Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, by Nellie Bly

Chapter 13.

Christmas in Canton.

THE O. and O. agent escorted me to the ship Powan, on which I was to travel to Canton. He gave me in charge of Captain Grogan, the Powan’s commander, an American, who has lived for years in China. A very bashful man he was, but a most kindly, pleasant one. I never saw a fatter man, or a man so comically fattened. A wild inclination to laugh crept over me every time I caught a glimpse of his roly-poly body, his round red face embedded, as it were, in the fat of his shoulders and breast. The thoughts of how sensitive I am concerning remarks about my personal appearance, in a measure subdued my impulse to laugh. I have always said to critics, who mercilessly write about the shape of my chin, or the cut of my nose, or the size of my mouth, and such personal attributes that can no more be changed than death can be escaped:

“Criticise the style of my hat or my gown, I can change them, but spare my nose, it was born on me.”

Remembering this, and how nonsensical it is to blame or criticise people for what they are powerless to change, I pocketed my merriment, letting a kindly feeling of sympathy take its place.

Soon after we left, night descended. I went on deck where everything was buried in darkness. Softly and steadily the boat swam on, the only sound-and the most refreshing and restful sound in the world-was the lapping of the water.

To sit on a quiet deck, to have a star-lit sky the only light above or about, to hear the water kissing the prow of the ship, is, to me, paradise. They can talk of the companionship of men, the splendor of the sun, the softness of moonlight, the beauty of music, but give me a willow chair on a quiet deck, the world with its worries and noise and prejudices lost in distance, the glare of the sun, the cold light of the moon blotted out by the dense blackness of night. Let me rest rocked gently by the rolling sea, in a nest of velvety darkness, my only light the soft twinkling of the myriads of stars in the quiet sky above; my music, the round of the kissing waters, cooling the brain and easing the pulse; my companionship, dreaming my own dreams. Give me that and I have happiness in its perfection.

But away with dreams. This is a work-a-day world and I am racing Time around it. After dinner, when the boat anchored, waiting for the tide which was to carry us safely over the bar, I went below to see the Chinese passengers. They were gambling, smoking opium, sleeping, cooking, eating, reading and talking, all huddled together on one deck, which was in one large room, not divided into cabins. They carry their own beds, a bit of matting, and their own food, little else than rice and tea.

Before daybreak we anchored at Canton. The Chinamen went ashore the moment we landed, but the other passengers remained for breakfast.

While we were having breakfast, the guide whom the captain had secured for us, came on board and quietly supervised the luncheon we were to take with us. A very clever fellow was that guide, Ah Cum. The first thing he said to us was “A Merry Christmas!” and as it had even slipped our minds, I know we all appreciated the polite thoughtfulness of our Chinese guide. Ah Cum told me later that he had been educated in an American mission located in Canton, but he assured me, with great earnestness, that English was all he learned. He would have none of the Christian religion. Ah Cum’s son was also educated in an American mission, and, like his father, has put his learning to good account. Besides being paid as guide, Ah Cum collects a percentage from merchants for all the goods bought by tourists. Of course the tourists pay higher prices than they would otherwise, and Ah Cum sees they visit no shops where he is not paid his little fee.

Ah Cum is more comely in features than most Mongolians, his nose being more shapely and his eyes less slit-like than those of most of his race. He had on his feet beaded black shoes with white soles. His navy-blue trousers, or tights, more properly speaking, were tied around the ankle and fitted very tight over most of the leg. Over this he wore a blue, stiffly starched shirt-shaped garment, which reached his heels, while over this he wore a short padded and quilted silk jacket, somewhat similar to a smoking jacket. His long, coal-black queue, finished with a tassel of black silk, touched his heels, and on the spot where the queue began rested a round black turban.

Ah Cum had chairs ready for us. His chair was a neat arrangement in black, black silk hangings, tassels, fringe and black wood-poles finished with brass knobs. Once in it, he closed it, and was hidden from the gaze of the public. Our plain willow chairs had ordinary covers, which, to my mind, rather interfered with sightseeing. We had three coolies to each chair. Those with us were bare-footed, with tousled pig-tail and navy-blue shirts and trousers, much the worse for wear both in cleanliness and quality. Ah Cum’s coolies wore white linen garments, gayly trimmed with broad bands of red cloth, looking very much like a circus clown’s costume.

