From Sea to Sea

Letter IV

by Rudyard Kipling

Some for the glories of this world, and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s paradise to come;
Ah, take the cash, and let the credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum.

THERE is something very wrong in the Anglo-Saxon character. Hardly had the Africa dropped anchor in Penang Straits when two of our fellow-passengers were smitten with madness because they heard that another steamer was even then starting for Singapur. If they went by it they would gain several days. Heaven knows why time should have been so precious to them. The news sent them flying into their cabins, and packing their trunks as though their salvation depended upon it. Then they tumbled over the side and were rowed away in a sampan, hot, but happy. They were on a pleasure-trip, and they had gained perhaps three days. That was their pleasure,.

Do you recollect Besant’s description of Palmiste Island in My Little Girl and So They Were Married? Penang is Palmiste Island. I found this out from the ship, looking at the wooded hills that dominate the town, and at the regiments of palm trees three miles away that marked the coast of Wellesley Province. The air was soft and heavy with laziness, and at the ship’s side were boat-loads of much-jewelled Madrassis—even those to whom Besant has alluded. A squall swept across the water and blotted out the rows of low, red-tiled houses that made up Penang, and the shadows of night followed the storm.

I put my twelve-inch rule in my pocket to measure all the world by, and nearly wept with emotion when on landing at the jetty I fell against a Sikh—a beautiful bearded Sikh, with white leggings and a rifle. As is cold water in a thirsty land so is a face from the old country. My friend had come from Jandiala in the Umritsar district. Did I know Jandiala? Did I not? I began to tell all the news I could recollect about crops and armies and the movements of big men in the far, far North, while the Sikh beamed. He belonged to the military police, and it was a good service, but of course it was far from the old country. There was no hard work, and the Chinamen gave but little trouble. They had fights among themselves, but ‘they do not care to give us any impudence;’ and the big man swaggered off with the long roll and swing of a whole Pioneer regiment, while I cheered myself with the thought that India—the India I pretend to hold in hatred—was not so far off, after all.

You know our ineradicable tendency to damn everything in the mofussil? Calcutta professes astonishment that Allahabad has a good dancing floor; Allahabad wonders if it is true that Lahore really has an ice-factory; and Lahore pretends to believe that everybody in Peshawar sleeps armed. Very much in the same way I was amused at seeing a steam tramway in Rangoon, and after we had quitted Moulmein fully expected to find the outskirts of civilisation. Vanity and ignorance were severely shocked when they confronted a long street of business—a street of two-storied houses, full of ticca-gharries, shop-signs, and above all jinrickshaws.

You in India have never seen a proper ’rickshaw. There are about two thousand of them in Penang, and no two seem alike. They are lacquered with bold figures of dragons and horses and birds and butterflies: their shafts are of black wood bound with white metal, and so strong that the coolie sits upon them when he waits for his fare. There is only one coolie, but he is strong, and he runs just as well as six Hill-men. He ties up his pigtail,being a Cantonese,—and this is a disadvantage to sahibs who cannot speak Tamil, Malay, or Cantonese. Otherwise he might be steered like a camel.

The ’rickshaw men are patient and long-suffering. The evil-visaged person who drove my carriage lashed at them when they came within whip range, and did his best to drive over them as he headed for the Waterfalls, which are five miles away from Penang Town. I expected that the buildings should stop, choked out among the dense growth of cocoa-nut. But they continued for many streets, very like Park and Middleton streets in Calcutta, where shuttered houses, which were half-bred between an Indian bungalow and a Rangoon rabbit-hutch, fought with the greenery and crotons as big as small trees. Now and again there blazed the front of a Chinese house, all open-work vermilion, lamp-black, and gold, with six-foot Chinese lanterns over the doorways and glimpses of quaintly cut shrubs in the well-kept gardens beyond.

We struck into roads fringed with native houses on piles, shadowed by the everlasting cocoanut palms heavy with young nuts. The heat was heavy with the smell of vegetation, and it was not the smell of the earth after the rains. Some bird-thing called out from the deeps of the foliage, and there was a mutter of thunder in the hills which we were approaching: but all the rest was very still—and the sweat ran down our faces in drops.

