China Bound: John Swire & Sons, and its World, 1816-1980

Published by Bloomsbury books, on 5 March 2020

The blurb: From its origins in Liverpool in 1816, one unusual British firm has threaded a way through two centuries that have seen tumultuous events and epochal transformations in technologies and societies. John Swire & Sons, a small trading company that began by importing dyes, cotton and apples from the Americas, now directs a highly diversified group of interests operating across the globe but with a core focus on Asia. From 1866 its fate was intertwined with developments in China, with the story of steam, and later of flight, and with the movements of people and of goods that made the modern world.

China Bound charts the story of the firm, its family owners and staff, its operations, its successes and its disasters, as it endured wars, uprisings and revolutions, the rise and fall of empires – China’s, Britain’s, Japan’s – and the twists and turns of the global economy. This is the story of a business that reshaped Hong Kong, developed Cathay Pacific Airways, dominated China’s pre-Second World War shipping industry, and helped pioneer containerization.

Robert Bickers’ remarkable new book is the history of a business, and of its worlds, of modern China, Britain, and of the globalization that entangled them, of compradors, ship-owners, and seamen, sugar travellers, tea-tasters, and stuff merchants, revolutionaries, pirates and Taipans. Essential reading for anyone with an interest in global commerce, China Bound provides an intimate history that helps explain the shape of Asia today.

“No-one writes the history of the British presence in China like Robert Bickers. In China Bound he tells the remarkable story, spread across two tumultuous centuries, of a family-owned company from Liverpool that made itself part of Asia. This is a tale of family, of empire, and of networks.” –  John M. Carroll, Professor of History, The University of Hong Kong and author of Edge of Empires: Chines Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong.

“This is the story of one of the major British companies in Asia. But it is so much more than that – it is a sweeping tale of how empire was formed, operated at its height, and then had to reinvent itself. Robert Bickers uses a wide range of materials, many of them never before seen by scholars, to tell a story of how Swire created new trade routes and connections in Asia, and how Asia in turn was shaped by the commerce of empire, before having to deal with war and the impact of the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949. Told with the style and verve that would suit the most buccaneering Taipan, this is a powerful and important history that will make its mark at a time when Britain’s relationship with Asia is taking new and unpredictable turns.” –  Rana Mitter, University of Oxford, author of China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival.

“How does a Western family business – and a family of businesses – survive and thrive for over two centuries in Asia? How does a pioneering private enterprise navigate the wars, revolutions, and re-openings of modern China? This is the story of John Swire & Sons, narrated so brilliantly by Robert Bickers. This book is many things: It is a magisterial business history that reads like a novel. It is a drama of empires in conflict and competition. It is the story of how commerce created our modern world and its institutions. And it is a captivating history of China and Hong Kong, seen through the lens of business. This is a book for all who study modern China and its foreign relations – and for anyone doing business in China today. This past has many lessons for our present.” William C. Kirby, T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies, Harvard University.

“With unprecedented access to Swire’s archives, Robert Bickers has crafted a riveting story of the firm’s survival through two tumultuous centuries of modern Chinese history. Nations rise and empires fall, and through the storms sail the ships of John Swire & Sons. This is a brilliant work by the leading historian of Britain and China.” Stephen R. Platt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and author of Imperial Twilight