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

Letter v

Portuguese Missionaries — A Chinese Hospital — Chinese Anaesthetics — Surgery and Medicine — Ventilation and Cleanliness — A Chinese “Afternoon Tea” — A New Inspiration

HONG KONG, January 10.

The year seems already getting old and frowzy. Under these blue skies, and with all the doors and windows open, I should think it midsummer if I did not look at the calendar. Oh, how I like blue, sunny skies, instead of gray and grim ones, and blazing colors instead of the dismal grays and browns of our nondescript winters!

I left Canton by the Kin–Kiang on Monday, with two thousand Chinese passengers and two Portuguese missionary priests, the latter wearing Chinese costume, and so completely got up as Chinamen that had they not spoken Portuguese their features would not have been sufficient to undeceive me. They were noble-looking men, and bore upon their faces the stamp of consecration to a noble work. On the other steamer, the Tchang, instead of a man with revolvers and a cutlass keeping guard over the steerage grating, a large hose pipe is laid on to each hatch-way, through which, in case of need, boiling water can be sent under strong pressure. Just as we landed here, about five hundred large fishes were passed through a circular net from a well in the steamer into a well in a fishing boat, to which all the fishmongers in Hong Kong immediately resorted.

(I pass over the hospitalities and festivities of Hong Kong, and an afternoon with the Governor in the Victoria Prison, to an interesting visit paid with Mr., now Sir J. Pope Hennessey to the Chinese Hospital.)

We started from Government House, with the Governor, in a chair with six scarlet bearers, attended by some Sikh orderlies in scarlet turbans, for a “State Visit” to the Tung–Wah Hospital, a purely Chinese institution, built some years ago by Chinese merchants, and supported by them at an annual cost of $16,000. In it nothing European, either in the way of drugs or treatment, is tried. There is a dispensary connected with it, where advice is daily given to about a hundred and twenty people; and, though lunacy is rare in China, they are building a lunatic asylum at the back of the hospital.

The Tung–Wah hospital consists of several two-storied buildings of granite, with large windows on each side, and a lofty central building which contains the directors’ hall, the accommodation for six resident physicians, and the business offices. The whole is surrounded by a well-kept garden, bounded by a very high wall. We entered by the grand entrance, which has a flagged pavement, each flag consisting of a slab of granite twelve feet long by three broad, and were received at the foot of the grand staircase by the directors and their chairman, the six resident doctors, and Mr. Ng Choy, a rising, Chinese barrister, educated at Lincoln’s Inn, who interpreted for us in admirable English. He is the man who goes between the Governor and the Chinese community, and is believed to have more influence with the Governor on all questions which concern Chinamen than anybody else. These gentlemen all wore rich and beautiful dresses of thick ribbed silk and figured brocade, and, unless they were much padded and wadded, they had all attained to a remarkable embonpoint.

The hall in which the directors meet is lofty and very handsome, the roof being supported on massive pillars. One side is open to the garden. It has a superb ebony table in the middle, with a chair massive enough for a throne for the chairman, and six grand, carved ebony chairs on either side.

Our procession consisted of the chairman and the twelve directors, the six stout middle-aged doctors, Mr. Ng Choy, the Governor, the Bishop of Victoria, and myself; but the patients regarded the unwonted spectacle with extreme apathy.

The wards hold twenty each, and are divided into wooden stalls, each stall containing two beds. Partitions seven feet high run down the centre. The beds are matted wooden platforms, and the bedding white futons or wadded quilts, which are washed once a week. The pillows are of wood or bamboo. Each bed has a shelf above it, with a teapot upon it in a thickly wadded basket, which keeps the contents hot all day, the infusion being, of course, poured off the leaves. A ticket, with the patient’s name upon it, and the hours at which he is to take his medicine, hangs above each person.

No amputations are performed, but there are a good many other operations, such as the removal of cancers, tumors, etc. The doctors were quite willing to answer questions, within certain limits; but when I asked them about the composition and properties of their drugs they became reticent at once and said that they were secrets. They do not use chloroform in operations, but they all asserted, and their assertions were corroborated by Mr. Ng Choy, that they possess drugs which throw their patients into a profound sleep, during which the most severe operations can be painlessly performed. They asserted further that such patients awake an hour or two afterward quite cheerful, and with neither headache nor vomiting! One of them showed me a bottle containing a dark brown powder which, he said, produced this result, but he would not divulge the name of one of its constituents, saying that it is a secret taught him by his tutor, and that there are several formulas. It has a pungent and slightly aromatic taste.

The surgery and medicine are totally uninfluenced by European science, and are of the most antiquated and barbaric description. There was a woman who had had a cancer removed, and the awful wound, which was uncovered for my inspection, was dressed with musk, lard, and ambergris, with a piece of oiled paper over all. There was also exhibited to us a foot which had been pierced by a bamboo splinter. Violent inflammation had extended up to the knee, and the wound, and the swollen, blackened limb were being treated with musk and tiger’s fat. A man with gangrened feet, nearly dropping off, had them rolled up in dark-colored paste, of which musk and oil were two ingredients. All the wounds were deplorably dirty, and no process of cleaning them exists in this system of surgery.

