Those of you who have followed this blog since its inception are familiar with my particular interest (read: borderline neurotic fixation) in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which took place in San Francisco in 1915. According to Chinese distillers, it was a moment that catapulted baijiu to international stardom and shook the very foundations of Western civilization. According to everyone else, “Huh?”
For those of you who are unfamiliar with my extensive writing on the subject, you can read the original piece here, and an amusing follow-up concerning Luzhou Laojiao and some dubious packaging here. Go ahead, read them. I can wait.
Finished? Good, now on to the matter at hand.
In the two years or so since I first wrote about the dubious myth of baijiu’s 1915 North American triumph, I have come across very little evidence that either corroborates or refutes the claims made by Chinese distillers. I have encountered dozens of additional distilleries that claim to have also won medals, and even seen a few of the supposed medals (real or fake, I’m not certain) firsthand.
And then I came across something wholly unexpected: An account of baijiu at an earlier world’s fair.
So to better get an understanding of what actually might have happened in San Francisco in 1915, when American palates were first confronted with the mysteries of eastern spirits, we must look back even further to Paris in 1878. This was the scene of the Exposition Universelle, Paris’ third world’s fair.
It was at the Exposition Universelle that the Statue of Liberty’s head was first unveiled. It was at this event that Victor Hugo spoke out on the need of creating an international copyright law to protect writers, and the Braille system was universally adopted to include the blind among the world’s readers. It was also the event in which the world was introduced to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone as well as to the megaphone, phonograph and the arc lamp – precursor to the modern light bulb. Not all proceedings were as enlightened. The Exposition contained a human zoo, a “negro village” with four hundred inhabitants. This same colonial-era condescension colored the judging panel’s attitude toward the Chinese and their baijiu.
George Augustus Sala, whose irreverent style made him one of the Victorian Era’s most popular British writers, relates the scene, saying, “the flavour of the Celestial ‘schnick’ was found by the experts to be so atrocious that, after making various wry faces and undergoing fearful qualms, they were about to pass Chinese spirits by altogether.” At this point someone was struck by a “happy thought,” that if their tastes were not attuned to baijiu, they could find someone more receptive and judge the drinks’ merits by proxy. What they needed was a Chinese person, and in this instance it appears that any Chinese would do: They settled upon someone with whom they could only communicate via “pantomimic gestures” and set about awarding medals as follows:
[W]hen a sample of spirits was submitted to a Celestial, and he made, while imbibing it, a hideous grimace, the sample was classed as ‘zero.’ If, on the other hand, the Chinaman’s countenance assumed a dubious expression, the spirit was allowed the benefit of the doubt, and was voted worthy of ‘Honourable Mention,’ which, I may parenthetically remark, a disappointed French exhibitor lately defined to me as a distinction just a little worse than having your ears boxed, and just a little better than being kicked downstairs. When, however, the eyes of the heathen Chinee [sic] glistened, and he licked his lips, the samshu was at once set down for a Bronze Medal; and finally, if he broke out in exclamations of delight, and passed his hand approvingly over the region of the stomach, a Silver Medal was accorded to the fortunate liqueur.
A gold medal, it seems, was not a possibility within this rubric.
It would be nice to think that the Panama-Pacific Exposition was less dismissive of China, but remember that it was held in a country where the prevailing law of the land had for many years forcibly prohibited Chinese immigration. We can conclude little more than that the fair took place and some Chinese presenters returned home with medals awarded by people who had little or no understanding of Asian spirits.
Until evidence appears to the contrary, it would seem that the story of Chinese alcohol’s international conquest in 1915 is still, to borrow an expression from the era, a bunch of hooey.