Don’t drink the samshu

A couple months back we looked at early foreign encounters with baijiu, noting that the only positive reviews came from British sailors. Of course, this begs the question as to whether sailors actually liked drinking baijiu – “samshu,” as it was known among foreigners back then – or whether a British sailor would drink anything you put in front of him.[1] As it turns out, there’s more to this story than I may have let on at the time.

In 1838, Dr. C. Toogood Downing of the Royal College of Surgeons wrote in depth about the ill effects of baijiu (“poison to the human frame”). The admiral, he notes, issued a strict order to the officers of ships in the Royal Navy traveling to China banning any indulgence in baijiu. The ban was unsuccessful, perhaps because nobody could think of a punishment worse than being forced to remain sober in Asia.

British sailors liked baijiu so much that they would go to almost any length to flaunt the prohibition. One method involved sailors lowering a bucket over the side of the ship to a samshu salesman waiting aboard a sampan. The salesman would take the sailor’s cash, fill the bucket with samshu and then sail away. The whole transaction was prearranged and conducted in silence. Another tactic had the shifty salesman come aboard the ship pretending to peddle tea, but smuggling several bladders of samshu under his loose traditional gown;[2] literally skirting the ban. In the course of their normal responsibilities, sailors were sometimes asked to fill barrels with water and store them under the deck for ballast – another prime opportunity for enterprising drunks, who would fill a couple of the barrels with baijiu.

The most notorious debauchery happened ashore in Canton. Before the 1842 Treaty of Nanking forced the Chinese to open various “Treaty Ports” to foreign merchants, all foreign trade took place in a small district outside the walled city of Canton (Guangzhou). The settlement was tiny, less than a kilometer across, and foreign women were strictly forbidden from entering. The foreign traders made plenty of money purchasing tea and, later, selling opium, but there wasn’t much in the way of diversion or entertainment. So they did what most people do when given a rare moment of solitary reflection, they got pissed.

Hog Lane, as allegorical a street name as ever existed, was the center of foreign drinking life. On Hog Lane, Downing says, the Chinese “drench [sailors] with their abominable samshu, feeling no drawback from the strings of conscience; as after all, if their customers die from it, it is nothing but the death of so many Fan-quis [foreign devils], and Fan-quis without money, too, which makes them much more intolerable.”

His description of Hog Lane drinking establishments indicates that little has changed in the Chinese approach to dive bars in the past two centuries:

“Every sam-shu shop is arranged with the ordinary neatness of the natives, but exactly comfortable to the vulgar taste of the customers. The landlord has generally some attractive title by which he is known to the foreign sailors, and this is painted over his door in large English characters. It has been given to him by the sailors in the height of their conviviality, and as a mark of great esteem. Many a Chinaman, therefore, can boast of a Christian name by which he is well known in the neighbourhood. In addition to the incongruous appellation of Good Tom, Jack, or Jemmy prefixed to the real name of the shopkeeper, you will often seem [sic] short sentences added, which are intended to catch the eye of the passenger.”

But not all was well at Good Tom’s, Downing warns us. The drinks for one are “vilely adulterated with deleterious ingredients,” which make the seafarers “prey to those pickpockets and vagabonds who crowd around them.” Got smashed and lost your wallet? Blame the inscrutable Chinese and their firewater.

The real menace, however, was drunken foreign sailors hopped up on Chinese white lightening. Well-lubricated seamen would often turn violent at the slightest provocation, taking swings at the nearest person(s) and causing holy hell. Dr. Downing recalls one such incident with horror:

“One man [on Hog Lane] was singing a vulgar song, but was interrupted by receiving from one of his companions a blow on the face, which was aimed at a passing Chinaman. This accident created a general uproar, in which, very quickly, both natives and foreigners were engaged, and was not terminated until many wounds and bruises were inflicted, and the drunken men laid upon the ground.”

Most of these scrapes ended with only bruised egos and minor injuries,[3] but sometimes they resulted in a fatality. Indeed one such rowdy baijiu bender in 1839 resulted in the death of a Chinese man in Kowloon, a proximate cause of the First Opium War.[4] But did anyone learn his lesson? Of course not.

As an 1841 issue of Tait’s Edingburgh Magazine wrote, the samshu-sloshed sailors kept causing a ruckus, even in the midst of war: “Great quantities of a liquor called Samshu were found in the [capital of Zhoushan Island, near Ningbo], and the soldiers got so completely intoxicated that they had to be carried into the ships by whole companies, and almost regiments, in a state of insensibility.”

At least the infantry seemed a bit better behaved.[5] As Major-General Hugh Gough, commander of the expeditionary force and owner of a truly dignified moustache, said of his charges’ behavior in Hong Kong:

“During the eight days this force was on shore, (and many of the corps were unavoidably placed in situations where samshu was abundant,) but two instances of drunkenness occurred: and I deem it but justice here to mention a strong fact. The soldiers of the 49th, finding a quantity of samshu in the village they had so gallantly taken, without order or previous knowledge of their officer, brought the jars containing the pernicious liquor, and broke them in front of their corps, without the occurrence of a single case of intoxication.”

It is a cautionary drinking tale for the ages. With rigid military discipline, baijiu is nothing more than a minor distraction, but in the wrong hands it can start wars. Drink responsibly.

[1] Any naval historian worth his or her salt can confirm that the “whatever’s nearby” method certainly played a significant role in determining sailors’ sexual preferences.

[2] The bladder smuggling method was also a favorite among tax-evaders in Beijing, as I’ve noted elsewhere.

[3] Such injuries could conveniently be treated right there on Hog Lane, at the clinic of renowned American physician and missionary Dr. Peter Parker.

[4] Yes, that’s right. China’s national drink appears to have played a significant role in kicking off its so-called “century of humiliation.”

[5] Strictly in the context of maintaining sobriety, but not in terms waging an indefensible war of colonial aggression or savagely slaughtering the outgunned locals.

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