From Sea to Sea

Letter VII

by Rudyard Kipling


Where naked ignorance

Delivers brawling judgments all day long
On all things unashamed.

THE past few days on the Nawab have been spent amid a new people and a very strange one. There were speculators from South Africa: financiers from home (these never talked in anything under hundreds of thousands of pounds and, I fear, bluffed awfully); there were Consuls of far-off China ports and partners of China shipping houses talking a talk and thinking thoughts as different from Ours as is Our slang from the slang of London. But it would not interest you to learn the story of our shipload—to hear about the hard-headed Scotch merchant with a taste for spiritualism, who begged me to tell him whether there was really anything in Theosophy and whether Tibet was full of levitating chelas, as he believed; or of the little London curate out for a holiday who had seen India and had faith in the progress of missionary work there—who believed that the C.M.S. was shaking the thoughts and convictions of the masses, and that the Word of the Lord would ere long prevail above all other counsels. He in the night-watches tackled and disposed of the great mysteries of Life and Death, and was looking forward to a lifetime of toil amid a parish without a single rich man in it.

When you are in the China Seas be careful to keep all your flannel-wear to hand. In an hour the steamer swung from tropical heat (including prickly) to a cold raw fog, as wet as a Scotch mist. Morning gave us a new world—somewhere between Heaven and Earth. The sea was smoked glass reddish-grey islands lay upon it under fog-banks that hovered fifty feet above our heads. The squat sails of junks danced for an instant like autumn leaves in the breeze and disappeared, and there was no solidity in the islands against which the glassy levels splintered in snow. The steamer groaned and grunted and howled because she was so damp and miserable, and I groaned also because the guide-book said that Hong-Kong had the finest harbour in the world, and I could not see two hundred yards in any direction. Yet this ghost-like in-gliding through the belted fog was livelily mysterious, and became more so when the movement of the air vouchsafed us a glimpse of a warehouse and a derrick, both apparently close aboard, and behind them the shoulder of a mountain. We made our way into a sea of flat-nosed boats all manned by most muscular humans, and the Professor said that the time to study the Chinese question was now. We, however, were carrying a new general to these parts, and nice, new, well-fitting uniforms came off to make him welcome; and in the contemplation of things too long withheld from me I forgot about the Pigtails. Gentlemen of the mess-room, who would wear linen coats on parade if you could, wait till you have been a month without seeing a patrol jacket or hearing a spur go ling-a-ling, and you will know why civilians want you always to wear uniform. The General, by the way, was a nice General. He did not know much about the Indian Army or the ways of a gentleman called Roberts, if I recollect aright; but he said that Lord Wolseley was going to be Commander-in-Chief one of these days on account of the pressing needs of our Army. He was a revelation because he talked about nothing but English military matters, which are very, very different from Indian ones, and are mixed up with politics.

All Hong-Kong is built on the sea-face; the rest is fog. One muddy road runs for ever in front of a line of houses which are partly Chowringhee and partly Rotherhithe. You live in the houses, and when wearied of this, walk across the road and drop into the sea, if you can find a square foot of unencumbered water. So vast is the accumulation of country shipping, and such is its dirtiness as it rubs against the bund, that the superior inhabitants are compelled to hang their boats from davits above the common craft, who are greatly disturbed by a multitude of steam-launches. These ply for amusement and the pleasure of whistling, and are held in such small esteem that every hotel owns one, and the others are masterless. Beyond the launches lie more steamers than the eye can count, and four out of five of these belong to Us. I was proud when I saw the shipping at Singapur, but I swell with patriotism as I watch the fleets of Hong-Kong from the balcony of the Victoria Hotel. I can almost spit into the water; but many mariners stand below and they are a strong breed.

How recklessly selfish does a traveller become! We had dropped for more than ten days all the world outside our trunks, and almost the first word in the hotel was: ‘John Bright is dead, and there has been an awful hurricane at Samoa.’

‘Ah! indeed that’s very sad; but look here, where do you say my rooms are?’ At home the news would have given talk for half a day. It was dismissed in half the length of a hotel corridor. One cannot sit down to think with a new world humming outside the window—with all China to enter upon and possess.

A rattling of trunks in the halls—a click of heels—and the apparition of an enormous gaunt woman wrestling with a small Madrassi servant. . . . ‘Yes—I haf travelled everywhere and I shall travel everywhere else. I go now to Shanghai and Pekin. I have been in Moldavia, Russia, Beyrout, all Persia, Colombo, Delhi, Dacca, Benares, Allahabad, Peshawar, the Ali Musjid in that pass, Malabar, Singapur, Penang, here in this place, and Canton. I am Austrian-Croat, and I shall see the States of America and perhaps Ireland. I travel for ever; I am—how you call?—veuve—widow. My husband, he was dead; and so I am sad—I am always sad and so I trafel. I am alife of course, but I do not live. You onderstandt? Always sad. Vill you tell them the name of the ship to which they shall warf my trunks now. You trafel for pleasure? So! I trafel because I am alone and sad—always sad.’

