Some Talk with a Taipan and a General: proves in what Manner a Sea-Picnic may be a Success
I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow,
Where beneath another sky
Parrot-islands anchored lie.
HONG-KONG was so much alive, so built, so lighted, and so bloatedly rich to all outward appearance that I wanted to know how these things came about. You can’t lavish granite by the cubic ton for nothing, nor rivet your cliffs with Portland cement, nor build a five-mile bund, nor establish a club like a small palace. I sought a Taipan, which means the head of an English trading firm. He was the biggest Taipan on the island, and quite the nicest. He owned ships and wharves and houses and mines and a hundred other things. To him said I:—
‘O Taipan, I am a poor person from Calcutta, and the liveliness of your place astounds me. How is it that every one smells of money; whence come your municipal improvements; and why are the White Men so restless?’
Said the Taipan: ‘It is because the island is going ahead mightily. Because everything pays. Observe this share-list.’
He took me down a list of thirty or less companies — steam-launch companies, mining, rope-weaving, dock, trading, agency and general companies — and with five exceptions all the shares were at premium — some a hundred, some five hundred, and others only fifty.
‘It is not a boom,’ said the Taipan. ‘It is genuine. Nearly every man you meet in these parts is a broker, and he floats companies.’
I looked out of the window and beheld how companies were floated. Three men with their hats on the back of their heads converse for ten minutes. To these enters a fourth with a pocketbook. Then all four dive into the Hong-Kong Hotel for material wherewith to float themselves and — there is your company!
‘From these things,’ said the Taipan, ‘comes the wealth of Hong-Kong. Every notion here pays, from the dairy-farm upwards. We have passed through our bad times and come to the fat years.’
He told me tales of the old times — pityingly because he knew I could not understand. All I could tell was that the place dressed by America — from the hair-cutters’ saloons to the liquor-bars. The faces of men were turned to the Golden Gate even while they floated most of the Singapur companies. There is not sufficient push in Singapur alone, so Hong-Kong helps. Circulars of new companies lay on the bank counters. I moved amid a maze of interests that I could not comprehend, and spoke to men whose minds were at Hankow, Foochoo, Amoy, or even further — beyond the Yangtze gorges where the Englishman trades.
After a while I escaped from the company-floaters because I knew I could not understand them, and ran up a hill. Hong-Kong is all hill except when the fog shuts out everything except the sea. Tree-ferns sprouted on the ground and azaleas mixed with the ferns, and there were bamboos over all. Consequently it was only natural that I should find a tramway that stood on its head and waved its feet in the mist. They called it the Victoria Gap Tramway and hauled it up with a rope. It ran up a hill into space at an angle of 65°, and to those who have seen the Rigi, Mount Washington, a switchback railway, and the like would not have been impressive. But neither you nor I have ever been hauled from Annandale to the Chaura Maidan in a bee-line with a five-hundred-foot drop on the off-side, and we are at liberty to marvel. It is not proper to run up inclined ways at the tail of a string, more especially when you cannot see two yards in front of you and all earth below is a swirling cauldron of mist. Nor, unless you are warned of the opticalness of the delusion, is it nice to see from your seat, houses and trees at magic-lantern angles. Such things, before tiffin, are worse than the long roll of the China seas.
They turned me out twelve hundred feet above the city on the military road to Dalhousie, as it will be when India has a surplus. Then they brought me a glorified dandy which, not knowing any better, they called a chair. Except that it is too long to run corners easily, a chair is vastly superior to a dandy. It is more like a Bombay-side tonjon — the kind we use at Mahableshwar. You sit in a wicker chair, slung low on ten feet of elastic wooden shafting, and there are light blinds against the rain.
‘We are now,’ said the Professor, as he wrung out his hat gemmed with the dews of the driving mist, ‘we are now on a pleasure trip. This is the road to Chakrata in the rains.’
‘Nay,’ said I; ‘it is from Solon to Kasauli that we are going. Look at the black rocks.’
‘Bosh!’ said the Professor. ‘This is a civilised country. Look at the road, look at the railings-look at the gutters.’