Ah Cum led the way, our coolies following. For a time I was only conscious of a confused mass of black faces and long pig tails, though shortly I became accustomed to it, and was able to distinguish different objects along the crowded thoroughfare; could note the different stands and the curious looks of the people. We were carried along dark and dirty narrow ways, in and about fish stands, whence odors drifted, filling me with disgust, until we crossed a bridge which spanned a dark and sluggish stream.

This little island, guarded at every entrance, is Shameen, or Sandy Face, the land set aside for the habitation of Europeans. An unchangeable law prohibits Celestials from crossing into this sacred precinct, because of the hatred they cherish for Europeans. Shameen is green and picturesque, with handsome houses of Oriental design, and grand shade trees, and wide, velvety green roads, broken only by a single path, made by the bare feet of the chair-carriers.

Here, for the first time since leaving New York, I saw the stars and stripes. It was floating over the gateway to the American Consulate. It is a strange fact that the further one goes from home the more loyal one becomes. I felt I was a long ways off from my own dear land; it was Christmas day, and I had seen many different flags since last I gazed upon our own. The moment I saw it floating there in the soft, lazy breeze I took off my cap and said: “That is the most beautiful flag in the world, and I am ready to whip anyone who says it isn’t.”

No one said a word. Everybody was afraid! I saw an Englishman in the party glance furtively towards the Union Jack, which was floating over the English Consulate, but in a hesitating manner, as if he feared to let me see.

Consul Seymour received our little party with a cheery welcome. He was anxious that we should partake of his hospitality, but we assured him our limited time only gave us a moment to pay our respects, and then we must be off again.

Mr. Seymour was an editor before he went to China with his wife and only daughter, to be consul. Since then he has conceived a hobby for embroideries and carved ivories, which he is able to ride to the top of his bent in Canton. When tourists go there he always knows some place where he can guide them to bargains. Mr. Seymour is a most pleasant, agreeable man, and a general favorite. It is to be hoped that he will long have a residence in Shameen, where he reflects credit upon the American Consulate.

What a different picture Canton presents to Shameen. They say there are millions of people in Canton. The streets, many of which are roughly paved with stone, seem little over a yard in width. The shops, with their gayly colored and handsomely carved signs, are all open, as if the whole end facing the street had been blown out. In the rear of every shop is an altar, gay in color and often expensive in adornment. As we were carried along the roads we could see not only the usually rich and enticing wares, but the sellers and buyers. Every shop has a book-keeper’s desk near the entrance. The book-keepers all wear tortoise-shell rimmed glasses of an enormous size, which lend them a look of tremendous wisdom. I was inclined to think the glasses were a mark of office, for I never saw a man employed in clerical work without them.

I was warned not to be surprised if the Chinamen should stone me while I was in Canton. I was told that Chinese women usually spat in the faces of female tourists when the opportunity offered. However, I had no trouble. The Chinese are not pleasant appearing people; they usually look as if life had given them nothing but trouble; but as we were carried along the men in the stores would rush out to look at me. They did not take any interest in the men with me, but gazed at me as if I was something new. They showed no sign of animosity, but the few women I met looked as curiously at me, and less kindly.

The thing that seemed to interest the people most about me were my gloves. Sometimes they would make bold enough to touch them, and they would always gaze upon them with looks of wonder.

The streets are so narrow that I thought at first I was being carried through the aisles of some great market. It is impossible to see the sky, owing to the signs and other decorations, and the compactness of the buildings; and with the open shops, just like stands in a market, except that they are not even cut off from the passing crowd by a counter, the delusion is a very natural one. When Ah Cum told me that I was not in a market-house, but in the streets of the city of Canton, my astonishment knew no limit. Sometimes our little train would meet another train of chairs, and then we would stop for a moment and there would be great yelling and fussing until we had safely passed, the way being too narrow for both trains to move at once in safety.

Coolie number two of my chair was a source of great discomfort to me all the day. He had a strap spanning the poles by which he upheld his share of the chair. This band, or strap, crossed his shoulders, touching the neck just where the prominent bone is. The skin was worn white and hard-looking from the rubbing of the band; but still it worried me, and I watched all the day expecting to see it blister. His long pig-tail was twisted around his head, so I had an unobstructed view of the spot. He was not an easy traveler, this coolie, there being as much difference in the gait of carriers as there is in the gait of horses. Many times he shifted the strap, much to my misery, and then he would turn and, by motions, convey to me that I was sitting more to one side than to the other.

As a result, I made such an effort to sit straight and not to move that when we alighted at the shops I would be cramped almost into a paralytic state. Before the day was over I had a sick headache, all from thinking too much about the comfort of the Chinamen.

