What treasures did the Orient desire from Yankee traders? Treasures of Seh-Rem overlays the greensward next to Derby Wharf with a surreal fever dream of odd, precious wares, under the watchful eyes and hairy visages of Westerners, as depicted by Japanese artists under the shock of first contact.
The “China trade” brought America exotic oriental treasures: tea, spices and silks, porcelain and lacquerware. The city seal of Salem shows a ‘gentleman of Banda Aceh in Sumatra‘ in traditional dress, with a western ship under full sail in the background, to celebrate the first cargo of priceless pepper that came from Sumatra in 1797.
But what did China want from the West? Very little, as it turned out – which is why Britain started the Opium Wars to force China to accept opium in trade for goods. The most valuable cargos from Western traders were Spanish silver coins, ginseng from the Northeast USA (gathered by Native Americans, who did not value the root so highly), and then goods that the Salem traders acquired en route to Asia: opium from the Middle East and India, but also sea cucumbers and sandalwood from the Pacific Islands and fur seal pelts from the Pacific NW, South America and Antarctic.
My late father Philip Thiel was a naval architect in his first career, and had co-founded an ill-fated boatbuilding business in Essex with Dana Story, whose family’s shipyard is now the site of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. So even while growing up on the West Coast, my father regaled me with sea chanties, stories of the Cape Ann area, and those who lived from the sea.
By the time I was 12-years-old I had also crossed the Pacific to Japan and back twice in a freighter (before container ships became ubiquitous – Dad had the patent but unfortunately did not implement it). Each time I returned to an America it was like the shock of first contact – finding America to be a strange and empty land compared with the density and ancient cultural history of Japan.
On a Japan Foundation fellowship in 2003 I researched how artists of both East and West visualized unknown cultures. In 2006, I embodied this viewpoint in a “reverse Marco Polo” virtual reality artwork series Travels of Mariko Horo. Mariko Horo, “Mariko the Wanderer,” is my fictitous time-traveling alter ego, a Japanese woman artist who creates the exotic and unknowable Occident based on just a few stories, images and maps, as did her real fellow artists in Japan during the 200 years when it closed itself off to the rest of the world.
Forbidden to all Westerners with the exception of Dutch traders, there were still two very rare visits from Salem ships. In Treasures of Seh Rem Mariko hears stories of these strange Yan Ki traders, and turns the spyglass around to visualize the Salem Maritime Museum greensward as a source of exotic commodities from the Land of Seh-Rem.