Export Expert

James A. Thomas

James A. Thomas was the managing director of the British-American Tobacco Company in China from its beginning in 1905 to 1920. Largely through his efforts, BAT--formed as a joint venture of James B. Duke's American Tobacco Company and the Imperial Tobacco Company of England--became one of the most successful foreign-business undertakings in China.

Born in Lawsonville, North Carolina, three days before the Merrimac and the Monitor fought it out at Norfolk on March 9, 1862, Thomas was a child of the Reconstruction-era South. He put himself through a four-month course at Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and became a traveling tobacco peddler, like his father before him.

Thomas took on a series of assignments for Motley, Wright and Liggett and Myers, just as James B. Duke's American Tobacco Company was buying up smaller concerns around the country. He earned a reputation as an ingenious salesman, and in 1899, when the ATC took control of the export trade, he was assigned to explore the Indian market. "Regardless of climate and tropical diseases," Thomas later wrote, "I never thought of refusing to go anywhere my company sent me. I was carried along by wanderlust and a desire to succeed in establishing new markets for American cigarettes."

As a major player in Shanghai during its storied heyday between the collapse of the ruling Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the escalation of Japanese hostilities in the late 1930s, Thomas helped create a flowering of urban material culture that would bring about an entire modern consciousness. His was the Shanghai of writers like Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature, and intellectuals like Chen Duxiu, founder of the Chinese Communist Party. "I was in China almost continuously from 1897 to 1923," he later recalled. "It was obvious to me that China was changing all that time."

Thomas was ever happy to offer firsthand knowledge of the Chinese scene to his fellow Southern entrepreneurs. In a letter to the Hanes brothers of Winston-Salem, he cautioned them to beware, as "the Japanese are now putting out a very cheap cotton undershirt in China." Thomas also remained deeply loyal to the Duke family, and to Trinity College, even though he had not been able to matriculate there.

"I decided in 1899 that I would present to Trinity College any books that I thought worthwhile, particularly on the Far East," he wrote in his memoir. Periodic letters from Trinity librarian J.P. Breedlove dot Thomas' correspondence, thanking him for donations such as Lhasa and Its Mysteries and Wild Life in China. Thomas even sent Chinese students to the college: "Your four young Chinamen now seem to be thoroughly content with their life here. They are doing well in college, and are making a good impression on the student body as well as their instructors," Trinity president William Preston Few wrote to him in March 1920.

Between 1920 and 1923, Thomas was given a leave of absence from BAT to organize the Chinese American Bank of Commerce, conceived by a group of Wall Street financiers interested in bolstering the Chinese government and introducing American business practices to its people. The Chinese American Bank of Commerce was the precursor to the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, now the largest commercial bank in the People's Republic.

By the time he left China for good, in 1923, Thomas had made himself, and his fortune. He had been named a Crystal Button Mandarin by the Empress Dowager and decorated by the Dalai Lama in recognition of his service to China. In 1922, he had married Dorothy Quincy Hancock Read, the daughter of a diplomat and a Boston Brahmin thirty years his junior. From his Shanghai office, he had helped found two schools, a medical college, and a famine-relief committee. And he, more than anyone else, was responsible for starting a nation on a smoking habit that persists today.

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