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

Letter iii

The S.S. Kin Kiang — First View of Canton — The Island of Shameen — England in Canton — The Tartar City — Drains and Barricades — Canton at Night — Street Picturesqueness — Ghastly Gifts — Oriental Enchantments — The Examination Hall

S.S. “KIN KIANG,” December 30.

You will remember that it is not very long since a piratical party of Chinese, shipping as steerage passengers on board one of these Hong Kong river steamers, massacred the officers and captured the boat. On board this great, white, deck-above-deck American steamer there is but one European passenger beside myself, but there are four hundred and fifty second-class passengers, Chinamen, with the exception of a few Parsees, all handsomely dressed, nearly all smoking, and sitting or lying over the saloon deck up to the saloon doors. In the steerage there are fifteen hundred Chinese steerage passengers, all men. The Chinese are a noisy people, their language is inharmonious, and the lower class male voices, at least, are harsh and coarse. The fifteen hundred men seem to be all shouting at once, and the din which comes up through the hatchways is fearful. This noisy mass of humanity is practically imprisoned below, for there is a heavy iron grating securely padlocked over each exit, and a European, “armed to the teeth,” stands by each, ready to shoot the first man who attempts to force it. In this saloon there is a stand of six rifles with bayonets, and four revolvers, and, as we started, a man carefully took the sheaths off the bayonets, and loaded the firearms with ball cartridge.

Canton, January 1, 1879. — The Canton river for the ninety miles up here has nothing interesting about it. Soon after leaving Hong Kong the country becomes nearly a dead level, mainly rice-swamps varied by patches of bananas, with their great fronds torn to tatters by the prevailing strong breeze. A very high pagoda marks Whampoa, once a prosperous port, but now, like Macao, nearly deserted. An hour after disgorging three boat loads of Chinamen at Whampoa, we arrived at the beginning of Canton, but it took more than half an hour of cautious threading of our way among junks, sampans, house-boats, and slipper-boats, before we moored to the crowded and shabby wharf. If my expectations of Canton had been much raised they would certainly have been disappointed, for the city stands on a perfectly level site, and has no marked features within or around it except the broad and bridgeless tidal river which sweeps through it at a rapid rate. In the distance are the White–Cloud hills, which were painted softly in amethyst on a tender green sky, and nearer are some rocky hills, which are red at all hours of daylight. Boats and masts conceal the view of the city from the river to a great extent, but even when from a vantage ground it is seen spread out below, it is so densely packed, its streets are so narrow, and its open spaces so few, that one almost doubts whether the million and a half of people attributed to it are really crowded within the narrow area. From the river, and indeed from any point of view, Canton is less imposing even than Tokiyo. Few objects rise above the monotonous level, and the few are unimpressive. There are two or three pagodas looking like shot towers. There is a double-towered Romish cathedral of great size, not yet finished. There is the “Nine-storied pagoda.” But in truth the most prominent objects from the river are the “godowns” of the pawnbrokers, lofty, square towers of gray brick which dominate the city, play a very important part in its social economy, and are very far removed from those establishments with the trinity of gilded balls, which hide themselves shamefacedly away in our English by-streets. At one part of the riverside there are some substantial looking foreign houses among trees, on the site of the foreign factories of former days, but they and indeed all else are hidden by a crowd of boats, a town of boats, a floating suburb. Indeed, boats are my earliest and strongest impressions of what on my arrival I was hasty enough to think a mean city. It is not only along the sides of the broad Pearl river, but along the network of innumerable canals and creeks which communicate with it, that they are found.

These boats, the first marvel of a marvelous city, have come between me and my landing. When the steamer had disgorged her two thousand passengers, Mr. Mackrill Smith, whose guest I am, brought me in a bamboo chair, carried by two coolies, through a covered and crowded street of merchandise six feet wide, to Shameen, the island in the river on which the foreigners reside; most of the missionary community, however, living in the buildings on the site of the old factory farther down.

I am now domiciled on Shameen, a reclaimed mud flat, in the beautiful house belonging to the firm of Jardine, Matheson & Co. This island, which has on the one side the swift flowing Canton river, with its ever shifting life, has on the other a canal, on which an enormous population lives in house boats, moored stem and stern, without any space between them. A stone bridge with an iron gate gives access into one of the best parts of Canton, commercially speaking; but all the business connected with tea, silk, and other productions, which is carried on by such renowned firms as Jardine, Matheson & Co., the Dents, the Deacons, and others, is transacted in these handsome dwellings of stone or brick, each standing in its tropical garden, with a wall or ornamental railing or bamboo hedge surrounding it, but without any outward sign of commerce at all. The settlement, insular and exclusive, hears little and knows less of the crowded Chinese city at its gates. It reproduces English life as far as possible, and adds a boundless hospitality of its own, receiving all strangers who are in any way accredited, and many who are not. A high sea-wall with a broad concrete walk, shaded by banyan trees, runs round it, a distance of a mile and a quarter. It is quite flat and covered with carefully kept grass, intersected with concrete walks and banyan avenues, the tropical gardens of the rich merchants giving variety and color.

