Canton, a Typical Chinese City
( Originally Published 1903 )
ONE day was sufficient for me to visit the principal points of interest in Hong-Kong, and on the morning following my arrival I boarded a steamer for Canton, one of the most typical of Chinese cities. There is a fine line of vessels running between the two cities, and the accommodations would have been creditable to any American boat. A few Europeans and Americans had the forward deck to themselves, the first-class cabin passengers having that portion of the steamer. The upper deck aft was filled with Chinese who were traveling first-class, and these people passed the hours on board in smoking or in gambling. Second-class natives crammed the lower deck, and I was glad that I had saved my money and could now afford to travel with the Europeans. Although the natives could travel on junks for one-third the cost of a passage by steamer, they prefer to pay the higher price and make a fast trip. The Chinese are not slow to accept some of the appliances of modern civilization. They patronize the steamers and the railroads, and engineers have been encouraged to lay out new lines as rapidly as possible. No Chinese will ever go on foot if he has money enough to ride.
We steamed out of the harbor, past the ships of war and other vessels which were at anchor, and gained the bay, which lies to the west of the island of Hong-Kong. The town of Macao, where the Portuguese, in advance of all Western nations, obtained a foothold in China, lies upon the southern side of the bay. It has lost its commercial importance, and is now a seaside resort of the Europeans of Hong-Kong.
Fifty miles of steaming brought us to the site of the Bogue forts, which were the scene of so much fighting in former days. Nowadays the grass is springing fresh and green where the mandarins marshaled their soldiers. The scenery in the neighborhood is charming; no high mountains, but a succession of hills, which, combined with the water views, make it a locality of rare beauty. The river is deep enough for the largest ships to reach Whampoa, the port of Canton. This town is an uninviting place, many of the houses being built upon bamboo poles thrust into the mud. Many foreign ships were at anchor here, taking in cargoes of tea, or waiting their turn in the dry-dock, which foreign capital has built on the southern bank of the river, where there are also shipyards for the repairing of steamers. A little farther up the stream we passed among a great fleet of salt junks, with enormous eyes at the bow, with flaming dragons painted on the sides —so lumbering and crazy to all appearance, that a single wave would crush them; but they sail boldly out to sea and down the coast, and return safely with their cargoes.
The Metropolis of China
The main portion of Canton, with its population of nearly two million, lies on the north bank, in a bend of the river. The name was given to the city by the Portuguese, who called it after the province of Kwang-tong, of which it is the chief city. Hundreds of boats are moored along the shore of the river, or swing at anchor in the stream. They swarmed around our steamer, loaded to the water's edge with chests of tea. There was a great struggle for the first chance at our gangway, and much quarreling among the boat men and women. In the West, such struggling would probably be accompanied by bruised faces and bleeding noses, but these easy-going Celestials wage only a war of words. Seldom do they come to blows over such provocations, for the Chinese are usually loath to fight.
Many of the boats in the river at Canton are occupied by whole families, and terrible accidents sometimes happen to them. Often they are drawn under the great paddle-wheels of a steamer, and the frail crafts smashed to kindlings. When this happens it is the demolishing of a house, the breaking up of a home. While the poor wretches are struggling in the water, instead of picking them up, their neighbors are plundering the wreck. This is certainly one of the worst phases of Chinese character. Human life in China is cheap because there is so much of it, and property is dear because there is so little of it ; and perhaps it is only natural that they should seek to save that which will be most valuable to them. They will draw in a floating chest, and help themselves to its contents, before they will think of throwing a rope to the owner. It is hard for an American to under-stand such an attitude in a human being.
There are not a great number of Americans and Europeans resident in Can-ton, and this is not to be wondered at, for the city is not an attractive place in which to live. Beyond the rowboats in the river I looked upon a vast collection of mean houses. Here and there a square brick tower could be seen rising above the roofs, and I was told that these were the pawnbroker's establishments. Away out on the hills—the White Cloud Hills, as they are called—toward the north, is the outer wall of the city, and a great square building in the Chinese style of architecture, called the " Five-storied Pagoda." Westward rises a spire, that of the English church. There is hardly another dome or tower to relieve the dreary monotony of low roofs, and there is nothing else to attract the eye.
Characteristics of the City
It is said that in Canton, better than in any other city, one can study the characteristics of old China, for the city has changed but little in recent times.
