Hongkong, 21 July 1893

During the night the wind had relented so that we saw the light beacon of Gap Rock at 2 o’clock in the morning without having been caught by a typhoon. In order to „Elisabeth“ arriving at the entrance to the harbor of Hongkong not before daybreak, the third boiler was taken out of operation and we thus only entered into East Lamma Channel past Green Island when it had already dawned. Still there were complications as thick fog lay over the sea and rainstorms were pouring down which obstructed the view so that we could barely see 100 m in front of us and had to drive at half speed. The mountains surrounding the harbor were not visible. Only when we could see the forest of masts of the anchoring ships and in the background the houses of the city we were no longer doubting that we had actually entered into the harbor of Hongkong.

Despite the bad weather, the harbor — the third largest in the world in terms of entering and departing number of ships as well as tonnage — offered an imposing view. We saw here vehicles from all around the world. A mighty fleet of great steam ships that handle the trafic between all the regions of the world, and here load and unload goods as well as stock coal for their onward journey. Between them all kinds of sailing ships from huge four-masted ships to tiny coastal ships. A number of warships among them multiple English ones, namely the gunboats „Daphne“ and „Plover“ as well as harbor guard ship, the hulked ship of the line „Victor Emanuel“ that once carried as an imposing battle ship the flag of Great Britain across the seas but now, unrigged and covered with a wooden roof, sees the end of its service in calm harbor duty. Also there were the Portuguese transport ship „Africa“ that is awaiting here the end of the typhoon season before starting a longer journey, some smaller Chinese gunboats and the customs ship. A similar monster like the harbor guard ship, the ship of the line „Melanie“ that was also hulked up served as a garrison hospital.

Usually the number of warships moored in Hongkong is considerably larger but due to the complications between France and Siam multiple ships had been ordered into the Gulf of Siam had steamed away a few days prior to our arrival.

An as strange as original background is presented by the many hundreds of Chinese junks that fill the harbor with their bulky ship hulls and the triangular and mostly already quite damaged and torn sails only to bunch together into a real wall of ships at the quay. Their disproportionally high fore and the decorated and also very high aft castle remind one of illustrations of ships from the time of the Great Armada. The skill with which these junks are steered and maneuvered through a labyrinth of moored ships despite their seeming sluggishness  is remarkable to a high degree. It is quite a pleasure to observe the lively activity of the junks. It looks as if one would ram one of the large steam ships or another ship in any moment, but a quick maneuver undertaken in the last moment undoes the peril and the journey continues without interference. The junks that are devoted first to the trade along the coast and for fishing still venture out wide into the open sea, even though their build will not resist heavy typhoons, so that if such a storm suddenly arises, then the junks surprised by it will usually perish.

Like mosquitoes countless small sampans and „slipper boats“ race around in the harbor, while numerous steam barges diligently handle the trade between the ships and the land. On the quay, there lay, besides a legion of junks, also moored the large wheel steamboats that transport passengers twice a day to  Canton.

Used to see the natives of the countries we visited to perform every activity with great shouting we were no less astonished about the complete quiet with which the crews of the Chinese ships performed their duties. Thanks to the pouring rain we also saw for the first time the strange rain gear of Chinese sailors which consists of a long „Waterproof“ made out of reed that reaches down to the knees and repels even the heaviest rain. A large round tubular hat about the size of a wagon wheel performs the duty of an umbrella.

The crown colony consists of the island of Hongkong itself, the small surrounding islands (Stone Cutters, Green, Applechow or Aberdeen, Middle, Round Island etc.) — ceded 1841 by China to England — and the small piece from the mainland of the Southern half of the Kowloon peninsula to the North of the island of Hongkong that had been transferred to England in 1861. This is separated from the island of Hongkong by an estuary that is about a mile wide at its Eastern end called Lyemoon Pass, but grows narrower to a width of only a quarter mile. The estuary is about six sea miles long and forms the three sea miles wide harbor of Hongkong.

The island of Hongkong is a steeply rising granite mound with narrow valleys and gorges that is deeply cut in on all sides, especially on its Southern coast where the bays cut deeply into the land. The highest elevation of the mostly bare and craggy island is found at Victoria Peak (556 m) in the West; at its foot and on the Northern end of the island lays the city of Victoria, usually called Hongkong.