The trunks disappeared, the door shut, the heels clicked down the passage, and I was left scratching my head in wonder. How did that conversation begin—why did it end, and what is the use of meeting eccentricities who never explain themselves? I shall never get an answer, but that conversation is true, every word of it. I see now where the fragmentary school of novelists get their material from.

When I went into the streets of Hong-Kong I stepped into thick slushy London mud of the kind that strikes chilly through the boot, and the rattle of innumerable wheels was as the rattle of hansoms. A soaking rain fell, and all the sahibs hailed ’rickshaws,—they call them ’ricks here,—and the wind was chillier than the rain. It was the first touch of honest weather since Calcutta. No wonder with such a climate that Hong-Kong was ten times livelier than Singapur, that there were signs of building everywhere, and gas jets in all the houses, that colonnades and domes were scattered broadcast, and the Englishmen walked as Englishmen should—hurriedly and looking forward. All the length of the main street was verandahed, and the Europe shops squandered plate-glass by the square yard. (Nota bene.—As in Simla so elsewhere: mistrust the plate-glass shops. You pay for their fittings in each purchase.)

The same Providence that runs big rivers so near to large cities puts main thoroughfares close to big hotels. I went down Queen Street, which is not very hilly. All the other streets that I looked up were built in steps after the fashion of Clovelly, and under blue skies would have given the Professor scores of good photographs. The rain and the fog blotted the views. Each upward-climbing street ran out in white mist that covered the sides of a hill, and the downward-sloping ones were lost in the steam from the waters of the harbour, and both were very strange to see. ‘Hi-yi-yow,’ said my ’rickshaw coolie and balanced me on one wheel. I got out and met first a German with a beard, then three jolly sailor boys from a man-of-war, then a sergeant of Sappers, then a Parsee, then two Arabs, then an American, then a Jew, then a few thousand Chinese all carrying something, and then the Professor.

‘They make plates—instantaneous plates—in Tokio, I’m told. What d’ you think of that?’ he said. ‘Why, in India, the Survey Department are the only people who make their own plates. Instantaneous plates in Tokio; think of it!’

I had owed the Professor one for a long time. ‘After all,’ I replied, ‘it strikes me that we have made the mistake of thinking too much of India. We thought we were civilised, for instance. Let us take a lower place. This beats Calcutta into a hamlet.’

And in good truth it did, because it was clean beyond the ordinary, because the houses were uniform, three-storied and verandahed, and the pavements were of stone. I met one horse, very ashamed of himself, who was looking after a cart on the sea-road, but upstairs there are no vehicles save ’rickshaws. Hong-Kong has killed the romance of the ’rickshaw in my mind. They ought to be sacred to pretty ladies, instead of which men go to office in them, officers in full canonicals use them; tars try to squeeze in two abreast, and from what I have heard down at the barracks they do occasionally bring to the guardroom the drunken defaulter. ‘He falls asleep inside of it, Sir, and saves trouble.’ The Chinese naturally have the town for their own, and profit by all our building improvements and regulations. Their golden and red signs flame down the Queen’s Road, but they are careful to supplement their own tongue by well-executed Europe lettering. I found only one exception, thus:—

        Fussing, Garpenter
And Gabinet Naktr
Has good Gabi

Nets for Sale.


The shops are made to catch the sailor and the curio hunter, and they succeed admirably. When you come to these parts put all your money in a bank and tell the manager man not to give it you, however much you ask. So shall you be saved from bankruptcy.

The Professor and I made a pilgrimage from Kee Sing even unto Yi King, who sells the de-composed fowl, and each shop was good. Though it sold shoes or sucking pigs, there was some delicacy of carving or gilded tracery in front to hold the eye, and each thing was quaint and striking of its kind. A fragment of twisted roots helped by a few strokes into the likeness of huddled devils, a running knop and flower cornice, a dull red and gold halfdoor, a split bamboo screen—they were all good, and their joinings and splicings and mortisings were accurate. The baskets of the coolies were good in shape, and the rattan fastenings that clenched them to the polished bamboo yoke were whipped down, so that there were no loose ends. You could slide in and out the drawers in the slung chests of the man who sold dinners to the ’rickshaw coolies; and the pistons of the little wooden hand-pumps in the shops worked accurately in their sockets.

I was studying these things while the Professor was roaming through carved ivories, broidered silks, panels of inlay, tortoise-shell filigree, jadetipped pipes, and the God of Art only knows what else.

‘I don’t think even as much of him (meaning our Indian craftsman) as I used to do,’ said the Professor, taking up a tiny ivory grotesque of a small baby trying to pull a water-buffalo out of its wallow—the whole story of beast and baby written in the hard ivory. The same thought was in both our minds; we had gone near the subject once or twice before.

‘They are a hundred times his superior in mere idea—let alone execution,’ said the Professor, his hand on a sketch in woods and gems of a woman caught in a gale of wind protecting her baby from its violence.

