The middle-aged woman sitting behind the desk of the China Travel Service in Hong Kong finished reading my visa application form and looked up at me. The lines on her forehead deepened. I detected more than a glint of suspicion in her eyes.
After living in Asia for 20 years I am not a complete fool when it comes to indicating my profession on official forms. I would never, for example, write "journalist." Smuggler, scoundrel, ne-er-do-well, even serial killer, perhaps, but never "journalist." Be it ever so humble, no government anywhere in the world likes a journalist or - God forbid - a foreign correspondent. A smuggler, at least, is a kind of businessman. However, I had thought that the general term "writer" might not raise eyebrows. I thought wrong. The lady's eyebrows were definitely raised.
I smiled. I knew the safest answer of all. "How about 'Public Relations Specialist'?"
She smiled back. "How about 'Businessman'?"
Ah, yes, the more things change the more they, well, you know. I filled out another form. During my three hour trip of the Pearl River and throughout my week in Guangzhou (Canton) I would be that beloved of all not-quite-democratic societies: a businessman.
But, entre nous, it was not business I had in mind. It was research. I'm a history buff and the 80-mile stretch of the Pearl River between Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou is a goldmine or, rather, jademine of colorful history. Many of the clashes and conflicts between an imperious China and the Western powers who were determined to open the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911) to trade and bestow upon the Middle Kingdom the dubious benefits such enterprise would entail, happened there.
The titles of the books written by eyewitnesses of the period are intriguing in themselves. C. Toogood Downng sailed up the Pearl River in the 1830s and wrote a book entitled, Fan-Qui in China, (Foreign Devils in China). And what history buff could resist trying to see what inspired 19th century authors to write chapters with headings such as these:
Destruction of Native Junks
Consumption of Opium
Battle of the Bogue
Second Bar Pagoda
Chase and Capture of a Smuggler
The Seaman's Burial Ground
The Foreign Ghosts
And, not least tantalising: Calling a Servant - Getting Rid of one.
And a full 100 years later, in 1930, the intrepid journalist, Aleko E. Lilius, published his incredible tales of daring and treachery on the same waters: I sailed with Chinese Pirates (incredible, at least, to we boy-men for whom Asia will always remain synonymous with romance, travel and adventure).
I boarded the jetfoil for Guangzhou on a gloomy and rainy morning. No matter - perfect conditions for pirate battles. As the vessel passed through the Kapshuimun Pass north of Lantau Island and entered the main river, I prepared to savour the view from the deck. Then I saw the sign advising passengers that going out on deck wasn't allowed. Similar vessels travelling to Macau don't impose this restriction, though, not being an expert on ships, there may be some technical difference between jetfoil, catfoil, hydrofoil and the whateverfoil I was on. In any case, all effort to go outside were, well, foiled.
Disappointed, but determined nevertheless, I sat by the window and did my best to conjure up the many battles that had taken place right were we were passing. I couldn't help thinking that where foreigners and Chinese smugglers once attempted to smuggle opium into China with oars, paddles, sculls and sails, Hong Kong gangs are now using high-powered speedboats to smuggle in new luxury cars.
Still, I wasn't going to let events of the present impinge on my journey into the past, and as the boat proceeded upriver, I looked past the container ships, oil storage facilities and modern factories in an attempt to locate any of the crumbling forts or ancient pagodas untouched by time, commerce or property development.
With a bit of imagination, one could believe that it was fear of pirate attacks that kept us in the cabin. After all, our boat would travel the very same route the British men-of-war took when they sailed to Guangzhou before steam, before radio communication, before Mercedes-Benz. We would soon be passing Lintin Island, where opium-receiving boats once anchored, past the Bocca Tigris (Tiger's Mouth) and the Chinese forts once bristling with cannon, past Second Bar Creek, First Bar Creek, Whampoa and finally, should all go well, we would reach Guangzhou. (Somewhere in the area was a creek known as Escape Creek; I love the name but I forgot who was escaping from whom. Now am I sure who hanged whom at Hangman's Point and if Jackass Point was where a particularly obnoxious trader lived.)
Steeped in history, I was convinced that at any minute our captain would sight an enemy sail, the marine drummer would beat to quarters and the deck would be cleared for action. Nets would be hung to prevent pirates armed with cutlasses and flintlocks from boarding. The arms chest would be flung open and I would be given my choice of a pistol, boarding axe or pike. The lids to the gunports would be lifted and the cannon loaded with round shot. Chain shot, grape shot and bar shot would be run out, ready for action. Meanwhile, hungry as I was, I knew I'd have to survive as best I could on rock-hard, weevil-infested ship's biscuit (hardtack) and grog (diluted rum). I walked to the ship's store for my ration and returned with noodles and a soft drink. (Not unlike Don Quixote, history buffs must learn to rationalise: I decided they must save the hardtack and grog until after the battle.)
