Customs House

customs house boy
Boy. Image source: Old Shanghai, illustrations Youzhi He; English text George Wang

My paternal grandfather worked for the Imperial Maritime Customs Service from 1906 to 1909. It was a curious place to work and an extraordinary creation for its time. On behalf of the Qing court, a British-led Inspectorate of Customs collected import duties owed on foreign goods.

Grandpa was probably a low-level clerk, an office boy. In his case, the title fit since he was only 15 when hired. But in Old Shanghai, the foreigners called all Chinese males boy, no matter their age.

imperial maritime customs service

It was a crazy idea – allowing foreigners to collect Chinese taxes. But the Qing had no choice. During the Taiping uprising (1850-1864), only foreigners had the firepower and the immunity to collect taxes. When the service started in 1854, it was just a three-man operation with one office in Shanghai.

The Qing liked their foreign tax collectors. For one thing, the British collectors managed to collect far more revenues than their corrupt Chinese predecessors. They kept the foreigners after the Taiping rebellion and expanded the service to all the treaty ports.

When the Qing dynasty fell in 1912, the new Chinese republic continued the practice. Its only change was to rename the organisation the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS).

more than just a tax collector

The Chinese Maritime Customs project at the University of Bristol calls the CMCS

the only bureaucratic organ that continued to operate as an integrated institution throughout the period 1842-1950 […] responsible for domestic customs administration (the Native Customs), postal administration, harbour and waterway management, weather reporting, and anti-smuggling operations. It mapped, lit and policed the China coast and Yangzi river. It was involved in loan negotiations, currency reform, and financial and international affairs.  

we want men

My grandfather had just graduated from high school when he went to work at the Customs House. He of course handed over his entire salary to his older sister who would then mete out his allowance. By the time he left in 1909, Grandpa earned 60 silver taels, a king’s ransom.

In those days, having a college degree was no requirement to make a decent living. In fact, Robert Hart, the longest-serving Inspector General of the CMCS reportedly had a distaste for university graduates:

We want men and not encyclopedias.

Yet, the CMCS functioned as a strict hierarchy. The Indoor Staff were mostly foreigners who held the elite positions. The Outdoor Staff were watchers and tidewaiters, examiners and lighthouse keepers. As Robert Bickers wrote:

[The CMCS] employed some 11,000 foreign nationals over nearly a century, from 1854 until 1950 […]. Half of those men were Britons, […] the others were American, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and from many more nations besides (including quite a number of Norwegians).

All of them were Chinese civil servants.

obsessive compulsive disorder

The CMCS was fanatical about collecting and not just tax revenues. The service produced monthly, quarterly and annual Returns of Trade as well as numerous other publications on topics as wide-ranging as navigational aids, meteorology and medicine.

In what will become the final volume of my Shanghai Quartet, I’ve given my characters Max Lazerich and Song Kang jobs at the Customs House in Shanghai. They both start out as copyists. Max quickly climbs the corporate ladder to become the head of the research department, while his Chinese friend lags behind.

the big ching

Shanghai Customs House. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The Customs House where Max and Kang would have worked, still stands today. Built in 1927, it’s a Shanghai landmark on the Bund. Back then, you could hear its bells chime all over town.

As Tess Johnston and Deke Erh tell the story in A Last Look, the carillon would ring every 15 minutes. Some Chinese attributed the sound to the drop in fires in Shanghai.

when the God of Fire heard their sound he thought it was a fire bell.

During the Communist Revolution, the carillon was replaced by loudspeakers that played The East is Red. Since 1986, the chimes once again sound, though it’s near impossible to hear them over the roar of traffic.

an unlikely meeting place

The Customs House has seen governments come and go, as well as thousands of employees, native and foreign. Why couldn’t someone like Max Lazerich – a brash, young American stowaway- find his sea legs in the CMCS? Or the painfully shy Song Kang with his limited grasp of the English language and enormous hunger to learn?

As coincidences go, my maternal great-grandfather also once worked at the Customs House in Shanghai. Again, I don’t know what sort of work he did. But given the dates, it’s not impossible that my maternal great-grandfather and my paternal grandfather were once co-workers.

Customs House employee
My grandpa. Photo credit unknown

When my grandfather decided to give up his job at the Customs House, his parents were furious. They could not understand his decision to give up a golden rice bowl. And for no better reason than to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology! My grandfather left China anyway. He graduated with the MIT class of 1916 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

He returned to Shanghai in 1919. My father was born in that city in 1923. The rest is history.