Tai  Pan (1986)





Director:     Daryl Duke.

Starring:     Bryan Brown (Dirk Struan),  Joan Chen (May-May),  John Stanton (Tyler Brock),  Tim Guinee (Culum Struan), Bill Leadbitter (Gorth Brock), Russell Wong (Gordon Chen),  Katy Behean (Mary Sinclair),  Kyra Sedgwick (Tess Brock),  Janine Turner (Shevaun Tillman),  Norman Rodway (Aristotle Quance),  John Bennett (Orlov),  Derrick Branche (Vargas).

"Tai-Pan is Chinese for "supreme leader". This is the man with real power in his hands. And such a Tai-Pan is Dirk Struan who is obsessed by his plan to make Hong Kong the "jewel in the crown of her British Majesty".  In 1841 he achieves his goal but he has many enemies who try to destroy his plans. Will they succeed?" (Source: www.amazon.com)


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Pearl River, near Canton, China.  10 March 1839. 

"China was an unknown, forbidden land.  For four centuries, her shores had not been touched by the West.  But in the early days of the great sailing ships, Western merchants, drawn by the wonders of tea and silk and jade teased at her coastline with the twin seductions of bribery and opium. In the south of China's vastness on the edge of the inland city of Canton they boldly established a trading center and defied the emperor to act." 

The European Settlement, Canton, China.  Captain Dirk Struan has his ship tied up at the dock.  He watches as a fancy Chinese boat floats past him.  The Chinese fellow who was on the boat, the Imperial Commissioner, scolds the Chinese merchants.  He does not want the merchants buying opium.  "The foreigners poison us with opium and you close your eyes to to this trafficking.  You accept their bribes, you even assist them.  Are you Chinese?  Have you no conscience?" 

A man named Jin Qua reads from an edict.  "From the High Commissioner of His Imperial Majesty and the Celestial Court.  He requires absolutely to see the leader, the Tai-Pan."  One of Dirk's men shouts out:  "We're all taipans."  Jin Qua says he wants Captain Brock. 

May-May prays.   "May my ancestors forgive my love for a barbarian.  I bear insult and pain."  An old Chinese woman comes to kneel alongside May-May and tells her that Captain has been ordered to go into Canton.  He will see the Imperial Commissioner.  May-May gasps and runs out of the Buddhist temple.  She goes into the bedroom with Dirk Struan and tells him not to go to Canton.  Instead, burn all the opium.  May-May says the Imperial Commissioner has already killed a lot of merchants.  He starts undressing her as she talks.  When she stops talking, they lay back on the bed. 

As Dirk is escorted to see the commissioner, a merchant's head is cut-off and another merchant is brought up to suffer the same punishment. 

In front of the commissioner, Dirk has to watch another merchant being sentenced to death.  When they are ready for Dirk, he comes up closer.  He now listens to the reading of the Imperial demands.  The barbarians have to deliver every particle of opium in their possession "or submit like pirates to the extreme penalty of the law."  Dirk says that if the foreign merchants are to surrender all the opium, there must be some form of compensation for this.  The reader of the edict says that the opium is simply going to be burned.  Furthermore, there will be no compensation for the barbarian merchants. 

Dirk lays out five small ingots of silver.  The commissioner says that Dirk is trying to corrupt him.  He also says:  "You deserve to die!"   He says if Dirk is caught selling opium or offering bribes, his head will be cut-off and put in a basket for everyone to look at.  In fact, Dirk and all the merchants must leave Canton. 

Bales of opium are thrown onto a raging fire at the docks.  The merchants on their way to their boats walk through a gauntlet of pushes from the Chinese.  Before Dirk walks through the line, his half-Chinese son Gordon Chen says he will stay and arrange May-May's trip to Macao.  Fine, says dad.  The Chinese set fire to the foreigners' Nobel House.

The foreigners get into two large row boats and they start rowing for Macao.  Captain Brock blames all this on Struan and he tells Dirk:  "Struan, I should have broken your back when you were an arrogant cabin boy."

The Portuguese Enclave at Macao.    On  a bordello on a ship, a painter named Aristotle Quance paints the portrait of a beautiful nude woman.   (brief nudity) He hears voices outside and goes to a window to look out.  He sees the two boats of Captains Brock and Struan.  The women on the ship rush over to the windows to have a look.  They start waving their hands at the sailors in the two boats. 

