Remembering Father -9 Isabella Bird
The extent of ground utterly ruined is quite awful. We walked up one street and down another, uphill and downhill, by the streets of stairs, and along the horizontal streets, for between two and three hours, and even then had not gone all over the ground. It was such a scene of desolation that I found it hard to realise that these were the very streets which on Christmas Day we saw crowded with comfortable-looking people.
Mr. Snowden met many of his acquaintances still in their fire-brigade helmets, all looking scorched and utterly exhausted. Several have been hurt. They say that never before has there been so disastrous a conflagration in Hong-Kong.
It was marvellous to see how capricious the fire has been. Here was a street with one side intact - the other wholly destroyed; here stood part of a gable with here and there a wooden shelf unscathed, on which rested securely a few delicate china vases or some growing; plants. In one house which had blazed most fiercely, I saw the verandah up-stairs, of lattice woodwork, alone standing intact, while the whole house was gutted, and on the verandah were arranged pots with flowers and variegated leaves not even scorched, and, just above them, from a skeleton roof, hung a paper lantern untouched!
We have just returned from a second long walk all over the scene of ruin. It has a horrible sort of attraction, even while it makes me feel sick at heart. Now I too confess to feeling utterly exhausted, though I have had nothing to do but just to sit still and watch. And I devoutly hope never again to witness such a scene.
Although we were invited back to stay with Constance and her hosts for the short term, Father was not happy with that solution. He determined that perhaps now was the best time for me to go to visit Canton, and this idea was introduced by someone we met, just off the boat, another woman writer, Miss Isabella Bird, on her own who planned a visit to Canton which would start in a few days' time. Father introduced the possibility that she take me with her, and she said she would consider the idea. She was with Bishop Burden, and we sat down to tea with her and soon had her story.
She is about 50, is English, born in Yorkshire. Her father was an Anglican clergyman and her mother was the daughter of a clergyman. She is a small woman and told us that she suffered from several ailments during her childhood. In 1850 she had an operation to remove a tumor from her spine. The operation was only partially successful, and she suffered from insomnia and depression. Her doctor recommended that she travel, and in 1854 her father gave her £100 and told her she was free to go wherever she wanted. She used it to travel to North America and stayed for several months in eastern Canada and the United States. On her return she used the letters she had written to her sister, Hennie, as the basis for her first book, The Englishwoman in America.
Her father died in 1858 and she and her sister and mother moved to Edinburgh in Scotland. She took other short trips during the following years, including three to North America and one to the Mediterranean. However, the turning point in her life came in 1872 when she traveled to Hawaii. She had taken a ship from San Francisco headed for New Zealand, but decided to get off in Hawaii and stayed there for six months. During that time she learned how to ride a horse astride, which ended the backaches she suffered from riding sidesaddle, and she climbed up to the top of Hawaii's volcanic peaks. Later, she wrote about her happy visit in Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1875.
Leaving Hawaii, Isabella went to the west coast of the United States. From San Francisco she traveled alone by horse to Lake Tahoe and then to the Rocky Mountains and Colorado. During that trip she had many adventures, including riding alone through a blizzard with her eyes frozen shut, spending several months snowed in a cabin with two young men, and being wooed by a lonely outlaw.
From San Francisco she went to Japan, where she hired a young Japanese man of 18 to be her translator. They traveled together to the northern part of Hokkaido, the northernmost part of the country, where she stayed among members of the Ainu tribe, the original, non-Japanese, inhabitants of the islands. From Japan she has come here and intends to go to Canton, Saigon, and Singapore and among the Malay states of the Malayan Peninsula.
While we sat having yet more tea in an undamaged part of the city, Isabella told us her first impressions of Hong Kong.
"As we entered the inner harbor, it seemed as it we had sailed into the summer, blue sky, blue water, a summer sun, and a cool breeze, while a tender veil of blue haze softened the outlines of the flushed mountains. Victoria, looked magnificent, rising abruptly from the sea. A forest of masts above the town betoken its commercial importance, and the English and Romish cathedrals, the Episcopal Palace, with St. Paul’s College, great high blocks of commercial buildings, huge sugar factories, great barracks in terraces, battery above battery, Government House, and massive stone wharves, came rapidly into view, and over all, its rich folds spreading out fully on the breeze, floated the English flag.