Not long after, off to the right, beyond some fishing boats disappearing in the mist, I did spot the wall of what had once been a fort. I only wish our "foil" had slowed because in his 1843 expedition to China, a sailor wrote of seeing action against these same forts from the deck of his ship:
Despite their military superiority, until quite recent times the danger to Westerners travelling in these waters was very real. The head of a foreigner was worth taels of silver and could be sold to Chinese government officials known as Mandarins.
In December of 1856, for example, came the Thistle Massacre when eleven foreigners on the postal steamer Thistle, travelling from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, were murdered by Chinese soldiers disguised as passengers. On the same day Hong Kong newspapers reported that tragedy, they also mentioned an attack on the river steamer Fiema by 50 armed Chinese junks off Second Bar Creek and the capture of the cutter, Excelsior by two mandarin boats, and her crew held to ransom. we would be at Second Bar Creek in less than two hours and I was ready.
Unfortunately, the weather and a protective sheet over the windows made it difficult to see the shoreline. I reached up to remove the sheet and noticed another sign:
True, HK$500 isn't so much, but it was the "not less than" that scared me off. More than ever, as the indistinct shoreline sped by, I would have to resort to my imagination to conjure up the days of yore: the forest of masts and rigging and sails of foreign ships, barques, brigs, schooners, sloops-of-war, barkentines and brigantines, their brilliantly colored flags fluttering above them; the Chinese cargo boats and fishing junks with eyes painted on their bows and chop boats and scrambling dragons and mandarin boats and smuggling boats and opium boats and boats laden with tea or teak or salt. Or pirates.
Of course, when Chinese junks armed with cannon went up against even a few men-of-war, the junks almost always got the worst of it. This was partly because of inferior Chinese cannon and ammunition and superior Western training in that kind of warfare. No doubt it was bloody. But imagine a scene of over 100 junks, with their magnificent butterfly-wing sails, facing off against British and French ships-of-the-line also in full sail. Flags and pennants flying in the breeze, booms and flashes from the cannon and rockets, fire and smoke on the ships which had been hit, holes appearing in billowing white sails and wooden hulls, and bluish-grey smoke enveloping the entire scene.
In Guangzhou itself, despite rabid modernisation, I found much to satisfy my desire to see history as it was. Shamian - that small island on the Pearl River with crumbling Western houses - is still there. So is the five-story Zhenhai Tower mentioned by British marines in their accounts of charging the city wall in the 1800s.
At the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall I decided to play detective. I knew Sun Yat-sen and his British-Canadian bodyguard, Two-Gun Cohen, had lived and worked in the early 1920s at a different building somewhere in Guangzhou. So I wrote down the Chinese characters giving some information about it from a photograph in the memorial hall. This I presented to one of the young women in my hotel (the White Swan) and she agreed to try to track it down.
Meanwhile, I hired a driver and visited the university named after Sun-Yat-sen, Chong-Shan University. (Yat-sen is the Cantonese pronunciation of his name but in many Chinese cities, roads and schools named in his honor use the mandarin pronunciation, Chong-shan.) The university had exactly the atmosphere a historian would crave: bicyclists everywhere, decades-old buildings covered with the patina of age and a kind of milieu that conjured up pre-World War II China.
The next morning, to my delight, the young woman at my hotel presented me with a map she had drawn, indicating the location of Sun Yat-sen's compound. Within an hour, I pulled up at the compound where a young man presented himself and took me on a tour. he showed me where Sun Yat-sen had worked and pointed out the bullet holes in a wall.
Finally, it was time to return to Hong Kong. I reflected on the discussions I had had with Cantonese to see how they felt on political matters. Almost to a man, they had said they were interestednow in making money. And, indeed, during my stay I had read an article in which a Communist Party secretary complained that "it is not difficult to make money in Guangzhou, but recruiting a good Communist is." The party secretary admitted that he himself moonlighted as a shopkeeper.
China is changing, and Hong Kong has been returned to China. In 1999, the Portuguese colony of Macau was the last colonial enclave to be returned to China. As it was the first colony to exist(in the 16th century) it was given the "honor" of being last returned. Still, there must be room somewhere for us history buffs. If the boat ride upriver was uneventful, perhaps, even as I packed, well-armed pirate ships bristling with 24-pounders and swivel guns were secretly gathering at Second Bar Creek, waiting to attack whatever foil I'm on as it innocently makes its way downriver. As the writer, William Faulkner put it, "The past is never dead; it's not even past."
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