EARLY one fine morning we came steaming to Hong Kong. Hong Kong, as you probably know, is a British possession. It is an island just off the coast of China.
The island is about the size of the Isle of Wight, but is very mountainous, and the one town upon it, Victoria, is built at the foot of the Peak, partly on land reclaimed from the sea, and partly on the slopes and top of the mountain itself.
The straits dividing it from the mainland are so narrow that you could easily shoot across them with a rifle, so we have taken possession of a bit of the mainland just opposite, called Kowloong, a large part of which is now also a thriving city belonging to the British.
The entrance to Hong Kong is through a narrow strait between green mountains, and of course strongly defended with forts and guns.
The harbour is very pretty, surrounded as it is with mountains, and it is very lively and busy, because it is the great port of this part of the world, a sort of Clapham Junction where the different steamship lines branch off to their several destinations as they come from Europe or America to go to Japan, China, Australia, India, and New Zealand, or South America.
The port is, therefore, full of great steamships of all nations, and between them there is a continual running to and fro of tugs and steam launches and picturesque Chinese junks, and sampans (boats), while quietly guarding them lie four or five grim, grey men-of-war. with the white ensign of Great Britain floating in the breeze.
On shore is a city of fine buildings with deep arcades round them to give coolness in the blazing summer-time. The busy streets are full of Chinamen who have left their country to become British subjects here, and of British soldiers and sailors, merchants and civilians, at work in their different ways.
The loyalty of Hong Kong is shown in the statues in the public square of our King and Queen, of King Edward and Queen Alexandra, of Queen Victoria (after whom the city is named), and of H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught.
Then, the public gardens, as well as those of the private houses, are beautiful with flowers and trees, which grow so well in this mild and dampish climate.
A mountain railway runs you in a few minutes to the top of the Peak, and here, in the fresh, cool air, you have a magnificent view over the surrounding islands and mainland, and of our wonderful stronghold of the East Hong Kong.
The Boys' Brigade here are trained and dressed as Scouts, and I was very glad to inspect them at a review which His Excellency the Governor allowed them to hold in the beautiful grounds of Government House. They gave a display of drill and an excellent show of gymnastic work on the parallel bars and vaulting horse.
One little point, too, which I noticed, and which told me a good deal, was that their uniform was particularly clean, their haversacks pipe clayed, and their buckles polished up, so that on parade they looked as smart as paint.
A Dragon Boat Race
One day we went for a trip in a steam yacht to see the neighbouring island to Hong Kong.
This is also part of that possession of ours, although as yet there is only one Briton living on it-the Superintendent of Police—the inhabitants being all Chinese.
We visited a delightful little fishing village with a beautiful natural harbour in a nice sandy bay surrounded by mountains. Here they were having an annual holiday festival, to which thousands of junks and sampans from the neighbouring islands and coast had brought crowds to be present.
The programme included a theatrical performance in a huge thatched theatre built for the occasion, big dinners off roast pig, and a Dragon Boat race.
A Dragon Boat is a very long, narrow boat, almost like a racing eight-oar in England, only much larger, because it has to carry thirty pairs of paddlers instead of eight oarsmen.
The bow of the boat is decorated with a golden dragon's head, and the stern shows his highly-coloured prickly tail.
Near the centre of the boat are a big drum and two men-one of whom is the captain of the boat-who beat on it the time for the paddlers, while another man with a gong helps them.
The junks in the bay were anchored in a dense mass, but a lane had been left between them about half a mile long. This was the race-course.
Our steamer was the starting-place and winning-post. The boats lined up close alongside, their crews all stripped to the waist. At the blast of our steam whistle, away they went, drums booming and paddles swinging in exact time.
The boats literally rushed through the water at a tremendous pace, amid the cheers and yells of the spectators crowded on the junks. On and on they went, straight for the shore, where a huge blue-clad crowd awaited them, yelling and dancing with excitement.
Both boats ran up on the beach, then at a word every man jumped round in his seat and started to paddle the boat backward up the same course again.
