BITS OF OLD CHINA | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong


This first appeared in issue #1 of 'History Notes', compiled by the late Phillip Bruce. It is reproduced here on Gwulo by kind permission of Mr Bruce's family.

William C. Hunter was a long-time resident of Canton in the early part of the last century and he left entertaining accounts of what life was like in the great trading port before the upheavals of war. He was an American of the trading firm of Russell and Company and the following comes from his Bits of Old China, published in 1855:

"In front of the Factories was the spot famous to all residents and new-comers, the Square with Jackass Point. This was the landing- place for ships' boats from Whampoa, the place of departure for daily excursions on the river, as well as to Ho-Nam on the opposite side of it. No one in my day knew the origin of the singular name of the Point; it was probably in its being a general resort for a breath of fresh air, and for gossip over the topics of the day. Up to the Great Fire in 1811, the Fankwaes had the exclusive use of the Square, which was railed in and considered as their right in virtue of being the occupants of the Factories, but afterwards, the stout railing having been destroyed, the Chinese constantly made use of it as a thoroughfare, and it became the resort of itinerant pedlars and hawkers in a small way of business.

There were sellers of pickled olives, ground nuts, pastry, tea, congee (hot rice water), with a host of other eatables and drinkables, but never any liquid stronger than tea, the Chinese being essentially a temperate people, and a drunken man amongst them as rare as the Dodo. Then again, a dealer in comic songs, to which after spreading them on the ground, he would call attention by singing one of them in a loud falsetto voice, with frightful quavers, which created great hilarity amongst his hearers.

Not far from him might be seen a juggler astonishing a squatting audience with a limited number of tricks and a running accompaniment of what he intended to do next. There were cobblers patching the veriest of old shoes, tailors at work on garments whose lustre had long disappeared, and regenerators of paper umbrellas, while another wove strips of rattan in great round and shockingly bad hats. Add to these quantities of professional loafers, staring in a vacant way at any passing foreigner, and whose entire raiment consisted of a single garment, which came up to the waist, where it was secured by a cord; rarely however without a paper or large palm leaf fan in his hand, which served as a sunshade or to set the air in motion.

These and others, idlers and vagabonds, formed an animated if not a picturesque scene. These gatherings would go on with impunity for days together, everyone conscious that he was an interloper and liable to be driven away at a moment's notice. At length it would become tiresome, and interrupt our free access to Jackass Point; notice would then be sent to 'Old Tom,' the chief linguist, with a message to cause the Square to be cleared. Suddenly from the corner of Old China Street and the American Hong the police would make their appearance, brandishing whips and bringing them down on such heads and shoulders as were first within reach. Although the police knew it was not 'lawful' that the Square should be occupied by these fellows, very rarely did they of their own accord disturb them. When called upon, however, they laid about and spared not. Like magic the intruders would gather up their wares and be of like the wind. Invariably some damage would be done to song-books or crockery, no resistance would be made, and only occasionally, when a fellow was too intent on picking up his fan or gathering together pickles or tea cups, would he be aided in his movements by a thwack over head and shoulders.

Quiet and solitude then replaced the singing and the sleight of hand, and we were left to a full enjoyment of the Square. After a week or two, however, presently, one by one, then in numbers, the same singers, the same tinkers, the same menders of cracked china, and the same jugglers would reappear, so would the police, when the scampering and the attempts to run the gauntlet of the whips were repeated, affording much merriment to the Fankwaes looking on but with little resentment.

Another invasion, however, of a far more disagreeable kind, although at long intervals, was that of beggars the most loathsome that can be imagined. They were blind beggars, and a more sorry lot it would be difficult to find anywhere. I never saw their like, except in one instance, during a visit to Bombay. A friend took me to a small Hindoo Temple in the Bendy Bazaar to see a paragon of holiness, a fakeer whose devotion and piety, if they equalled his excessively disgusting appearance, must have been of the highest order. In raiment at lest he was a perfect Beau Brummel compared with any one of those who, emerging from Ho g Lane, would take the pavement immediately in front of the Factories, and slowly make their way towards Old China Street. They followed one another in Indian file, each holding on to his leader. As they advanced they struck the stone pavement with their sticks, keeping up a most doleful grunting, alternating with tremulous appeals of 'Cash, foreign devils, cash!'

