Thursday, March 24, 2011

Chinese Knock Off Products, part of History!

Recently the local flea markets have been raided by officials searching for counterfeit handbags and other “Knock Offs”. They are enforcing the laws because according to US Attorney General Eric Holder “intellectual property crimes are not victimless. The theft of ideas and the sale of counterfeit goods threaten economic opportunities and financial stability…” Copies, counterfeits, bootleg products, or blatant knock offs are everywhere.

It is well known that overseas some producers manufacture “copies” of computers, DVDs, fragrances, fashions, sunglasses, even golf clubs and import them into the United States where consumers sometimes don’t realize they aren’t purchasing the actual name brand products. A fake handbag won’t hurt you physically, but some of the electronics or consumables can be dangerous. In 2004 this problem made worldwide news when dozens of Chinese children died from counterfeit baby formula. But it didn’t stop the problem. And it isn’t new. Because of cultural differences, laws on the books are enforced here, but not in China or in other countries.

At our trip to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts we saw evidence of Chinese ingenuity in producing “copies” from two hundred years ago. Merchants from Salem became some of America’s first millionaires bringing back goods from China to sell in America. Porcelain, tea and spices were the initial products, but then in Hong Kong the hongs (major business houses) produced goods desirable to the American market. Porcelain painted just for US export featured patriotic bald eagles and images of George Washington. Cheap silver, lacquered furniture and pottery were also decorated specifically aimed at American tastes. The hongs were staffed by cheap labor two hundred years ago, and still are today. Sadly, most of the hongs were founded by westerners, mostly British.

This is a Chinese copy of a painting of George Washington, produced for export to the United States. It is a knock off of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait. A ship captain from Philadelphia brought a copy of the portrait to China and ordered 100 copies. Gilbert Stuart was successful in persuading the Philadelphia courts to stop the sale of the Chinese versions in 1801. This copied painting was photographed at the Peabody Essex Museum.

According to the sign posted next to this silver at the Peabody Essex Museum, “Then, as now, labor was much less expensive in China, and consequently a Cantonese copy of an American silver piece could be obtained, as one observer noted, 'for a mere song'..." The egg coddler photographed here is a Chinese copy of an American piece. The child's flatware is Chinese, with Aisian figures engraved on the handles.

Even in the early days of the China Trade, when clipper ships opened their crates at the Salem Custom house, occasionally boxes of tea were found to be full of leaves, and spices turned out to be wood shavings. We’ve all heard the stories about fake Ming vases. Whenever great amounts of money change hand, there is a chance someone is going to try to cheat. This has been going on since Biblical times. Porcelain is a great example of this. The technology and methods to make porcelain were developed in China, and were a mystery to the rest of the world. In an interesting change of pace, Europe tried for years to reverse engineer the process of making fine porcelain, and the Germans were amongst the first to produce a product to compete with China about 1709. (How many of us today still call these objects “china”?)

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has one of the largest collections of objects designed strictly for export to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Porcelain, furniture, art objects and textiles are all on display, as well as historical artifacts related to the shipping and trade of those objects on the high seas. My 3x Great Grandfather, Franklin Abijah Hitchings, was the deputy customs collector at the Salem Custom House. I wonder if finding this type of counterfeit trade was part of his job? Or was it more accepted as part of business in the 1800s?

For more information:

Peabody Essex Museum

A Product and Technology Theft report from Duke University

An interesting short version of the history of porcelain or “china”

A short explanation of the Hong business system

Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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