Captain Struan is now in command of another ship.  He takes Manuel Vargas with him to visit the island of Hong Kong.  There he shows Manuel the beautiful, deep and safe harbor.  Struan says:  "And now she's going to be England's"  He adds that he is going back to England.  "And I'm going to use every penny I have to convince Parliament that the country cannot allow her merchants to be humiliated by a medieval monarch.  And we're going to demand a piece of China for England  --  this piece of China."

Struan must have been successful.  The British navy lands on Hong Kong.  They hold a ceremony.  The commander shouts:  "I, Captain Glessing, Royal navy, do hereby take possession of this island Hong Kong on this day, the 26th of January, 1841.  This soil is now British soil."  There is a large contingent of merchants and their wives present at the ceremony. 

Capt. Brock is not happy saying that they could have demanded trading rights in as many as six Chinese cities.  "Instead, we take this bloody rock." 

Struan is pleased to see his company's ship Morning Cloud come into the harbor.   Captain Orlov is commanding the ship.  Culum Struan, Captain Struan's son, is on the ship.  He comes ashore with Orlov and Captain Struan is happy to see him.  Culum tries to calm his father for the plague has struck Glasgow (Scotland) again.  Mother, his brother, his sisters and grandmother are all dead. "You and I are all that is left."  Father and son embrace and Culum weeps. 

Now Capt. Brock's ship the White Witch comes into the harbor.  The captain of the ship, a young man, asks Tess Brock if she would like to have a drink with him.  In the captain's cabin he holds and kisses Tess while he tells her that he loves her.  Captain Brock is being oared out to his ship.  He says they soon will be going back to Macao.  Meanwhile, the couple in the captain's cabin are now laying on the bed kissing each other.  When they realize that Capt. Brock has arrived, the young man has to run out of the cabin, but Brock sees him and doesn't like what he sees.  The fellow says he was checking to make sure Tess was alright.  Brock goes inside and shoots a very displeased look at his daughter.  She looks a bit afraid of her father.  She doesn't say anything.  Brock now tells the young man to get bellow.

Brock goes below too.  He tells Nagrek that he is a dead man.  Brock's right-hand man, his son Gorth, starts banging Nagrek around.  He bloodies the man's nose with a head butt.  Brock tells his son:  "I just want him dead."  The aide replies:  "He'll be dead."   Brock leaves and Gorth sets to castrating Nagrek.

Over on Struan's ship, Culum is trying to get out of having to take a bath.  He says it's not healthy to bathe too much.  Dad says that not only will Culum be bathing regularly, he will be using paper in the head and he will also wash his hands because the Chinese think that dung makes people sick.  Culum is a skeptic.  Dad tells him that the Chinese do not stink and they don't get sick in this heat like the Europeans.  "They're a smart, wise people.  And every ship of mine runs on the rules they taught me."

Brock and Gorth come in for a visit with Struan.  Brock says he's sorry to hear about his family.  He then says that Struan is bankrupt.  He knows Struan had issued 1,200,000 pounds of notes.  Brock has bought up all the notes and they are due at month's end.  Furthermore, Brock is not extending Struan any credit at all.  The mean captain then says that Struan only has 23 days left to be Tai-Pan (that is, supreme leader). 

May-may shows up.  Struan tells her that he may have to sell her.  She is devastated, but does not offer any objections.  She leaves. 

Gordon is upset about the bankruptcy.  His father tells him not to worry about him.  He was a privateer once and can return to that life to haunt Brock.  And in that regard, he wants Gordon to pay a visit to the pirate Wu Fang Choi on Amoy. 

Dad and Gordon are surrounded by tough-looking Chinese men armed with spears and axes.   But instead of trying to kill them, one of the gang members hands Dad a note:  "The Noble House is in need.  These men will lead you to a friend.  Come secretly." 

