my past trips to Portland, Oregon, I was always struck by how green this city is, especially while looking down as the plane descends toward the airport. Portland is in fact known as “The City of Roses.” Given the amount of rain in the Pacific Northwest, the whole area is lush and carpeted by plants. I am writing from the city today. Since I have a little bit of time, I decided to cross the Willamette river and take a few shots of the city looking West. Some of you may not know, Portland and Suzhou are sister cities. Suzhou is known for its water canals and gardens. Whether that sisterhood is founded on a shared love for gardens and nature or not (probably not), education, culture, and economic exchanges have been fostered. While over the Willamette, it struck me, this is a bridge city.
[Update May 31, 2012]
A comment below has brought to my attention the Lan Su Chinese Garden. The next time I am up there, I will try to visit.
Charles Liu says
PDX also has an excellent Japanese garden.
Very beautiful pictures. Portland as a city was founded fairly recently – 1851. But the Williamette River and the Pacific Northwest Coast has a fascinating connection with China.
While you are there, you might like to explore the history of the “Maritime Fur Trade”.
In this trade, China plays a central role as the ultimate market for the fur from sea otters and other animals that inhabited the Northwest. This was a trade begun around the 1790’s and continuing until about the 1830’s. The trade tied together Boston investors, ship builders and sailors, British, Canadian and Russian interests, Canton Trade, Hawaii and the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Importantly for the US, the trade was the first source of export revenues after the damage suffered by the economy after the costly Revolutionary War against the English. The fur trade set off an economic boom, bringing wealth to New England investors and providing the capital for industrialization and creation of the textile industry. It was the foundation for the first great fortune in America – John Jacob Astor, who later plowed his earnings into building real estate in New York. So you could say wealth generated by sales to the Chinese consumer in the nineteenth century was in part responsible for property development of New York. It also resulted in the wealth and development of native peoples in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, which did not suffer the same kind of decimation that was experienced by native peoples in the eastern or central parts of the US.
The development of this trade, which was vastly important at that time to the global economy, bears much in common with the world economy today: a natural resource which is identified, captured, processed, shipped and sold to a distant market through a chain of various intermediaries, each link providing some value in the process, with the ultimate consumer with wealth providing the revenue that keeps the trade going. Like many things today, the trade was ultimately unsustainable; the natural resource ran out (just like American bison, whales, redwood trees etc.) and consumer tastes shifted and moved on to other things.
Although the purchase of fur by Chinese, and the revenues that the American, British, Canadian, Russian, Hawaiian and Indigenous Peoples generated was so important to their economies, the trade had little impact on China. It was just another luxury good, which China traded for silks, teas and porcelains, which was plentiful in China but rare and in high demand in the Europe and America. So while the trade created great wealth in America (and satisfied consumer demand for luxury Chinese products), it did not have much economic or social impact in China itself.
The story of why Chinese bought fur is fascinating. Recall that the Qing Dynasty was ruled by Manchus coming from the cold northeast China, where fur is highly valued for its warmth. This led to various regulations for different types of fur denoting status and rank, and trade was controlled. Only Manchus of a certain level of nobility or rank could where certain types of fur, which was often used both for warmth as well as decorative ornamentation. When the Canton trade in sea otter fur began, this caused some measure of confusion, as “sea otter” was not specified in the regulations as a category, so it was uncontrolled. So thereupon began an unrestricted trade and consumption of “sea otter fur” and many ordinary wealthy Chinese would buy and wear sea otter fur as a status symbol. Think of this as the economic equivalent of selling Bottega Veneta 200 years ago – highend animal skins procured by Western traders and sold to wealthy Chinese consumers who the goods for status. Except in those days, the status standards were set by what Manchus were wearing.
It is a reminder of the great wealth of China at the time in the Pre-Opium War days, and the unsung role that China played in the development of the modern global economy, as a market and revenue source for American and British trade, revenue that was used to industrialize in the nineteenth century.
Some vignettes of this fascinating and barely-known history (among us Americans):
Maritime Fur Trade: The Americans In The Northwest
“Between 1785 and 1794 about thirty-five British vessels traded on the Northwest Coast; in the next decade there were nine, and between 1805 and 1814, three. This decline can be explained in part by the East India Company’s iron grip on British trade in the Orient, but chiefly by the prolonged European wars which grew out of the French Revolution and affected British manpower and investment capital.
As British trade declined, Americans entered the field. Two vessels pioneered the New England-Northwest-Orient trade in 1788. At least fifteen ships followed in the next seven years, and there were seventy between 1794 and 1805.
Americans were free traders; their economy had no privileged corporations. A proposal to create one comparable to the East India Company for trading with the Indians was rejected in 1786 when the Continental Congress expressed the popular opinion that “commercial intercourse between the United States and the Indians would be more prosperous if left unfettered in the hands of private adventurers, than if regulated by any system of national complexion.”
