This is the story of China, Britain, Hong Kong and Dirk Struan. Dirk Struan was a businessman, an opium smuggler, a pirate, a master manipulator, a ruthless intriguer and a mighty lover and head of Noble House. Noble House was the most powerful trading company in the Far East. In China, head of business house is known as ‘Tai Pan’. So, Dirk Struan was Tai Pan of Noble House or he was first among Tai Pan’s.
The story takes us to the times of 19th century, when none of the foreigners was permitted to enter China Mainland. It tells us how trade between Britain and other European Countries with China prospered especially in tea and silk. It tells us how, the monopoly of China as sole producer of tea was broken by smuggling tea seeds to Assam, India. It also tells us the genesis of ‘Opium Wars’.
Then, there is insight into Dirk Struan’s personal life. It reveals how he became most powerful person in Far East from his poverty stricken childhood. It narrates how he lost his family to plague, how he fought with his only legitimate son Culum, how he prospered against his arch rival Tyler Brock, how he made love with his Chinese mistresses. It also throws light on his friends Aristotle-the painter and Mary Sinclair. Then it narrates the saga of formation of Hong Kong in which Dirk was instrumental. And finally it tells how his son Culum became Tai Pan.
The story also vividly describes the changes British Society was undergoing after Industrial Revolution. Especially, its colonial aspirations and its strategies. At the same time lot of observations are elaborated regarding the engineering development especially the marine engineering during the nineteenth century.
The story uses lots of Chinese dialects and proverbs. So, at times it’s funny and at times witty. The stark contrast between European and Oriental habits like taking bath daily is noticeable in the story. In brief, this story is an interesting insight into the history of Hong Kong.
Other commendable works by James Clavell are Shogun, Gai-Jin, King Rat, Noble House (sequel of Tai Pan) and Whirlwind. James Clavell has also translated ‘The Art of War’, by Sun Tzu.