‘squeeze pidgin’: meaning and origin

The expression squeeze pidgin (in early use squeeze pigeon) denotes the act or an instance of exacting money.

This expression occurs, for example, in An Admiral’s Yarns: Stray Memories of 50 Years (London: Herbert Jenkins Limited, 1922), by the Royal Navy officer Charles Hope Dundas (1859-1924):

One gallant captain, who commanded a British sloop, was notorious for his arbitrary action in putting down the pirates. He boarded junks indiscriminately and demanded “squeeze pidgin,” without going deeply into their occupations, and in many cases sank perfectly harmless seafarers and landed the crews on the nearest coast.
Squeeze pidgin is recognised in China as almost a legitimate kind of blackmail. You must get as much out of anyone as you can.

The expression squeeze pidgin (in early use squeeze pigeon) is composed of:
– the noun squeeze, denoting a forced exaction or impost made by a Chinese official or servant—the image being of squeezing money out of someone;
– the noun pidgin (in early use pigeon) in its original sense of business, i.e., occupation, affair—the noun pidgin, also pigeon, representing the pronunciation of the noun business in Chinese Pidgin English (cf., below, quotation 3).

The earliest occurrences of the expression squeeze pigeon, later squeeze pidgin, that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Ground-Rents and Colonial Grievances. Petition to the House of Commons, and Memorial to the Governor, published in the Overland China Mail (Hong Kong, China) of Monday 29th January 1849:

A suitor entering the Court, whatever his cause, must be prepared to bleed copiously; and if he be a Chinese, it is probable he may consider that the lawyers take tolerably handsome pay for all they can shew; but the Court fees are regarded by him as “Mandarins squeeze pigeon,”—in short, money paid for the purchase of justice.

2– : From De la rivalité de l’Angleterre et des États-Unis, by Xavier Raymond, published in the Revue des deux mondes (Paris, France) of April 1853:
—Context: In 1839, the Chinese political philosopher and politician Lin Zexu (1785-1850) coerced the English into promising to end the opium trade:

[Les Anglais] se trouvèrent fort embarrassés […] pour savoir ce qu’ils feraient des cargaisons de leurs receiving ships (1) et des masses d’opium qu’on leur expédiait de l’Inde, où l’on avait vu, une fois la panique passée, le prix de la drogue s’élever à des cours fabuleux. Pour tenir leur parole et éviter cependant la ruine qui les menaçait, les Anglais s’adressèrent, quoi qu’il en coûtât à leur amour-propre, au commerce américain, […] que les mandarins faisaient mine de protéger, et qui fit payer ses services à des taux exorbitans. Ce fut un squeeze pigeon (2), comme on dit en Chine, des plus durs.
(1) Navires-entrepôts d’opium.
(2) Une extorsion, une mise à rançon.
[The English] found themselves very embarrassed […] as to know what to do with the cargos of their receiving ships (1) and with the masses of opium that were sent to them from India, where, once the panic was over, the prices of the drug rose to fabulous rates. To keep their word and nevertheless avoid the ruin that threatened them, the English asked, however much it hurt their pride, the American commerce, […] which the mandarins were pretending to protect, and which charged exorbitant fees for its services. That was a squeeze pigeon (2), as they say in China, of the harshest kind.
(1) Ships used to store opium.
(2) An extortion, a holding to ransom.

3-: From Rambles in Eastern Asia, including China and Manilla, during several years’ residence. With notes of the voyage to China, excursions in Manilla, Hong-Kong, Canton, Shanghai, Ningpoo, Amoy, Fouchow, and Macao (Boston: James French and Company, 1855), by the U.S. dentist and travel writer Benjamin Lincoln Ball (1820-1859):

[From Chapter 45 – at Canton] I am now staying, for the last few days of my continuance in Canton, at a friend’s, having left Acowo’s hotel last evening. And why have you changed your residence, you will say, just as you are leaving Canton? I can tell you in a few words. Acowo, my landlord, wished to play off on me a little of the Chinese “squeeze-pigeon,” which I did not like to accept. That is, he wished to oblige me to pay him a month’s board, whether I continued with him or not, if I only remained one day of the month. […]
The word “pigeon” is the nearest the Chinese can get to pronouncing the word “business,” articulating p for b and g for s.
[From Chapter 47 – at Macao] The coolies—eight great, lazy, dirty, villanous-looking fellows—next called for their pay. I gave my boy the money, and told him to pay them, at the same time asking him if that was enough; he said “Yes,” but wished me to pay them myself, as the men did not like him. I then took the money, but the head cooly refused it, and I laid on the table before them exactly double their usual pay. He claimed pay for the eight; but I told him three coolies always carried the baggage. I was busy writing, and he asked the boy for the money, took it, and then demanded more. I said “No!” whereupon he raised his arm to throw it at me. As I sprang up towards him, he lowered his hand, dashed it upon the table, spattering the ink over my paper, &c., and quickly retreated out of the room. I knew enough of the Chinese character to be convinced that, with all his show of fury and rage, he would return again, if it was only for five cash, when he should find that I was not to be imposed on. He remained about the house, waiting outside till he could get an opportunity to see me; and when he did, he concluded to take the sum offered, with the addition of a few cash which I gave him as a present. How he settled with the others, I do not know;—they all went off together. Yesterday, while I was walking on the Praya Grande towards the country, the same cooly followed me from a distance. My boy said, “That cooly man, number one, bad man! Every man he likey makee squeeze pigeon, alla same.”