At that very time, the newly independent Americans found their postwar prosperity blighted. Business houses were failing, trade stagnated, and merchants complained of the “languor” of direct trade with Europe. But, the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars gave the United States an opportunity to enter a worldwide market, despite efforts of the warring powers to curtail neutral enterprise. In 1790 President Washington wrote to Lafayette of a developing trade with India and of ships profitably trading at Canton. It was furs from the Pacific Northwest that gave American merchants a commodity to trade in the Orient and helped to set the new nation’s economy on its feet.”
“Opening The China Market
Ledyard had pointed out the possibilities of the fur trade but his plans were premature. His countrymen had not yet explored the other angle of the trade–China. Robert Morris, who had rejected Ledyard’s project in favor of a China voyage to see if Americans could compete with British dealers in Chinese goods, was one of several merchants who outfitted the Empress of China which sailed from New York in February, 1784. She carried a cargo of ginseng, wine and brandy, tar and turpentine, and $20,000 in specie, representing a total investment of $120,000. The liquors, tar, turpentine, and specie were traded in India for items in demand in China, such as lead, raw cotton, cotton cloth, and pepper.
At Canton the Americans and their goods were well received, and the proceeds were invested in Chinese goods for the American market: tea, nankeens, chinaware, woven silk, and cassia, an inferior grade of cinnamon. The voyage returned a profit of 30 percent on the investment, only about one-tenth of what was reported on some later ventures, but sufficient to start a rage for East India voyages and peculations in East India goods.
The Americans made their profits by buying Chinese goods, especially nankeens, and selling them in the ports of Europe, in the West Indies, and in the markets of luxury-hungry Americans. The problem, however, was to find commodities with which to purchase Chinese goods. The only American product in demand at Canton was ginseng, which, badly prepared for shipment, brought a low price. Hence the larger part of a China investment had to be bought with scarce specie. In 1788, for example, four Canton-bound ships carried ginseng, India cotton, and “62 chests of treasure” probably amounting to $248,000. The Americans did not have enough specie to keep this up.”
Lack of specie and other high-value merchantable stock prompted six merchants to try Ledyard’s idea of buying Chinese goods with furs from the Northwest Coast. They subscribed $50,000 to outfit two vessels.”
“The sea otter pelt brought higher prices than any other fur in the China market. The top price of $100 for a complete skin paid to Cook’s men in 1779, was bettered by Captain Hanna six years later, when he was said to have received $140 a pelt. In 1790 the price ranged from $25 to $45. Sometimes the market was glutted and the Hong merchants prohibited imports; in 1800 and 1804 there was a shortage and the price rose to $50. Using a rough estimate of 200,000 pelts and an average price of $30, the total value may have been about $6,000,000. Invested in Chinese goods that were sold in Europe, the West Indies, and the United States, the proceeds from the maritime fur trade were a stimulus to the American economy, and the foundation of several New England family fortunes.”
What I like about this story is the “Win-Win” nature of it. America and China both benefited from this trade. It’s a story that deserves to be told and widely shown as a good example of mutual benefit from trade arising not from warfare, colonialism and occupation (as the British did to China which caused its “centuries of seemingly moving backwards (relative to European powers)” as Fallows likes to say without mentioning the cause – the very European powers themselves!).
China had something to buy and sell; the Americans had something to buy and sell. Rather than demonizing, Americans should appreciate that China was in some measure responsible for our growth as a nation – not in any “interventionist” kind of way (as the French did with their military aid), but simply in providing a consumer market that in turn provided an impetus and goods and wealth for Americans to build their own economy.
Of course, you can see how this same history can be distorted into an anti-China message: “Chinese demand for fur responsible for extinction of sea otter!”
This is why it is important to look at any situation from multiple perspectives to get the whole picture – blind men and elephant etc.
Unfortunately I find the major American media outlets like the New York Times (which I used to regard highly but now wince when I read it) fail at this.
Thanks for that great fur trade background. Great perspective. The other thing I’d add is the idea that a great civilization with such wealth could have gotten itself into such arrogance. When it realizes others are pulling ahead, it would find it extremely difficult to get its act together. Not that it didn’t try, but with all the substantial resources still at its disposal, it couldn’t pull itself forward fast enough to compete.
Few days ago I had this conversation with a friend. We were talking about how complex human organizations are. Look at corporations. Most don’t last more than 20 years. Families are one of the smallest units of human organization. Yet, divorce rate hovers around 50%. It’s not for the lack of wanting for human organizations to last. Just that they are so complex and when they start to fall apart, they fall apart.
Portland is one of the few cities where they have bike mounts on the buses, which I thought was a pretty neat idea 🙂
Jay Riter says
We also have a Chinese garden, the Lan Su Chinese Garden, built with guidance from Suzhou, our sister city. http://www.lansugarden.org/home
It covers a whole city block, not far from the gate in the pictures in this post.
Glad you enjoyed your visit to Portland.
Charles Liu says
@Jay It opened in 2000? I’ll def check it out next time I’m down there.
@lolz Seattle bus has bike rack too.
Portland and Suzhou might be sister cities but real situations on the ground could be very different for the two. (differentiate them very vastly). Read http://www.scribd.com/doc/96261330 for greater details.