A Naval Paradise
AFTER fifteen months in command of H.M.S. Vigilant I was appointed to command H.M.S. Racehorse, a destroyer in the second flotilla, at Portland, and I was now fairly launched on what proved to be a considerable period in this particular type of vessel.
Before I had done with destroyers I had become well enough acquainted with them, especially during the War, to think at times that neither here nor hereafter could life be worse ; but I am not going to dwell on those intolerable hours. They are - mercifully - done with, gone the way of Hans Breitmann's "Barty," and are like a stormy night that has passed and been succeeded by a calm and sunny day.
In those days there were only two "running flotillas," or flotillas with full crews, the first being stationed at Harwich and the second at Portland. It was the rule that every commanding officer had to undergo a period in nucleus crew boats before he could be considered as qualified to command a
"running boat," and so it followed that it was the ambition of every young officer to get his "running" command as early as possible. But it is not given to mortal man to get, except at rare intervals, his heart's desire, so I was doubly blessed when, having achieved one great objective in November, 1909, I received in the following February my appointment to H.M.S. Whiting in command, a destroyer on the China Station.
All young naval officers long and live for the day when they will be sent to China ; and all who have spent a commission on that station make every effort to be sent back.
In my most ambitious moments I had dreamt of a destroyer in the Mediterranean, a mere one in twenty-four or so ; but to be amongst the chosen five destroyers allowed to the China Station in those days was beyond the wildest of my imaginings. Signals of congratulation came in from many of my brother officers, and these kind messages added to the happiness and elation of a very happy young officer indeed.
So far as I am concerned there is no misstatement when I write of the spell and allurement of the East,
as represented by China, and the more I learn of the marvellous country the greater the fascination grows.
I completed the commission - three years. I went out again after the War, from 1919 to 1921, in command of the dear old Kinsha, being the last captain of that most comfortable of river gunboats. I went out again on half-pay for a jaunt at the end of 1921, returning in July, 1922 ; and these pages are being written - a far tougher job than many I tackled at sea - at the approaching end of 1925, on board the P. and O. Nardunka, once more on passage to China, where I hope to spend the winter and look up some of the old haunts. Time goes swiftly and books are slow in the making, so I find as I go over this part of my literary voyaging that I am once more - towards the end of 1926 - on the point of embarking for China, to spend at least the winter there, though Fortune may provide a longer stay.
Such is the witchery of China.
It was in 1910, then, that I first found myself on the China Station. The first sight of Hong Kong - admittedly one of the most magnificent harbours in the world - with the Tamar, white and gleaming in the sun, swinging at her moorings;
the Peak rising fresh and green from the water's edge to the clouds above, the countless junks of all shapes and sizes manoeuvring in the conjested harbour, and, above all, the smell of China, made an indelible impression on my mind. And my first night on the Peak, looking towards the islands dotted about in a placid sea, with one of the gorgeous sunsets seen only in the East as a background ; and then turning and looking over Kowloon, now in darkness except for the myriad twinkling lights resembling for all the world a lady's beautiful necklace, cannot be described by such a pen as mine, but must be seen again and again, and each time enjoyed more and more as some new beauty is revealed.
I have mentioned the year 1910 because the revolution, which was to dethrone the Emperor and proclaim a republic, had not then taken place and the country was still under the Manchu rule. Fortunately, therefore, I was able to see China under the old conditions, which I fear will never return, for all impartial students of Chinese politics must admit that the country has gone steadily backward since the revolution.
We lived in the lap of luxury in those days
they are not far off - and on a very modest income. Food was good and cheap, therefore we had not to consider the sordid commissariat problems which arise in domestic quarters in these days, and the servant question was pleasantly solved by the provision of Chinese "boys" by a compassionate Admiralty. These "boys" were so well paid, according to local lights, that they enthusiastically produced more "boys," free of charge.
This was all exceedingly nice, and to improve matters the exchange was in our favour - twelve good Mexican dollars to the pound sterling, against about eight now. And we had a charming officer in command of the flotilla in the late Captain Stevenson, who died in China only recently, and is very much missed by the naval officers who served with him and countless other friends in China and elsewhere.
With all these blessings can it be wondered that I felt that I had indeed landed in a naval paradise ? I had this conviction as soon as I saw China, and though that period of three years I served under three different commanders (D), nothing occurred to change it. Those were the three happiest years of my life.