4-: From a correspondence from Hong Kong, dated 28th November 1857, published in The Times (London, England) of Thursday 14th January 1858:

The Mandarins have only lately discovered that they have it in their power to tax the barbarians by levying transit imposts upon articles of barbarian necessity. Year by year this power is being cautiously brought into use, and its strain will continue to increase until the imposition becomes too grievous to be borne. I have hitherto said nothing upon these transit duties on Chinese exports, but I think I ought to record a few facts on this matter […].
Let us take the great staple, tea. In former times—that is to say, until within the last few years the only tax upon tea was an impost in the shape of a land-tax; a rent of so much per mow, or rood, paid by the cultivator. In passing by Hangchau there was a transit levy of 3 cents per picul (133lb.), a mere nominal registering duty. Sometimes, if the mandarin at the Ta Kwan was popular or powerful, he was able to get an extra sum of two mace a picul, something more than 1s. a cwt., for himself; but this was always thoroughly understood to be a “Mandarin squeeze-pigeon,” and might have been resisted if it had been worth while.
[…] Tea is an English necessity and a Chinese monopoly. If John Chinaman insists upon heavily taxing John Bull’s tea, sooner or later, upon one pretence or another pretence, there will be ill blood and spilt blood. The only way to prevent this is to fix the legal export duty by treaty, and to go up to the places where the tea is grown and buy it of the grower. If the Yangtse were open, and if we could buy in the markets of Woochang and Hangyan, we should get our teas at a duty of five mace a picul, or one thirty-fifth part of the present “squeeze.”

5-: From The Daily Express (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 13th September 1858:

Every local mandarin has discovered that he has power to levy a tax upon barbarian purchases passing through his district. It is said this device was introduced in order to recoup the drain of sycee silver paid as compensation to England at the close of the last war. Gradually this power has been brought to bear upon every article of British commerce, and the duties were steadily increasing so as to render trade almost impossible. Until the last few years, for instance, the only tax levied upon tea was a small impost in the shape of a land tax, or a transit levy, of three cents for every picul of 133 lbs. Now the same description of tea pays a duty of nearly 3d. a pound, a tremendous assessment, considering the prime value of the article, while the finer teas pay nearly 6d. a pound. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer reduced the duty on tea in England, the Chinese levied an additional tax in China. Nor do the exactions end here. A “squeeze pigeon” mandarin presses the cargo boats for military service, and a bribe is necessary to set them free.

6-: From The Englishman in China (London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1860):

A Comprador 1 […] has necessarily at times much left in his hands; of this he often avails himself by lending it out at interest—that is, if you are flat enough to let him, instead of doing it yourself. This Comprador, acting as he does as steward and cashier, has another means of acquiring money; namely, by the “SQUEEZE”. And this squeeze-pidgin descends in perfect order from the throne to the beggar.
The system of squeezing is admirably described in Meadows’s “Desultory Notes,” pp . 99, 100 2. He gives a regular tabular scale, showing that from the Tsung-tu, or Governor-General, who receives from Government £60, with permission to extort £ 8,333 per annum, down to the Tung Pan, or Deputy Sub-Prefect, who is only allowed to rob to the extent of £176 per annum, as his yearly salary is but £20—from the throne to the beggar, it is squeeze, squeeze, squeeze!

1 Here, the noun comprador denotes, in China, the principal native servant, employed in a European establishment, and especially in a house of business, both as head of the staff of native employees, and as intermediary between the house and its native customers.
2 This refers to Desultory notes on the government and people of China, and on the Chinese language; illustrated with a sketch of the Province of Kwang-Tûng, shewing its division into departments and districts (London: William H. Allen and Co., 1847), by the British Sinologue Thomas Taylor Meadows (1815-1868).

7-: From A seaman’s narrative of his adventures during a captivity among Chinese pirates, on the coast of Cochin-China, and afterwards during a journey on foot across that country, in the years 1857-8 (London: Charles Westerton, 1861), by Edward Brown—the following, from Chapter 1, is about Hong-Kong:

All the petty trades of the colony are carried on by the Chinese, who resort in numbers to Hong-kong because there they can grow rich, and live unmolested under the laws and rule of the British, which are mild when compared with those of their own country; and because there they are not subjected to the “squeeze pidgin” when they have amassed wealth, as they are under the iron rule and barbarous government of their own mandarins or native rulers.

8-: From the Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser (Dundee, Angus, Scotland) of Tuesday 19th February 1861:


The following extracts from a letter from China are entertaining, as showing how much a Scotchman can say in favour of the Chinese:—
Shanghai, December 18.
“The war is over, and a large amount of trade is to be done in the spring, when the new ports are to open. China is a wonderful country for young smart fellows to get on in […].
“[…] All the taxes in China are raised voluntarily (with, perhaps, a little squeezing) in this way:—The Central Government sends to the Viceroy of a province for a certain sum, and he sends to the local Magistrates for certain proportions of it. The rich men are told what is wanted, and there is never any difficulty in getting it. But as there is no standing army, no Established Church, no hereditary nobility, no lawyers, the taxation is very small. Why, in England, during the last year, 88,000 writs were issued, which employs a lot of lawyers. Europeans are all blackguards compared with the Chinese. They will rush up to quiet, respectable men at night, and kick their lanterns out; but one dirty night I kept near a Chinaman’s lantern to see my way, and he held it in the best way to accommodate me. ‘Chin-Chin,’ said I at parting. ‘Good night,’ said he. The fact is, they are all gentlemen; and as long as they could confine foreign trade to Canton, everything went on in the best way. They prohibited opium, but as some of the people wanted to use it, and some great English merchants made immense profits by it, a great deal of smuggling went on, then fighting and taxation, and then rebellion—anarchy in certain districts. Before the great squeeze pidgin everything was quiet, and one place was enough to trade from, but the people could not fight; they have never been used to it.

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