The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter i

The Steamer Volga — Days of Darkness — First View of Hong Kong — Hong Kong on Fire — Apathy of the Houseless — The Fire Breaks Out Again — An Eclipse of Gayety

S.S. “VOLGA,” CHINA SEA, Christmas Eve, 1878.

The snowy dome of Fujisan, reddening in the sunrise, rose above the violet woodlands of Mississippi Bay as we steamed out of Yokohama harbor on the 19th, and three days later I saw the last of Japan — a rugged coast, lashed by a wintry sea.

THE PALACE, VICTORIA, HONG KONG, December 27.

Of the voyage to Hong Kong little need be said. The Volga is a miserable steamer, with no place to sit in, and nothing to sit on but the benches by the dinner-table in the dismal saloon. The master, a worthy man, so far as I ever saw of him, was Goth, Vandal, Hun, Visigoth, all in one. The ship was damp, dark, dirty, old, and cold. She was not warmed by steam, and the fire could not be lighted because of a smoky chimney. There were no lamps, and the sparse candles were obviously grudged. The stewards were dirty and desponding, the serving inhospitable, the cooking dirty and greasy, the food scanty, the table-linen frowsy. There were four French and two Japanese male passengers, who sat at meals in top-coats, comforters, and hats. I had a large cabin, the salon des dames, and the undivided attention of a very competent, but completely desponding stewardess. Being debarred from the deck by incessant showers of spray, sleet, and snow, and the cold of mid-winter being unbearable in the dark, damp saloon, I went to bed at four for the first two days. On the third it blew half a gale, with a short violent sea, and this heavy weather lasted till we reached Hong Kong, five days afterward. During those cold, dark, noisy days, when even the stewards could scarcely keep their feet, I suffered so much in my spine from the violent movements of the ship that I did not leave my cabin; and besides being unable to read, write, or work, owing to the darkness, I was obliged to hold on by day and night to avoid being much hurt by the rolling, my berth being athwart ships; consequently, that week, which I had relied upon for “overtaking” large arrears of writing and sewing, was so much lost out of life — irrecoverably and shamefully lost, I felt — as each dismal day, dawned and died without sunrise or sunset, on the dark and stormy Pacific. No one, it seemed, knew any more English than “Yes” and “No;” and as the ship knocked French out of my memory, I had not even the resource of talking with the stewardess, who told me on the last day of our imprisonment that she was “triste, triste,” and “one mass of bruises!”

In this same gale, but on a dry day, we came close up with the mainland of Eastern Asia. Coasts usually disappoint. This one exceeded all my expectations; and besides, it was the coast of Asia, the mysterious continent which has been my dream from childhood — bare, lofty, rocky, basaltic; islands of naked rock separated by narrow channels, majestic, perpendicular cliffs, a desolate uninhabited region, lashed by a heavy sea, with visions of swirling mists, shrieking sea-birds, and Chinese high-sterned fishing-boats with treble-reefed, three-cornered brown sails, appearing on the tops of surges, at once to vanish. Soon we were among mountainous islands; and then, by a narrow and picturesque channel, entered the outer harbor, with the scorched and arid peaks of Hong Kong on one side; and on the other the yet redder and rockier mainland, without a tree or trace of cultivation, or even of habitation, except here and there a few stone huts clustering round inlets, in which boats were lying. We were within the tropic of Cancer, but still the cold, coarse bluster continued, so that it was barely possible to see China except in snatches from behind the deck-house.

Turning through another channel, we abruptly entered the inner harbor, and sailed into the summer, blue sky, blue water, a summer sun, and a cool breeze, while a tender veil of blue haze softened the outlines of the flushed mountains. Victoria, which is the capital of the British colony of the island of Hong Kong, and which colloquially is called Hong Kong, looked magnificent, suggesting Gibraltar, but far, far finer, its peak eighteen hundred feet in height — a giant among lesser peaks, rising abruptly from the sea above the great granite city which clusters upon its lower declivities, looking out from dense greenery and tropical gardens, and the deep shade of palms and bananas, the lines of many of its streets traced in foliage, all contrasting with the scorched red soil and barren crags which were its universal aspect before we acquired it in 1843. A forest of masts above the town betoken its commercial importance, and “P. and O.” and Messageries Maritimes steamers, ships of war of all nations, low-hulled, big-masted clippers, store and hospital ships, and a great fishing fleet lay at anchor in the harbor. The English and Romish cathedrals, the Episcopal Palace, with St. Paul’s College, great high blocks of commercial buildings, huge sugar factories, great barracks in terraces, battery above battery, Government House, and massive stone wharves, came rapidly into view, and over all, its rich folds spreading out fully on the breeze, floated the English flag.