Luckily, a well-known fellow, who had long practised the profession of begging, whom we had dubbed 'king of the beggars' and whose duties consisted in keeping his 'subjects' away from the Square, would not be far off. His authority was sought for, and most effectual it was. What with orders to move on, backed by a vigorous application of rattan, the lieges would in a short time have disappeared around the corner of the American Hong. This 'sovereign' became a well-known character. He never failed, as Chinese new year approached, to waylay the compradores of the foreign Hongs, and by a good-natured appeal, and reference to his arduous duties, secure from them a mace or two (twenty cents) towards strengthening his exchequer in reward for his 'constitutional' reign of the closing year.

But there were other nuisances of a kind not so easily gotten rid of. In the south-west monsoon we were pestered with flies, mosquitoes, lizards, centipedes, and rats. The bite of the centipede was extremely painful, as I know to my cost on two occasions, on one of which I was disabled for two days. They would be seen crawling up the wall of the room or running across the floor, as well as inside the mosquito curtains of one's bed, or found under the pillow. We could protect ourselves in a measure from the attacks of mosquitoes by loose boots made of Nankin cloth during the day, and at night inside of the light gauze curtains with which the beds were invariably furnished, if one's servant had made a dexterous use of a fan before closing them.

We rather favoured the lizard, and even conceded to it a cheap sort of gratitude, from its acting as an auxiliary in catching mosquitoes and flies, at which it was uncommonly expert. It took much to the ceiling, from whence in hot pursuit of a fly it occasionally lost its footing, dropped down on the dining-table or in one of the dishes, or, as I once witnessed, on the neck of a gentleman quietly intent on the good things before him.

These were trifling annoyances, however, compared with a very venomous snake, with black and white or yellow transverse bands, which, being washed into the river by heavy rains, would be carried by the water to the Square. In the rainy season this would be frequently overflowed to a depth of 12 or more inches, up to the gates of and inside the Factories, where the snakes thus found their way. Amongst the serious accidents that took place, two coolies of Chungqua's Hong, one of the Dutch and one of the Creek, were bitten, and all four died within three or four hours. One evening I received a note from Mr Keating, residing in the Creek Hong, telling me to ‘come quickly,' the water being at the time about six inches deep over the Square. When I arrived he showed me a hideous black and white snake, measuring close upon five feet long, that had been killed as it was crawling into the compradore's room. The Chinese name for it is Pak-Hak-Shay, the same by which we knew it, translated into English. Another evening, by a very bright moonlight, walking in the Square a few hours after the subsidence of the water, with Mr Hathaway and Mr Nye (an old friend still residing at Canton), we came upon two snakes of four to five feet long. We immediately summoned the coolies of the Suy Hong, directly in front of the gate of which we made our discovery. They adroitly and courageously attacked them with bamboos and killed them both. The next morning they were sent to Mr Reeves, of the East India Company's Factory, who was a clever naturalist, and he pronounced them to be cobras. This horrid serpent is found also on the island of Hong Kong (once in the garden of Mr Maximillian Fischer, agent of the Peninsular and Oriental Company), and has been captured in gardens at Macao.

Looking from the Square to the river, one beheld a ceaseless movement of boats of every description and of all sizes, which literally covered it. The scene presented an illustration of the same unremitting industry of these people which signalised them on land. Nine-tenths of the boats formed the sole habitations of entire families which never set foot on shore. Amongst them were not only tradesmen, mechanics, carpenters, and shoemakers, as well as tailors and sellers of old clothes, of provisions, of personal adornments, but fortune tellers, quack doctors, perhaps 'regular' practitioners as well; barbers, operators on corns, and those whose speciality it was to shampoo; in short, a floating population as complete in all its features as one on land. We would remark the expertness of the boatmen, and women as well, with their good nature, in the midst of craft rowing, sailing, and sculling in every direction. And their temperate mode of living, consisting of the perpetual rice, with divers vegetables, tea, and now and then only something more substantial, as fish or pork.

