Remembering Father -10 first impression of Canton
On the next day, Constance, Isabella and I decided it would be a waste not to go sightseeing. As Isabella was staying at the Episcopal Palace with the Burdens, we were taken on a tour of it before we set off.
The house is magnificently situated, and very large and airy. Part is the Episcopal Palace, and the rest St. Paul’s College, of which Bishop Burdon is warden. The mountainous grounds are beautiful, and the entrance blazes with poinsettias. There were no female servants, but Chinese men performed all the domestic service satisfactorily. We learned that for a Chinese servant to appear without his skullcap is rude, but to appear with his pig-tail wound round his head, is a gross insult!
The common mode of communication there between the foreigner and the Chinaman was, in "Pidgin" (not Pigeon) English the word "Pidgin" being the Chinese understanding of the English word "Business." Father said that the "Compradore," that is, the Chinese head business man of all foreign houses, who stands between the foreign merchant and the Chinese merchant in all matters of trade, always spoke Pidgin English.
Bishop Burden told us that the Chinese servants, all over China, make the best servants in the world. They do the work of women as well as of men. They are most excellent cooks the best of waiters. A coolie (drudge man about the house) will not wait. "It is not his 'pidgin.' A waiter will not do coolie work, none of it, not in the least. The Cook only cooks, but cooks as well as a Frenchman, and that is saying much in his favour. The butler, or head "boy" of a house, who is the universal genius of the house, and who has the capacity to do almost anything, if he will who acts as translator and supervisor of all the establishment, and whose "pidgin" it is to see and to keep everything in order, is paid only from $7 to $12 per month, provides his own chow chow (food), and in all other respects takes care of himself. These servants often have little "larn pidgins" under them that is, boys learning to speak in pidgin.
Isabella said, "After the courteous, kindly Japanese, the Chinese seem indifferent, rough and disagreeable, except the well-to-do merchants in the shops, who are bland, complacent, and courteous. Their rude stares and the way they hustle you in the streets and shout their pidgin English at you is not attractive. Then they have an ugly habit of speaking of us as barbarian or foreign devils. Since I knew the word I have heard it several times in the streets, and Bishop Burdon says that before his servants found out that he knew Chinese, they were always speaking of him and Mrs. Burdon by this very ugly name."
It was on December 30th that Isabella and I boarded the SS Kin Kiang, and Father was quite sure that we would be well cared for at the Jardine building in Canton. It had been badly damaged by the hurricane which hit this area on April 11th of last year, but they were quick to renew it. Father told me all he'd found out about the hurricane.
He said it was described as a roadway of utter devastation, nowhere exceeding 200 yards in width, yet utterly destroying upwards of nine thousand native houses, two large temples, and property of immense value. The very lowest estimate, was upwards of ten thousand persons lay buried beneath the ruins of their own houses; and considering the crowded population of the native dwellings, this is probably far below the mark. For instance, it was known that in one large eating-house upwards of one hundred and fifty people were quietly dining, when, without one moment's warning, the house fell with an awful crash, and buried them all beneath its ruins. Elsewhere two large temples were shaken to their foundations, every pillar cracked, the roofs broken in, but the idols left sitting uninjured.
In the afternoon there came a lull - a strange brooding stillness. Suddenly about 3 p.m. a sound was heard like a rushing mighty wind - a loud, awful, shrieking blast. Those living on the river bank looked southward, and beheld a dense cloud of dust, leaves, branches, birds, and objects of every description, rapidly moving towards the city. In a moment it was sweeping over the green isle - as the Shameen is called. It passed through the middle of the settlement, destroying about a dozen houses, and uprooting, or seriously injuring, about two hundred of the carefully-cherished large trees. It swept the river, capsizing or crushing to atoms hundreds of boats, each of which was the home of a whole family, most of whom perished. One boat was lifted from the canal to the top of a house in the city. The river and creeks were fairly blocked with broken fragments. A junk, with about one hundred people on board, sank in the river; large blocks of hewn stone were torn up from the roadway. A strong iron lamp-post in front of one house was twisted like a corkscrew, but the house itself only lost a few slates! Others were greatly damaged. All this was the work of eleven minutes.
The Chinese marked with wonder that, though the whirlwind passed right through the quarter where the various Christian Missions are established, not one was injured. It passed close to the London Mission, destroying a house just beyond, then made its way between the homes of the American Presbyterian and English Wesleyan Missions; but not one house belonging to these was injured, nor was a single life lost in the foreign settlement. To add to the consternation of the people, five fires broke out simultaneously, and raged for many hours before they could be subdued, the loud beating of the fire-alarm gongs adding to the general confusion and terror. Then came the terrible task of recovering and burying the dead, one item of charitable aid coming in the form of a gift of four thousand coffins from a Chinese benevolent society.
But none the less, we were willing to take the chance that it might happen again, and got aboard our boat, the American Steamer.
On board this great, white, deck-above-deck American steamer there was but one European passenger beside we two, but there were four hundred and fifty second-class passengers, Chinamen, with the exception of a few Parsees, all handsomely dressed, nearly all smoking, and sitting or lying over the saloon deck up to the saloon doors. In the steerage there were fifteen hundred Chinese steerage passengers, all men.
I will now quote from my diary which I kept with Isabella's help during our stay in Canton.
January 1, 1879
Isabella commented, "From the river, and indeed from any point of view, Canton is less imposing even than Tokyo." Few objects rise above the monotonous level, and the few are unimpressive. There are two or three pagodas looking like shot towers. There is a double-towered Romish cathedral of great size, not yet finished. There is the Nine-storied pagoda. But in truth the most prominent objects from the river are the godowns of the pawnbrokers, lofty, square towers of gray brick which dominate the city, play a very important part in its social economy, and are very far removed from those establishments with the trinity of gilded balls, which hide themselves shamefacedly away in our English by-streets.
Isabella, as always with her guide books close by, wanted to tell me what James Brooks said about the boat people of Hong Kong. I will repeat it here as best as I can remember.
“The boat-life of Canton is very peculiar. Thousands and thousands live on the river. Upon some of the children are tied bamboo floats, so that, if the darling tumbles overboard, it is easily fished up and in. On these boats, too, they raise ducks and chickens; the ducks are sent out in the morning to feed in the marshes round Canton, and, just before sunset, the man who has charge of them blows a shrill whistle, and the ducks come hurrying from all directions by the hundreds. It is wonderful to see them separate, each duck going for its own boat, and the owner counts them as they enter, the last one is always taken up and beaten for being the last, and the next night they tell me, that that last duck is invariably the first.”
When the steamer had disgorged her two thousand passengers, Mr. Mackrill Smith, whose guests we are, brought us in a bamboo chairs, each carried by two coolies, through a covered and crowded street of merchandise six feet wide, to Shameen, the island in the river on which the foreigners reside; most of the missionary community, however, living in the buildings on the site of the old factory farther down.
Shameen, or The Sand Flats was selected as the British settlement after the second opium war and the destruction of the factories in 1858. It is connected by two bridges with Canton - the west (British) bridge and the east (French) bridge.