To a new-comer especially there was plenty to
see and to interest one ; and as I am of a very curious disposition I was soon hard at work trying to solve some of the conundrums which puzzled me from the start, and in seeking light I was greatly helped by my Number One Boy, who spoke English, of the "pidgin" variety, very fairly, and was proud and delighted to exercise his linguistic powers for my benefit. The "pidgin" tongue, as delivered, is quaint and expressive, but as it is not very easy to understand in print, without the personal touch and presence, I had better translate it, for the ease and comfort of my readers.
One of the first questions I asked was: "Why have the large sea-going junks in the harbour such low bows and such high sterns ? "
Number One was quite ready for me, and replied
"Because a light bow rises easily to a sea, but a heavy one doesn't ; and so Chinese junks have little weight in the bows and are cut down to almost no freeboard forward. But, they are built up aft high and towering, and so are dry and comfortable even in the worst gales."
"Yes, butů.." I began, challengingly.
" Master," broke in Number One, " I cannot tell you more. The Chinese make the best seamen
in the world." (I dare not, after this, ask Number One for his opinion of the British Navy or the British mercantile marine, to say nothing of the rest of the shipping of the globe.) " These junks almost live at sea. Some of them are hundreds of years old. The command is handed down from father to son. Surely by now they must know how to build the most seaworthy type of vessel ? "
There was a good deal in what the " boy" said, and perhaps I may break off the talk for a spell to mention the Keying, the first junk to reach this country. She arrived in the Thames in 1848 after a passage of 477 days from Canton, having sailed by way of St. Helena and New York. Chinese junks range in burden from 1,000 tons downward ; the Keying was of 800 tons register, with a length of 160 feet, a breadth of 33 feet and a depth of hold of 16 feet. She was teak built and had three masts, but no square yards or standing rigging. Each sail was of stout matting, with bamboo ribs, and it was said that the mainsail weighed nearly nine tons and that it took the crew two hours to hoist. It was estimated that the rudder weighed nearly eight tons. This enormous fitting was hung by two ropes, while two others passed from its lower end under the
bottom of the junk to either bow. The rudder in deep water was 12 feet below the bottom, and when it was down fifteen men were often needed to work it ; but in shallow water the ponderous thing was lifted by means of windlasses and the junk was steered by a short tiller. When you consider what sort of vessel the Keying was you cannot wonder that she was 477 days in getting from China to England, even allowing for loitering on the way ; but all the same it was a marvellous achievement.
I think that this little interpolation will give a better understanding of what followed between Number One and myself concerning junks.
"Well," I said, "I suppose one must allow that ; but why do they have eyes painted on their bows ?"
With a suspicion of scornful pity Number One replied : "Because without eyes how could they see?" (What he actually did say was : "Suppose no got eyes, how can see ? ")
" Very well, then, now tell me this. Why do they have holes in their rudders ? "
I thought I had Number One, but he easily slipped out of my fingers by answering promptly
" To let the water through."
" Yes, but how can they steer if the rudders let the water through ? "
" If you will observe, master," the " boy " replied, " you will see that they steer very well indeed." This is quite correct ; a junk turns in her own length. So he had answered my question without giving an explanation. He was on safer ground with my next query.
" What," I asked, " is the use of those long whips of bamboo at their mastheads ? Surely they are not strong enough to carry even a flag."
"Master," said the "boy," " those are for the very bad sea-going devils that prey on junks at sea. These devils swoop down on any junk in sight, and naturally pitch on the first thing they see, thinking it is the mast. Notice that these bamboo whips are painted with black and white stripes, so that they can be more easily seen. When a devil lands on the whip it breaks and he falls into the sea and so becomes helpless."
" But doesn't that make him all the more anxious for revenge ? "
" Oh no, master!" Number One assured me, and for the time I left the subject of the Chinese Evil Ones, though afterwards I had more proof that they
can always be got the better of, provided you know how to circumvent them. And, oddly enough, the devils appear to bear no malice, although ignominiously defeated in their fell purposes.
When I first went to sea in the Whiting I very nearly had several collisions with junks. They always seemed to steer with the object of scraping across my bows, so that I would pass close under their sterns. And whenever I passed in that fashion I heard loud shouts, as if of delight, from the junk's crew.
So I fell back upon Number One " boy " for an explanation.
" Yes, master," he told me, " it is done purposely. All Chinese junks have a procession of devils following them. It is only natural that the junks should wish to shake off these devils whenever they get the chance ; therefore, if a junk sees another vessel in a convenient position (especially if she is a foreign one), she makes to cross her bows. By so doing the procession of devils following the junk will hit up against the other vessel, and thinking it is the junk, will continue in pursuit."
