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

Letter ii

A Delightful Climate — Imprisoned Fever Germs — “Pidjun” English — Hong Kong Harbor — Prosperity of Hong Kong — Rampageous Criminal Classes — Circumspice!

THE PALACE, VICTORIA, December 29.

I like and admire Victoria. It is so pleasant to come in from the dark, misty, coarse, loud-tongued Pacific, and the December colorlessness of Japan to bright blue waters crisped by a perpetual north wind — to the flaming hills of the Asian mainland, which are red in the early morning, redder in the glow of noon, and pass away in the glorious sunsets through ruby and vermilion into an amethyst haze, deepening into the purple of a tropic night, when the vast expanse of sky which is seen from this high elevation is literally one blaze of stars. Though they are by no means to be seen in perfection, there are here many things that I love, — bananas, poinsettias, papayas, tree-ferns, dendrobiums, dracenas, the scarlet passion-flower, the spurious banyan, date, sago, and traveler’s palms, and numberless other trees and shrubs, children of the burning sun of the tropics, carefully watered and tended, but exotics after all.

It is a most delightful winter climate. There has not been any rain for three months, nor will there be any for two more; the sky is cloudless, the air dry and very bracing. It is cold enough at night for fires, and autumn clothing can be worn all the day long, for though the sun is bright and warm, the shade temperature does not rise above 65 degrees, and exercise is easy and pleasant. At night, even at a considerable height, the lowest temperature is 40 degrees. It is impossible to praise the climate too highly, with its bright sky, cool dry air, and five months of rainlessness; but I should write very differently if I came here four months later, when the mercury ranges from 80 degrees to 90 degrees both by day and night, and the cloudy sky rests ever on the summits of the island peaks, and everything is moist, and the rain comes down continually in torrents, rising in hot vapors when the sun shines, and people become limp and miserable, and their possessions limp and moldy, and insect life revels, and human existence spent in a vapor bath becomes burdensome. But the city is healthy to those who live temperately. It has, however, a remarkable peculiarity. Standing in and on rock, one fancies that fever would not be one of its maladies, but the rock itself seems to have imprisoned fever germs in some past age, for whenever it is quarried or cut into for foundations, or is disturbed in any way, fever immediately breaks out.

Victoria is a beautiful city. It reminds me of Genoa, but that most of its streets are so steep as to be impassable for wheeled vehicles, and some of them are merely grand flights of stairs, arched over by dense foliaged trees, so as to look like some tropical, colored, deep colonnades. It has covered green balconies with festoons of creepers, lofty houses, streets narrow enough to exclude much of the sun, people and costumes of all nations, processions of Portuguese priests and nuns; and all its many-colored life is seen to full advantage under this blue sky and brilliant sun.

This house is magnificently situated, and very large and airy. Part is the Episcopal Palace, and the rest St. Paul’s College, of which Bishop Burdon is warden. The mountainous grounds are beautiful, and the entrance blazes with poinsettias. There are no female servants, but Chinese men perform all the domestic service satisfactorily. I learn that for a Chinese servant to appear without his skull-cap is rude, but to appear with his pig-tail wound round his head instead of pendent, is a gross insult! The “Pidjun English” is revolting, and the most dignified persons demean themselves by speaking it. The word “pidjun” appears to refer generally to business. “My pidjun” is undoubtedly “my work.” How the whole English-speaking community, without distinction of rank, has come to communicate with the Chinese in this baby talk is extraordinary.

If you order a fire you say something like this: “Fire makee, chop, chop, here, makee fire number one,” chop being quick, and number one good, or “first-class.” If a servant tells you that some one has called he says, “One piecey manee here speak missey,” and if one asks who he is, he very likely answers, “No sabe,” or else, “Number one, tink,” by which he implies that the visitor is, in his opinion, a gentleman. After the courteous, kindly Japanese, the Chinese seem indifferent, rough and disagreeable, except the well-to-do merchants in the shops, who are bland, complacent, and courteous. Their rude stare and the way they hustle you in the streets and shout their “pidjun” English at you is not attractive. Then they have an ugly habit of speaking of us as barbarian or foreign devils. Since I knew the word I have heard it several times in the streets, and Bishop Burdon says that before his servants found out that he knew Chinese, they were always speaking of him and Mrs. Burdon by this very ugly name.

[Victoria is, or should be, well known, so I will not describe its cliques, its boundless hospitalities, its extravagances in living, its quarrels, its gayeties, its picnics, balls, regattas, races, dinner parties, lawn tennis parties, amateur theatricals, afternoon teas, and all its other modes of creating a whirl which passes for pleasure or occupation. Rather, I would write of some of the facts concerning this very remarkable settlement, which is on its way to being the most important British colony in the Far East.

