Remembering Father -8 the Fire
I'll just mention a bit more about what Constance told me about her arrival. When I asked her about how she had enjoyed the church service, she said, "I enjoyed seeing a surpliced choir, but the Christmas decorations I thought severe, being confined to flowers in pots on the chancel-steps and round the font. I was pleased to see a full congregation, and a nice hearty service, with the sermon by Bishop Burdon who, though still in the prime of life, is the fortunate possessor of such snow-white locks and beard as must surely be accounted a special episcopal endowment in a land where even grey hair commands such special honour as in China."
Mr. Snowden gathered together Constance's cases, and whisked her off to his house high on the hill, but before she left, we made plans to meet soon. Apparently they are having a large dinner party this evening. I had been shown where the Chief Justice's house was on a trip up the hill some days ago, and knew she would be impressed with the wonderful garden, and the magnificent view.
And I keep marvelling over the weather. In Britain now, everyone would be shivering as they went to their cold churches. Here today it is delicious and balmy, like the sweetest summer day in England; and I am told that this is a fair sample of the whole winter at Hong-Kong, and that for five consecutive months there will probably not be even a shower!
We much enjoyed our Christmas lunch at Jardine House with James and Marion Keswick.
At about 11 p.m. on Christmas night, there was suddenly a startling clanging noise ringing through the night. It was the fire-alarm! Father rushed out of his room to find out what was going on. Everything was happening at once, with members of the fire-brigade rushing off to man the hoses, to try to stop the fire which had apparently started very near the harbour, but with the strong breeze, was rapidly spreading. We were all to evacuate the building, which we did as quickly as we could and were told to go up the hill as high as we could. Hundreds of people were thus fleeing from the fire. I suggested to Father that we go to where Constance was staying at the Snowdens, and so we made our way there.
The alarm-bells rang on more and more wildly urging the men to get on with this emergency situation. But, of course, on this night everything was a little lax. Many men had been dining with friends at some distance from the city, and it was near midnight before they could get back. Others returned unsuspectingly to find the awful havoc that had taken place.
So the bells tolled on in wild appeal, and those of the Roman Catholic cathedral took up the alarm, while fire-drums beat in the streets to hasten the laggards, and meanwhile the smoke-clouds grew denser and more dense, and, to make matters worse, a sharp breeze sprang up from the north, fanning the flames, and carrying sparks and burning fragments to ignite new buildings at a distance.
Later we heard that there was little doubt that the fire was the work of an incendiary. It began in the store of a small general dealer - an Englishman - who was absent, and when the place was broken open, the whole was found saturated with kerosene. It is also believed that some men spread the fire to their own stores for the sake of the insurance money. Every one appeared half stupefied, as the flames rapidly gained the mastery, suddenly bursting from fresh houses here and there, where least suspected, and spreading from street to street.
From our view higher up the hill, we could see from house to house and from street to street the beautiful, terrible Fire Demon swept on its destroying path, for the flames, now fanned by a keen breeze, rushed hungrily on, sometimes sweeping right across a street to devour the opposite houses, sometimes, for some reason utterly incomprehensible, working right round a block, and leaving one or two houses in the very heart of the conflagration utterly untouched.
Very soon it was evident that neither their numerical strength, their engines, nor their meagre water-supply could possibly master the fire - a very startling revelation to the colony, which prided itself on the perfect organisation of its fire-brigade. Whether the actual water supply was insufficient, or whether the engines were not sufficiently powerful, seems uncertain; but even when they were got to work, the puny jets failed to reach the top of the taller houses, and where once the fire had obtained a footing, any attempt at extinguishing it was so obviously hopeless, that the firemen's efforts were chiefly directed to saving the neighbouring or opposite buildings, by tearing down the verandahs and all the woodwork, and by covering the walls with carpets, curtains, or matting, and endeavouring to keep these saturated.
A large force of blue-jacketed Sikhs and of military came to the assistance of the firemen, and did very hard work, though perhaps with less success than would have been the case on any other night. Unfortunately many were on leave for their Christmas night, and not only was it difficult to collect these for organised work under any recognised leader, but a considerable number were rather unsteady after their Christmas festivities, and so a good deal of British effort was misapplied.
The chief point in which the lack of generalship revealed itself, was when it became evident that the only possible means of staying the progress of the fire lay in blowing up whole blocks of houses, in order to save worse loss. But no one present would take the responsibility of giving the necessary commands.
The Commander of the Forces placed all his men (74th Highlanders and artillerymen whom we had seen at church earlier) at the disposal of the authorities for this service, and there they stood at ease, waiting for the orders that no one could give; and meanwhile the fire did not wait, but swept onward quite unceremoniously, and devoured everything to right and to left. Nothing was safe in any direction, for the breeze varied in the most unaccountable manner, suddenly shifting from north-east round by north to north-west; so while some houses were saved almost miraculously, others that had deemed themselves out of harm's way were suddenly aflame.
At last, after orders and counter-orders had been so freely given that the willing workers were fairly bewildered, the late decision was made, and then a good many houses were blown up every here and there, almost always too late to save those beyond. Besides which, the luckless owners of course tried to save as much of their furniture as possible, so that piles of inflammable stuff (invariably capped with a lot of wicker-chairs!) were heaped up in the streets, forming an excellent target for the fire, as, of course, a chance spark almost invariably ignited these heaps.
Amongst all the confused noises - the roar of human voices, the yelling and shunting of the Chinese rabble, the crackling and rush of flames, the crash of falling timbers, and the occasional blasting of houses with gunpowder or dynamite - there was one oft-recurring sound which, for a while, puzzled me exceedingly, till I learned that it was a familiar sound at every Chinese festival, namely, the firing of crackers. Thousands and tens of thousands of these must have gone off. Many doubtless were offered by the frightened people to propitiate the Fire Dragon, but vast numbers were stored ready for the New-Year festival.