‘Now you’ve got to walk up that hill,’ said the driver, pointing to a small barrier outside a well-kept botanical garden; ‘all the carriages stop here.’ One’s limbs moved as though leaden, and the breath came heavily, drawing in each time the vapour of a Turkish bath. The soil was alive with wet and warmth, and the unknown trees—I was too sleepy to read the labels that some offensively energetic man has written—were wet and warm too. Up on the hillside the voice of the water was saying something, but I was too sleepy to listen; and on the top of the hill lay a fat cloud just like an eider-down quilt tucking everything in safely.

In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.

I sat down where I was, for I saw that the upward path was very steep and was cut into rude steps, and an exposition of sleep had come upon me. I was at the mouth of a tiny gorge, exactly where the lotus-eaters had sat down when they began their song, for I recognised the Waterfall and the air round my ears ‘breathing as one that has a weary dream.’

I looked and beheld that I could not give in words the genius of the place. ‘I can’t play the flute, but I have a cousin who plays the violin.’ I knew a man who could. Some people said he was not a nice man, and I might run the risk of contaminating morals, but nothing mattered in such a climate. See now, go to the very worst of Zola’s novels and read there his description of a conservatory. That was it. Several months passed away, but there was neither chill nor burning heat to mark the passage of time. Only, with a sense of acute pain I felt that I must ‘do’ the Waterfall, and I climbed up the steps in the hillside, though every boulder cried ‘sit down,’ until I found a small stream of water coursing down the face of a rock, and a much bigger one down my own.

Then we went away to breakfast, the stomach being always more worthy than any amount of sentiment. A turn in the road hid the gardens and stopped the noise of the waters, and that experience was over for all time. Experiences are very like cheroots. They generally begin badly, taste perfect half-way through, and at the butt-end are things to be thrown away and never picked up again . . . .

His name was John, and he had a pigtail five feet long—all real hair and no braided silk, and he kept an hotel by the way and fed us with a chicken, into whose innocent flesh onions and strange vegetables had been forced. Till then we had feared Chinamen, especially when they brought food, but now we will eat anything at their hands. The conclusion of the meal was a half-guinea pineapple and a siesta. This is a beautiful thing which we of India—but I am of India no more—do not understand. You lie down and wait for time to pass. You are not in the least wearied—and you would not go to sleep. You are filled with a divine drowsiness—quite different from the heavy sodden slumber of a hot-weather Sunday, or the businesslike repose of a Europe morning. Now I begin to despise novelists who write about siestas in cold climates. I know what the real thing means.

.     .     .     .     .

I have been trying to buy a few things—a sarong, which is a putso, which is a dhoti; a pipe; and a ‘damned Malayan kris.’ The sarongs come chiefly from Germany, the pipes from the pawn-shops, and there are no krises except little toothpick things that could not penetrate the hide of a Malay. In the native town, I found a large army of Chinese—more than I imagined existed in China itself—encamped in spacious streets and houses, some of them sending block-tin to Singapur, some driving fine carriages, others making shoes, chairs, clothes, and every other thing that a large town desires. They were the first army corps on the march of the Mongol. The scouts are at Calcutta, and a flying column at Rangoon. Here begins the main body, some hundred thousand strong, so they say. Was it not De Quincey that had a horror of the Chinese—of their inhumaneness and their inscrutability? Certainly the people in Penang are not nice; they are even terrible to behold. They work hard, which in this climate is manifestly wicked, and their eyes are just like the eyes of their own pet dragons. Our Hindu gods are passable, some of them even jolly—witness our pot-bellied Ganesh; but what can you do with a people who revel in D.T. monsters and crown their roof-ridges with flames of fire, or the waves of the sea? They swarmed everywhere, and wherever three or four met, there they ate things without name—the insides of ducks for choice. Our deck passengers, I know, fared sumptuously on offal begged from the steward and flavoured with insect-powder to keep the ants off. This, again, is not natural, for a man should eat like a man if he works like one. I could quite understand after a couple of hours (this has the true Globe-trotter twang to it) spent in Chinatown why the lower-caste Anglo-Saxon hates the Celestial. He frightened me, and so I could take no pleasure in looking at his houses, at his wares, or at himself . . . .