The community at present consists of forty-five people — English, French, and German. The establishment of the electric telegraph has not only favored business, but has enabled some of the senior partners of the old firms to return home, leaving very junior partners or senior clerks here, who receive their instructions from England. Consequently, in some of these large family dwellings there are only young men “keeping bach.” There are a pretty English church, a club bungalow, a book club, lawn tennis and croquet grounds, and a small hall used for dancing, lectures and amateur theatricals. No wheeled vehicle larger than a perambulator ever disturbs the quiet. People who go into the city are carried in chairs, or drop down the river in their luxurious covered boats, but for exercise they mostly walk on the bund, and play croquet or lawn tennis. In this glorious weather the island is very charming. It is possible to spend the whole year here, as the tidal breezes modify the moist heat of summer; but the English children look pale and languid even now.

Canton, January 4. — If I were to describe Canton, and had time for it, my letters would soon swell to the size of Archdeacon Gray’s quaint and fascinating book, “Walks in Canton;” but I have no time, and must content myself with brief sketches of two or three things which have greatly interested me, and of the arrangement and management of the city; putting the last first, if I am able “to make head or tail of it,” and to cram its leading features into a letter.

Viewing Canton from the “five-storied pagoda,” or from the dignified elevation of a pawn tower, it is apparent that it is surrounded by a high wall, beyond which here and there are suburban villages, some wealthy and wood-embosomed, others mean and mangy. The river divides it from a very populous and important suburb. Within the city lies the kernel of the whole, the Tartar city, occupied by the garrison and a military colony numbering about twenty thousand persons. This interesting area is walled round, and contains the residence of the Tartar General, and the consulates of the great European Powers. It is well wooded and less closely built than the rest of Canton. Descending from any elevation one finds oneself at once involved at any and every point in a maze of narrow, crowded streets of high brick and stone houses, mostly from five to eight feet wide. These streets are covered in at the height of the house roofs by screens of canvas matting, or thin boards, which afford a pleasant shade, and at the same time let the sunbeams glance and trickle among the long, pendent signboards and banners which swing aloft, and upon the busy, many-colored, jostling throng below.

Every street is paved with large slabs of granite, and under each of the massive foot-ways (for carriage-ways there are none) there is a drain for carrying off the rain-water, which is then conveyed into six large culverts, from them into four creeks which intersect the city, and thence into the river. These large drains are supervised by the “prefect,” who is bound by an ancient law to have them thoroughly cleansed every autumn, while each of the small drains is cleansed by the orders and at the expense of the “vestry” of the street under which it passes. This ancient sanitary law, like many other of the admirable laws of this empire, is said to be by no means punctiliously carried out; and that Canton is a very healthy city, and that pestilences of any kind rarely gain a footing in it, may be attributed rather to the excellent plan of sending out the garbage of the city daily to fertilize the gardens and fields of the neighborhood, than to the vigilance of the municipal authorities.

There are heavy and ancient gates or barricades which enclose each street, and which are locked at night, only to be opened by favor of the watchmen who guard them. Their closing brings to an end the busy street life, and at 10 P.M. Canton, cut up into small sections, barred out from each other, is like a city of the dead. Each gate watchman is appointed and paid by the “vestry” of the street in which he keeps guard. They wear uniform, but are miserable dilapidated-looking creatures, and I have twice seen one fast asleep. In the principal streets night watchmen are stationed in watch-towers, which consist of small mat huts, placed on scaffolds raised far above the house-tops, on bamboo poles bound together with strong cords. These men are on the look-out for armed bands of robbers, but specially for fire. They are provided with tom-toms and small gongs on which to proclaim the hours of the night, but, should fire arise, a loud, rapid, and incessant beating of the gong gives the alarm to all the elevated brotherhood in turn, who at the same time, by concerted signals, inform the citizens below of the ward and street in which the fire has originated. In each principal street there is a very large well, covered with granite slabs, with its exact position denoted on a granite slab on the adjoining wall. These wells, which are abundant reservoirs, are never opened except in case of fire.

Besides these watchmen, eleven hundred military constabulary are answerable for the good order of the “new city” and its suburbs, and a thousand more, called the Governor’s brigade, garrison the outer gates in the city wall and several interior guard-houses, all the inner gates being garrisoned by Tartar troops. Canton is divided into thirty-six wards, under twelve officers in summer, but in winter, as now, when burglars are supposed to be more on the alert, this number is increased. Each officer having soldiers under him traverses at intervals during the night every street under his jurisdiction, and these armed followers, whether to intimidate criminals or to show their vigilance, are in the habit of discharging their old-fashioned matchlocks and gingalls as they patrol. In consequence of so many precautions, which are carried out very thoroughly, fires and burglaries are much minimized, and the proverb “as safe as Canton” appears to have a substantial foundation. The barricaded streets at night have an eerie solemnity about them. One night, my present hostess, Mrs. H., and I prowled through some of them quite unattended, on our way back from a friend’s dwelling, roused up the watchmen to unlock and unbar the gates, saw no other people astir, went down one of the water streets, hailed a boat, and were deposited close to the door of our own abode about midnight; such an event being quite of common occurrence in this quarter.