And as I hope never to go to Solon again, the road was cemented, the railings were of iron mortised into granite blocks, and the gutters were paved. ’Twas no wider than a hill-path, but if it had been the Viceroy’s pet promenade it could not have been better kept. There was no view. That was why the Professor had taken his camera. We passed coolies widening the road, and houses shut up and deserted, solid squat little houses made of stone, with pretty names after our hill-station custom — Townend, Craggylands, and the like — and at these things my heart burned within me. Hong-Kong has no right to mix itself up with Mussoorie in this fashion. We came to the meeting-place of the winds, eighteen hundred feet above all the world, and saw forty miles of clouds. That was the Peak — the great view — place of the island. A laundry on a washing day would have been more interesting.
‘Let us go down, Professor,’ said I, ‘and we’ll get our money back. This isn’t a view.’
We descended by the marvellous tramway, each pretending to be as little upset as the other, and started in pursuit of a Chinese burying-ground.
‘Go to the Happy Valley,’ said an expert. ‘The Happy Valley, where the racecourse and the cemeteries are.’
‘It’s Mussoorie,’ said the Professor. ‘I knew it all along.’
It was Mussoorie, though we had to go through a half-mile of Portsmouth Hard first. Soldiers grinned at us from the verandahs of their most solid three-storied barracks; all the blue jackets of all the China squadron were congregated in the Royal Navy Seamen’s Club, and they beamed upon us. The blue jacket is a beautiful creature, and very healthy, but . . . I gave my heart to Thomas Atkins long ago, and him I love.
By the way, how is it that a Highland regiment — the Argyll and Sutherlandshire for instance — get such good recruits? Do the kilt and sporran bring in brawny youngsters of five-foot nine, and thirty-nine inch round the chest? The Navy draws well-built men also. How is it that Our infantry regiments fare so badly?
We came to Happy Valley by way of a monument to certain dead Englishmen. Such things cease to move emotion after a little while. They are but the seed of the great harvest whereof our children’s children shall assuredly reap the fruits. The men were killed in a fight, or by disease. We hold Hong-Kong, and by Our strength and wisdom it is a great city, built upon a rock, and furnished with a dear little seven-furlong racecourse set in the hills, and fringed as to one side with the homes of the dead — Mahometan, Christian, and Parsee. A wall of bamboos shuts off the course and the grand-stand from the cemeteries. It may be good enough for Hong-Kong, but would you care to watch your pony running with a grim reminder of ‘gone to the drawer’ not fifty feet behind you? Very beautiful are the cemeteries, and very carefully tended. The rocky hillside rises so near to them that the more recent dead can almost command a view of the racing as they lie. Even this far from the strife of the Churches they bury the different sects of Christians apart. One creed paints its wall white, and the other blue. The latter, as close to the race-stand as may be, writes in straggling letters, ‘Hodie mihi cras tibi.’ No, I should not care to race in Hong-Kong. The scornful assemblage behind the grand-stand would be enough to ruin any luck.
Chinamen do not approve of showing their cemeteries. We hunted ours from ledge to ledge of the hillsides, through crops and woods and crops again, till we came to a village of black and white pigs and riven red rocks beyond which the dead lay. It was a third-rate place, but was pretty. I have studied that oilskin mystery, the Chinaman, for at least five days, and why he should elect to be buried in good scenery, and by what means he knows good scenery when he sees it, I cannot fathom. But he gets it when the sight is taken from him, and his friends fire crackers above him in token of the triumph.
That night I dined with the Taipan in a palace. They say the merchant prince of Calcutta is dead — killed by exchange. Hong-Kong ought to be able to supply one or two samples. The funny thing in the midst of all this wealth — wealth such as one reads about in novels — is to hear the curious deference that is paid to Calcutta. Console yourselves with that, gentlemen of the Ditch, for by my faith, it is the one thing that you can boast of. At this dinner I learned that Hong-Kong was impregnable and that China was rapidly importing twelve- and forty-ton guns for the defence of her coasts. The one statement I doubted, but the other was truth. Those who have occasion to speak of China in these parts do so deferentially, as who should say: ‘Germany intends such and such,’ or ‘These are the views of Russia.’ The very men who talk thus are doing their best to force upon the great Empire all the stimulants of the West — railways, tram lines, and so forth. What will happen when China really wakes up, runs a line from Shanghai to Lhassa, starts another line of imperial Yellow Flag immigrant steamers, and really works and controls her own gun-factories and arsenals? The energetic Englishmen who ship the forty-tonners are helping to this end, but all they say is: ‘We’re well paid for what we do. There’s no sentiment in business, and anyhow, China will never go to war with England.’ Indeed, there is no sentiment in business. The Taipan’s palace, full of all things beautiful, and flowers more lovely than the gem-like cabinets they adorned, would have made happy half a hundred young men craving for luxury, and might have made them writers, singers, and poets. It was inhabited by men with big heads and straight eyes, who sat among the splendours and talked business.