Struan is taken to the top man's place of residence.  The maid tells Struan to look through a peep hole and he does.  Inside, he sees Mary Sinclair in  lingerie in bed with the top man.  He is shocked to say the least.  A little later Mary comes over to Struan with something to drink.  She tells him to relax because Jin Qua went down the back stairs.  Struan says he's not worried   --  he's disgusted.  He asks her why she did this and she says simply that he needs her help.   Jin Qua can help Struan restore his power.  So, arrange a meeting with Jin Qua.  He's heading back to Canton.

She really likes Struan because he saved her from a beating at the hands of her father.  But that didn't stop her brother.  And her brother has been having sex with her since before she was 14. 

The madam of the bordello runs to get Aristotle to tell him to stop Gorth from abusing one of the women.  Aristotle is with two women in bed naked (brief nudity), but he gets up and hurries over to the locked door.  He bangs on it repeatedly and tells Gorth to open the door.  Slowly Gorth opens the door and Aristotle tells him to get out.  Gorth was brutally lashing a woman with a whip and has her back all torn up.   (brief nudity)  The madam says he is banned from her establishment.  Gorth says the Tai-Pan's reign will soon be over and then he's going to visit Aristotle.   Before he leaves, he tells everyone that he will be back. 

Struan goes to see Jin Qua.  He says he heard that Imperial Commissioner Lin has been banished.  Yes.  "He's blamed for losing Hong Kong to the British."  Jin Qua shows Struan a fortune in silver ingots.  Struan is impressed.  Jin Qua says he will let Struan borrow the fortune, if the captain will sail Jin Qua a huge piece of land in Hong Kong.  The name of the buyer will be put as Gordon Chen.  Struan agrees to the idea. 

By visiting Jin Qua, Struan saw that Gordon has a special bond with Jin Qua.  He asks his son what is this bond between the two of them?  The answer is:  "What the Tai-Pan is to the British, Jin Qua is to the Chinese."  Struan gives his son a big hug and says he is proud of him. 

May-May seduces Struan slowly.  In the process she tells him not to sell May-May.  Rather, kill Brock.  Struan says he has thought about it at times.  He then teases May-May and she tells him he is not the only man in China.  And she also wants him to remember that she was Jin Qua's gift to him in order to get the Chinese trade.  She says that she already knows he will kill Brock, because she pleases Struan too much already.  (brief nudity)

The sliver ingots are transferred to Struan's ship.  A Chinese fellow watches very intently this loading process. 

May-May tells Struan that he should get married again.  In China he can have many wives.  But before this, he should marry May-May first so, for once, she can be the supreme lady in his life.  Struan replies:  "Ay, perhaps I should."

May-May, the old lady and Dirk go on the ship.  The man so intently watching the loading process says to another man that they will soon overpower the ship and take over.  When next they see Struan on deck, they go to the attack.  Struan conquers all of them, except a man holding May-May hostage.   The old lady sticks a knife in his back. 

Aristotle talks with Struan.  It seems that Culum Struan is running a land auction.  Aristotle tells him that Glessing is behind this and he hopes that both Struan and Brock will try to outdo each other in the auction.  At the auction Struan unveils his fortune in silver ingots.  With the ingots, Struan is paying off the debt he owes Brock and also buying the Nobel House.  Brock is beyond angry.  He asks Glessing to have his marines watch the ingots, while he gets his men down here to guard it and other men to load it to be moved. 

Culum seems to side with Brock.  Bur Brock grabs him by the collar and says that the auction coming up better be fair.  He wants that knoll.  And says that Culum is to tell his father that he will be willing to use the silver ingot fortune to get the knoll. 

The auction lot 112-B is the last item.  This infuriates Brock and Struan and they ask about the knoll.  Culum says he is purchasing the land to be delivered to the new church for a price of one pound a year.   His father objects saying his son knew that the land was meant for the Noble House.  Culum just says:  "The knoll belongs to the house of God."

Dirk and Culum meet on the knoll.  Dad says at first he was mad about the knoll going to the church, but when he thought about it, it was the only way from stopping Brock from getting his hands on it.   This is a pleasant surprise for Culum.  Dad wants to know why his son refers to him as a devil?   Culum says he's a smuggler and he sells opium.  Then he reproaches his father for having a son, Gordon Chen, out of wedlock and then for selling Gordon's mother to
Chen.  Dad says that she became Chen's third wife and now she's highly respected. 