The smell of printer’s ink is marvellously penetrating. It drew me up two pair of stairs into an office where the exchanges lay about in delightful disorder, and a little hand-press was clacking out proofs just in the old sweet way. Something like the Gazette of India showed that the Straits Settlements—even they—had a Government of their own, and I sighed for a dead past as my eye caught the beautiful official phraseology that never varies. How alike we English are! Here is an extract from a report: ‘And the Chinese form of decoration which formerly covered the office has been wisely obliterated with whitewash.’

That was just what I came to inquire about. What were they going to do with the Chinese decoration all over Penang? Would they try to wisely obliterate that?

The Straits Settlements Council which lives at Singapur had just passed a Bill (Ordinance they call it) putting down all Chinese secret societies in the colony, which measure only awaited the Imperial assent. A little business in Singapur connected with some municipal measure for clearing away overhanging verandahs created a storm, and for three days those who were in the place say the town was entirely at the mercy of the Chinese, who rose all together and made life unpleasant for the authorities. This incident forced the Government to take serious notice of the secret societies who could so control the actions of men, and the result has been a measure which it will not be easy to enforce. A Chinaman must have a secret society of some kind. He has been bred up in a country where they were necessary to his comfort, his protection, and the maintenance of his scale of wages from time immemorial, and he will carry them with him as he will carry his opium and his coffin.

‘Do you expect then that the societies will collapse by proclamation?’ I asked the editor.

‘No. There will be a row.’

‘What row? what sort of a row?’

More troops, perhaps, and perhaps some gunboats. You see, we shall have Sir Charles Warren then as our Commander-in-Chief at Singapur. Up till the present our military administration has been subordinate to that of Hong-Kong; when that is done away with and we have Sir Charles Warren, things will be different. But there will be a row. Neither you nor I nor any one else will be able to put these things down. Every josshouse will be the head of a secret society. What can one do? In the past the Government made some use of them for the detection of crime. Now they are too big and too important to be treated in that way. You will know before long whether we have been able to suppress them. There will be a row.’

Certainly the great grievance of Penang is the Chinese question. She would not be human did she not revile her Municipal Commissioners and talk about the unsanitary condition of the island. If nose and eyes and ears be any guide, she is far cleaner even in her streets than many an Indian cantonment, and her water-supply seems perfection, But I sat in that little newspaper office and listened to stories of municipal intrigue that might have suited Serampore or Calcutta, only the names were a little different, and in place of Ghose and Chuckerbutty one heard titles such as Yih Tat, Lo Eng, and the like. The Englishman’s aggressive altruism always leads him to build towns for others, and incite aliens to serve on municipal boards. Then he gets tired of his weakness and starts papers to condemn himself. They had a Chinaman on the Municipality last year. They have now got rid of him, and the present body is constituted of two officials and four non-officials. Therefore they complain of the influence of officialdom.

Having thoroughly settled all the differences of Penang to my own great satisfaction, I removed myself to a Chinese theatre set in the open road, and made of sticks and old gunny-bags. The orchestra alone convinced me that there was something radically wrong with the Chinese mind. Once, long ago in Jummu, I heard the infernal clang of the horns used by the Devil-dancers who had come from far beyond Ladakh to do honour to a Prince that day set upon his throne. That was about three thousand miles to the north, but the character of the music was unchanged. A thousand Chinamen stood as close as possible to the horrid din and enjoyed it. Once more, can anything be done to a people without nerves as without digestion, and, if reports speak truly, without morals? But it is not true that they are born with full-sized pigtails. The thing grows, and in its very earliest stages is the prettiest headdressing imaginable, being soft brown, very fluffy, about three inches long, and dressed as to the end with red silk. An infant pigtail is just like the first tender sprout of a tulip bulb, and would be lovable were not the Chinese baby so very horrible of hue and shape. He isn’t as pretty as the pig that Alice nursed in Wonderland, and he lies quite still and never cries. This is because he is afraid of being boiled and eaten. I saw cold boiled babies on a plate being carried through the heart of the town. They said it was only sucking-pig, but I knew better. Dead sucking-pigs don’t grin with their eyes open.

About this time the faces of the Chinese frightened me more than ever, so I ran away to the outskirts of the town and saw a windowless house that carried the Square and Compass in gold and teakwood above the door. I took heart at meeting these familiar things again, and knowing that where they were was good fellowship and much charity, in spite of all the secret societies in the world. Penang is to be congratulated on one of the prettiest little lodges in the East.