The commercial, financial and political importance of Hongkong, the most Eastern possession of Great Britain in Asia, especially the role which the free harbor play not only for the Chinese but for all East Asian trade attests the long view of England in recent times for the acquisition of bases for its maritime trade. Here too, as in Gibraltar, the British have managed to secure themselves a position whose acquisition had far-ranging consequences for the development of its trading fleet.

Whether Hongkong is comparable in matters of landscape to Gibraltar or, as many want to claim, Naples, I am unable to decide as I am not familiar with either harbor. In any case, the harbor of Hongkong seemed to me one of the most beautiful that I have yet touched on my journey.

The city of Victoria rises like an amphitheater at the foot of Victoria Peak. Along the beach one first sees the about 7 km long line of imposing building on the crowded quay called Praya. Beyond it the remaining parts of the well laid out city rise in terraces on the slopes of Victoria Peak. The lower terraces are filled with large blocks of houses. Further up villas and garden mansions rise. The unfortunately frequent fog clouds the Peak which is connected with the city by a mountain railway and looks majestically down upon the green of the city of villas, the glittering white of the palace-like buildings, upon the wide quay and the life in the harbor.

In the North of the harbor, on the peninsula of Kowloon, are extended shipping facilities, docks, navy depots, shipyards, workshops, coal reserves, hawser houses and the observatory with the meteorological station which is of special importance here as it is a signal post for the very frequent typhoons in the East Asian Sea. It is connected by telegraph with the main points on the Chinese coast as well as with Manila. If a typhoon is detected, the storm signals visible from far away are raised whose form and color indicates the direction of the upcoming typhoon.  This is an extremely important navigational assistance for the departing ships. When we arrived, the signal „typhoon North-east“ had been hoisted and we thus had our assumptions during our journey to Hongkong confirmed.

Both the peninsula of Kowloon and the island of Hongkong are surrounded by steep heights with highly jagged forms. On the mainland one immediately notices the widely gleaming bare spots with red earth that are irregularly distributed on the ridges and slopes of the mountains The mountains of the island of Hongkong are naturally completely bare except for bushes and low grasses in the gorges and streams, but the English have managed to grow woods and create parks in part of their territory, namely in the villa quarter and in the „Happy Valley“ East of Victoria. This amelioration of the terrain required notable expenditures and labour but has been favored by the warmth and the humidity of the summer climate. In the winter, however, the fall in temperature had been detrimental to the effort. Here too systematic agricultural work has managed to overcome all obstacles, so that today a lovely ring of parks and gardens is ornamenting the villa quarter of Victoria. The creation of a still not very voluminous layer of vegetation has in part been undertaken to improve the sanitary situation. In fact the climate of Hongkong is rather unhealthy which results in a relatively high death rate.

Despite the elevated death rate, the number of inhabitants of the crown colony is constantly growing, accounted for by the Chinese who constitute the largest  part of the population while the others are only about 10.000 Europeans and a low number of mixed-bloods.

During our entrance into the harbor, there was an unsettling incident: we were driving quite fast between numerous junks and steamers when suddenly there was a failure in the steam steerage transmission that stopped so that the ship drifted to starboard and headed undirected towards a number of moored junks. Even though we were already dangerously close to the junks so that their crews cried for help, our crew still succeeded to prevent a severe accident by setting both machines into reverse and quickly setting an anchor at full speed. The anchor fortunately caught hold in the ground and held.

Soon after the damage to the steering mechanism had been repaired, a navy officer came on board to assign us our anchorage where „Elisabeth“ was moored at the buoy of the flagship of the English squadron.

Immediately afterwards we performed the territorial salute and after its reply, offered a salute to the English rear admiral Palliser with 13 shots.

Now happened a true assault on „Elisabeth“, as numerous Chinese businessmen and traders in their small boats closed in to the sea ladder in order to come on board as fast as possible. Each wanted to be in front of the next, to display his goods and do business. The yellow stream flowed upwards, the frowning stare and berating words of our First Lieutenant were unable to contain them. The first ones who had climbed up on deck of „Elisabeth“ were mostly older owners of laundries. Each of these had a group of six to eight young pretty assistant laundresses who were well washed and neatly dressed in black, acted quite cute and reminded me of dolls. These little ladies then developed astonishing skills in praising the services of their laundries and displayed as much energy as emancipation. They entered straight into all cabins and took the dirty linen with smiles and jokes from the occupants to bundle them and take them away in their sampans. Everywhere on board, this flock traipsed around and only after considerable time our rigorous NCOs managed to get the pretty ones to return on land.

