The Return of the Princely Hong: 1979-1983

Extract from the anthology ‘The Thistle and the Jade’

Peter Po, Sir John Keswick and David Mathew greeting foreign dignitaries at one of their huge Beijing banquets in the early EightiesIn 1980, Sir John Keswick, with his wife Clare, was making their annual visit to China. He had done so for nearly 30 years, patiently, through good times and bad, maintaining his senior contacts for the firm. On his agenda were meetings with members of the government in Beijing. Now, however, for the first time, he visited the pre-Liberation Jardines offices on the Shanghai Bund. David Mathew, recently installed as Jardines Representative in Beijing, accompanied him. “JK marched in and pointed out where his father’s and grandfather’s portraits had hung, then, followed like the Pied Piper of Hamelin by an increasing number of trade officials, he led us to his old office, to be confronted by an ancient messenger boy who simply said, “Ah…. Mr Keswick come back!”

Jardines was indeed back. There was an office in Beijing, opened tentatively in 1979 by John Parke Wright III, and now permanently established by his successor, David Mathew, working with William McDowell from the China Trading Division – but the firm’s presence was still precarious.

“We had the visas, we had the verbal permissions, we had the recognition at senior level,” said Mathew, “but we did not yet have a formal written registration and could be thrown out for any transgression.” Mathew and his chief Chinese colleague, Peter Po, son of a pre-Revolution Bank of China director, who had left the Mainland for Hong Kong in the late seventies and presciently been hired by Patrick Alexander to guide Jardines through communist bureaucracy, were under constant surveillance. “In 1979 people were badly fed,” Mathew recalls. “The power of the Public Security Bureau and being denounced was still pervasive, and everyone wanted to avoid trouble, which came from dealing with foreigners, particularly one representing a company that had been demonised to every Chinese with his mother’s milk. We worked and lived in the Peking Hotel, replete with picture windows, electric curtains and anti-macassars on the lumpy armchairs, plus a standard lamp with a green raylene shade, which seemed to require permanent attention from the local engineers at all hours. Not much else did. Concepts of privacy were non-existent. I remember shaving at seven in the morning, thank goodness with a towel around my waist, suddenly seeing in the mirror the reflected faces of two Vice Ministers from the First Ministry of Machinery Building who were looking for Peter Po.”

Read Adam Williams’ full essay The Return of the Princely Hong: 1979-1983 in The Thistle and the Jade