A disagreeable thing about the coolies is that they grunt like pigs when carrying one. I can’t say whether the grunt has any special significance to them or not, but they will grunt one after the other along the train, and it is anything but pleasant.

I was very anxious to see the execution ground, so we were carried there. We went in through a gate where a stand erected for gambling was surrounded by a crowd of filthy people. Some few idle ones left it to saunter lazily after us. The place is very unlike what one would naturally suppose it to be. At first sight it looked like a crooked back alley in a country town. There were several rows of half dried pottery. A woman, who was moulding in a shed at one side, stopped her work to gossip about us with another female who had been arranging the pottery in rows. The place is probably seventy-five feet long by twenty-five wide at the front, and narrowing down at the other end. I noticed the ground in one place was very red, and when I asked Ah Cum about it he said indifferently, as he kicked the red-colored earth with his white-souled shoe:

“It’s blood. Eleven men were beheaded here yesterday.”

He added that it was an ordinary thing for ten to twenty criminals to be executed at one time. The average number per annum is something like 400. The guide also told us that in one year, 1855, over 50,000 rebels were beheaded in this narrow alley.

While he was talking I noticed some roughly fashioned wooden crosses leaned up against the high stone wall, and supposing they were used in some manner for religious purposes before and during the executions, I asked Ah Cum about them. A shiver waggled down my spinal cord when he answered:

“When women are condemned to death in China they are bound to wooden crosses and cut to pieces.”

“Men are beheaded with one stroke unless they are the worst kind of criminals,” the guide added, “then they are given the death of a woman to make it the more discreditable. They tie them to the crosses and strangle or cut them to pieces. When they are cut to bits, it is done so deftly that they are entirely dismembered and disemboweled before they are dead. Would you like to see some heads?”

I thought that Chinese guide could tell as large stories as any other guides; and who can equal a guide for highly-colored and exaggerated tales? So I said coldly:

“Certainly; bring on your heads!”

I tipped a man, as he told me, who, with the clay of the pottery on his hands, went to some barrels which stood near to the wooden crosses, put in his hand and pulled out a head!

Those barrels are filled with lime, and as the criminals are beheaded their heads are thrown into the barrels, and when the barrels become full they empty them out and get a fresh supply. If a man of wealth is condemned to death in China he can, with little effort, buy a substitute. Chinamen are very indifferent about death; it seems to have no terror for them.

I went to the jail and was surprised to see all the doors open. The doors were rather narrow, and when I got inside and saw all the prisoners with thick, heavy boards fastened about their necks, I no longer felt surprised at the doors being unbarred. There was no need of locking them.

I went to the court, a large, square, stone-paved building. In a small room off one side I was presented to some judges who were lounging about smoking opium! In still another room I met others playing fan tan! At the entrance I found a large gambling establishment! They took me into a room to see the instruments of punishment. Split bamboo to whip with, thumb screws, pulleys on which people are hanged by their thumbs, and such pleasant things. While I was there they brought in two men who had been caught stealing. The thieves were chained with their knees meeting their chins, and in that distressing position were carried in baskets suspended on a pole between two coolies. The judges explained to me that as these offenders had been caught in the very act of taking what belonged not to them, their hands would be spread upon flat stones and with smaller stones every bone in their hands would be broken. Afterwards they would be sent to the hospital to be cured. Prisoners dying in jail are always beheaded before burial.

An American who has lived many years near Canton told me there is a small bridge spanning a stream in the city where it is customary to hang criminals in a fine wire hammock, first removing all their clothing. A number of sharp knives are laid at the end of the bridge, and every one crossing while the man is there is compelled to take a knife and give a slash to the wire-imprisoned wretch. As I saw none of this myself, I only give these stories as they were given to me.

They tell me bamboo punishment (I cannot now recall the name they gave it) is not as uncommon in China as one would naturally suppose from its extreme brutality. For some crimes offenders are pinioned in standing position with their legs astride, fastened to stakes in the earth. This is done directly above a bamboo sprout. To realize this punishment in all its dreadfulness it is necessary to give a little explanation of the bamboo. A bamboo sprout looks not unlike the delicious asparagus, but is of a hardness and strength not equaled by iron. When it starts to come up, nothing can stop its progress. It is so hard that it will go through anything on its way up; let that anything be asphalt or what it will, the bamboo goes through it as readily as though the obstruction didn’t exist. The bamboo grows with marvelous rapidity straight up into the air for thirty days, and then it stops. When its growth is finished it throws off a shell-like bark, its branches slowly unfolding and falling into place. They are covered with a soft airy foliage finer than the leafage of a willow. From a distance a bamboo forest is a most beautiful thing, exquisitely soft and fine in appearance, but adamant is not harder in reality. As I have said, nothing can stop a bamboo sprout when it intends to come up. Nothing ever equaled the rapidity of its growth, it being affirmed that it can really be seen growing! In the thirty days that it grows it may reach a height of seventy-five feet.