In the streets the roofs of the houses and shops are rarely, if ever, regular, nor are the houses themselves arranged in a direct line, This queer effect results from queer causes. Every Chinese house is built on the principles of geomancy, which do not admit of straight lines, and were these to be disregarded the astrologers and soothsayers under whose auspices all houses are erected, predict fearful evils to the impious builders. There are few open spaces in Canton, and these are decorated, not with statues, but with monumental arches of brick, red sandstone, or gray granite, which are put up as memorials of virtuous men and women, learned or aged men, and specially dutiful sons or daughters. Such memorials are erected by citizens, and, in some cases, by Imperial sanction or decree.

The public buildings and temples, though they bear magnificent names, are extremely ugly, and are the subjects of slow but manifest decay, while the streets of shops exceed in picturesqueness everything I have ever seen. Much of this is given by the perpendicular sign boards, fixed or hanging, upon which are painted on an appropriate background immense Chinese characters in gold, vermilion, or black. Two or three of these belong to each shop, and set forth its name and the nature of the goods which are to be purchased at it. The effect of these boards as the sun’s rays fall upon them here and there is fascinating. The interiors of the shops are lofty, glass lamps hang from the ceilings and large lanterns above every door, and both are painted in bright colors, with the characters signifying happiness, or with birds, butterflies, flowers, or landscapes. The shop wall which faces the door invariably has upon it a gigantic fresco or portrait of the tutelary god of the building, or a sheet of red paper on which the characters forming his name are placed, or the character Shan, which implies all gods, and these and the altars below are seen from the street. There is a recess outside each shop, and at dusk the joss-sticks burning in these fill the city with the fragrance of incense.

As there are streets of shops and trades, so there are streets of dwelling-houses, but even the finest of these present a miserable appearance to the passers-by, for all one can see is a lofty and dimly-lighted stone vestibule, furnished with carved ebony chairs with marble seats and backs, and not infrequently with gigantic coffins placed on end, the gift of pious juniors to their seniors! A porter stands in this vestibule ready to open the lofty triple gate which admits to the courtyard of the interior. Many Chinese mansions contain six or seven courtyards, each with its colonnade, drawing, dining, and reception rooms, and at the back of all there is a flower garden adorned with rockeries, fish-ponds, dwarf trees, and miniature pagodas and bridges.

The streets in which the poor dwell are formed of low, small, dark, and dirty houses, of two or three rooms each. The streets of dwellings are as mean and ugly as those of shops are brilliant and picturesque.

This is a meagre outline of what may be called the anatomy of this ancient city, which dates from the fourth century B.C., when it was walled only by a stockade of bamboo and mud, but was known by the name of “the martial city of the south,” changed later into “the city of rams.” At this date it has probably greater importance than it ever had, and no city but London impresses me so much with the idea of solid wealth and increasing prosperity.

My admiration and amazement never cease. I grudge the hours that I am obliged to spend in sleep; a week has gone like half a day, each hour heightening my impressions of the fascination and interest of Canton, and of the singular force and importance of the Chinese. Canton is intoxicating from its picturesqueness, color, novelty and movement. to-day I have been carried eighteen miles through and round it, reveling the whole time in its enchantments, and drinking for the first time of that water of which it may truly be said that who so drinks “shall thirst again” — true Orientalism. As we sat at mid-day at the five-storied pagoda, which from a corner of the outer wall overlooks the Tartar city, and ever since, through this crowded week, I have wished that the sun would stand still in the cloudless sky, and let me dream of gorgeous sunlight, light without heat, of narrow lanes rich in color, of the glints of sunlight on embroideries and cloth of gold, resplendent even in the darkness, of hurrying and colored crowds in the shadow, with the blue sky in narrow strips high above, of gorgeous marriage processions, and the “voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride,” of glittering trains of mandarins, of funeral processions, with the wail of hired mourners clad in sackcloth and ashes, of the Tartar city with its pagodas, of the hills of graves, great cities of the dead outside the walls, fiery-red under the tropic blue, of the “potter’s field” with its pools of blood and sacks of heads, and crosses for crucifixion, now, as on Calvary, symbolical of shame alone, of the wonderful river life, and all the busy, crowded, costumed hurry of the streets, where blue banners hanging here and there show that in those houses death has stilled some busy brains forevermore. And I should like to tell you of the Buddhist and Confucian temples; of the monastery garden, which is the original of the famous “Willow Pattern;” of the great Free Dispensary which is to rival that of the Medical Mission; of the asylums for lepers, foundlings, the blind, aged men and aged women, dating from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, originally well conceived and noble institutions, but reduced into inefficiency and degradation by the greed and corruption of generations of officials; of the “Beggars’ Square” and beggars’ customs; of the trades, and of the shops with their splendors; of the Examination Hall with its streets numbering eleven thousand six hundred and seventy-three cells for the candidates for the literary honors which are the only road to office and distinction in China, but Canton deserves a volume, and Archdeacon Gray has written one!

I. L. B.

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