On the Canton as well as on the Ho-Nam side of the river, great boats crowded with passengers were ever departing and arriving. Now would pass Mandarin boats with double banks of oars from 20 to 30 on either side, gaily decorated with flags of divers colours, bearing upon them the names of the districts to which they belonged; as well as the titles of the officers who were in them, these titles being repeated as well on lanterns at each quarter and on the taffrails; then 'chop' or cargo boats on their way to or leaving the Hong merchants' warehouses, from their peculiar shape called 'water-melon boats.' Moving majestically by is seen the splendid canal or inland river boat, with varnished sides and deck, the latter several feet above the water, the entire after part affording spacious quarters for the family of the patron, with cabins in front of it for supercargo, his purser and passengers. A conspicuous object in these boats was a tall pair of shears, stepped in the bulwark on either side about midships, from which to suspend the enormous square mat sail, to serve only with a fair wind. These were the boats which brought teas from the point where they entered the Canton province (after having been transported from the place of growth) a distance of several days' journey. They were the cleanest looking and most remarkable craft to be seen.

Closer to the shores of the river, anchored in long lines abreast of one another, forming streets as it were, but broader than many of the streets of the city or suburbs, were those gorgeously decorated flower-boats: their upper works entirely of carved open work in flowers and birds, with glass windows painted and gilt, music of the ki or pe-pa issuing from within as well as sounds of revelry or the game mora. Barbers' skiffs move skilfully amongst the crowd, making known their presence by the twanging of a pair of tweezers, besides lesser Mandarin or official despatch boats with numerous oars - in short a floating world.

Occasionally, towards dusk, with a fair east wind, could be seen rapidly and resolutely approaching in profound silence save the unintermitting plashing of three score oars, a 'scrambling dragon' from the 'outer waters' having in her hold, to judge from her draught, bags of opium worth tens of thousands of dollars. Then ships' boats coming from Whampoa would glide from within the moving maze and run their bows on Jackass Point.

And thus this scene, so imperfectly described, went on from dawn of day till night. As evening closed the animation of the river became less, the boat people approached the shores on both banks and anchored by means of long bamboos thrust into the mud but a few feet from the surface. Then would be seen a few sticks of burning incense, which with clasped hands and a semi-prostration to the gods of the rivers and the seas, were placed at the bows of every boat, while innumerable lanterns spread over the surface of the river a soft cheerful glow. The frugal meal would now be partaken of, a pipe indulged in; after which, betaking themselves to their rattan mats and wooden pillows spread beneath bamboo roofs or awnings, these hard-working, sober, good-natured people would soon be in the land of Nod.

On beds of rocks in the river stand two old forts, which include temples, the eastern one of which is called by foreigners the 'French Folly,' and the western one, much the largest of the two, the 'Dutch Folly.' They were never occupied by foreigners except when the city was bombarded by Sir Michael Seymour, 1856 (Arrow War). Their Chinese names are East and West Forts. In the published account of the Embassy of De Kaiser and Goyer from Batavia about 1650, to congratulate the first Manchoo Emperor of China, Shun-Che, is a view of Canton, with the two Dutch ships at anchor near the Dutch Folly. It is not improbable, therefore, that it may have taken its name through an occupation of it by the Dutch crews, while the Embassy was on its way to Pekin and back to Canton, a period of several months. But what we have to do with these Follies is this :- Between them, for a distance of about a mile and a half, on the Ho-Nam side of the river, might be seen in 1825 and up to Treaty days, 1842, tiers of those enormous sea-going junks, which with the monsoons made regular voyages to ports on the coast of China, and southerly to the Malay Peninsula, to Luzon, Java, the Spice Islands, Macassar, Celebes, etc (one voyage at least to the Persian Gulf with Marco Polo in the latter part of the thirteenth century) and such voyages, including the annual one from Cha-po to Nagasaki have been made according to Chinese accounts from the remotest times. These junks are now rapidly disappearing.

Still further down the river, and on the same side of it, was the anchorage for the salt junks, which composed a large fleet. They belonged to a monopoly of salt merchants, who in official rank, social position, and wealth enjoyed an importance equal to the foreign Hong merchants. Cargoes of salt were procured on the south-west coast of Canton province, especially at Teen-pak. This monopoly was controlled by the provincial government, which kept up a special fleet of cruisers that smuggling might not be carried on, and, in addition a 'salt chop house' (as foreigners called it) on shore abreast of the junks. Within the city the managing officers were a chief superintendent, an overseer of transportation from place to place on shore, a secretary, an assistant secretary, a treasurer, and a host of pursers and runners. Just below the anchorage of these junks the broad stream of Junk River opens out. It washes the island of Whampoa on its north side, while Lob-Lob creek runs to the south of it, both leading to the foreign anchorage and both made use of by ships' boats going to or returning from Canton."