Moored to England by the electric cable, and replete with all the magnificent enterprises and luxuries of English civilization, with a population of one hundred and sixty thousand, of which only seven thousand, including soldiers and sailors, are white, and possessing the most imposing city of the East on its shores, the colony is only forty years old; the island of Hong Kong having been ceded to England in 1841, while its charter only bears the date of 1843. The island, which is about eleven miles long, from two to five broad, and with an area of about twenty-nine square miles, is one of a number situated off the south-eastern coast of China at the mouth of the Canton river, ninety miles from Canton. It is one of the many “thieves’ islands,” and one of the first necessities of the administration was to clear out the hordes of sea and river pirates which infested its very intricate neighborhood. It lies just within the tropic of Cancer in lat. 22 degrees N. and long. 114 degrees E. The Ly-ee-moon Pass, the narrow strait which separates it from the Chinese mainland, is only half a mile wide. Kowloon, on the mainland, an arid peninsula, on which some of the Hong Kongese have been attempting to create a suburb, was ceded to England in 1861. The whole island of Hong Kong is picturesque. The magnificent harbor, which has an area of ten square miles, is surrounded by fantastic, broken mountains from three thousand to four thousand feet high, and the magnificent city of Victoria extends for four miles along its southern shore, with its six thousand houses of stone and brick and the princely mansions and roomy bungalows of its merchants and officials scrambling up the steep sides of the Peak, the highest point of the island, carrying verdure and shade with them. Damp as its summer is, the average rainfall scarcely exceeds seventy-eight inches, but it is hotter than Singapore in the hot season, though the latter is under eighty miles from the Equator.

The causes by which this little island, which produces nothing, has risen into first-rate importance among our colonies are, that Victoria, with its magnificent harbor, is a factory for our Chinese commerce and offers unrivaled facilities for the military and naval forces which are necessary for the protection not only of that commerce but of our interests in the far East. It is hardly too much to say that it is the naval and commercial terminus of the Suez Canal. Will it be believed that the amount of British and foreign tonnage annually entering and leaving the port averages two millions of tons? and that the number of native vessels trading to it is about fifty-two thousand, raising the total ascertained tonnage to upward of three millions and a half, or half a million tons in excess of Singapore? To this must be added thousands of smaller native boats of every build and rig trading to Hong Kong, not only from the Chinese coasts and rivers, but from Siam, Japan, and Cochin China. Besides the “P. and O.,” the Messageries Maritimes, the Pacific Mail Company, the Eastern and Australian Mail Company, the Japanese “Mitsu Bichi” Mail Company, etc., all regular mail lines, it has a number of lines of steamers trading to England, America, and Germany, with local lines both Chinese and English, and lines of fine sailing clippers, which, however, are gradually falling into disuse, owing to the dangerous navigation of the China seas, and the increasing demand for speed.

Victorian firms have almost the entire control of the tea and silk trade, and Victoria is the centre of the trade in opium, sugar, flour, salt, earthenware, oil, amber, cotton, and cotton goods, sandal-wood, ivory, betel, vegetables, live stock, granite, and much else. The much abused term “emporium of commerce” may most correctly be applied to it.

It has five docks, three slips, and every requisite for making extensive repairs for ships of war and merchantmen.

It has telegraphic communication with the whole civilized world, and its trade is kept thereby in a continual fever.

It has a large garrison, for which it pays to England 20,000 pounds a year. Were it not for this force, its six hundred and fifty policemen, of whom only one hundred and ten are Europeans, might not be able to overawe even as much as they do the rowdy and ruffianly elements of its heterogeneous population. As it is, the wealthier foreign residents, for the security of their property, are obliged to supplement the services of the public caretakers by employing private watchmen, who patrol their grounds at night. It must be admitted that the criminal classes are very rampageous in Victoria, whether from undue and unwise leniency in the treatment of crime, or whether from the extraordinary mass of criminals to which our flag affords security is not for a stranger to say, though the general clamor raised when I visited the great Chinese prison in Canton, “I wish I were in your prison in Hong Kong,” and my own visit to the Victoria prison, render the former suspicion at least permissible.

Hong Kong possesses the usual establishment of a Crown Colony, and the government is administered by a Governor, aided by a Legislative Council, of which he is the President, and which is composed of the Chief Justice, the Colonial Secretary, the Attorney–General, the Treasurer, and four unofficial members, nominated by the Crown on the Governor’s recommendation.

The enormous preponderance of the mixed Oriental population is a source of some difficulty, and it is not easy by our laws to punish and destroy a peculiarly hateful form of slavery which is recognized by Chinese custom, and which has attained gigantic proportions in Victoria. There is an immense preponderance of the masculine element, nearly six to one among the Europeans, and among the Orientals the men are nearly two and a half times as numerous as the women.

As Victoria is a free port, it is impossible to estimate the value of its imports and exports, but its harbor, full of huge merchantmen, and craft of all nations, its busy wharves, its crowd of lighters loading and unloading by day and night, its thronged streets and handsome shops, its huge warehouses, packed with tea, silk, and all the costly products of the East, and its hillsides terraced with the luxurious houses of its merchants, all say, “Circumspice, these are better than statistics!”]

I. L. B.

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