From Sea to Sea

Letter X

by Rudyard Kipling


PROVIDENCE is pleased to be sarcastic. It sent rain and a raw wind from the beginning till the end. That is one of the disadvantages of leaving India. You cut yourself adrift from the only trustworthy climate in the world. I despise a land that has to waste half its time in watching the clouds. The Canton trip (I have been that way) introduces you to the American river-steamer, which is not in the least like one of the Irrawaddy flotilla or an omnibus, as many people believe. It is composed almost entirely of white paint, sheetlead, a cow-horn, and a walking-beam, and holds about as much cargo as a P. and O. The trade between Canton and Hong-Kong seems to be immense, and a steamer covers the ninety miles between port and port daily. None the less are the Chinese passengers daily put under hatches or its equivalent after they leave port, and daily is the stand of loaded Sniders in the cabin inspected and cleaned up. Daily, too, I should imagine, the captain of each boat tells his Globe-trotting passengers the venerable story of the looting of a river-steamer—how two junks fouled her at a convenient bend in the river, while the native passengers on her rose and made things very lively for the crew, and ended by clearing out that steamer. The Chinese are a strange people! They had a difficulty at Hong-Kong not very long ago about photographing labour-coolies, and in the excitement, which was considerable, a rickety old war junk got into position off the bund with the avowed intention of putting a three-pound shot through the windows of the firm who had suggested the photographing. And this though vessel and crew could have been blown into cigarette-ash in ten minutes!

But no one pirated the Ho-nam, though the passengers did their best to set her on fire by upsetting the lamps of their opium pipes. She blared her unwieldy way across the packed shipping of the harbour and ran into grey mist and driving rain. When I say that the scenery was like the West Highlands you will by this time understand what I mean. Large screw steamers, China pig-boats very low in the water and choked with live-stock, wallowing junks and ducking sampans filled the waterways of a stream as broad as the Hughli and much better defended as far as the art of man was concerned. Their little difficulty with the French a few years ago has taught the Chinese a great many things which, perhaps, it were better for us that they had left alone.

The first striking object of Canton city is the double tower of the big Catholic Church. Take off your hat to this because it means a great deal, and stands as the visible standard of a battle that has yet to be fought. Never have the missionaries of the Mother of the Churches wrestled so mightily with any land as with China, and never has nation so scientifically tortured the missionary as has China. Perhaps when the books are audited somewhere else, each race, the White and the Yellow, will be found to have been right according to their lights.

I had taken one fair look at the city from the steamer, and threw up my cards. ‘I can’t describe this place, and besides, I hate Chinamen.’

‘Bosh! It is only Benares, magnified about eight times. Come along.’

It was Benares, without any wide streets or chauks, and yet darker than Benares, in that the little skyline was entirely blocked by tier on tier of hanging signs,—red, gold, black, and white. The shops stood on granite plinths, pukka brick above, and tile-roofed. Their fronts were carved wood, gilt, and coloured savagely. John knows how to dress a shop, though he may sell nothing more lovely than smashed fowl and chitterlings. Every other shop was a restaurant, and the space between them crammed with humanity. Do you know those horrible sponges full of worms that grow in warm seas? You break off a piece of it and the worms break too. Canton was that sponge. ‘Hi, low yah. To hoh wang!’ yelled the chairbearers to the crowd, but I was afraid that if the poles chipped the corner of a house the very bricks would begin to bleed. Hong-Kong showed me how the Chinaman could work. Canton explained why he set no value on life. The article was cheaper than in India. I hated the Chinaman before; I hated him doubly as I choked for breath in his seething streets where nothing short of the pestilence could clear a way. There was of course no incivility from the people, but the mere mob was terrifying. There are three or four places in the world where it is best for an Englishman to agree with his adversary swiftly, whatever the latter’s nationality may be. Canton heads the list. Never argue with anybody in Canton. Let the guide do it for you. Then the stinks rose up and overwhelmed us. In this respect Canton was Benares twenty times magnified. The Hindu is a sanitating saint compared to the Chinaman. He is a rigid Malthusian in the same regard.

‘Very bad stink, this place. You come right along,’ said Ah Cum, who had learned his English from Americans. He was very kind. He showed me feather jewellery shops where men sat pinching from the gorgeous wings of jays tiny squares of blue and lilac feathers, and pasting them into gold settings, so that the whole looked like Jeypore enamel of the rarest. But we went into a shop. Ah Cum drew us inside the big door and bolted it, while the crowd blocked up the windows and shutter-bars. I thought more of the crowd than the jewellery. The city was so dark and the people were so very many and so unhuman.