But dense volumes of smoke rolling and eddying, and covering with their black folds the lower slopes and the town itself made a surprising spectacle, and even as we anchored came off the rapid tolling of bells, the roll of drums, and the murmur of a “city at unrest.” No one met me. A few Chinese boats came off, and then a steam launch with the M. M. agent in an obvious flurry. I asked him how to get ashore, and he replied, “It’s no use going ashore, the town’s half burned, and burning still; there’s not a bed at any hotel for love or money, and we are going to make up beds here.” However, through the politeness of the mail agent, I did go ashore in the launch, but we had to climb through and over at least eight tiers of boats, crammed with refugees, mainly women and children, and piled up with all sorts of household goods, whole and broken, which had been thrown into them promiscuously to save them. “The palace of the English bishop,” they said, was still untouched; so, escaping from an indescribable hubbub, I got into a bamboo chair, with two long poles which rested on the shoulders of two lean coolies, who carried me to my destination at a swinging pace through streets as steep as those of Varenna. Streets choked up with household goods and the costly contents of shops, treasured books and nick-nacks lying on the dusty pavements, with beds, pictures, clothing, mirrors, goods of all sorts; Chinamen dragging their possessions to the hills; Chinawomen, some of them with hoofs rather than feet, carrying their children on their backs and under their arms; officers, black with smoke, working at the hose like firemen; parties of troops marching as steadily as on parade, or keeping guard in perilous places; Mr. Pope Henessey, the Governor, ubiquitous in a chair with four scarlet bearers; men belonging to the insurance companies running about with drawn swords; the miscellaneous population running hither and thither; loud and frequent explosions; heavy crashes as of tottering walls, and, above all, the loud bell of the Romish cathedral tolling rapidly, calling to work or prayer, made a scene of intense excitement; while utterly unmoved, in grand Oriental calm (or apathy), with the waves of tumult breaking round their feet, stood Sikh sentries, majestic men, with swarthy faces and great, crimson turbans. Through the encumbered streets and up grand flights of stairs my bearers brought me to these picturesque grounds, which were covered over with furniture and goods of all descriptions brought hither for safety, and Chinese families camping out among them. Indeed, the Bishop and Mrs. Burdon had not only thrown open their beautiful grounds to these poor people, but had accommodated some Chinese families in rooms in the palace under their own. The apathy or calm of the Chinese women as they sat houseless amidst their possessions was very striking. In the broad, covered corridor which runs round the palace everything the Burdons most value was lying ready for instantaneous removal, and I was warned not to unpack or take off my traveling dress. The Bishop and I at once went down to the fire, which was got under, and saw the wreck of the city and the houseless people camping out among the things they had saved. Fire was still burning or smouldering everywhere, high walls were falling, hose were playing on mountains of smouldering timber, whole streets were blocked with masses of fallen brick and stone, charred telegraph poles and fused wires were lying about, with half burned ledgers and half burned everything. The colored population exceeds one hundred and fifty-two thousand souls, and only those who know the Babel which an eastern crowd is capable of making under ordinary circumstances can imagine what the deafening din of human tongues was under these very extraordinary ones. In the prison, which was threatened by the flames, were over eight hundred ruffians of all nations, and it was held by one hundred soldiers with ten rounds of ammunition each, prepared to convey the criminals to a place of safety and to shoot any who attempted to escape. The dread of these miscreants, which was everywhere expressed, is not unreasonable, for the position of Victoria, and the freedom and protection afforded by our laws, together with the present Governor’s known sympathies with colored people, have attracted here thousands of the scum of Canton and other Chinese cities, to say nothing of a mass of European and Asiatic ruffianism, much of which is at all times percolating through the magnificent Victoria prison.

On returning, I was just beginning to unpack when the flames burst out again. It was luridly grand in the twilight, the tongues of flame lapping up house after house, the jets of flame loaded with blazing fragments, the explosions, each one succeeded by a burst of flame, carrying high into the air all sorts of projectiles, beams and rafters paraffine soaked, strewing them over the doomed city, the leaping flames coming nearer and nearer, the great volumes of smoke, spark-laden, rolling toward us, all mingling with a din indescribable. Burning fragments shortly fell on the window-sills, and as the wind was very strong and setting this way, there seemed so little prospect of the palace being saved that important papers were sent to the cathedral and several of the refugees fled with their things to the hills. At that moment the wind changed, and the great drift of flame and smoke was carried in a comparatively harmless direction, the fire was got well in hand the second time, the official quarter was saved, and before 10 P.M. we were able for the first time since my arrival at mid-day to sit down to food.

Most people seem much upset as well from personal peril as from sympathy, and all parties and picnics for two days were given up. Even the newspapers did not come out this morning, the types of one of them being in this garden. The city is now patrolled night and day by strong parties of marines and Sikhs, for both the disposition to loot and the facilities for looting are very great.

I. L. B.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31