I’ve done plenty of Historic Photo posts, and in doing so I always wished photography had been invented earlier. So, reaching back a bit, I came across this very interesting painting which is an interesting artifact of cultural collision in the early 19th century. This is a portrait of a wealthy trader in Hong Kong, China, probably about 1830 or 1835. His name may have been Mouqua. Although this picture is done in a very European style, the painter was actually Chinese: Lam Qua, the first Western-style painted to come out of China.

The background behind this painting is fascinating and a little unsavory. The person depicted here was obviously very wealthy, but in 1830s China, especially in Hong Kong, the way he must have gotten wealthy was by trading with the British. The number one Western commodity being traded into China at this time was opium. In fact before the early 19th century opium was unknown in China. Poppies were grown in exclusively British possessions like India and what is now Afghanistan; the British deliberately sought to get Chinese addicted to the drug so as to ensure a steady supply of imports into China, which was intended to erase Britain’s significant trade imbalance. Chinese agents like this merchant got rich buying the drug from the British in Hong Kong and then reselling it to middlemen, at a huge markup, who would distribute it in the interior of China. In short, the guy in this painting was most likely a drug dealer.

lam qua

Here is an early photograph of Lam Qua at work in his Hong Kong studio. This was most likely taken in the 1850s, 20 years after he painted the above portrait.

Lam Qua and others like him indirectly profited from the drug trade too. Lam Qua sought to learn the art of painting in the Western style specifically so he could cater to clients who wished to be more Western in their lifestyles and outlooks. Lam Qua deliberately copied the style of a British portrait painter who lived in China, George Chinnery, and in fact went so far as to claim he apprenticed under him–a claim that Chinnery denied. In any event, Lam Qua lived and worked among the Westerners in Canton, whose presence was begrudgingly tolerated as a result of China losing the Opium War–a conflict that broke out over the drug addiction situation–and being forced to accept foreign trade missions. Lam Qua grew quite wealthy, and died in Canton in 1860.

Thus, this painting, which seems so simple, in fact masks a very complex situation of cultural collision that was occurring at the time it was painted. It’s amazing what you can find in something like this, if you look behind the brush strokes.