Michael Wise

Travellers' Tales of Hong Kong, Canton & Macao

Collected for the first time in a single volume are these true and often comic stories of the South China Coast. Seventy visitors from around the world give vivid accounts of their experiences—of high society at Government House and low life in Canton gaols, of spies in Hong Kong and pirates on buccaneering junks, of typhoons, burglars and Eastern magic, of gambling, opium and slavery. Most revealing of all, they write about their encounters with the people, the misunderstandings between East and West, the constant battle of wits between Chinese and foreigner, united only by a pidgin lingo. This was a time when the Colonial Secretary could say with confidence: “I have in vain sought for one valuable quality in Hong Kong… I can see no justification for the British Government spending one shilling on Hong Kong”. First published in 1986, this classic volume is sure to entertain and inform a whole new generation of readers.
318 printed pages
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  • b5626950003has quoted9 years ago
    The natives themselves, whose principle it is to discourage all assimilation, sometimes lament this newly acquired power of communicating, and look back with regret to the times when the supercargoes drank a great deal of wine, and spoke not a word of their language. “Now,” as I heard one of the Hong merchants say, with a sigh and a shake of the head, “the English speak Chinese as well as I do, and drink nothing but water.”...
    On reaching the Alceste, I found orders lying for me to proceed to Canton; and as a captain of one of the tea ships was just setting off in a large and commodious barge, I preferred accompanying him to rowing up alone. Probably, had I gone in a man-of-war’s boat, the Chinese, who had treated Captain Maxwell with great politeness wherever he passed, might have been equally civil to his brother officer. But they observed no such delicacy in the case of the East India captain; for wherever we passed, they climbed to the most conspicuous parts of their boats, and saluted us in a style the very furthest removed from good manners; suiting the rudest actions to words probably not more courteous. The eloquence was quite thrown away upon us, but there was no mistaking the purport of the gesture. For some time this was amusing, rather than otherwise; and to me at least the whole scene, from beginning to end, was subject of unmixed entertainment. But my companion, though one of the best men alive, was not the most patient person in the fleet, and replied at first to these insults by a few emphatic oaths in broad Scotch. Presently he stood up, and shook his fist in a very angry manner, which produced nothing but a loud and scornful laugh; this instantly drove my friend into a towering passion; and before I could stop him, he caught up a fowling-piece, lying on the stern sheets, and discharged it directly at a thick cluster of Chinese, not one of whose faces could be seen, but who nevertheless offered a most conspicuous front to his aim. Fortunately the piece was loaded with snipe-shot, and the distance being considerable, the dose, thus promptly administered, acted merely as a sedative, not only upon the crew of the nearest vessel, but upon that of every other in sight.... for many weeks afterwards, when I passed in the same boat with the same person, the natives recognised the hand that had peppered them, and were extremely civil as we rowed along.
    We had thus to fight our way, step by step, into the good graces of the Chinese. The last conflict which we had with them took place about an hour after I had reached Canton, at Captain Maxwell’s lodgings. We heard a great noise at the top of the stairs, and on going out to see what was the matter, found my coxswain and boat’s crew in high altercation with a Chinaman, who was endeavoring to deprive them of a trunk which they carried on their shoulders....
    As it was an established practice at Canton for no Chinese authority to enter the house of a European resident without first obtaining permission, this proceeding was quite contrary to usage. At all events, Captain Maxwell, who had commenced by assuming a high tone in great matters, was resolved to carry it through even in trifles, and turning to the Chinese, asked him by what right he had dared to violate the quarters assigned to his Britannic Majesty’s officers, without first appealing to him. The Mandarin looked a little surprised; but a reply being insisted upon, he said it was quite a mistake – that he had imagined the trunks had belonged to some merchant ship, and not to a king’s ship. “Well, then,” said Captain Maxwell, “you must learn better in future.” And turning to the sailors, ordered them to put the officer out of the house...
    So much has been written respecting China, and especially about Canton, that I shall be excused for not entering on so threadbare a subject. We were allowed to walk about the streets to a great distance from the Factory, without meeting any kind of obstruction or insult; and when we happened to come near the gates of the Citadel or inner town, were warned off by sentinels with long poles, but no impediments were ever thrown in the way of our examining the shops, or the different manufactories, with which the other parts of this immense city abound; and as the sight of Europeans was familiar to the people, no notice was taken of us, and every one continued at his business as if no stranger was looking on....
    The only evil likely to attend these perambulations through the streets, was the loss of a handkerchief or two. A Chinese thief picked my pocket one day, so dexterously, that I did not perceive the loss: but my companion, the same gentleman who had silenced the significant salutation of the Chinese boatmen, and who was better acquainted with the people, detected the rogue, and caught him by the end of his long tail, as it was whisking round the corner of the street. He began instantly to belabour the thief with his cane, and what seemed odd enough, to the entire satisfaction of the multitude, who, so far from attempting a rescue, encouraged the due infliction of this discipline. After a certain number of blows had been given, however, there was a cry of “enough,” and I was informed that if the punishment had not been discontinued at once, the extra allowance bestowed on the culprit, would have been paid back to the donor with a certain per-centage of interest. It seems every conceivable offence in China has its numerical value expressed in terms of the bamboo, by which alone it can be expiated; and as this scale is well known to every man in the streets, a stranger is safe in administering the law himself, since he may be quite sure of having a limit set to his proceedings when, according to the refined calculus alluded to, justice has been satisfied. I was never very desirous of putting this to the test of actual experiment, but some days afterwards when the same fellow again picked my pocket, I seized him by the collar and was carrying him to the Police Office close at hand, when he fell on his knees and supplicated me to beat him, knowing perhaps that the sitting Mandarin would not let him off so cheaply as I should. The oddity of the request disarmed me entirely, and I gave him a small copper coin, bidding him not rob me any more – and he adhered faithfully to his promise, although I passed him frequently every day. This man was as well known to the police, as our professional rogues in London are said to be to the officers of Bow-Street, and as far as I could learn, made his bread by the same laudable calling. The convention between him and me did not extend to my countrymen, however, and in the course of ten days, one of the midshipmen of my ship, a careless, gaping mortal, whose insatiable curiosity led him to wander in a sort of ecstacy through the streets, lost no less than twelve pocket-handkerchiefs; so that he became a sort of little fortune to my friend the pickpocket, who looked very ill pleased one day when I passed in company with the youngster, and by keeping between

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