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Home / Brad Delong, Berkeley / READING: The Beginning of: John Q. Marquand (1937): Think Fast, Mr. Moto

READING: The Beginning of: John Q. Marquand (1937): Think Fast, Mr. Moto

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John P. Marquand (1937): Think Fast, Mr. Moto: 'It had not taken Wilson Hitchings long to realize that the firm of Hitchings Brothers had its definite place in the commercial aristocracy of the East, and that China had retained a respect for mercantile tradition which had disappeared from the Occidental world. There were still traditions of sailing days and of the pre-treaty days in the transactions of the Shanghai branch of Hitchings Brothers. The position of its office upon the Bund was enough to show it. The brass plate of HITCHINGS BROTHERS was polished each morning by the office coolies so that it glittered golden against the gray stone façade. Near by were the venerable plates of JARDINE MATHESON and of the HONG KONG AND SHANGHAI BANK. The plate of HITCHINGS BROTHERS had the same

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John P. Marquand (1937): Think Fast, Mr. Moto: 'It had not taken Wilson Hitchings long to realize that the firm of Hitchings Brothers had its definite place in the commercial aristocracy of the East, and that China had retained a respect for mercantile tradition which had disappeared from the Occidental world. There were still traditions of sailing days and of the pre-treaty days in the transactions of the Shanghai branch of Hitchings Brothers. The position of its office upon the Bund was enough to show it. The brass plate of HITCHINGS BROTHERS was polished each morning by the office coolies so that it glittered golden against the gray stone façade. Near by were the venerable plates of JARDINE MATHESON and of the HONG KONG AND SHANGHAI BANK. The plate of HITCHINGS BROTHERS had the same remote dignity, the same integrity, the same imperviousness to time—which was not unnatural.

That plate had been made when a branch of Hitchings Brothers, under the control of Wilson’s great-grandfather from Salem, had moved up to Shanghai from the factories of Canton during the epoch when the place was little more than a swampy China-coast fishing town. Reluctantly, but accurately, Wilson Hitchings could feel the venerable weight of that tradition. The involuntary respect which the tradition had engendered in the narrow European world that maintained its precarious foothold in the Orient was accorded to Wilson Hitchings himself, in spite of youth and inexperience, simply because he bore the name.

Old white-suited gentlemen whom he never recalled meeting previously would suddenly slap him on the back as though he were an Old China Hand. Leather-faced matrons from British compounds would smile at him archly. Sometimes even an unknown, fat Chinese gentleman calling in the outer office would look at him and smile. “Mr. Hitchings,” the old gentleman would say, “so nice you have come here.”

“Gentlemen,” someone would say, toward evening at the bar, “this is young Hitchings, just out from America. He doesn’t know me but I know him. He looks the way old Will did when he came out.… Boy, give Mr. Hitchings a drink.… We have to stick together these days. Anything I can tell you, Mr. Hitchings, simply let me know.”

It had not taken Wilson Hitchings long to realize that he was a public character by right of birth. He grew to understand that the small shopkeeper and the lowest inhabitants of the International Settlement all knew him and that there is no such thing as privacy in the East. Sometimes late at night strange, ragged rickshaw boys would speak to him, in the limpid pidgin English of the place. “Marster Hitchings,” a strange boy would shout. “Please, I take you home. I know where Marster Hitchings lives.”

And sometimes at the street intersections where the pedestrians and the carts and the motors went by in an unending ribbon, the bearded Sikh policeman would bare his white teeth in an unexpected smile. “All right,” the man would say. “All right now, Hitchings Sahib.”

He had begun to realize that a part of Shanghai belonged to him, a part of that rich, monstrous, restive, sinful city where so many races dwelt noisily. It belonged to him because a Hitchings had been there ever since foreigners had come. A Hitchings had seen the city grow out of the East, where China, with that adaptability peculiar alone to itself, had absorbed the conveniences of the West and had made them into something genial and mystic and peculiar. The firm of Hitchings Brothers, on the spot it occupied along the Bund, had become a part of the life. The windows of the firm, never entirely clean in spite of diligent washing, looked out like the eyes of cynical old men upon one of the strangest sights in the world.

Beside the Bund flowed the yellow treacherous currents of the Whangpoo River; warships and huge liners were moored in the river, the last word of Occidental ingenuity, and past them always drifted brown-sailed junks, almost unchanged since the oldest Chinese paintings. Sampans, propelled by a single sculling oar, plied their ways across the river. Scavengers, in the sampans, fought raucously over ships’ garbage; and down on the street beneath, men stripped to the waist struggled like beasts, pulling burdens while limousines passed by. Out of the firm windows one could see all the comedy and tragedy of China struggling in a world of change, all the unbelievable inequality of wealth, ranging from the affluence of fortunate war-lords to a poverty reduced to a limit of existence which no stranger could envisage. It was all beneath the windows, restive and fascinating, something much better accepted than studied.

Wilson Hitchings reluctantly admired his uncle for his cold acceptance of the enigmas which moved about them. Uncle Will Hitchings had grown to accept street riots and homicide as easily as he accepted his whisky-and-soda at the Club, provided dinner was properly and efficiently served as soon as he shouted “Boy!” “My boy,” Uncle Will used to say, “there’s one thing for you to get in your mind—the firm of Hitchings Brothers is an honest firm. It has an excellent reputation upriver. Every Chinese merchant knows us. We seldom lose our customers; you must learn who these customers are; but don’t worry much about the rest. Treat our customers politely, but don’t mix with the natives. It’s confusing to you now. It used to be confusing to me at first, but you’ll get used to it. Don’t try to speak their language. You can’t learn it and it will only make you queer to try. I’ve seen a lot of nice young fellows who have got queer trying to learn Chinese. Just remember our family has got along on pidgin English.