“But dense volumes of smoke rolling and eddying, and covering with their black folds the lower slopes and the town itself made a surprising spectacle, and even as we anchored came off the rapid tolling of bells, the roll of drums, and the murmur of a 'city at unrest.' No one met me. A few Chinese boats came off, and then a steam launch with the M. M. agent in an obvious flurry. I asked him how to get ashore, and he replied, “It’s no use going ashore, the town’s half burned, and burning still; there’s not a bed at any hotel for love or money, and we are going to make up beds here.”
“However, through the politeness of the mail agent, I did go ashore in the launch, but we had to climb through and over at least eight tiers of boats, crammed with refugees, mainly women and children, and piled up with all sorts of household goods, whole and broken, which had been thrown into them promiscuously to save them.
“'The palace of the English bishop,' they said, 'is still untouched', so, escaping from an indescribable hubbub, I got into a bamboo chair, with two long poles which rested on the shoulders of two lean coolies, who carried me to my destination at a swinging pace through the steep streets. Chinamen dragging their possessions to the hills; Chinawomen, some of them with hoofs rather than feet, carrying their children on their backs and under their arms; officers, black with smoke, working at the hose like firemen; parties of troops marching as steadily as on parade, or keeping guard in perilous places; Mr. Pope Henessey, the Governor, ubiquitous in a chair with four scarlet bearers; men belonging to the insurance companies running about with drawn swords; the miscellaneous population running hither and thither; loud and frequent explosions; heavy crashes as of tottering walls, and, above all, the loud bell of the Romish cathedral tolling rapidly, calling to work or prayer, made a scene of intense excitement; while utterly unmoved, in grand Oriental calm (or apathy), with the waves of tumult breaking round their feet, stood Sikh sentries, majestic men, with swarthy faces and great, crimson turbans. Through the encumbered streets and up grand flights of stairs my bearers brought me to these picturesque grounds, which were covered over with furniture and goods of all descriptions brought hither for safety, and Chinese families camping out among them.
“Indeed, the Bishop and Mrs. Burdon had not only thrown open their beautiful grounds to these poor people, but had accommodated some Chinese families in rooms in the palace. The apathy or calm of the Chinese women as they sat houseless amidst their possessions was very striking. In the broad, covered corridor which runs round the palace everything the Burdons most value was lying ready for instantaneous removal, and I was warned not to unpack or take off my traveling dress.
“The Bishop and I at once went down to the fire, which was got under control, and saw the wreck of the city and the homeless people camping out among the things they had saved. Fire was still burning everywhere, high walls were falling, hose were playing on mountains of smouldering timber, whole streets were blocked with masses of fallen brick and stone, charred telegraph poles and fused wires were lying about, with half burned ledgers and half burned everything. I couldn't believe what a deafening din of human tongues there was.
“On returning, I was just beginning to unpack when the flames burst out again. It was luridly grand in the twilight, the tongues of flame lapping up house after house, the jets of flame loaded with blazing fragments, the explosions, each one succeeded by a burst of flame, carrying high into the air all sorts of projectiles, beams and rafters paraffin soaked, strewing them over the doomed city, the leaping flames coming nearer and nearer, the great volumes of smoke, spark-laden, rolling toward us, all mingling with a din indescribable. Burning fragments shortly fell on the window-sills, and as the wind was very strong and setting this way, there seemed so little prospect of the palace being saved that important papers were sent to the cathedral and several of the refugees fled with their things to the hills. At that moment the wind changed, and the great drift of flame and smoke was carried in a comparatively harmless direction, the fire was got well in hand the second time.”
We said a temporary farewell to Isabella, but hoped that we would be seeing much more of her.
We were much relieved to hear that the official quarter, including Jardines and our hotel, was saved, and before 10 p.m. On December 27th we were able to go back to the hotel. We heard that our friends Andrew and Vandy had left on time to continue their tour of the world. But before they left, they received yet another package to take with them which, more gongs, ordered by Andrew on the day they arrived back here and delivered just in time to go with them on their ship.