If I were not going to be a Burman when I die I would be a Taipan at Hong-Kong. He knows so much and he deals so largely with Princes and Powers, and he has a flag of his very own which he pins on to all his steamers.
The blessed chance that looks after travellers sent me next day on a picnic, and all because I happened to wander into the wrong house. This is quite true, and very like our Anglo-Indian ways of doing things.
‘Perhaps,’ said the hostess, ‘this will be our only fine day. Let us spend it in a steam-launch.’
Forthwith we embarked upon a new world — that of Hong-Kong harbour — and with a dramatic regard for the fitness of things our little ship was the Pioneer. The picnic included the new General — he that came from England in the Nawab and told me about Lord Wolseley — and his aide-decamp, who was quite English and altogether different from an Indian officer. He never once talked shop, and if he had a grievance hid it behind his moustache.
The harbour is a great world in itself. Photographs say that it is lovely, and this I can believe from the glimpses caught through the mist as the Pioneer worked her way between the lines of junks, the tethered liners, the wallowing coal hulks, the trim, low-lying American corvette, the Orontes, huge and ugly, the Cockchafer, almost as small as its namesake, the ancient three-decker converted into a military hospital — Thomas gets change of air thus — and a few hundred thousand sampans manned by women with babies tied on to their backs. Then we swept down the sea face of the city and saw that it was great, till we came to an unfinished fort high up on the side of a green hill, and I watched the new General as men watch an oracle. Have I told you that he is an Engineer General, specially sent out to attend to the fortifications? He looked at the raw earth and the granite masonry, and there was keen professional interest in his eye. Perhaps he would say something. I edged nearer in that hope. He did.
‘Sherry and sandwiches? Thanks, I will. ’Stonishing how hungry the sea-air makes a man feel,’ quoth the General; and we went along under the grey-green coast, looking at stately country houses made of granite, where Jesuit fathers and opulent merchants dwell. It was the Mashobra of this Simla. It was also the Highlands, it was also Devonshire, and it was specially grey and chilly.
Never did Pioneer circulate in stranger waters. On the one side was a bewildering multiplicity of islets; on the other, the deeply indented shores of the main island, sometimes running down to the sea in little sandy coves, at others falling sheer in cliff and sea-worn cave full of the boom of the breakers. Behind, rose the hills into the mist, the everlasting mist.
‘We are going to Aberdeen,’ said the hostess; ‘then to Stanley, and then across the island on foot by way of the Ti-tam reservoir. That will show you a lot of the country.’
We shot into a fiord and discovered a brown fishing village which kept sentry over two docks, and a Sikh policeman. All the inhabitants were rosy-checked women, each owning one-third of a boat, and a whole baby, wrapped up in red cloth and tied to the back. The mother was dressed in blue for a reason — if her husband whacked her over the shoulders, he would run a fair chance of crushing the baby’s head unless the infant were of a distinct colour.
Then we left China altogether, and steamed into far Lochaber, with a climate to correspond. Good people under the punkah, think for a moment of cloud-veiled headlands running out into a steel-grey sea, crisped with a cheek-rasping breeze that makes you sit down under the bulwarks and gasp for breath. Think of the merry pitch and roll of a small craft as it buzzes from island to island, or venturously cuts across the mouth of a mile-wide bay, while you mature amid fresh scenery, fresh talk, and fresh faces, an appetite that shall uphold the credit of the great empire in a strange land. Once more we found a village which they called Stanley; but it was different from Aberdeen. Tenantless buildings of brown stone stared seaward from the low downs, and there lay behind them a stretch of weather-beaten wall. No need to ask what these things meant. They cried aloud: ‘It is a deserted cantonment, and the population is in the cemetery.’
I asked, ‘What regiment?’
