Clip 2: Hong Bowl
(lively sounds of a thriving port)
A large, vibrantly coloured punch bowl can be found in a showcase just before the back wall in the Maritime Trade Gallery. Dating to around 1785, this nearly 235 year old porcelain bowl, made in China, is 15.5 centimetres tall, about the length of your mobile phone. With a diameter of 36 centimetres, it is twice the width of a regular noodle bowl – certainly not suited for daily dining. This is a party bowl!
Bowls like this were produced by Chinese artists for foreign merchants to take back home as souvenirs of their stay in China. This one shows detailed scenes of the lively waterfront of Canton, now modern-day Guangzhou, which was the busiest Chinese port at the end of the 18th century.
(shophouse bustling sounds, wooden windows creaking)
Rows of blue and white-fronted shophouses with sloping gray roofs mix with large, white Western-style buildings around the exterior of this bowl. Orange-coloured, cobbled pavements lead from the buildings to the waterfront, where many boats are docked.
(sounds of lapping waters)
The water is coloured purple, strangely, and that colour is matched in the purple and green treetops seen beyond the buildings. Brownish-red paint strokes in the background indicate rolling hills far away. The bowl sits on a circular base, mostly white, but lined with an orange zigzag pattern called “Greek key” or “meander” in the West, but seen on Chinese bronzes of much earlier date. Small trefoil finials rise from the pattern ring. Trefoil is a graphic form composed of the outline of three overlapping rings used in architecture. A finial is like a pinnacle or a spire, with a vertical, pointed element surrounded by four out-curving leaves or scrolls.
(sounds of waves cross fade into lively sounds of a thriving port)
The buildings here are the "hongs" – offices, warehouses, and residences for Western trading companies. Many figures can be seen walking the pavement, as well as on balconies and in windows of the buildings. Western traders discuss business with Chinese merchants; labourers walk the streets carrying goods balanced on poles over their shoulders. Chinese artisans sell their wares in the open courtyards.
Figures are brightly dressed in Chinese robes of reds, yellows, blues, pinks, and greens. They sport Qing dynasty hairstyles – shaved heads and queues, which is a male hairstyle with the front of the head shaved, and the remainder of the hair braided into a long braid. Some wear black conical hats. Western traders wear frock coats, knee-length breeches, and boots. Children run and play, one climbs a flag pole.
(sounds of children laughing over splashing waters)
The harbourfront is crowded with sampans, small brown boats with a semi-circular shelter over part of the deck. There are also small sailboats, each with a white sail and a different European flag flying.
(a medley of the Dutch, British, Swedish national anthems plays softly in succession)
The imposing, two-storey, white-washed Western trader buildings have railings supporting terraces and balconies. European flags are mounted on flagpoles in front of these buildings, identifying which country owns each hong. The flags fly just under the rim of the bowl, atop tall black poles hewn from trees.
The Dutch flag has been rendered incorrectly – horizontal stripes of blue, red, and white from top down. It really should be red, white, blue.
In front of the next building to the left is the iconic Union Jack – the British flag. A white X, overlaid with a red cross, like an addition sign, on a dark blue field.
Continuing around to the left, we see a group of three flags close together: they belong to Sweden, a flag with a yellow cross over a blue field, Imperial – or Holy Roman Empire (the Austrian trading companies) and a white flag.
The Imperial flag has a fearsome crowned double-headed black eagle with wings spread, red beaks, and claws gripping swords, against a yellow background with horizontal stripes.
(cries of an eagle over)
The third flag is white.This represents France, since they used a white flag before adopting their current tricolour flag as we know it in 1794; Moving further left, there's one more flag – the white cross on the red background of the Danish.
The American flag is seen on other hong bowls, but since it’s missing here, we can date this bowl to before the American company arrived in 1788.
(sounds of a Western soiree)
The interior of the bowl has sparse decoration. In the centre is an orange vase holding flowers, with a purple ribbon wrapped around its base. The vase is framed within a double green circle, with fruits and flowers outside the perimeter. The rim is lined with an orange band with floral elements in green, dark brown, and purple glaze.
With its carefully painted and vividly detailed view of the foreign trading houses, this Hong Bowl conveys the bustling, international trading scene between China and the West during the 18th and 19th centuries.
(sounds of the soiree cross-fades into a boat moving through water)