Dirk also tells his son that his mother came to Macao, but only stayed for one year.  She went back to England never to return to Macao and China.  And now he tells Culum that he wants him to take over the business, so his dad can go back to England and stop Brock's political maneuverings.  "And I want to be your friend."  The foolish son will not reconcile with his father. 

Dirk is having built a near-mansion on Hong Kong.  Tillman and his niece Shevaun come to give Dirk a few house warming gifts.  Dirk says he will see her at the ball. 

May-May saw the encounter and is extremely mad at Dirk for flirting with the woman with "cow eyes".  (brief nudity)   The servants comes in with a portrait of Shevaun in the nude.  May-May starts throwing tea cups at it and Dirk and the servant have to beat a hasty retreat. 

At the ball, Dirk dances with Mary Sinclair.  Culum dances with Tess Brock.  Mary tells Dirk that Glessing has asked for her hand in marriage. 

Dirk goes to see May-may.  She has a surprise for him.  She comes out in a ball gown like the other women, but the colors are too clownish looking.  Dirk reacts with:  "God's blood!"  May-may gets very upset and runs to the back room.  Now he has to go calm her down for his thoughtless reaction.   He tells her that she just really surprised him. 

At the ball Shevaun was figuring that she would win the 1,000 pound prize for being the best dressed.  But the prize went to Miss Tess Brock. 

May-May figures that she has lost face with Dirk and now she begs him to sell her.  She won't or can't listen to his western style reasoning.  So he does what he id supposed to do, Chinese style.  He berates her for being a terrible slave, etc. and then starts to whip her with a willow stick.  May-May tells him not to hit her too hard because she is three months' pregnant.  The servant and the old lady come in to see what's going on.  Dirk pretends to hit her but smacks the willow stick on the couch instead. 

Gorth has made friends with Culum.    He sees Culum and sister Tess kissing each other.  Gorth tells her to go home.  He then tells Culum to go with him.  Gorth and three of his friends take Culum to the whore house.  A woman is chosen for Culum.  Gorth waits for him to finish.  A friend thinks that Gorth wants Culum to marry Tess, but Gorth gets angry at the very idea.  He says the man will never marry Tess.  And right now Culum is with the "most poxed whore in the bordello".  The problem for Gorth is that Culum doesn't want to have sex with the woman.  He gives her the money and leaves the room.

Brock comes to see Struan.  He says that he is against Culum marrying Tess.  But Tess and his wife want the marriage for Tess.  Struan replies:  ". . .  I'll not let you break Noble House through a girl's skirts."  Brock is seething with anger and he promises Struan that he is going to break him. 

May-May tells Dirk that if Tess married Culum, the bride will be coming to the father's household.  And if Tess is away from the influence of Gorth, then Culum will also be away from the influence of Gorth.  This way, Gorth will lose control of innocent Culum.  She says:  "Please, Tai-Pan, let him have girl."

Culum talks to his father about establishing a tea growing industry in India.  Dad, however, wants to talk about marriage.  He says they shouldn't wait for a whole year to be married.  Perhaps they could elope.  He says that Culum will be master of the ship and he will have complete control over Captain Orlov and the ship.  The boat will be leaving on the noon tide to Hong Kong.  Culum gets the hint and takes off running to go see Tess. 

On board the ship, Captain Orlov marries Culum and Tess. 

May-May is having her child.  The doctor asks Culum to wait outside.  Later the doctor comes out and says May-May is weak, but okay.  The baby, a boy, never had a chance, and is deceased.  May-May apologizes to Dirk about losing the child, but Dirk does not hold this against her.  She will have another opportunity for a child+.   

After learning about Culum and Tess, Gorth comes after Struan in a bar.  The patrons pull the two men apart.  Gorth says that Culum is poxed because he was in the whore house in Macao.  He says he himself paid for the visit for Culum.  Struan says they will fight at dawn, but Gorth can't wait for the morning.  He wants Struan dead now.  He grabs a knife and goes after Struan.  Struan turns the knife on Gorth and Gorth dies.  His father arrives just after Gorth's death.  Now Brock wants a duel with Struan at the knoll. 