Then it was the turn of the male gender and vendors of the most various Chinese products, tailors, shoemakers etc. swarmed over the deck. These avid pig-tailed brothers appeared equipped with a large bundle of favorable testimonials among them many from ships of our navy such as „Fasana“, „Saida“ and „Zrinyi“. All these businessmen were very impertinent which however proved entertaining as it was accompanied by an incredible gibberish of various languages. One of the merchants whose physiognomy resembled a fox and who was distinguished by his smartness was even able to speak German which he had learned by trading with German warships. A joker had named this linguistic Chinese „Bismarck“, a name he now preferred to use.

Artists too came on board — painters who performed their business in a quasi factory-style, by producing in the shortest time life-size portraits from photographs. They mostly caused general hilarity but some managed to achieve a surprising match to the original. We naturally all gave orders and some sailors followed our example so that soon many a „Carlo“ or „Beppo“ in Chinese interpretation will be the artistic ornament of Dalmatian fishermen’s huts.

The avid business that developed on board was only terminated by the sudden shock of a tropical rainstorm that poured down with in great intensity and continued during the whole day with short interruptions. The fog too had become more densely and reduced the view completely so that the stay on board was quite uncomfortable.

In this mean weather, the dignitaries came on board to pay their visits. Their uniforms and top hats had to endure much in the pouring rain. The first visitor was, as our consular agent himself was absent, the interim director of our consulate,  Mr. Ernst Goetz, then rear admiral Palliser and finally the governor Sir William Robinson who seemed to care about my health no less than his colleague in Singapore. The latter had sent a telegram to Calcutta warning about cholera in Singapore, the former had informed me via our ministry for foreign affairs in a message that a smallpox epidemic had broken out in Hongkong and advised us to cut our stay here short. I, however, was not willing to have my decisions influenced by whatever illness and even shorten our stay in Hongkong that I to the contrary decided to prolong. On the other hand and in consideration of the raging illness that one could not actually notice I declined with thanks all invitations to receptions and festivities in order to not endanger anybody or disturb the peace. I could not fully discard the impression that my presence here was somewhat uncomfortable to the governor, so that he wanted to prevent my visit by feigning concerns about smallpox.

As the visit required a return visit, I went on land despite the pouring rain to return Sir William Robinson’s visit after I had been carried around for some time in a palanquin — the coolies we used failed to understand where we wanted to go. A well-kept garden surrounds Government House which offers a splendid view of Victoria and the harbor full of ships. Tall Sikhs had taken up position at the gate of the palace. The English prefer to use Indians to perform guard and especially police duties in Hongkong. Clad in tall turbans and armed with a policeman’s baton their standing in the streets commands respect, and vividly reminded me of our friends from Jhodpur. When we told one of these policemen whose presence seemed especially remarkable that we had seen Jhodpur and met Pratap Singh and Harji Singh, his eyes lighted up with pleasure.

The police in Hongkong seems to perform its duties quite harshly as the batons of the policemen can often be seen to come into ungentle contact with the back or the shaved head of a Chinese.

One of the main duties of the police is keeping order at the Praya during the night because it happens all too frequently that Europeans who use a sampan to return on board of their ships have completely disappeared — probably murdered by Chinese rowers, robbed and then sunk to the bottom of the sea. In order to prevent the repetition of such crimes, the policemen supervise the nightly activity at the quay and note the number and the time of departure of each commissioned sampan.

The streets were filled with the local transport vehicles of which there are two, namely rickshaws we had already known in Singapore that are drawn by runners and palanquins or bamboo seats that are preferably used on steeper roads and shakily rest on the shoulders of coolies. While the runners in the rickshaws lagged behind those of their fellow runners in Singapore both in speed and endurance, the carriers of the palanquins and bamboo seats astonished us by their performance. Hour upon hour they carry , walking at a fast pace, their burden and transport it fleet-footed even to the highest points of Hongkong. It is remarkable that the carriers do not show especially strong muscles but their necks become instead extended to a comical length which is said to be related to the burden placed upon the shoulders for many hours day by day.