As they came nearer and nearer it was evident that one boat was a little bit behind the other. Then apparently it began to steer badly and inclined across the course in such a way that it looked like running into the other boat, which was gradually forging ahead of it. But this did not cause the men to ease paddling-they went at it with all the greater fury.
Then it became clear that they meant to run down the winning boat.
The drums of both quickened the stroke, both crews were straining their strength to the utmost, the onlookers were yelling with excitement.
Nearer and nearer they got to each other, their paddles got together, and the losing boat's stern (she was going stern foremost, you remember) crashed into the side of her adversary, but without doing anything worse than breaking off her own dragon's tail.
Neither boat slackened its efforts; on and on they struggled, side by side, till after a very exciting race they crossed the line, one boat half a length ahead of the other.
So game had been the struggle that after handing the prize to the winning boat we called up the second to receive a consolation prize.
We found that the collision had been done on purpose; it was the usual thing for the losing boat to try to stop the leading boat's paddles for a few seconds, and then in the confusion to try to push forward and thus regain a few yards. But in this case it did not pay.
The captain of the losing boat then said that he had lost distance when the boats were at the beach; he complained that a lot of children had got in the way and impeded him.
The truth was, as we afterwards heard, that the boat had rushed into a lot of children and had killed one; but this was considered such a trifling circumstance that it was scarcely mentioned.
Otherwise it was a splendid race.
This race is a curious means by which the Chinese honour the memory of one of their statesmen who in the old days committed suicide rather than betray his country. It was supposed that he had drowned himself, and boats had put out hastily to try to save him. These Dragon Boats pretend that they are racing to his rescue. Canton's Floating City
Just after sunrise our great river steamer steamed into the wharf at Canton City. Apart from a few big buildings on the river front, the city is a mass of low, brown-roofed houses, so like the thousands of brown, roofed-in boats along the bank that it is difficult to see where the houses end and the boats begin.
And these boats, although small, are the floating homes of no fewer than 300,000 men, women, and children. They are punted and sculled by the women and children, the women carrying their babies on their backs all the time. I believe this accounts for the flat faces of the Chinese, because when mother is rowing, if she “ catches a crab “ or misses the water and falls backward, she is liable to squash the baby on her back.
If you peep into one of these boats you find the cabin beautifully clean and brightly ornamented, however dingy the boat may seem outside.
The small children are tied up like monkeys on a long string fastened to the roof of the cabin. This enables them to run about, while it prevents them from falling overboard.
I was told that some of them, instead of being tied up, have two empty bottles strapped on to them to act as a lifebuoy if they fall into the river.
The families do all their cooking on board their boats, buying their firewood and fish and vegetables from traders' boats which ply on the river selling their goods.
It is said that a large number of the boat people have never set foot on land, and are very proud of the fact. When lighting up in the morning a good many of the boats fired rockets. This they do to scare away the devil, especially if one of the family is ill.
An amusing sight to see was the smuggling that was going on on board our ship.
Salt is very heavily taxed here, and the Customs officers were very strict in examining any packages landed by passengers which were heavy and might contain salt.
As the ship was closely surrounded by hundreds of boats, some Customs officers watched also the river side of the vessel. But it was not easy for them to see far among the mass of boats with high cabin heads, and thus they failed to see one very small dug-out which crept in right under the stern of the ship and received bags of salt which were lowered over the side by Chinamen on board the steamer whenever they saw no one was looking.
Sometimes, I believe, they send the salt out of the ship through the ash shoots.
Among the larger boats are big houseboats which take lodgers, and on week-ends and holidays they often run up or down the river to get a little change of air and scenery without your having to pack up and leave your home.
Then some of these big passenger junks are sent along by a big paddle-wheel at the stern. which is worked by about twenty men walking a kind of treadmill.
One which I saw was also armed; it had cannons all over it. I counted fourteen, but I doubt whether they were all real ones, for they were pretty big, and if they were real and had a supply of real ammunition the junk would be far too heavy to run along with its crazy old paddle-wheel.
But apparently they serve to put fear into the pirates who still haunt some of the many branches of the Canton River, and who are ready to rob any vessels which appear unable to defend themselves.
