Sunday, September 6, 2009

"A mere canard": the 1888 Edict from Canton

Every so often, while trawling through Auckland newspaper files from the late 1880s, I'd come across references to a Chinese Imperial edict, said to have originated from Canton, which filled newspaper columns and sparked off meetings among the Chinese communities in Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland in 1888. It does seem, rather, to have been an extended nine-days-wonder of a thing. Perhaps even a late Victorian version of a cross between a chain letter and an urban legend.

Sometime around June 1888, the edict made its way to New Zealand, landing in Dunedin, then travelling up the country until it reached Auckland. No one outside of the Chinese community here seemed to be aware of its existence, until the Evening Post in Wellington on 5 July went public with the news that Great Britain had to beware: the Chinese Imperial Government in Peking were aware that Chinese subjects were being treated unfairly in the "Australasian colonies" (Australia was considering immigration restriction legislation, while we had the poll tax), and that this constituted a breach in the treaties between Britain and China.

"The (Chinese) Government ... intends immediately to build arsenals and erect large ordnance and small arms factories, and at four of the most suitable seaports war steamers of the most modern and efficient type are to be constructed as rapidly as possible. This work of re-arming and thoroughly drilling the army and building warships sufficiently powerful to enable the Chinese Empire to cope with the soldiers and navy of Great Britain will, the despatch states, take three years."

The Evening Post went on to add that an edict was attached to this statement, demanding that Chinese merchants should cease importing goods from China to the British colonies, make preparations to leave said colonies, and do so within the following three years.

"The gentleman who supplied us with the above information said that he had intended placing the matter before the Premier, so serious did he consider the position, but the fact that a representative from the Evening Post waiting upon him this morning, hearing he was in possession of intelligence which may justly be regarded of vital importance to England and her dependencies, rendered it unnecessary for him to do so."

This is an odd news report for two reasons. One: nothing of this seemed to have made any impact on British newspapers (and surely, if another power was sabre-rattling, promising an arms build-up, and promising to be a security threat in the near future, there would have been at least some gasping in Britain, even if it was at the sheer audacity of it all). Two: news from Hong Kong dated 1 July was that "the general impression at Shanghai is that China cares little for the exclusion of the Chinese by the Australian colonies, but seeks to extort other concessions from England. Sir John Walsham, the British Minister at Pekin, is still parlaying with the Chinese Government on the subject." (Auckland Star, 14 July 1888) There also doesn't seem to be any mention made of the Canton edict, said to have come via the Governor of Canton. In some report versions, it was an Imperial edict from Peking, relayed by the Governor. In others, the Governor himself was concerned about the plight of Chinese in the British colonies.

The Auckland papers headed straight for Thomas Ah Quoi to tell them what it all meant. He told the Herald that the Auckland Chinese community had received word only about restricting imports from Hong Kong, and none of the other details the Evening Post wrote about. He said that the local Chinese had already met together on the subject, and were expected to meet again. Some 20 Chinese were keen to leave anyway, but had no funds to do so. This wasn't surprising, given the economic situation in the country at that time. The effects of the Long Depression were biting.

The Auckland Star published this interview (7 July) with Ah Quoi.

"Thomas Quoi was interviewed by a Star reporter on the subject this morning. He stated that about a month ago he received from a Chinese firm at Dunedin an Imperial edict issued by the Governor of Canton, the substance of which was somewhat similar to what has already been telegraphed.

'Have you the document now?' asked the reporter.
'No,' replied Quioi. 'It is circulating amongst the Chinamen in the suburbs. It may be at Arch Hill or at Newmarket -- I can't tell.'

'Well, what did it say as near as you can remember?'

'It said that all Chinese merchants in this colony -- all Chinese business people -- are to stop importing.'

'By whose orders?'

'By order of the Governor of Canton.'

'Will the Chinese in this colony obey such orders?'

'I should rather think they would if the Chinese Government will send a ship to take them away. They can't obey the orders if they are to remain here. Some of us are so poor that we can't get away no matter how much we want to, but we are going to hold a meeting and talk it over, to see if the money can be raised.'

'What do you think is the object of this order?'

'Goodness knows. Perhaps the Chinese Government want all the people back to their own country. There is plenty of good land there if they will let the people cultivate it.'

'Did the edict say anything about the Chinamen returning to China?'

'No, not a word.'

'Can you remember the whole of the edict?'

'No, I can't. It was very long. But the rest besides what I have told you was just politics. We are going to talk it over to-morrow.'

Our representative thanked Mr. Quoi for his courtesy and withdrew."
So, Thomas Ah Quoi received the document from a Dunedin merchant, and took it back to Auckland with him.

After the meeting in Auckland, Ah Quoi showed a copy of the edict on 9 July. His interpretation was the following:
"From the Governor of Canton to Chinese business people out of China (no reference whatever is made to New Zealand or Australia). Complaints have been made to the big merchants in China by the Chinese people out of China that they have been badly treated. They are advised not to import any more goods from China. The world is wide, and there is plenty of room for the Chinese people at home. Don't let other people treat you as they have done. There are plenty of places in China for business."
Quoi said there was no "order" for the Chinese to leave, just advice from the Governor of Canton that if they felt they were badly treated they could head back home. Nothing about a three-year limit, nothing about armies and navies and bloodying the nose of the British Empire.