"The main thing is to be seen with the right people. I don’t care how much you drink if you do it with the right people and in the right place; and don’t worry too much about wars and revolutions. Everything is always upset here. All we need is to be sure we get our money, and there’s just one thing more—about women. Be sure you don’t marry a Russian girl. And get as much exercise as you can, and remember I am broad-minded. Come to me when you’re in trouble, remember that nothing will shock me—nothing; and don’t forget you have the firm name. I’ll see you before dinner at the Club.”

It was a strange life, an easy life, and altogether pleasant. In spite of the size of the city, the city was like a country club where everyone of the right sort knew everyone else, where everyone moved in a small busy orbit, surrounded by the unknown, and where everyone was friendly. It did not take him long to realize that it was a responsibility to bear the family name. “You see,” his uncle told him, “we are one of the oldest firms in China and age and name mean a great deal here. I want you to come to dinner to-night. My new cook is very good. I want you to change your cook, he is squeezing you too much. I want you to be sure to be at the Club every afternoon, and I want you to use my tailor. His father and his grandfather have always dressed the Hitchingses.”

“Do you think there is going to be trouble up North, sir?” Wilson Hitchings asked.

His Uncle Will looked at him urbanely. His broad, red face reminded Wilson of the setting sun. “There is always trouble up North,” Uncle William said. “I want you to get yourself a new mess-jacket. The one you wore last night didn’t fit, and that’s more important than political speculation. You had better go to your desk now. I shall have to read the mail. Well, what is it?”

The man who sat in front of the door of William Hitchings’ private office—a gray-haired Chinese in a gray cotton gown—entered. “Please, sir,” he said, “a Japanese gentleman to see you—the one who came yesterday.”

Uncle William’s face grew redder. “My boy,” he said to Wilson, “these Japanese are always making trouble lately. They’re underselling us all along the line. You may as well sit and listen. How long have you been here now?”

“Six months, sir,” Wilson Hitchings said.

“Well,” his uncle said, “we have important interests in Japan. You had better begin to get used to the Japanese. Yes, sit here and listen.” He waved a heavy hand to the office attendant. “Show the man in,” he said.

Red-faced, white-haired, and growing heavy, William Hitchings sat behind his mahogany table with the propeller-like blades of the electric fan on the ceiling turning lazily above his head. Short as the time had been since he had been sent to China, Wilson could understand that much of his uncle’s attitude was a façade behind which he concealed a shrewd and accurate knowledge. He sat there looking about his room with a heavy placid stupidity which Wilson could suspect was part of his uncle’s stock in trade. Even his bland assumption of ignorance of Chinese was valuable.

His uncle had once admitted, perhaps rightly, that it all gave a sense of confidence, a sense of old-fashioned stability. It had been a long while since the firm had started dealing in cargoes of assorted merchandise; and now its business, largely banking, was varied and extensive. The firm was prepared to sell anything up-country through native merchants who had been connected with it for generations, and the firm was the private banker for many important individuals. Wilson could guess that his uncle knew a great deal about the finances and the intrigues of the Nanking Government, although his conversation was mostly of bridge and dinner.

While they waited Uncle William began opening the pile of letters before him with a green jade paper-cutter. Once he glanced at the clock then at the door and then at his nephew. It was three in the afternoon. “My boy,” said Uncle William, “I want you to listen to this conversation carefully and I want you to tell me what you think of it afterwards. I want you to consider one thing which is very important. You must learn to cultivate a cheerful poker face. That is what you are here for, and it will take you years before you can do it.”

“You have one, sir,” said Wilson.

“Yes, my boy,” said Uncle William, “I rather think I have.” He laid down his paper-cutter and raised his voice a trifle. There were footsteps outside the office door. Uncle William looked at the wall opposite him, which was adorned with an oil painting of the first Hitchings factory at Canton, beside which was a Chinese portrait of a stout gentleman in a purple robe seated with a thin hand resting on either knee. It was the portrait of old Wei Qua, the first hong merchant with whom the Hitchingses had dealt. Wei Qua’s face was enigmatic, untroubled and serene.

“Now in the races to-morrow,” Uncle William said distinctly, “I like Resolution in the third. There are going to be long odds on him to-morrow and he is always good in mud. Yes, I think I shall play Resolution.” The office door was opening and Uncle William pushed back his chair. A Japanese was entering, walking across the room in front of the corpulent Chinese clerk with swift birdlike steps.

“Mr. Moto, if you please,” the Chinese clerk was saying.

Mr. Moto was a small man, delicate, almost fragile. His patent leather shoes squeaked slightly as he walked. He was dressed formally in a morning coat and striped trousers. His black hair was carefully brushed in the Prussian style. He was smiling, showing a row of shiny gold-filled teeth, and as he smiled he drew in his breath with a polite, soft sibilant sound. “It is so kind of you to receive me,” he said. “So very, very kind, since I sent my letter such a short time ago. Thank you very, very much.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Uncle William said. “Thank you, Mr. Moto”...

Bradford DeLong
J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

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