"Coolies" | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong



For the story behind this photo see http://gwulo.com/node/35289

Date picture taken (may be approximate): 
Monday, January 1, 1900


Am I right in thinking that this photo would have been posed and published specifically for sale to European tourists? Would working coolies have had such long nails? Can we be sure that there is even any water in the buckets, let alone that they're going to be carried anywhere. I think this photo may fit into the same genre of posed photographs as the one of the well dressed Europeans who were summoned to strike poses behind the beheaded pirates on the beach - likewise the "criminal" in the cangue. Perhaps there should be a special gallery for these?

Greetings, and Jill, you got me thinking along the same line.  The water buckets look used, but their hat and clothings are new, and I think the long nails are fake.  The coolies I saw in the 50s and 60s were adults, mostly on the skinny side and some muscular.  But then, this could be their first day of a family-run business.  Regards, Peter

While reading Han Suyin's "A Many Splendoured Thing", I was struck by the difference between her 1950 description of working coolies, (admittedly in Chungking, not Hong Kong,) and the merry-faced young "coolies" in David's picture, but I can't imagine that Hong Kong's coolies of the early 1900s were very different. Here is Suyin's description:

"... on all those naked coolie shoulders one could see the large round lumps raised by the pressure of the bamboo pole. A few of those lumps carried ulcers on them. I saw what I had seen  before, years ago: the straw sandals on their bare feet, the abdominal muscles jutting out with effort, the heaving chests, the loads. A load of firewood, a load of charcoal, then a man with two pails of excrement, then a man with two baskets of fly mottled pears, then a man with a load of salt, then a man with red water melons cut in neat red and green pyramids dripping with juice. Then another load of excrement. Then a man with two pails of water slopping down the steps ... up and up they came, one after the other, a relentless procession that would only end with the darkness."

I've read elsewhere that small boys used to carry coal up to the Peak daily for a coin or two, so that the inhabitants of the grand houses could keep warm in winter.