In the belief that a language impenetrable to European adults might be acquired spontaneously by someone of tender years, in 1736 a small boy was landed at the foreign trading concession now called Shamian Island on the riverfront at Canton (now Guangzhou) in southeast China. The boy’s name was James Flint and he would not disappoint. His hair was black, and when it grew long enough to be braided into a pigtail, young Flint even looked Chinese. He mixed with the settlement’s servants and put his English at the service of Canton’s traders. They called him Flink, which sounded more Chinese than Flint. Long before the streetwise Kim of Kipling’s fiction had the run of Lahore, Canton had its waterfront equivalent.
In time young Flint not only picked up Cantonese but also acquired a working knowledge of Mandarin, plus some facility in written Chinese. He was at the time the only English speaker able to communicate in both languages.