The Governor and Bishop were not allowed to go into the women’s ward. It looked very clean and comfortable, but a woman in the last death-agony was unattended. They never bleed, or leech, or blister, or apply any counter-irritants in cases of inflammation. They give powdered rhinoceros’ horns, sun-dried tiger’s blood, powdered tiger’s liver, spiders’ eyes, and many other queer things, and for a tonic and febrifuge, where we should use quinine, they rely mainly on the ginseng (Panax quinquefolia?) of which I saw so much in Japan. They judge much by the pulse and tongue. The mortality in this hospital is very large, not only from the nature of the treatment, but because Chinamen who have no friends in Victoria go there when they are dying, in order to secure that their bodies shall be sent to their relations at a distance. There were fifteen sick and shipwrecked junkmen there, covered with sores, who looked very far down in the scale of humanity.

After going through the wards I went into the laboratory, where six men were engaged in preparing drugs, then to the “chemical kitchen,” where a hundred and fifty earthen pipkins on a hundred and fifty earthen furnaces were being used in cooking medicines under the superintendence of eight cooks in spotless white clothing; then to the kitchen, which is large and clean; then alone into the dead-house, which no Chinese will enter except an unclean class of pariahs, who perform the last offices for the departed and dress the corpses for burial. This gloomy receptacle is also clean.

Great attention is paid to cleanliness and ventilation. Dry earth is used as a deodorizer, but if there be a bad odor they burn sandalwood. They don’t adopt any disinfectants; indeed, they don’t appear to know their use. The patients all lie with their backs to the light, and there is a space five feet wide between the beds and the windows. All the windows were open both at the top and bottom, so as to create a complete current of air, and the airiness and freedom from smells and closeness were quite remarkable, considering the state in which the wounds are, which is worse than I dare attempt to describe. The hospital is conducted on strictly “temperance principles,” i.e., no alcoholic stimulants are given, which is not remarkable, considering how little comparatively they are used in China, and with what moderation on the whole by those who use them. There were seventy-five patients in the wards yesterday, and the cases were mostly either serious originally, or have been made so by the treatment. There are one hundred and twenty beds. There is much to admire in this hospital, the humane arrangements, the obvious comfort of the patients, and the admirable ventilation and perfect cleanliness of the beds and wards, but the system adopted is one of the most antiquated quackery, and when I think of the unspeakably horrible state of the wounds, the mortifying limbs, and the gangrened feet ready to drop off, I almost question Governor Hennessey’s wisdom in stamping the hospital with his approval on his “State Visit.”

The Governor and I were received in the boardroom after our two hours’ inspection, where we were joined by Mrs. Hennessey, and entertained by the directors at what might be called “afternoon tea.” But when is the Chinaman not drinking tea? A monstrous plateau of the preserved and candied fruits, in the making of which the Chinese ladies excel, had been placed upon the ebony table, and when we were seated in the stately ebony chairs on the chairman’s right, with the yellow, shining-faced, wadded or corpulent directors opposite to us, excellent tea with an unusual flavor was brought in, and served in cups of antique green dragon china. The Governor made kindly remarks on the hospital, which fluent Mr. Ng Choy doubtless rendered into the most fulsome flattery; the chairman complimented the Governor, and unlimited “soft sawder,” in Oriental fashion, passed all round.

It is proper in China on such an occasion to raise the tea-cup with both the hands to a good height and bow to each person, naming at the same time the character so continually seen on tea-cups and sake bottles — Happiness, — which is understood to be a wish for happiness in this formula, “May your happiness be as the Eastern Sea;” but the wish may also mean “May you have many sons.” It is strange that these Chinamen, who showed all fitting courtesy to Mrs. Hennessey and me, would only have spoken of their wives apologetically as “the mean ones within the gates!” It was a charming Oriental sight, the grand, open- fronted room with its stone floor and many pillars, the superbly dressed directors and their blue-robed attendants, and the immense costumed crowd outside the gate in the sunshine, kept back by crimson-turbaned Sikh orderlies.

If civilization were to my taste, I should linger in Victoria for the sake of its beauty, its stirring life, its costume and color, its perfect winter climate, its hospitalities, its many charming residents, and for various other reasons, and know nothing of its feuds in state, church, and society. But I am a savage at heart, and weary for the wilds first, and then for the beloved little home on the wooded edge of the moorland above the Northern Sea, which gleams like a guiding star, even through the maze of sunshine and color of this fascinating Eastern world. to-day I lunched at (acting) Chief Justice Snowden’s, and he urges me to go to Malacca on my way home. I had never dreamed of the “Golden Chersonese;” but I am much inspired by his descriptions of the neighborhood of the Equator, and as he has lent me Newbold’s Malacca for the voyage, and has given me letters to the Governor and Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements, you will next hear from me from Singapore!

I. L. B.

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