The steamer on which I came up from Hong Kong to Canton (a distance of ninety miles up the Canton River) had three or four bullet holes in her bulwarks. These were made, not by pirates, but in the fighting in Canton between the Imperial troops and the Revolutionaries.
A number of leading men of the country who had been educated in Europe saw that this great country of China, one of the largest in the world, is behind all the rest in civilisation and prosperity because of the bad management of the Government. So they planned to get rid of it and to surround the boy-Emperor with a better set of advisers.
The Government refused to comply with their suggestion and turned out the troops to fight them. But the people rose and raised more modern troops against the Government and gained the victory.
The old Government was turned out, and the new one is trying to set things straight again.
A Wonderful City
The wonderful part of Canton is the city itself. It is inclosed within a great, high wall about seven miles long, and inside it are crowded together over a million and a half of people.
It is the most curious city I was ever in. The streets are all narrow alleys, only eight feet wide. The roofs of the houses almost meet overhead, so that it is easy for people walking on the roofs-which they are fond of doing-to step across the street from one roof to another. The alleys are all paved, and the shops all open into them and are gorgeously decorated with gilt carving inside.
The private houses have front doors, or rather gates made of bars, through which you can see into them, but at first sight I thought we had arrived at the prison.
The narrow streets are crammed with crowds of Chinamen mostly dressed in blue shirts. The women all wear long tunics and wide trousers, with their hair carefully oiled and flattened down and worn in either a knot or hanging in a long plait down the back.
Many of the women have tiny feet, so small that they can scarcely walk; they hobble stiffly along as if walking on stilts. This is the result of a silly fashion which has gone on for hundreds of years by which girls' feet, while they are yet children, are tightly bound up and crushed and not allowed to grow any bigger. It is supposed to look nice, but I could not see any beauty in it myself.
You might wonder how they manage about carts and taxi-cabs in this wonderful city. Well, they do without them.
If a load has to be carried, it is slung on a pole and carried on men's shoulders. If you want to drive through the city, you sit in what is called a “ chair “ and are carried by four men. There is just room for it in the street and for people to pass it singly.
There are, of course, many interesting things to see. In the shops they make and sell beautiful embroideries, delicately carved ivory and sandalwood, jewellery and metal ware. At one place I saw them enamelling silver and gold ornaments with tiny bits of feathers out of jays' and kingfishers' wings.
There are numbers of temples, many of them a thousand years old, and wonderfully decorated with carving. In one of these they have set up as one of their saints a small statue of Marco Polo, the great explorer who visited China in the twelfth century. So you see they admire a good scout.
But a great many of the temples have been much knocked about during recent times by the Chinese themselves, and many of their images have been destroyed on account of the revolution-many of them thinking that if they have a new kind of Government it means that they must also have new gods.
But this apparently was only the idea of a few young hooligans, and is not approved of by the larger number of the people; and so in some of the temples the ancient images which were destroyed are now being replaced by terribly brilliant new ones.
The cook-shops and eating-houses are interesting to see, though “niffy“ to smell.
The way you eat your dinner there is to squat on the ground with a little bowl in your left hand and a pair of chopsticks-things like wooden knitting needles-in your right.
With your chopsticks you ladle some rice out of the public dish into your bowl, and then pick out bits of the stew and transfer them between the chopsticks into your mouth. It takes a bit o£ doing till you have got the knack of it, and every now and then you ladle some of the rice into your mouth.
From watching the Chinese do it I believe it is not only clever handling of the chopsticks that gets the rice there, but also a certain amount of shoving out your lower jaw at the right moment-like an old carp feeding.
The things they cat, too! I don't believe that even a Boy Scout in camp has eaten such wonderful and fearful things.
Years ago I had for dinner a big kind of lizard called an iguana, with his head and tail cut off; he was boiled whole in a big pot, and when he was dished up lying on his back with his little arms and legs sticking up he looked exactly like a baby, and when we ate him he tasted just like one, too !
You know what a baby would taste like, don't you ? Very soft chicken flavoured with violet powder-that's what my iguana tasted like.
