Lisa Hellman’s new book is devoted to the study of everyday life in the foreign quarters of Canton. More specifically, it grapples with how traders from around the world experienced these foreign quarters as home. To this end, the author choses to take the point of view of the Swedish East India Company men from the 1730s to the 1830s, which roughly corresponds to the hundred-year time frame in which the Company was active. Through these geographical and personal points of entry, Hellman’s larger purpose is to examine early modern global power relations and the interconnected eighteen-century process of globalization. Therefore, and in the author’s own words, this book deals with “personal relations with global implications,” or with “the making of globalization on a local level” (p. 2).
In order to “get down to the micro-historical level” (p. 3), Hellman draws upon a remarkable array of primary sources which, carefully researched and judiciously made to interact with each other, makes for an extremely nuanced and compelling narrative. As should be expected, the Swedish sources take center stage. They are, however, constantly being put into perspective through the many firsthand accounts drawn from Chinese official sources, as well as from Danish, French, British and Dutch travelogues and company records. In this sense, it is perhaps regrettable, especially given the author’s effort to study Canton and Macao as complementary settings, that the Portuguese sources have largely been left out of this picture, with only a few secondary publications referenced throughout the book.
Apart from the introductory and closing chapters, Hellman approaches the topic of everyday life in Canton and Macao along five chapters, each one devoted to the interconnected themes of groups, spaces, communication, materiality and trust. In between these thematic chapters, the author offers what she herself deems “four snapshots” (p. 23), that is, four portraits of Swedish East India Company traders, taking the reader into an almost tangible tour of the Pearl River Delta, as seen through the eyes of European men, from the 1730s to the early nineteenth century.
Chapter 2, the first one of these thematic chapters, focuses on everyday group-forming practices. In it, the author seeks to problematize the practices of “group construction,” “acting as a group,” or “being perceived as a group” (p. 30), vis a vis the more diffuse perceptions of national identity. By analyzing the formation and interaction practices between different ethnic, class, religious and gender groups, Hellman portrays an extremely complex and hybrid community, thus contributing to put the stereotypical Chinese vs. Westerners or East vs. West dichotomies in perspective. Chapter 3 deals with spatial analysis. Addressing what the author perceives as a loophole in global history, it looks at physical space (be it the harbor, the city or the factory houses) as a mirror of power relations and societal structures. This is achieved by detailing every-day standard practices of negotiation, subversion and compromise, thus opposing the cliché of the insurmountable cultural barrier, as symbolized by the Canton city wall. Chapter 4 focuses on communication. Much like the precedent analysis of territorial management and spatial control, everyday practices seem to have been as much about imposing restrictions on language use and learning, as they were about circumventing them, in unspoken understandings established in order to further each other’s interests. The same went for the topic of consumption and commodities control, as well as for that of establishing trust and the meanders of social life, developed respectively in Chapters 5 and 6.
Hellman concludes that the study of everyday life, and specifically in the context of this “conditional domesticity” (p. 264) particular to the Pearl River Delta trade community in the long eighteenth century, allows for a better understanding of early modern globalization as a process which did not equal European dominance over China. Rather, it shows that local life for these men was made of constant practices of negotiating, constructing and adapting to larger structures of power, be they hierarchies of gender, class or ethnicity, local political relations or geopolitical shifts at the imperial scale. Positing itself “not as a history of European dominance nor of Asian passivity” (p. 276), this book most definitely constitutes a valuable contribution to the fields of cross-cultural relations and global social history, in which fixed theoretical frameworks and ascribed social categories are challenged through the careful use of firsthand accounts.
It does, however, present some limitations in terms of its intellectual scope, specifically regarding one category of intersectional analysis which the author claims has not given proper attention by researchers so far: the intersection between practices creating the local and the global, local interactions and global networks, local experiences and global narratives about them. A survey of the vastly important and growing fields of postcolonial urban history and global urban history could have allowed the author to surpass some hesitations regarding this topic, namely in what concerns the conceptualization of the territory at hand. First and foremost, the one pertaining to the constant merging and unmerging of the cities of Canton and Macao as settings for the foreign quarters. Secondly, the apparent paradox represented by the experience of Swedish trader Anders Ljungstedt, to whom a Macanese house ultimately did become a home. Still, Hellman’s book provides an important basis for further research on Canton as the core of a multi-pole, multi-scale, multi-empire urban network established across the ports of the Pearl River Delta. It should be read by anyone interested in the social and urban processes of globalization of the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.