Mathilde HK and the Tai Pan

You heard about the legend of the Tai pan?

You want to know more on the History of Hong Kong?

You are curious about Pirates?


Mr. Glasspoole and the Chinese pirates : being the narrative of Mr. Richard Glasspoole of the ship Marquis of Ely. Author: Glasspoole, Richard, 1788-1846. London: The Golden Cockerel Press, 1935, picture@hkmaritimemuseum

The History of Hong Kong is linked to sea bandits whose legendary names or coves, such as Amoy and Swatow, gave birth to streets or places reminding us of the piracy that plagued Hong Kong in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum showcases weapons used by pirates, dioramas, images, artefacts, and the huge cannon that the Qing Dynasty used in coastal defences. However, the gallery omitted to mention the part pirates played in the rise of Hong Kong’s economy.

download (1)

Capture of a notorious Chinese pirate, Chang Yeh, at Hong Kong”
‘Going to his death’ From a sketch by C. Cole, Paymaster RN
The Graphic, no. 934, 22nd October, 1887 originally published in the Illustrated London News, July 2nd 1887, picture@hkmaritimemuseum

Among the many legends carried out with the figure of the sea bandit, one is particularly fascinating and gave birth to many movies and books: the Figure of the Hong Kong Tai Pan, ‘supreme leader’ in Chinese.

What or who is a Tai Pan?


In Cantonese, Tai Pan refers to a powerful businessman in China or Southeast Asia. By extension, that nomenclature became the title of the head of a British trading company in colonial Hong Kong.

History and Legend:

Tai Pan is the title of a novel written by James Clavell, published in 1966 as the second volume of his Asian Saga. The book depicts the first Opium war in 1842 and the major role played by British merchants in the creation of a real commercial trust in Hong Kong.

The Author focused on one specific English shipowner, Dirk Struan, whose company is called The Noble House. In his struggle to save The Noble House from financial ruin, Dirk associated with pirates, cooperating through a complex network of debts and favors to be repaid.That code of honor, inherited from sea bandits, will run the company for decades…


Tai Pan, cover of the novel, 1966,

The Tai Pan History I discovered fascinated me and I wanted to see what happened to the figure in the XXth century. I fund the American miniseries The Noble House, produced in 1988 and adapted from the novel by James Clavell, featuring Pierce Brosnam as the new Taipan.

Synopsis from IMDB:

‘Ian Struan Dunross is chairman of Struan & Co, the oldest and largest of the British-East Asia trading companies. To the Chinese, that also makes him “Tai-Pan” (“supreme leader”) of the “Noble House”. Unfortunately, with his power, he inherits ancient promises, dark secrets and deep financial problems on a small island full of people who want to see Struan’s fall so they can become the Noble House. Dunross’ worst enemy is the vicious Quillan Gornt, a lesser tai-pan, and he’s doing everything in his power to bring the Noble House to ruin. Drawn into the fight between Gornt and Dunross is an upstart American billionaire who tries to gain a foothold on the Hong Kong market and has made a deal to steal something that will give him power, even over the Noble House. Unfortunately, that something has fallen into the hands of a powerful Chinese overlord…’


Why did I like this TV Mini-Series?

The main interest of that TV  show is the decor. For this miniseries, the timeframe of the original novel was changed from the early 1960s to the 1980s. So the setting is in Hong Kong during the 1980s and it was very pleasant to recognize Jardin’s House, the HSBC tower, Sheung Wan or the Star Ferry Pier, before the extensions of land over Hong Kong harbour.

A second good reason for watching the mini-series relies in the facts behing the legend and the association between the Noble House and Jardin. Struans’ is reputed to be a fictionalized version of Bermuda based conglomerate Jardine-Matheson; and Dunross’ is based on Sir Hugh Barton (One of Time Magazine’s Man of the Year) who spearheaded Jardine-Matheson’s hugely successful IPO.

That Tai Pan History also gave birth to movies such as:

Tai Pan, 1986, by Daryl Duke. 

Filmed under communist Chinese censorship, some portions of Clavell’s story were considered too offensive to be filmed as written and considerable changes were made, which made the plot quite light.

To know more about Pirates in China

A famous Chinese Lady Pirate

Piracy in China

Piracy and coastal security in Southeastern China, 1600-1780, Robert J. Antony in Elusive Pirates, Pervasive SmugglersPublished by Hong Kong University Press


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s