Picture then a convict pinioned above a bamboo sprout and in such a position that he cannot get away from it. It starts on its upward course never caring for what is in its way; on it goes through the man who stands there dying, dying, worse than by inches, conscious for a while, then fever mercifully kills knowledge, and at last, after days of suffering, his head drops forward, and he is dead. But that is not any worse than tying a man in the boiling sun to a stake, covering him with quick-lime and giving him nothing but water to quench hunger and thirst. He holds out and out, for it means life, but at last he takes the water that is always within his reach. He drinks, he perspires, and the lime begins to eat. They also have a habit of suspending a criminal by his arms, twisting them back of him. As long as a man keeps his muscles tense he can live, but the moment he relaxes and falls, it ruptures blood vessels and his life floats out on a crimson stream. The unfortunate is always suspended in a public place, where magistrates watch so that no one may release him. Friends of the condemned flock around the man of authority, bargaining for the man’s life; if they can pay the price extorted by him the man is taken down and set free; if not, he merely hangs until the muscles give out and he drops to death. They also have a way of burying the whole of criminals except their heads. The eyelids are fastened back so that they cannot close them, and so facing the sun they are left to die. Sticking bamboo splints under the finger nails and then setting fire to them is another happy way of punishing wrongdoers.

I had no idea what I was to see when we mounted the filthy stone steps leading to the Temple of Horrors. I concluded it most be an exhibition of human monstrosities. The steps were filled with dirty Mongolians of all sizes, ages, shapes and afflictions. When they heard our steps, those who could see and walk, rushed up to us, crying for alms, and those who were blind and powerless raised their voices the louder because they could not move. Inside, a filthy stone court was crowded with a mass of humanity. There were lepers, peddlers, monstrosities, fortune tellers, gamblers, quacks, dentists with strings of horrid teeth, and even pastry cooks! It is said the Chinese worship here occasionally and consult idols. In little, dirty cells were dirty figures, representing the punishment of the Buddhists’ hell. They were being whipped, ground to death, boiled in oil, beheaded, put under red hot bells, being sawed in twain, and undergoing similar agreeable things.

Canton is noted for its many curious and interesting temples. There are over eight hundred temples in the city. The most interesting one I saw during my flying trip was the Temple of the Five Hundred Gods. While there the guide asked me if I was superstitious, and upon my answering in the affirmative, he said he would show me how to try my luck. Placing some joss sticks in a copper jar before the luck-god, he took from the table two pieces of wood, worn smooth and dirty from frequent use, which, placed together, were not unlike a pear in shape. With this wood-he called it the “luck pigeon”-held with the flat sides together, he made circling motions over the smouldering joss sticks, once, twice, thrice, and dropped the luck pigeon to the floor. He explained if one side of the luck pigeon turned up and the other turned down it meant good luck, while if they both fell in the same position it meant bad luck. When he dropped it they both turned the one way, and he knew he would have bad luck.

I took the luck pigeon then, and I was so superstitious that my arm trembled and my heart beat in little palpitating jumps as I made the motions over the burning joss sticks. I dropped the wood to the floor, and one piece turned one way and one the other, and I was perfectly happy. I knew I was going to have good luck.

I saw the Examination Hall, where there are accommodations for the simultaneous examination of 11,616 celestial students, all male. We went to the entrance-gate through a dirty park-like space where a few stunted trees grew feebly and a number of thin, black pigs rooted energetically. Dirty children in large numbers followed us, demanding alms in boisterous tones, and a few women who, by the aid of canes, were hobbling about on their cramped small feet, stopped to look after us with grins of curiosity and amusement. The open space is the principal entrance, then we go through a small gate called the gate of Equity, and later still another called the Dragon gate, which leads into the great avenue. A most strange and curious sight this avenue gives. An open space with a tower on the end known as the watch tower, has a god of literature in the second story. On each side of the open green space are rows of whitewashed buildings, not unlike railway cattle yards in appearance. In these ranges of cells, cells that measure 5-1/2 by 3-2/3 feet, 11,616 pig-tailed students undergo their written examination. On the sides facing the avenue are Chinese inscriptions showing what study is examined in that range. In each cell is a board to sit on, and one a little higher for a desk. This roughly improvised desk must be slid out to allow the student to enter or depart unless he crawls under or jumps over. The same texts are given to all at daylight, and very often when essays are not finished at night the students are kept over night in their cells. The Hall is about 1,380 feet long by 650 feet wide, and is really a strangely interesting place well worth a visit. It is said the examinations are very severe, and from the large number of candidates examined, sometimes only one hundred and fifty will be passed. The place in which the essays are examined is called the Hall of Auspicious Stars, and the Chinese inscription over the avenue translated reads, “The opening heavens circulate literature.”