By the middle of the month, any belief in the "Canton edict" or, as the Evening Post called it, an "Imperial Wang-ti", was evaporating. The Sydney Morning Herald checked with some of the leading Chinese residents over there.

"All the Chinese in Sydney who have been questioned on the subject have expressed their disbelief in the story telegraphed from New Zealand. They have come to the conclusion that if any such determination as that embodied in the supposed edict had been arrived at, it would have been communicated to either Sydney or Melbourne -- head-quarters of the Chinese in Australia -- and not to Auckland. Another reason for discrediting (it) ... is the existence in Sydney of several Chinese gentlemen who frequently correspond with gemtlemen holding public positions in China, including the Consu ... Although some of the letters received from these officers are of very recent date, none of them, we are informed, contain the slightest indication of any action, such as that which is represented at Auckland, having been taken by the Imperial Chinese authorities."
(Auckland Star, 17 July 1888)

Dunedin Chinese merchant Sew Hoy was quoted as referring to recommendations from the Chinese Commission which had toured Australia two months before -- and seems to have stirred the rumour pot by referring to subscriptions possibly called for by China from the Chinese in the colonies to pay for better Chinese defences, and talk of China having closer relations with Russia.

In May that year, Sew Hoy was interviewed by the Evening Post, on the likelihood of a mass emigration of Chinese from New Zealand. At the time, Sew Hoy said he had no knowledge of such a thing, and that he would have known about it. He felt that the imposition of the poll tax was a breach of rights under treaties between China and Britain. (Evening Post, 8 May 1888)

The Evening Post countered reports that Sydney hadn't heard of the edict by reports from a "Bathurst correspondent of the Sydney Evening News telegraphed on 7th of July that several Chinese residents of Bathurst have been communicated with by the Sydney agents to be ready to leave Australia in three years." The Otago Daily Times apparently stuck to its own guns, insisting "on the authority of a leading Chinese merchant in Dunedin that information has been received to the effect that China has lately been engaged in largely increasing and strengthening her arnaments." (Poverty Bay Herald, 28 July 1888)

But, the judgment of most in New Zealand, by the end of the month, was that the whole thing was a hoax, a skit (fingers seemed to point to the Evening Post more than any other paper), and it was forgotten. In Hong Kong, they called it "a mere canard." (Evening Post, 8 September 1888)

Oddly enough, this wasn't the last New Zealand readers were to hear of the "canard". It seems to have travelled across the Pacific, reached the shores of America, and journeyed to the desk of a Chinese news reporter from the New York Sun. Or so the Evening Post was told, via "Wah Kee, the San Francisco organ of the Chinese in America."

Now, the edict was in the name of "his Imperial Majesty Kwong Suey", and specifically outlined the period, to the day, of the three years in which Chinese merchants were to pack up and return to the Flowery Kingdom, given out "from Zoon Li Yarmen this 21st day of the 4th moon, in the 14th year of Kwong Suey, in the presence of his Imperial Majesty." (Evening Post, 2 February 1889)

Needless to say, this was greeted by the other newspapers with derision, no more pointed than that of the Timaru Herald.

"The paragraph was considered by the Press Association to be of sufficient importance to be telegraphed to all the papers m the colony. We beg to enter a protest against having to pay for such worthless stuff.

"When the first statement was made some months ago we at once pronounced it to be a canard. It was in fact tolerably clear either that the Evening Font had been hoaxed or was endeavouring to hoax its readers. Subsequently enquiries were made, and it was proved beyond doubt that neither the Emperor of China nor any member of the Chinese Government had issued a warning to the Chinese residents in Wellington or in any other part of Australasia. The story was denied on all hands, and for the time being the Evening Post allowed the matter to drop.

The hoax has now been renewed, and it is quite fair to any that our Wellington contemporary, with the experience of tha past to teach him caution, should have declined to pnblish the paragraph unless the amplest proof of the authenticity of the statement had been available. Possibly there may have been in private letters to Chinamen residing in Wellington a reference to the somewhat unsatisfactory position of affairs between the British and Chinese Governments on the subject of Chinese immigration to the Australasian colonies, including New Zealand, and some anxiety may have been expressed lest greater trouble should arise in the future. But there has been no official communication, and the negotiations between the two Governments are still proceeding. ... With the exception of the paragraphs in the Evening Post, and they are totally untrustworthy, we know of no statements which would lead us to believe that the Chinese Government are disposed to hurry on matters and to pick a quarrel with Great Britain over the immigration question"
(Timaru Herald, 1 April 1889)

The Evening Post huffed and protested that what they printed wasn't a hoax, it was accurate. "We do not need any teaching as to our journalistic duty from a paper such as the Timaru Herald, but if it satisfies our contemporary, we may say that we had ample proof of the authenticity of the statements we have published on this subject. Instead of our statements being untrustworthy, it is those of the Timaru Herald which are incorrect, both as regards ourselves and the facts of the case." (Evening Post, 6 April 1889)

History weighs against the Evening Post, however. There was no three-year deadline. And as for the Post using the New York Sun as a source -- well, that paper is famous for two other events during its print career in the 19th century. One was the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" piece in 1897, and the other was the 1837 "Great Moon Hoax."

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