Well, in a butcher's shop in Canton I saw just such another little carcass lying on its back, and I thought at once: “Is that a very small baby or a big lizard?” Then I noticed that it had a tail, a longish, very thin tail. So I recognised it. It was a dog !
The Chinese think a dog, and especially a puppy, a very particularly nice dish.
Then they have a way of making excellent soup out of the lining of certain kinds of birds' nests boiled down. I saw in one shop a most gruesome-looking snail, a great brown and white fellow as big as your two fists put together and with a sort of trunk like an elephant's-I don't say as big as an elephant's, but the same sort of shape on a smaller scale. He was a horrid-looking, slithering sort of beast-but they said he was very good to eat. I didn't try him.
Rats and guinea pigs are also great delicacies—so they say.
Canton produces a lot of silk, and the Chinese can probably give some useful hints to boys who keep silkworms. Their mulberry- “ trees “ are only small twigs and low bushes. They get seven crops of silk in the year. The silkworm is hatched out of a tiny grey egg by pouring warm water over it. A tiny black worm like a little bit of thread comes out. This they feed on chopped pieces of mulberry leaves. The worm takes twenty-eight days to grow up, during which it takes four long sleeps varying from twenty-four to forty-eight hours lazy little beggar !-and it casts its skin each time, because it grows too big for it. When fully grown it is about two inches long, an eighth of an inch thick, and whitish yellow in colour.
The worm spins out silk from its mouth to make the cocoon and then turns into a chrysalis inside.
When it is required to make silk, the cocoon is heated over a brazier of charcoal to kill the chrysalis, the cocoon is then boiled to take off the sticky, gummy part of it, and the silk thread is then wound off from it.
A very curious old contrivance is to be seen in Canton in the shape of a clock which regulates its time by water. It was started long before Christ was on earth and has been going ever since. It is very simple and any Scout could make one for himself.
It consists merely of a series of three tubs put on steps, one higher than another, and the water from the upper one is allowed to flow into the next below at a certain rate and from that into the lowest.
The lowest tub has a lid on it with a slit cut in it, and through this slit stands a brass slide on which the hours are marked. The lower end of this is fixed in a board which floats on the top of the water, and as the water in the urn rises so the slide comes up through the slit and shows each hour in succession.
The man in charge hangs up a board showing the hour outside the tower in which the clock stands, for the information of the public,. It is an old-fashioned way of doing it, but it shows the time all the same and doesn't cost much.
The Chinese Proficiency Test
One of the sights of Canton used to be the Examination Buildings. Here every year students came to pass their examination. They were given a certain subject on which to write a poem-essay. They were then shut up in a cell for three days. The one who succeeded best was given by way of a badge of proficiency a great big pole like the mast of a ship to stick up outside his home.
But the extraordinary part of the thing was the number of fellows who went up for the examination. The Examination Buildings included no fewer than 11,000 separate cells for competitors.
The revolution has done away with this; students will in future be expected to pass their examination in more useful subjects.
The City of the Dead
The City of the Dead is a curious place just outside the walls of Canton. It is like a miniature village with small streets of cells, all neatly and cleanly kept, and brightened with flowering plants.
Each cell or room is open to visitors and has a few seats and a table or altar, and behind this table a second chamber or recess in which stands a coffin.
When a Chinaman dies a very important question arises as to when and where he should be buried. Professional fortune-tellers and priests have to be consulted, and they study the stars in order to find out what would be a good day and which would be the best place.
As all this takes a long time, the body is brought to this City of the Dead to await their decision, the relatives meantime paying rent for the cell.
If the dead man was very rich it often takes years before the priests can find a lucky day for burying him. One coffin which we saw had been there for over sixty years, so we guessed that the occupant or his relatives must have been very rich indeed !
The coffin is usually a very solid affair, made of massive slabs of wood and polished by hand-rubbing or lacquer. At a certain time of the year it is the custom for the people all to go and visit the graves of their relatives, and this was going on while we were at Canton.