‘Yes; and don’t you see that they only introduce aniline dyes into things intended for us. Whereas he wears them on his body whenever he can. What made this yellow image of a shopman here take delight in a dwarf orange tree in a turquoiseblue pot?’ I continued, sorting a bundle of cheap China spoons—all good in form, colour, and use. The big-bellied Chinese lanterns above us swayed in the wind with a soft chafing of oiled paper, but they made no sign, and the shopkeeper in blue was equally useless.

‘You wanchee buy? Plitty things here,’ said he; and he filled a tobacco-pipe from a dull green leather pouch held at the mouth with a little bracelet of plasma, or it might have been the very jade. He was playing with a brown-wood abacus, and by his side was his day-book bound in oiled paper, and the tray of Indian ink, with the brushes and the porcelain supports for the brushes. He made an entry in his book and daintily painted in his latest transaction. The Chinese of course have been doing this for a few thousand years; but Life, and its experiences, is as new to me as it was to Adam, and I marvelled.

‘Wanchee buy?’ reiterated the shopman after he had made his last flourish.

Said I, in the new tongue which I am acquiring, ‘Wanchee know one piecee information b’long my pidgin. Savvy these things? Have got soul, you?’

‘Have got how?’

‘Have got one piecee soul-allee same spilit? No savvy? This way then—your people lookee allee same devil; but makee culio allee same pocket-Joss, and not giving any explanation. Why-for are you such a horrible contradiction?’

‘No savvy. Two dollar an’ half,’ he said, balancing a cabinet in his hand. The Professor had not heard. His mind was oppressed with the fate of the Hindu.

‘There are three races who can work,’ said the Professor, looking down the seething street where the ’rickshaws tore up the slush, and the babel of Cantonese and pidgin went up to the yellow fog in a jumbled snarl.

‘But there is only one that can swarm,’ I answered. ‘The Hindu cuts his own throat and dies, and there are too few of the Sahib-log to last for ever. These people work and spread. They must have souls or they couldn’t understand pretty things.’

‘I can’t make it out,’ said the Professor. ‘They are better artists than the Hindu,—that carving you are looking at is Japanese, by the way,—better artists and stronger workmen, man for man. They pack close and eat everything, and they can live on nothing.’

‘And I’ve been praising the beauties of Indian Art all my days.’ It was a little disappointing when you come to think of it, but I tried to console myself by the thought that the two lay so far apart there was no comparison possible. And yet accuracy is surely the touchstone of all Art.

‘They will overwhelm the world,’ said the Professor calmly, and he went out to buy tea.

Neither at Penang, Singapur, nor this place have I seen a single Chinaman asleep while daylight lasted. Nor have I seen twenty men who were obviously loafing. All were going to some definite end—if it were only like the coolie on the wharf, to steal wood from the scaffolding of a half-built house. In his own land, I believe, the Chinaman is treated with a certain amount of carelessness, not to say ferocity. Where he hides his love of Art, the Heaven that made him out of the yellow earth that holds so much iron only knows. His love is for little things, or else why should he get quaint pendants for his pipe, and at the backmost back of his shop build up for himself a bowerbird’s collection of odds and ends, every one of which has beauty if you hold it sufficiently close to the eye. It grieves me that I cannot account for the ideas of a few hundred million men in a few hours. This much, however, seems certain. If we had control over as many Chinamen as we have natives of India, and had given them one tithe of the cosseting, the painful pushing forward, and studious, even nervous, regard of their interests and aspirations that we have given to India, we should long ago have been expelled from, or have reaped the reward of, the richest land on the face of the earth. A pair of my shoes have been, oddly enough, wrapped in a newspaper which carries for its motto the words, ‘There is no Indian nation, though there exist the germs of an Indian nationality,’ or something very like that. This thing has been moving me to unholy laughter. The great big lazy land that we nurse and wrap in cotton-wool, and ask every morning whether it is strong enough to get out of bed, seems like a heavy soft cloud on the far-away horizon; and the babble that we were wont to raise about its precious future and its possibilities, no more than the talk of children in the streets who have made a horse out of a pea-pod and match-sticks, and wonder if it will ever walk. I am sadly out of conceit of mine own other—not mother—country now that I have had my boots blacked at once every time I happened to take them off. The blacker did not do it for the sake of a gratuity, but because it was his work. Like the beaver of old, he had to climb that tree; the dogs were after him. There was competition.

.     .     .     .     .

Is there really such a place as Hong-Kong? People say so, but I have not yet seen it. Once indeed the clouds lifted and I saw a granite house perched like a cherub on nothing, a thousand feet above the town. It looked as if it might be the beginning of a civil station, but a man came up the street and said, ‘See this fog? It will be like this till September. You’d better go away.’ I shall not go. I shall encamp in front of the place until the fog lifts and the rain ceases. At present, and it is the third day of April, I am sitting in front of a large coal fire and thinking of the ‘frosty Caucasus ‘—you poor creatures in torment afar. And you think as you go to office and orderly-room that you are helping forward England’s mission in the East. ’Tis a pretty delusion, and I am sorry to destroy it, but you have conquered the wrong country.

Let us annex China.