The March of the Mongol is a pretty thing to write about in magazines. Hear it once in the gloom of an ancient curio shop, where nameless devils of the Chinese creed make mouths at you from back-shelves, where brazen dragons, revelations of uncleanliness, all catch your feet as you stumble across the floor—hear the tramp of the feet on the granite blocks of the road and the breaking wave of human speech, that is not human! Watch the yellow faces that glare at you between the bars, and you will be afraid, as I was afraid.

‘It’s beautiful work,’ I said to the Professor, bending over a Cantonese petticoat—a wonder of pale green, blue, and silver. ‘Now I understand why the civilised European of Irish extraction kills the Chinaman in America. It is justifiable to kill him. It would be quite right to wipe the city of Canton off the face of the earth, and to exterminate all the people who ran away from the shelling. The Chinaman ought not to count.’

I had gone off on my own train of thought, and it was a black and bitter one.

‘Why on earth can’t you look at the lions and enjoy yourself, and leave politics to the men who pretend to understand ’em?’ said the Professor.

‘It’s no question of politics,’ I replied. ‘This people ought to be killed off because they are unlike any people I ever met before. Look at their faces. They despise us. You can see it, and they aren’t a bit afraid of us either.’

Then Ah Cum took us by ways that were dark to the temple of the Five Hundred Genii, which was one of the sights of the rabbit-warren. This was a Buddhist temple with the usual accessories of altars and altar lights and colossal figures of doorkeepers at the gates. Round the inner court runs a corridor lined on both sides with figures about half life-size, representing most of the races of Asia. Several of the Jesuit Fathers are said to be in that gallery,—you can find it all in the guidebooks,—and there is one image of a jolly-looking soul in a hat and full beard, but, like the others, naked to the waist. ‘That European gentleman,’ said Ah Cum. ‘That Marco Polo.’ ‘Make the most of him,’ I said. ‘The time is coming when there will be no European gentlemen—nothing but yellow people with black hearts—black hearts, Ah Cum—and a devil-born capacity for doing more work than they ought.’

‘Come and see a clock,’ said he. ‘Old clock. It runs by water. Come on right along.’ He took us to another temple and showed us an old waterclock of four gurrahs: just the same sort of thing as they have in out-of-the-way parts of India for the use of the watchmen. The Professor vows that the machine, which is supposed to give the time to the city, is regulated by the bells of the steamers in the river, Canton water being too thick to run through anything smaller than a halfinch pipe. From the pagoda of this temple we could see that the roofs of all the houses below were covered with filled water jars. There is no sort of fire organisation in the city. Once lighted, it burns till it stops.

Ah Cum led us to the Potter’s Field, where the executions take place. The Chinese slay by the hundred, and far be it from me to say that such generosity of bloodshed is cruel. They could afford to execute in Canton alone at the rate of ten thousand a year without disturbing the steady flow of population. An executioner who happened to be wandering about—perhaps in search of employment—offered us a sword under guarantee that it had cut off many heads. ‘Keep it,’ I said. ‘Keep it, and let the good work go on. My friend, you cannot execute too freely in this land. You are blessed, I apprehend, with a purely literary bureaucracy recruited—correct me if I am wrong—from all social strata, more especially those in which the idea of cold-blooded cruelty has, as it were, become embedded. Now, when to inherited devildom is superadded a purely literary education of grim and formal tendencies, the result, my evil-looking friend,—the result, I repeat,—is a state of affairs which is faintly indicated in the Little Pilgrim’s account of the Hell of Selfishness. You, I presume, have not yet read the works of the Little Pilgrim.’

‘He looks as if he was going to cut at you with that sword,’ said the Professor. ‘Come away and see the Temple of Horrors.’

That was a sort of Chinese Madame Tussaud’s—lifelike models of men being brayed in mortars, sliced, fried, toasted, stuffed, and variously bedevilled—that made me sick and unhappy. But the Chinese are merciful even in their tortures. When a man is ground in a mill, he is, according to the models, popped in head first. This is hard on the crowd who are waiting to see the fun, but it saves trouble to the executioners. A half-ground man has to be carefully watched, or else he wriggles out of his place. To crown all, we went to the prison, which was a pest-house in a back street. The Professor shuddered. ‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘The people who sent the prisoners here don’t care. The men themselves look hideously miserable, but I suppose they don’t care, and goodness knows I don’t care. They are only Chinamen. If they treat each other like dogs, why should we regard ’em as human beings? Let ’em rot. I want to get back to the steamer. I want to get under the guns of Hong-Kong. Phew!’