There was one moment of gorgeous scenic effect when the fire caught a great timber-merchant's yard, wherein was stored a vast accumulation of seasoned wood and firewood, which, of course, became a sheet of fire glowing at white heat. You can imagine with what breathless excitement we watched the deadly hard-fought battle betwixt fire and water, in which fire seemed to be getting entirely the best of it.
For a long time it spread with almost equal strength in two opposite directions; but the wind urged it most fiercely in the direct line of the magnificent houses of the foreign merchant princes.
In fact, even though we were still far above the real fire, certainly we were in considerable danger, for the fiery smoke swept right over our heads, and fell in a hail of sparks and blazing fragments all about the place; and at any moment one of these alighting on the woodwork, and there smouldering unnoticed, or else falling on the flimsy Chinese houses just beyond this garden wall, would have placed the house in frightful jeopardy.
Owing to the infatuated delay in not blowing up houses till they were actually on fire, the Civil Hospital was entirely destroyed, though, happily, no lives were lost, the patients being carried to another hospital. There was a time of awful anxiety as the fire swept on directly towards the jail, where there were five hundred prisoners - scoundrels of the very worst type. I remembered what we had been told about the prisoners here. All the rogues and rascals of China that can elope from home run here to hide, or for protection against their own mandarins. Hence this city is full of Chinese burglars, and thieves, and murderers, and their guards are Negroes from Jamaica who are very efficient at keeping order, with whips and muskets. Father says that European law does not fit Asiatic courts and trial by jury is an unknown thing here, and imprisonment for crime is often a blessing to a half-starved Chinaman rather than a curse. Anyway, back to the story of the fire.
A strong military guard were on duty to guard the prison, and remove the prisoners in case of need. Had this become necessary, they had orders to shoot any who attempted to escape, as they would inevitably become leaders of a terrible lot of scoundrels of all sorts who are said to have drifted here, escaping from Canton and other cities where supervision is more rigid, in order to profit by the exceeding leniency of the present Government of Hong-Kong. I was told that they keep the police exceedingly busy, though these number about six hundred, and a very fine body they are. There are three distinct lots of these guardians of the peace, each with a distinctive uniform. There are genuine British bobbies, Chinamen, and Sikhs - the latter a very picturesque body, with their blue uniform, red turban, and high boots. In addition to all these public servants, every householder of any standing keeps a private patrol to guard his home and his offices.
Very near the jail lies the Roman Catholic cathedral, and this also was in dire jeopardy: in fact, some sparks alighting on the roof did ignite one corner, which, however, was quickly extinguished by hand service with buckets. No jet from the feeble engines could have reached so high.
Of course the tremendous glare lighted up the great buildings and the mountains all round with a hot red glow, while intervening towers and spires stood out in black relief against the red light, or the cold steely grey of harbour and sky. Constance said, "I never could have conceived a scene so awful and yet so wonderfully beautiful. (her painting above) All night it was like a succession of pictures in the style of Martin's 'Destruction of Jerusalem,' or 'The Last Day.'"
Then morning broke - first a cold grey, just clearing the mountains all round the harbour; and then the rosy dawn, gradually changing to the mellow sunlight, which, while it revealed the full measure of the night's ravages, yet gilded the smoke-clouds, transforming the beautiful fire-illumined darkness into the lovely panorama of yesterday only in the centre lay a confused mass of dark ruin veiled by filmy blue or white smoke and tremulous mirage of hot air playing above the smouldering ruins, while here and there a denser volume of black wicked smoke indicated where the mischief was still spreading.
Constance said, "It is a frightful confession to make, but any artist will sympathise when I say, that as each picture thus presented seemed more gorgeously effective than the last, I positively again and again found myself forgetting its horror in the ecstasy of its beauty! It really felt as if we were sitting luxuriously in the dress circle watching some wondrous panoramic play, with amazingly realistic scenic effects!"
For seventeen hours the fire raged on with unabated might, till it had made a clean sweep of about four hundred houses, covering about ten acres of ground, and leaving thousands of poor creatures homeless.
As soon as the fire ceased (which it did apparently simply of its own free will, as both the cathedral and the jail offered an easy prey), Mr. Snowden went with us all back down to the town, and we went over a great part of the ruined city, and a truly heartrending mess it was. In every corner of the unburnt streets whole families were huddled together beside a little pile of the poor household stuff they had succeeded in saving, while the houses, which a few hours before had been happy homes, lay in smouldering ruins. I never could have believed that any community could have borne so awful a calamity so bravely and patiently. Not a murmur was heard; not a tear have I seen shed by women who have lost everything, and crouched, shivering and half dressed, in a really chilling breeze.
But they seemed to have a curiously suspicious and by no means flattering feeling towards some kindly Britons who wish to help them, various offers of assistance and loan of blankets having been flatly declined by women whose children were crying with cold.
One very remarkable instance of this is, that the captain of the Perusia, a large vessel lying in the harbour, offered good quarters to upwards of six hundred of the homeless Chinese sufferers. The offer was made through the Tung Wah Hospital Committee, who regulate all such matters for their countrymen, and these positively refused the good offer, which included comfortable provision for cooking, and whatever else kindness could have bestowed. It appears that this vessel was at one time in the coolie trade, and the supposition is that the people thought they would be kidnapped. However, the Tung Wah people made no other provision for the luckless wretches, who have been all this time living in the open street, and at night are half perished with cold.
To be continued