Hong Kong has much to thank Italy for — certainly more than just modern fashion, supercars, leather accessories, cuisine, and all types of high-end luxury goods. The presence of Italians along China’s coast during the past five centuries was subtle but instrumental to progress, in both directions. Few people — even modern Italians — are aware of this long history of mutually beneficial cultural interaction.
The beginning of this period is the least known. Let’s leave aside Marco Polo and even Odorico da Pordenone, who was even more daring than the celebrated Venetian traveler: Odorico was a friar who, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), reached Canton (Guangzhou) by boat, and then safely returned to his native Friuli via North China and Tibet. With the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), traveling to and from Europe became more arduous, until the road cleared again, well before the founding of Macao.
In 1459, Mauro di San Michele — a Venetian monk specialized in mapmaking — put together all the bits and pieces of information sent to him by travelers such as Andrea Bianco and Nicolò de’ Conti and sketched a large map of the world, including of Asia for King Alfonso V of Portugal. At the same time, a Florentine physician and philosopher Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli wrote a letter to the same king spurring him to send his ships to explore the wonder of Cathay, as described by Marco Polo. This famous letter remains one of the most influential ever written in the history of mankind. His advice to the Portuguese monarch was to travel West rather than East to reach China; the one who heeded his advice was none other than Christopher Columbus who, while attempting to reach China, accidentally stumbled onto America.
The first meeting between European and Chinese ships — trading against the order of the Emperor of China — happened in Malacca around the year 1511. During the last years of the Ming Dynasty, China had inexplicably given up control of the sea, for reasons which are well-known but nevertheless hard to understand. The sea was thus open for Arab merchants as well as to Portugal, then a minor European power basing its growing fortunes on the sea. With the Portuguese were several Italians, not only as crew but also involved in financing, with funds provided by the bankers of Florence.
One of these crew members was Ludovico da Varthema, a native of Bologna, who traveled to Asia in 1504 after enrolling with the Portuguese. Once back to Italy he sat down to write his memoirs, which were printed in Rome in 1510. His book is full of first-hand observations; for instance, he says that he had sailed in the company of Chinese Christians — probably Nestorians, who had been in China for many centuries already — and Persian merchants.
On the banking side we should mention Giovanni da Empoli, a Florentine working for the firm Gualtierotti & Frescobaldi who was very close to the supreme commander of the Portuguese in Asia, Admiral Alfonso de Albuquerque. Some consider him the first traveling banker in Asian history, he moved back and forth from Asia to Europe three times — quite an achievement in those days — but the last trip proved fatal, for he died in 1518 and was buried somewhere near Macao.
Another interesting character was Andrea Corsali, a friend of Leonardo Da Vinci — it is thanks to one of his letters that we know that Leonardo was a vegetarian. His presence on the Portuguese ships shows that the financial involvement of the famous Medici banking family was deeper than previously thought. Corsali wrote letters to the Duke of Nemours, Giuliano de’ Medici, in 1515 some of which have been preserved. In one of them he sketched, for the first time, the constellation of the Southern Cross and he spoke of the Chinese he had encountered as “people of great skill, and on par with us.”
Arabs rightly worried about losing their pre-eminent position with the Sultan of Malacca and provoked an incident: the Chinese traders came forward offering their help to the newly arrived Portuguese.
The first man believed to have put his foot on Chinese soil after the end of the Yuan Dynasty was Admiral Raffaele Perestrello, a relative of Columbus, from an Italian family, which had settled in Spain. This happened around 1513 or 1514, with the most likely location being Tuen Mun, now of course part of Hong Kong, or on Nei Lingding, an island that can be seen from the top of Castle Peak in the New Territories.
The great fortune made by the Portuguese prompted the Dutch, the French and the British to follow suit to Southeast Asia and China. The first British ship, the London, arrived in Macao in 1635. Other British vessels had arrived before, but had not been allowed to cast anchor because, like the Dutch ships, they were acting as pirates. Hong Kong came two centuries later.
The author, in cooperation with the Italian consulate-general in Hong Kong, wrote the 500 Years of Italians in Hong Kong & Macau, which will be discussed at the Asia Society on Oct 10, 2013. He has been a Hong Kong resident since 1983 and writes for various Italian publications.