The next morning a typhoon arrives, but the two men go ahead with the fight anyway.  They fight each other with irons.  Brock starts getting the upper hand.  Struan manages to knock Brock's head against the floor a couple of times.  Brock cuts Struan just below his left eye with a hook.  Struan splits open Brock's mid-section with the iron.   Brock lands a blow on Struan's left arm.  And now Struan hits Brock a heavy blow to his back with the iron.  Parts of the building start falling down around the two fighters.  Struan takes some cover. 

The eye of the storm is now over the fighters and the weather is calmer for a moment.  Both Brock and Struan survive the fight and the storm. 

Culum and Gordon go into the house and find the old lady and the servant dead.  And now they find their father and the "China lady" dead in each other's arms.

Aristotle comes over to Culum and asks to borrow some money.  He calls Culum the Tai-Pan.  Captain Orlov comes over to talk to Master Culum.  He says that Brock maintains he is going to handle the funeral for his father and he will dispose of the Chinese lady.  Orlov asks if these are Culum's wishes?  Culum tells him that Gordon will make the funeral arrangement for their father.  And he wants his father and his lady to be buried together.  Everybody seems very happy that Culum is stepping up to fill in his father's shoes. 

At the end of the film there is some film of the modern metropolis of Hong Kong. 


This movie deals primarily with the in-fighting between two rivals for dominance of the British opium trade in and around Hong Kong.  Bryan Brown is the leader of one firm.   Brown has a wife and children back in Scotland, but his true home seems to be China.  He has a beautiful Chinese mistress (played wonderfully by Joan Chen) and seems very content.  But the leader of the other firm, played by John Stanton, is out to destroy all this happiness in an attempt to become the dominant figure in the China trade in the area.  Tim Guinee is perfectly objectionable as Stanton's sexual sadist son.   

The Chinese are there, but are only secondary figures of interest (except, of course, for Joan Chen).  The focus is almost totally on these two budding robber barons and their various machinations to come out on top.  I was disappointed that there was not much history in the movie, but as a story in-and-of-itself, it is pretty good.  And Joan is nice to look at.  And the movie does give us a chance to discuss Britain's opium trade in China.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


Hong Kong is located on the South East coast of China, 80 miles South East of Canton, at the mouth of the Peal River. It has one of the world’s largest natural deep water harbors. The heart of the Hong Kong metropolis is the capital of Victoria on Hong Kong island. Other parts of Hong Kong are the Kowloon peninsula and the New Territories (which includes more than 230 surrounding islands). Tall mountains rise from the sea and create a rugged topography.

Through the Mongol invasions of the Tang and Song dynasties – Hong Kong was an important trading center.

1279-1368 Yuan Dynasty (Mongolian control)

After that, the attention on Hong Kong declined.

1368-1644 Ming Dynasty

Mongol rule in China was brought to an end after civil war among Mongol princes.

1513 – Hong Kong was first visited by the Portuguese mariner Jorge Αlvares. Αlvares began trading with the Chinese, as well as other trade stops up and down the coast of China. The Portuguese introduced tea, silk and other goods to Europe.

Portuguese merchants traded in Southern China. But clashes between China and Portugal ensued and the Portuguese were expelled.

1644-1911 Qing Dynasty

1644-1662 – emperor Shun Zhi (Shun Chih).

1662-1723 – emperor Kang Xi (Kang Hsi) 1662 - 1723 AD

1699 – the British East India Company made the first sea venture to China. Soon after, Hong Kong's trade with British merchants grew rapidly. Hong Kong was established by the British East India Company.

1711 – the British East India Company established a trading post in Canton (Guangzhou).

During the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong became one of the foremost military outposts for Imperial China.

1723 - 1736 – emperor Yong Zheng (Yong Cheng).

1736-1796 – emperor Qian Long (Chien Lung).

1773 – the British East India Company assumed the monopoly of opium trading in Bengal, India and supplied the opium trade in China.

1796-1821 – emperor Jia Qing (Chia Ching).

19th century -- a valuable business was the smuggling of opium to China from India, particularly by the British.

1821 - 1851 – emperor Dao Guang (Dao Kuang).

by 1825 – most of the money needed to buy tea in China was raised by the opium trade.

The Ming, and their successors the Qing, looking inward, remained unaware of the full extent of European expansion in southern Asia. By the time the Chinese realized that they themselves were threatened, it was too late to do anything about it.