‘The Ninety-second,’ I think,’ said the General. ‘But that was in the old times — in the Sixties. I believe they quartered a lot of troops here and built the barracks on the ground; and the fever carried all the men off like flies. Isn’t it a desolate place?’
My mind went back to a neglected graveyard a stone’s throw from Jehangir’s tomb in the gardens of Shalimar, where the cattle and the cowherd look after the last resting-places of the troops who first occupied Lahore. We are a great people and very strong, but we build Our empire in a wasteful manner — on the bones of the dead that have died of disease.
‘But about the fortifications, General? Is it true that etc., etc.?’
‘The fortifications are right enough as things go; what we want is men.’
‘Say about three thousand for the Island — enough to stop any expedition that might come. Look at all these little bays and coves. There are twenty places at the back of the island where you could land men and make things unpleasant for Hong-Kong.’
‘But,’ I ventured, ‘isn’t it the theory that any organised expedition ought to be stopped by our fleet before it got here? Whereas the forts are supposed to prevent cutting out, shelling, and ransoming by a disconnected man-of-war or two.’
‘If you go on that theory,’ said the General, ‘the men-of-war ought to be stopped by our fleets, too. That’s all nonsense. If any Power can throw troops here, you want troops to turn ’em out, and — don’t we wish we may get them!’
‘And you? Your command here is for five years, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, no! Eighteen months ought to see me out. I don’t want to stick here for ever. I’ve other notions for myself,’ said the General, scrambling over the boulders to get at his tiffin.
And that is just the worst of it. Here was a nice General helping to lay out fortifications, with one eye on Hong-Kong and the other, his right one, on England. He would be more than human not to sell himself and his orders for the command of a brigade in the next English affair. He would be afraid of being too long away from home lest he should drop out of the running and . . . Well, we are just the same in India, and there is not the least hope of raising a Legion of the Lost for colonial service — of men who would do their work in one place for ever and look for nothing beyond it. But remember that Hong-Kong — with five million tons of coal, five miles of shipping, docks, wharves, huge civil station, forty million pounds of trade, and the nicest picnic-parties that you ever did see — wants three thousand men and — she won’t get them. She has two batteries of garrison artillery, a regiment, and a lot of gun lascars — about enough to prevent the guns from rusting on their carriages. There are three forts on an island — Stonecutter’s Island — between HongKong and the mainland, three on Hong-Kong itself, and three or four scattered about elsewhere. Naturally the full complement of guns has not arrived. Even in India you cannot man forts without trained gunners. But tiffin under the lee of a rock was more interesting than colonial defence. A man cannot talk politics if he be empty.
Our one fine day shut in upon the empty plates in wind and rain, and the march across the island began.
As the launch was blotted out in the haze we squelched past sugar-cane crops and fat pigs, past the bleak cemetery of dead soldiers on the hill, across a section of moor, till we struck a hill-road above the sea. The views shifted and changed like a kaleidoscope. First a shaggy shoulder of land tufted with dripping rushes and naught above, beneath, or around but mist and the straight spikes of the rain; then red road swept by water that fell into the unknown; then a combe, straight walled almost as a house, at the bottom of which crawled the jade-green sea; then a vista of a bay, a bank of white sand, and a red-sailed junk beating out before the squall; then only wet rock and fern, and the voice of thunder calling from peak to peak.
A landward turn in the road brought us to the pine woods of Theog and the rhododendrons — but they called them azaleas — of Simla, and ever the rain fell as though it had been July in the hills instead of April at Hong-Kong. An invading army marching upon Victoria would have a sad time of it even if the rain did not fall. There are but one or two gaps in the hills through which it could travel, and there is a scheme in preparation whereby they shall be cut off and annihilated when they come. When I had to climb a clay hill backwards digging my heels into the dirt, I very much pitied that invading army.
Whether the granite-faced reservoir and two-mile tunnel that supplies Hong-Kong with water be worth seeing I cannot tell. There was too much water in the air for comfort even when one tried to think of Home.
But go you and take the same walk — ten miles, and only two of ’em on level ground. Steam to the forsaken cantonment of Stanley and cross the island, and tell me whether you have seen anything so wild and wonderful in its way as the scenery I am going up the river to Canton, and cannot stay for word-paintings.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10