It was very interesting to see thousands of people going off in excursion junks with flags flying, just as if they were going for a holiday outing. They were on their way to distant cemeteries up the river to offer a few flowers and to burn a few sticks of incense on the graves of their ancestors.
It was pleasing to see that these people do not forget their dead.
I had often heard of the executions which were so common in Canton, and horrible photographs of them can be bought anywhere. So I asked my guide, a Chinaman who spoke English fairly well, whether execution-, still went on. He said
“Oh no, since the revolution all executions have been stopped.”
So I asked if he could show me the prison, as I had heard many stories of the enormous prison of Canton and of the awful lives led by the prisoners, and I thought I should like to see for myself how they were now treated under the new form of government.
But my guide, who was evidently a strong supporter of the revolution, said
“No more prisons now. The new Government he make the prison all same house for soldiers to live in.” “But,” I said, “if you have no prisons and no executions, what do you do with criminals? What do you do, for instance, if a man steals something ? “
“Oh! shoot him,” was the reply. Then I said
“What do you do with women? You surely don't execute them?”
“No,” he said, “not women; we cut them up in one hundred and eight pieces.”
I don't quite know what was the difference that he made between being executed and being shot or cut up. But I soon had proof that he was not altogether untruthful, because we went and saw the execution ground, a very ordinary little back alley where a potter did his work close to the wireless telegraphy station of the Admiralty, an odd contrast of the most up-to-date invention with the most ancient methods of brute power.
The executioner came to see us and called to his little granddaughter to bring his sword. He willingly showed its how he cut off criminals' heads, but when we asked him how many he had executed he was puzzled to say, offhand; it apparently amounted on an average to four or five a week.
Shortly afterwards when I was in the street a party
of half a dozen soldiers came hurrying by with a prisoner walking along among them and a small crowd following. When I asked what this meant I was told that the man had been convicted of stealing and that the soldiers were going to “shoot him till him dead.”
But there was very little excitement over it, not a bit more than you would see in a London street when a pickpocket is “run in “ by the police. Human life is very cheap in China.
Prepared for War
But amid all this mass of wild-looking old-world people there was also a certain amount of civilisation. Two or three great river steamers like ours were lying at the wharves.
Above the ramshackle brown-roofed houses there stood the masts of the wireless telegraph over the Chinese Admiralty office.
Tugs were puffing about everywhere among the crowds of boats. A lifeboat was stationed out in midstream with a crew of trained swimmers on board whose duty it is to jump over the moment that a sampan or boat capsizes-as very often happens-and rescue the inhabitants.
A little farther upstream was stationed a smart-looking British gunboat, anchored off the green wooded island of Shameen. This island is the part of Canton in which the Europeans live, and it was just now in a state of defence because of the unsettled state of the Chinese.
When we crossed the bridge leading from the city to Shameen we found a Chinese sentry on one side and a British sentry on the other. There was a bit of a contrast between them.
The Chinese soldier was in a khaki uniform tunic with a kind of canvas waistcoat over it with a dozen pockets all full of ammunition, for head covering he wore an ordinary straw hat, and though he carried his rifle in one hand he had a fan in the other. He wore knickerbockers, white canvas shoes, and. green socks held up with elastic suspenders. He was a very thin little man and looked awfully tired of soldiering.
The sentry on our side of the bridge was a fine, tall, bearded man of the Indian Army, a hill-man from Baluchistan, who looked as if he could eat the Chinaman in two gulps.
There were several forts among the houses and gardens of the Europeans, made of sandbags and fenced round with barbed-wire “entanglements.” These were all ready to be manned by the Baluchis, seamen, and armed civilians at any moment.
Ladies and children were there, too, and among them three fine little British boys, who gave me the Scout's salute, although not yet old enough to be Scouts.
It was pleasing to see this little colony of a few hundred whites quite prepared to hold their own against as many hundreds of thousands of Chinese if necessary. It had been quite easy for them to get away by steamer to Hong Kong if they liked to be really safe, but they did not mean to show any white feather nor to leave their homes to be robbed and wrecked, and so they were sticking it out.
Lewis P. Orans, 2002