1839-1842 -- the First Opium War started when the Chinese imperial government confronted foreign merchant ships and demanded they surrender their illegal cargo. Capt. Elliot, superintendent of the British fleet, asked the governor-general of India for as many ships as he could spare. He sent them to Hong Kong, where they protected the opium-carrying merchant vessels. Chinese junks sent by the emperor didn't stand a chance against the British warships.

1841 – the British flag was placed on Hong Kong island by merchant-adventurers expelled from Canton.

1841 – the British invaded China and won the First Opium War. During the war, Hong Kong was occupied by the British.

1842 (August 29) -- after the deaths of thousands of Chinese, the first Opium War ended with the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty forced the Chinese government to pay $15 million to the British merchants. Furthermore, it opened up five ports to English trade.

1842 – Hong Kong was formally ceded by the Qing Dynasty of China under the Treaty of Nanking.

By the mid-18th century – tea, in particular, was in high demand.

1843 – Hong Kong became a crown colony.

1851-1862 – emperor Xian Feng (Hsien Feng).

1851 -- Taiping Rebellion. A failed examination candidate named Hong Xiuquan, deranged by his failure, started a rebellion. He consolidated his power in the south, allowing the Manchus, just barely, to save themselves.

1854 -- Britain demanded the Qing authorities renegotiate the Treaty of Nanking to include: opening all of China to British merchants, legalizing the opium trade, exempting foreign imports from internal transit duties, suppression of piracy, regulation of the coolie trade, and permission for a British ambassador to reside in Beijing.

1856 (October 8) -- Qing officials boarded the Chinese owned ship the Arrow, and arrested twelve Chinese for suspected piracy and smuggling. British officials in Guangzhou demanded the release of the sailors because they were protected under the Unequal Treaties. Fighting the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese officials had to back down.

1856-1860 -- the Second Opium War pitted the United Kingdom and France against the Qing Dynasty of China.

1857 -- responding to the Arrow incident, the British attacked Guangzho, taking the nearby fort and the town. American warships bombed Guangzhou. The people and soldiers in Guangzhou forced the enemy to retreat from Humen.

1857 (late) -- the British and the French joined forces to attack and occupy Guangzhou, which they held for four years.

1858 (June) -- the first part of the war ended with the Treaty of Tientsin which opened eleven more Chinese ports to Western trade.

1860 (by October 6) -- the French and English occupied Beijing.

1860 (October 18) -- emperor's brother Prince Gong finally ratified the Treaty of Tientsin in the Convention of Peking, bringing The Second Opium War to an end.

1860 – Kowloon Peninsula south of Boundary Street and Stonecutter's Island were ceded to the British under the Convention of Peking after the Second Opium War.

1862 – the first specially recruited Hong Kong civil servants (to be taught Cantonese) were recruited.

1862-1875 – emperor Tong Zhi (Tung Chih).

1875 - 1908 – emperor Guang Xu (Kuang Hsu).

1898 (June 30) – various adjacent lands were leased for 99 years.

1908 - 1911 – emperor Xuan Tong (Hsuan Tung).

WWII – Japanese Occupation lasted for three years and eight months. The cruel Japanese executed many residents of Hong Kong.

1911-1949 -- the Republic of China

1945 (August 15) – the Japanese surrendered. The port was quickly re-opened.

1949 – Hong Kong accepted a mass migration of Chinese refugees from the Chinese civil war and the coming of the Communist government.

Korean War – the United Nations ordered a trade embargo against the People’s Republic of China and Hong Kong lost its position as an entrepot.

Hong Kong established a textile industry and the economy grew extremely rapidly.

towards the 1970s – greater growth was achieved when Hong Kong developed its financial and banking economy.

Late 1970s – still great economic growth under the Open Door Policy (adopted under Deng Xiaoping).

1980s – the British government of Margaret Thatcher started negotiations with China on Hong Kong.

1984 (December 19) – the United Kingdom and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, that would transfer Hong Kong to China.

1997 (June 30) – end of the British lease on Hong Kong.

1997 – Hong Kong became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the PRC.

2003 (summer) – Hong Kong was hit badly by the SARS virus.


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