After leaving the steamer I passed down a narrow passage, and soon found myself in one of the principal streets, which would be classed as a lane or alley in an American town. The widest thoroughfare in the city would scarcely admit a carriage drawn by horses. Keeping the points of the compass in mind, so that I could find my way back to the foreign quarter, I entered the labyrinth of streets. The houses generally are two stories in height, with tiled roofs, projecting eaves overhanging balconies—shops in the lower story, rooms for the family above. Nearly every door-post, cornice, curved roof and ridge-pole is adorned with dragons. Each shop has an elaborate perpendicular sign-board, painted in brilliant colors, while flags and banners are suspended from cords across the street. The ignorant foreigner is led to think that he has struck some great holiday, when in reality this is only the ordinary appearance of the streets.
The goods in the various shops are displayed in a most tempting manner, and I longed for money with which to buy some of the beautiful things I saw. There were porcelain vases, worth hundreds of dollars ; lacquered wares, elaborately ornamented ; silk robes, elegantly embroidered ; fans manufactured from peacock's tails, for the Chinese officials, and glittering sedans for the wealthy classes. The street was filled with a motley crowd. Hucksters with baskets or trays on their heads were shouting with shrill voices the excellence of their vegetables, and the jinrikisha men were yelling constantly for people to get out of their way.
In the markets, there were all sorts of food on sale. Beside the carcasses of little pigs were hanging the carcasses of fine, fat curs, and there were any number of puppies and little kittens on sale, to be utilized as food. In some shops were to be seen rats and mice, for though I had never believed that the Chinese would eat these animals, I discovered that the tales in the school readers were not exaggerated, but only too true. In a country so densely populated as China, every-thing that can assist in sustaining life must be brought into requisition.
At a Native Concert
There is one street in Canton which is the resort of minstrels, fortune-tellers, gamblers, astrologers and quack doctors. I passed a building in which a company of musicians were giving a concert, and I decided to attend. I worked my way through the crowd at the door, and when I had entered I was invited to take a seat immediately in front of the performers, who were three women sitting on a raised platform, with faces painted vermilion, and their hair stiffly starched and decorated-with flowers. Their voices were shrill and sharp, and their singing was little more than a distressing wail. They were accompanied by an orchestra composed of a one-stringed fiddle, a drum and a gong, which made a deafening noise. I soon had enough of this so-called music, and was glad to reach the street again, where the noise was less penetrating. The crowd in the street is always interesting. I noticed a number of them stop for a minute at the gambling-stalls, to try their luck at cards, dice or dominoes. The stakes were usually a few " cash " —small copper coins, ten of them equivalent to a cent. Nearly all Chinese have a passion for gambling, and when they have nothing else, they do not hesitate to pledge their clothing. The fortune-tellers, too, were doing a rushing business, numerous young men being apparently anxious to learn what the fates might have in store for them.
After I had tired of wandering through the streets, I took a ride in a sampan, to see something of the life along the river. For captain and crew I had a woman and a girl, and I was interested to learn that the girl could speak some few words of " pigeon English," which is a queer mixture of several languages, much used in business transactions. " Pigeon," is the best pronunciation which the Chinese can give of the word " business," hence the name. I could scarcely understand anything the girl said, though she was persevering in her effort to carry on a conversation. The river at Canton abounds in fish, and thousands of poor wretches, who have no other home than their boats, draw a large portion of their sustenance from the water. Fish are reared for the market in ponds, but those which ascend the river from the sea are taken in vast numbers by hook and line. by nets and by trained cormorants. These birds have a great appetite for fish, a keen eye to see, and are expert in catching them. The fisherman makes them work not only for their own living, but for his. A ring is slipped upon the neck of the bird, to prevent it from swallowing the fish. It dives, appears with its prey, is taken on board the boat, fed a few morsels, just enough to sharpen its appetite, tossed over again, to reappear perhaps without a fish, when it is chastised, and tossed rudely into the water without being fed.
There are many animals which live in boats and never experience the sensation of stepping on dry land until they are taken to market. Large numbers of ducks are reared on the river in boats set apart for the purpose. They are hatched in ovens, and soon learn to obey the quack of their master or mistress. They are permitted to take a swim several times a day, but a call from the keeper brings them quickly on board. The last one usually receives a good drubbing, which so quickens its memory that it is seldom tardy a second time. They are kept until full-grown, and are then sold for a good price in the markets.
Certainly there are no more economical people in the world than the Chinese. They slave away, day after day ; living on almost nothing. I found it depressing to be among people who were obliged to put up with such extreme discomfort, and I longed more than ever to be back in America, where every man has enough to eat and wear, at the least. No wonder the Chinese swarmed into California, where they could not only live in comfort, but grow rich at the same time.