A Flower - Boat.
I have an indistinct remembrance of thus passing row after row of lighted boats, room after room of painted girls, group after group of sleek, fat Chinamen at tables, and then, on leaving these, of seeing miles of loathsome boats containing half-clad men stretched out on bunks and stupefied by opium, hag-like females cooking over charcoal braziers, and ragged children huddled in dark corners. I have a vivid recollection, too, of walking over slimy planks, of breathing pestilential odors, and of looking down on patches of repulsive water, so thick with refuse that they resembled in the lamp-light tanks of cabbage-soup. We also shudderingly passed some leper-boats, whose inmates are afflicted with that terrible disease, and who are forced to live as outcasts, begging for alms by holding out a little bag suspended from a bamboo pole. But finally shaking off the beggars who had followed us, and fleeing from this multitudinous life, as one might turn with horror from a pool of wriggling eels, I staggered into the boat belonging to the hotel. As it moved out into clearer water, I drew a long breath and looked up at the stars. There they were - calm and glorious as ever-scattered in countless numbers through measureless space. At any time, when one looks off into the vault of night, our little globe seems insignificant, but never did it seem to me so tiny and comparatively valueless, as when I left these myriads of Chinamen, swarming like insects in their narrow boats, apparently the reduction of humanity to the grade of microbes.
The gentleman who had accompanied me on this occasion was a Wall street broker. "Well," he exclaimed at last, "I have spent fifteen years among the Bulls and Bears, and I think my nerves are pretty strong, but for experiences which unnerve a man, and things which (glad as I am to have seen them once) I never wish to see again, nothing can compare with the sights and smells discovered in a trip to Chinatown!"
What impressed me most, however, in this experience was the idea that the millions in and around Canton are but an insignificant fraction of the Chinese race. It filled me with horror to reflect that all I had witnessed here was but a tiny sample of the entire empire. For Canton is said to be superior to many Chinese cities.
A Typical Chinese Craft.
One writer has declared that, after walking through the Chinese quarter of Shanghai, he wanted to be hung on a clothes-line for a week in a gale of wind. Tientsin is said to be still worse for dirt and noxious odors. Even Pekin, from all accounts, has horribly paved and filthy thoroughfares, and its sanitary conditions are almost beyond belief. If such then be the state of things in the capital, what must it be in the interior towns, so rarely reached by foreigners?
A Wheelbarrow Built For Two.
It may, however, be objected that in the open ports, where they encounter foreign influence, the people are at their worst. But Chinamen are not impressionable, like the North American Indians or the aborigines on the islands in the Pacific, who eagerly adopt the vices of their conquerors, and speedily succumb to them.
China is one of the oldest countries in the world. Most of her ideas, customs, as well as the personal habits of her people are of immemorial antiquity, and her inhabitants are too conservative to change them. What one beholds in Canton, therefore, may be fairly supposed to exist from one extremity of the empire to the other.
But now, among so much that is disagreeable, one naturally inquires, "Are there not some redeeming features in this Chinese life?" I must confess there are not many discernible to the passing traveler, but I will gladly mention one about which I made careful inquiry. It is their honesty in business. It is the almost invariable custom for Chinese merchants every New-Year's day to settle their accounts, so that no errors may be carried over into the coming year; and I was told that if a tradesman fails to meet his liabilities at that time, he is considered a defaulter and his credit is forever lost. English and German merchants spoke to us of Chinese commercial honor in the highest terms, and drew comparisons in this respect between them and the Japanese which were not flattering to the latter.