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The turbulent history of the opium trade

Published : Sep 11, 2016, 1:08 am IST
Updated : Sep 11, 2016, 1:08 am IST

Without the opium trade, would there have been a British Empire

Without the opium trade, would there have been a British Empire How did being the centre of the British East India Company’s opium trade during the 18th and 19th centuries shape Kolkata, erstwhile Calcutta The Empire is no more. But the turbulent history of the opium trade continues to excite the literary imagination.

The House of Wives, Simon Choa-Johnston’s new novel, set in the backdrop of the opium trade in the 19th century, tells the story of a Jewish merchant from Calcutta who made his fortune in the opium game in China.

The book is inspired by the real life history of the author’s family in 19th century Calcutta and Hong Kong. Simon Choa-Johnston was born and raised in Hong Kong and immigrated to Canada for higher studies.

In the “author’s note” at the end of the book, Choa-Johnston gives the reader a flavour of the historical facts which eventually led to the novel. In 1862, his great-grandfather, Emanuel Raphael Belilios, a 25-year-old Sephardic Jew, left his home in Calcutta and set sail for the still-new British colony of Hong Kong, leaving behind his wife Semah. The ship’s cargo contained chests with the finest opium which Belilios had bought at a British government auction. The young man hoped to sell his wares quickly, make a pile, come back home and live a comfortable life ever after.

That was not to be. Life sprung plenty of surprises and over nearly 300 pages, the reader follows the Belilios as the story swings between Calcutta and Hong Kong, enjoying every minute of the drama, adventure and intrigue.

When the Vancouver Sun newspaper asked him why he wrote the book, Choa-Johnston’s short answer was, “Because I had to.”

When he was about eight, the author remembers asking his mother about his ancestors beyond his grandparents. She looked at him sternly and replied, “Your great grandfather was a Jewish opium merchant from Calcutta named Emanuel Belilios.” The expression on her face, recalls the author, was such that he never dared to ask that question again.

Decades passed without him being any wiser. “Then in the 2000s when mom was in her mid-90s and had moved into a senior’s residence, I discovered among her papers, letters, diary entries, photos and other papers about her life that I never knew. But there was still nothing about Emanuel, the Jewish opium merchant. But finding bits of her story instilled in me a need to know more. I went on a quest,” Choa-Johnston told the Vancouver Sun reporter.

Why the book would appeal to the history buff is clear. It was inspired by true stories surrounding a man who became one of the leading opium merchants in Hong Kong in the 1880s. At that time, opium trading had become legal in China.

How Belilios cracked China’s opium trade is a tantalising tale. But more gripping is the emotional story which runs parallel. Belilios had two wives. The first, Semah was from Calcutta. The second, Pearl, was a Chinese woman from Hong Kong from whom Choa-Johnston traces his descent.

The author had to research for 10 long years to come up with the rich tapestry of details that animate every chapter in the book. Other than property records, business transactions, birth and death records, there was not a great deal of information that was easily available about Emanuel, Semah and Pearl’s personal lives.

Choa-Johnston’s book picks up pace as Belilios leaves his dutiful wife Semah in Calcutta and makes for Hong Kong to strike his fortune in the opium trade. Once in Hong Kong, he discovers that he is not going to have a smooth-sailing. How he surmounts the obstacles that come his way makes for a fascinating peek into the opium trade as it was then. During his rise, Belilios falls in love with his Chinese business partner’s daughter, Pearl. As a wedding present, Belilios gives Pearl a magnificent mansion.

But things take a dramatic turn when Belilios’ first wife Semah arrives in Hong Kong unannounced to take her place as mistress of the house.

The story of the two strong women jousting for Emanuel’s love is the most compelling feature of the book. Despite their initial open hostility towards each other, they land up living together in Emanuel’s mansion in Hong Kong along with their children.

There is a poignant twist. Just when one thinks everything is going well, the plot takes an unexpected turn.

Though the author admittedly took some licence with facts, it is clear that his meticulous research gave him a deep understanding of the characters. And the final work — initially conceived as a play — morphed into a novel.

The book has a cinematic appeal. Its opening chapters, set in the Calcutta of 1841 to 1862, brings alive the cadence of the lives of the city’s Jewish community and 19th century upper-class residents. We find ourselves transported into the world of the light-skinned Belilios family which had adopted European dress and enrolled their sons in academies modelled after the English public school system. And we get to see into the mind of Ibrahim Ezra’s daughter Semah who spent her childhood trying to live up to the standards imported by the British colonists.

Then we are swept into Hong Kong (1862-1875) with all its trading frenzy, where “everyone was in a desperate hurry.”

Some of the most delightful and haunting passages are when the two women interact one on one. Soon after arriving at Emanuel’s Hong Kong home, Semah imperiously tells Pearl, “Servants do not sit at a table.” “Servants, do not, but I do,” retorts Pearl. She then tells her rival that she is the mistress of this house. There is yet another twist which impacts the relationship between the two women. Read the book to find out.

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com