Then we ran through a succession of second-rate streets and houses till we reached the city wall on the west by a long flight of steps. It was clean here. The wall had a drop of thirty or forty feet to paddy fields. Beyond these were a semicircle of hills, every square yard of which is planted out with graves. Her dead watch Canton the abominable, and the dead are more than the myriads living. On the grass-grown top of the wall were rusty English guns spiked and abandoned after the war. They ought not to be there. A five-storied pagoda gave us a view of the city, but I was wearied of these rats in their pit—wearied and scared and sullen. The excellent Ah Cum led us to the Viceroy’s summer-garden house on the cityward slope of an azalea-covered hill surrounded by cotton trees. The basement was a handsome joss house: upstairs was a durbar-hall with glazed verandahs and ebony furniture ranged across the room in four straight lines. It was only an oasis of cleanliness. Ten minutes later we were back in the swarming city, cut off from light and sweet air. Once or twice we met a mandarin with thin official moustache and ‘little red button a-top.’ Ah Cum was explaining the nature and properties of a mandarin when we came to a canal spanned by an English bridge and closed by an iron gate, which was in charge of a Hong-Kong policeman. We were in an Indian station with Europe shops and Parsee shops and everything else to match. This was English Canton, with two hundred and fifty sahibs in it. ’Twould have been better for a Gatling behind the bridge gate. The guide-books tell you that it was taken from the Chinese by the treaty of 1860, the French getting a similar slice of territory. Owing to the binding power of French officialism, ‘La concession Française’ has never been let or sold to private individuals, and now a Chinese regiment squats on it. The men who travel tell you somewhat similar tales about land in Saigon and Cambodia. Something seems to attack a Frenchman as soon as he dons a colonial uniform. Let us call it the red-tape-worm.

‘Now where did you go and what did you see?’ said the Professor, in the style of the pedagogue, when we were once more on the Ho-nam and returning as fast as steam could carry us to Hong-Kong.

‘A big blue sink of a city full of tunnels, all dark and inhabited by yellow devils, a city that Dory ought to have seen. I’m devoutly thankful that I’m never going back there. The Mongol will begin to march in his own good time. I intend to wait until he marches up to me. Let us go away to Japan by the next boat.’

The Professor says that I have completely spoiled the foregoing account by what he calls ‘intemperate libels on a hardworking nation.’ He did not see Canton as I saw it—through the medium of a fevered imagination.

Once, before I got away, I climbed to the civil station of Hong-Kong, which overlooks the town. There in sumptuous stone villas built on the edge of the cliff and facing shaded roads, in a wilderness of beautiful flowers and a hushed calm unvexed even by the roar of the traffic below, the residents do their best to imitate the life of an Indian upcountry station. They are better off than we are. At the bandstand the ladies dress all in one piece—shoes, gloves, and umbrellas come out from England with the dress, and every memsahib knows what that means—but the mechanism of their life is much the same. In one point they are superior. The ladies have a club of their very own to which, I believe, men are only allowed to come on sufferance. At a dance there are about twenty men to one lady, and there are practically no spinsters in the island. The inhabitants complain of being cooped in and shut up. They look at the sea below them and they long to get away. They have their ‘At Homes’ on regular days of the week, and everybody meets everybody else again and again. They have amateur theatricals and they quarrel and all the men and women take sides, and the station is cleaved asunder from the top to the bottom. Then they become reconciled and write to the local papers condemning the local critic’s criticism. Isn’t it touching? A lady told me these things one afternoon, and I nearly wept from sheer home-sickness.

‘And then, you know, after she had said that he was obliged to give the part to the other, and that made them furious, and the races were so near that nothing could be done, and Mrs. —— said that it was altogether impossible. You understand how very unpleasant it must have been, do you not?’

‘Madam,’ said I, ‘I do. I have been there before. My heart goes out to Hong-Kong. In the name of the great Indian Mofussil I salute you. Henceforward Hong-Kong is one of Us, ranking before Meerut, but after Allahabad, at all public ceremonies and parades.’

I think she fancied I had sunstroke; but you at any rate will know what I mean.

We do not laugh any more on the P. and O. s.s. Ancona on the way to Japan. We are deathly sick, because there is a cross-sea beneath us and a wet sail above. The sail is to steady the ship who refuses to be steadied. She is full of Globe-trotters who also refuse to be steadied. A Globe-trotter is extreme cosmopolitan. He will be sick anywhere.