I had a great curiosity to see the leper village, which is commonly supposed to contain hundreds of Chinese lepers. The village consists of numbers of bamboo huts, and the lepers present a sight appalling in its squalor and filth. Ah Cum told us to smoke cigarettes while in the village so that the frightful odors would be less perceptible. He set the example by lighting one, and we all followed his lead. The lepers were simply ghastly in their misery. There are men, women and children of all ages and conditions. The few filthy rags with which they endeavored to hide their nakedness presented no shape of any garment or any color, so dirty and ragged were they. On the ground floors of the bamboo huts were little else than a few old rags, dried grass and things of that kind. Furniture there was none. It is useless to attempt a description of the loathsome appearance of the lepers. Many were featureless, some were blind, some had lost fingers, others a foot, some a leg, but all were equally dirty, disgusting and miserable. Those able to work cultivate a really prosperous-looking garden, which is near their village. Ah Cum assured me they sold their vegetables in the city market! I felt glad to know we had brought our luncheon from the ship. Those lepers able to walk spend the day in Canton begging, but are always compelled to sleep in their village, still I could not help wondering what was the benefit of a leper village if the lepers are allowed to mingle with the other people. On my return to the city I met several lepers begging in the market. The sight of them among the food was enough to make me vow never to eat anything in Canton. The lepers are also permitted to marry, and a surprising number of diseased children are brought into a cursed and unhappy existence.

As we left the leper city I was conscious of an inward feeling of emptiness. It was Christmas day, and I thought with regret of dinner at home, although one of the men in the party said it was about midnight in New York. The guide said there was a building near by which he wanted to show us and then we would eat our luncheon. Once within a high wall we came upon a pretty scene. There was a mournful sheet of water undisturbed by a breath of wind. In the background the branches of low, overhanging trees kissed the still water just where stood some long-legged storks, made so familiar to us by pictures on Chinese fans.

Ah Cum led us to a room which was shut off from the court by a large carved gate. Inside were hard wood chairs and tables. While eating I heard chanting to the weird, plaintive sound of a tom-tom and a shrill pipe. When I had less appetite and more curiosity, I asked Ah Cum where we were, and he replied: “in the Temple of the Dead.”

And in the Temple of the Dead I was eating my Christmas luncheon. But that did not interfere with the luncheon. Before we had finished a number of Chinaman crowded around the gate and looked curiously at me. They held up several children, well clad, cleanly children, to see me. Thinking to be agreeable, I went forward to shake hands with them, but they kicked and screamed, and getting down, rushed back in great fright, which amused us intensely. Their companions succeeded after awhile in quieting them and they were persuaded to take my hand. The ice once broken, they became so interested in me, my gloves, my bracelets and my dress, that I soon regretted my friendliness in the outset.

It is customary at the death of a person to build a bonfire after night, and cast into the fire household articles, such as money boxes, ladies’ dressing cases, etc., composed of gilt paper, the priests meanwhile playing upon shrill pipes. They claim the devil which inhabits all bodies leaves the body to save the property of the dead, and once they play him out he can never re-enter, so souls are saved.

I climbed high and dirty stone steps to the water-clock, which, they say, is over five hundred years old, and has never run down or been repaired. In little niches in the stone walls were small gods, before them the smouldering joss sticks. The water-clock consists of four copper jars, about the size of wooden pails, placed on steps, one above the other. Each one has a spout from which comes a steady drop-drop. In the last and bottom jar is an indicator, very much like a foot rule, which rises with the water, showing the hour. On a blackboard hanging outside, they mark the time for the benefit of the town people. The upper jar is filled once every twenty-fear hours, and that is all the attention the clock requires.

On our return to the Powan I found some beautiful presents from Consul Seymour and the cards of a number of Europeans who had called to see me. Suffering from a sick-headache, I went to my cabin and shortly we were on our way to Hong Kong, my visit to Canton on Christmas day being of the past.

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