Even until a few years ago this jewel of a city was still synonymous with a decadent cosmopolitanism, from the Anglo-Chinese tycoons breathing the rarified air on the Peak down to the Kenyan and Pakistani traders swarming Kowloon.

Well-educated and ambitious people from all over the world–but especially Asia–came here, seduced by the promise of wealth and sophistication.

We thought then that the day was not far off when economic wealth would be followed by intellectual riches, that one day, in the near future, it would no longer be necessary to go far away to experience the openness and vibrancy that a global city could offer. As wonderful as New York and Paris are, they are so, so far from home.

That day never came.

At some point, the trajectory was hijacked by the idea that the only choice was between a closed nationalism and a westernized liberalism. That the global city of our fantasies could only have been a creation of the British, and they were no longer in the picture. And that as Hong Kong was returning to the motherland, it could no longer be the open place it had once been.

After all, Asians have always been unwilling to engage with the big, bad “other.” (Edo Japan anyone?)

But, could Hong Kong even have existed without the Chinese trading entrepôts that preceded it by a thousand years? I’m talking about open, liberal cities like Quanzhou, characterized by thriving cosmopolitan populations of Indian and Arab merchants. What? You know nothing about those cities? Well, allow me to enlighten you.1

Like Hong Kong, Quanzhou was a city entirely dependent on long-distance trade for its existence.

Located in the southern part of China and once considered a wild backwater by most civilized Chinese, Quanzhou was largely ignored in its infancy. Perhaps this allowed merchants from as far afield as Arabia  to congregate there without harassment. They came to sell jewels, spices, drugs and cotton, the last favoured by Chinese soldiers in the sweltering summers, and to buy porcelain, silks and exotic fruits.2

By the tenth century, these same merchants were putting down roots in the community.

Inscriptions left over from that time tell us of a Najib Muzhir al-Din from Siraf, Persia, a key center in the long-range trade networks of the Muslim merchants of west Asia. Shinawei, as he was locally known, built mosques and gave liberally to charity.

Then there was Lobazhiligan and his son, lone settlers from the Malabar Coast of India. Perhaps they found kinship with the more numerous Shiva-worshipping Tamils from the opposite coast? The Indians brought over their holy men to consecrate their new homes and supervise the building of Hindu temples. 

For a long time, Quanzhou’s international community was ghettoized in the area adjoining the riverbank.

When the presiding warlord built a wall encircling the growing metropolis in the mid-tenth century, the international community was excluded from the enclosure.

It wasn’t till over a hundred years later, when the wealth and influence of the foreign community became too big to ignore, that the walls were finally rebuilt to include the international settlement.

Economic wealth in Quanzhou was eventually followed by intellectual openness.

Foreign merchants brought with them their religions, and although they never actively proselytized, these ideas infiltrated the local culture.

For example, the Hindu iconography that decorated the Tamil temples was later transformed and incorporated locally, as can be seen in the resemblances between Hanuman and the famous monkey god from the classic Journey to the West.

But more importantly, the growing trade links between China and the outside world led to the creation of a wealthy indigenous merchant class along the Fujian coast.

These merchants were an easy-going, open-minded lot. They would have had to be, given that they interacted on a regular basis with the cosmopolitan Quanzhou merchants.

Many of them embraced Buddhism–not so much its more waspish, intellectual tenets—but as a popular religion, building brightly decorated temples all along the coast.

Social contact between the Confucian gentry and the merchants, once unimaginable, now became the norm. Foreign ideas infiltrated even the most closed echelons of Chinese society.

Did this lead to the downfall of Chinese civilization? Not at all. In fact, historians label this period, the Song dynasty, the golden age of Chinese culture, when China was the most powerful and innovative nation on earth.