So this accounted for the shouts of delight whenever a junk crossed my bows! They were foisting
their devils on to me. I felt that I could not sit down under such an unfriendly act, and accordingly, the next time we put to sea, observing a junk shaping course as before, I deliberately altered my own and cut across her bows. By this manoeuvre presumably she got all my devils - and good honest foreign devils at that. But there were no shouts of joy this time, only howls of rage, dismay and despair, and I never had the heart to do it again. After all, I was a visitor to their country, and it was hardly good manners to distribute my devils amongst these simple, good-natured sea-folk, especially as they had an apparently limitless supply of their own.
I saw many things ashore which also aroused my deep curiosity, and to satisfy it I continued to ply Number One with questions. To do him justice he was always ready; I never bowled him out, and his knowledge of dwellers in the nether regions seemed to be as profound as Bret Harte's Heathen Chinee's sagacity in card-playing.
I had been puzzled by the low walls which are common across the entrances of Chinese houses, and I sought light from Number One. " What is the use of the walls ? " I asked. " I notice that little boys
leap over them, but older people have to walk round them."
Number One became illuminating instantly. " They are to keep the devils out," he said.
It was really almost too much, and I let him understand that I thought so. " To keep the - but let us be calm," I almost shouted. " Let's count ten before we explode. How the - I mean how in Jupiter can a wall three feet high keep a devil out of a house ? "
Number One had me again - and he was so deadly calm in expounding the truth that was in him. " Because," he said, " a devil can only go straight ; he can't rush round corners. He must go straight into a house or not at all. And that wall stops him. In the same way a devil can only sit on things that are straight and flat, and so the tops of the roofs you see on Chinese houses are curved. Now you understand why devils, not being able to enter houses or sit on their roofs, wait about the approaches to the doors." This was quite enough for me, at the time, but Number One had still some ammunition left, and he let me have it. " For this reason," he added, " when a person dies in a Chinese house his body is passed out of a window, and thus avoids
the attentions of any devils who may be waiting about."
It is necessary for every foreigner on first reaching China to master the universal language of "pidgin" English. There are, I believe, twenty-two separate and distinct languages in China, consequently it is common for a Chinaman living in a certain district not to be able to understand the language spoken in the next district, though it may be quite near him. Our " boys," for example, came from the neighbourhood of Canton and spoke Cantonese ; but when we went north to Shanghai, Wei-Hai-Wei or Tientsin the local languages were as foreign to them as to us, and in talking with tradesmen and others they had to use " pidgin " English. All Chinamen and many others understand this language, and to get a real idea of the true " pidgin," and incidentally to be thoroughly entertained, it is necessary to overhear two Chinamen speaking it to one another. It is a weird concoction in that it has no grammar and no genders, and contains words "converted" from many foreign languages.
Let me give a few illustrations. "Joss" means "luck" and is derived from the Portuguese word
"dios" ; similarly "maskee," meaning "never mind," comes from the Portuguese. "Savee" - "Do you understand? "- comes from the French, and "pay," meaning "give" or "take," from the English, and " chow," meaning "food" or "eat," is from the Chinese.
From these words being used in odd connections some ludicrous impressions on one's mind were often made. At one time when my wife was in Hong Kong her Chinese amah, or maid, had been converted to Christianity by the local mission, with the result that one Sunday she asked if she could have an hour off in the morning, as she wanted to go to church to "chow bread."
It was in Hong Kong also that a Chinese merchant presented my wife with a very beautiful Pekingese puppy. Now the little animal had come direct from Peking, and therefore did not understand our local language, which was Cantonese. It was duly christened "ugly," and some weeks later the amah, who had already distinguished herself in speech, rushed up to my wife in a beatific state and exclaimed, " O, Missie ! Ug-ee-lee when he come this side he no savee Canton, no savee Englishee. Just now he savee Englishee. I talkee he, `Wantchee
go walkee ? Wantchee go walkee ? ' And he savee ! He come ! "
On another occasion this excellent female, on being reprimanded for not speaking the truth, closed the painful subject by exclaiming indignantly
"Missie, any man talkee lie sometime - plenty man talkee lie anytime."
Again, when asked by my wife the reason for the very bad and almost universal habit amongst the Chinese of expectorating, the amah clinchingly explained: " Chinaman have got-must do! " And so far as she was concerned that settled it.
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