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Reviewed by:
  • America’s First Adventure in China: Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation by John R. Haddad, and: Pacific Crossing: California Gold, Chinese Migration, and the Making of Hong Kong by Elizabeth Sinn
  • Mae M. Ngai (bio)
John R. Haddad. America’s First Adventure in China: Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013. ix, 284 pp. Hardcover $80.50, isbn 978-1-43990-690-3.
Elizabeth Sinn. Pacific Crossing: California Gold, Chinese Migration, and the Making of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013. xviii, 454 pp. Hardcover $45.00, isbn 978-988-8139-71-2.

Two recent books on Chinese engagement with the United States in the nineteenth century add to the growing interest in “China and the world” and the field of Pacific world history. Elizabeth Sinn’s Pacific Crossing and John Haddad’s America’s First Adventure in China both focus on nineteenth-century trans-Pacific US– China trade. As such, they are particularly important for bringing matters of trade and commerce to light, matters that have been long overshadowed by studies of Chinese labor emigrations (both indentured and free) and the politics of Chinese exclusion. More broadly, these books are part of that larger trend which emphasizes regional and transnational ties that are constructed around and across oceans and seas. These histories range from the Annales “civilizational” approach to the political economy of early modern and modern empires and modern migration histories. Unlike other ocean-framed histories (Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean), Pacific world history tends toward a later temporal focus, in large part because early modern trans-Pacific contact was relatively limited. At the height of the Atlantic trade in slaves and sugar from Africa to the Caribbean to Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, for example, the Pacific world comprised numerous indigenous island societies (themselves the product of millennia of oceanic exploration and settlement) largely disconnected from the first European ventures into the Pacific. Contact between island and continental indigenous peoples and Europeans sped up after James Cook’s explorations in the late eighteenth century, sometimes with disastrous epidemiological and environmental results. According to David Igler, a leading historian of that period, it was not, however, until the famed California Gold Rush in 1849 that we can think about an integration of the Pacific world.

Elizabeth Sinn’s Pacific Crossing analyzes one of the most important routes by which that integration took place. Sinn, an eminent historian of Hong Kong, offers here an important account of how, instigated by the California gold rush, the colonial port rose together with San Francisco to turn the Pacific into a busy “highway” across which goods and people traversed, establishing a vibrant trans-Pacific economy with global consequences. In its first decade as a British crown colony, Hong Kong struggled to compete with other treaty ports, especially Xiamen (Amoy) for passengers and Shanghai for goods. Hong Kong depended on a single trade: opium transshipped from India to China. Its orientation was decidedly not to the Pacific, but westward to India and the Atlantic, or to the north–south [End Page 141] Chinese regional and Southeast Asia trade. Hong Kong’s slow growth disappointed British hopes for a “great emporium” of East Asia. Nonetheless, an infrastructure as a free and open port was laid down, comprising wharves and warehouses, courts and laws, taverns and brothels, and shipping merchants and capital. Hong Kong was well positioned to seize opportunities created by the California gold rush to reinvent itself as a port for oceanic trade. Sailing from Hong Kong to San Francisco in 1852 took an average of thirty-three days, an obvious advantage over the New York–San Francisco journey by way of Cape Horn, which took at least 115 days, more than three times as long. Hong Kong became a major supplier of goods to California, including timber, bricks, marble, and granite for building construction, and consumer products from sugar, tea, coffee, and gin, to clothing, shoes, and hats—goods that fetched high prices, especially in the first years of the rush when commodities were scarce. California addressed a potential imbalance of trade by exporting timber, flour, quicksilver, and treasure (gold and silver) to...


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