At each berth, the arriving people from the boats are greeted by a horde of coolies who praise their services with loud shouts. Has a choice been made, the runner or carrier departs immediately without having understood the destination of the passenger and drop off the passenger at an arbitrary place in the city. Tediously, the passenger then has to communicate with the coolie and inform the latter about his error. Finally it seemed to succeed and in a fast pace the journey continues, sometimes again in the wrong direction until the coolie finally is directed to the correct location. The dress of these runners and carriers is always the same: wide blue breeches, jackets of the same color and large hats. Wealthy people have their own runners and carriers in their personal service. These are mostly dressed in white and carry sashes in the colors of their masters.

The city of Victoria is divided into two parts. The Eastern part is European and the Western one Chinese, a division that is by the way not complete as there are houses and especially shops owned by Chinese in the European part as well as European houses and businesses in the Chinese part. A stranger first notices the wide beautiful streets that divide the city in parallel lines in the direction to the Praya and create terraces while the perpendicular streets that constitute the connections between the main streets can be at times quite steep. Surprising is the general cleanliness which shows the work of the police strongly led by the English and which is all the more necessary as cleanliness is not among the chief virtues of the Chinese.

In the European quarter the Praya developed alongside a whole row of imposing buildings that are mostly dedicated to business, thus the wholesellers‘ booths, the banks and all kinds of industrial activities and most of the consulates. Behind these buildings the wholesellers seemed to have concentrated themselves while in an interminable row of shops on both sides on Queens Road, the first parallel street to the Praya, retail trade is blooming offering luxury goods, art and industrial products. There, Europeans compete peacefully for business with the Chinese. Where Peddar Street meets Queens Road, a giant clock tower rises, a landmark of Hongkong. The number of barracks is high in whose courtyards soldiers in snow-white uniforms perform all kinds of exercises.

The Chinese quarter whose streets are sometimes so narrow that two humans can barely walk side by side is characterized by thousands of colorful company boards. These are narrow, often  3 long 4 m long boards that are painted in the most flashy colors and decorated and hung vertically and contain praise about the company in Chinese letters. Colorful family altars decorated with tinsel and artificial flowers are missing in none of the shops. Countless, big-bellied lanterns and lampions serve to cast clear light on the nightly activities in the Chinese quarter. This light is surpassed, regardless of its specific character, by the electric light which has been generally introduced in Hongkong and is severely disrupting the picturesque effect of the native illumination in the Chinese quarter. Everywhere, Chineseness is put forward and imprints itself in a unique way in public life. It is much more pronounced, vivid and plastic than for instance in Singapore, as the Chinese constitute the major part of the population even though other peoples complement the colorit of street life.

The wealthy Chinese can be recognized easily in the crowd by their white blouses with wide plaited arms as well as pants in blue colors and linen stockings and silk shoes. The poorer classes of the Chinese population content themselves with simpler clothing of mostly a dark purple perkail; many men of the lower classes leave their upper body naked and walk barefoot like the women of the poorer classes. The fan, indispensable for the Chinese, is in constant motion. Remarkable is the large number of sons of the Heavenly Kingdom who wear glasses which is explained in part, I was told, that numerous Chinese dandies use this instrument not in order to improve their sight but to look like literati and thus increase the attractiveness of their personal impression, thus out of foppishness. Such an expression of dandyism might only be possible in China.

Wealthy Chinese let their queues fall freely nearly down to the ground while the poorer ones bind it up. All, however, shave their hair up to the middle of their head. The queue forms every Chinese’s pride. Plucking in jest at what the English call „pig-tail“ would be a grave insult to the wearer. If mother nature had not favored the wearer with the necessary long hair, then artificial means assist —  tout comme chez nous— and long silk threads are woven into it. By the way each Chinese carries a thread in his pigtail, usually of black color and in the case of grief, white. Children use red that promises good fortune.

Chinese women whose daily activities preferably take place within the the walls of their homes can be seen only in relatively limited numbers in the streets. On members of the upper classes one can observe the strangely crippled feet that cause a nasty duck-like gait.

Everybody in Hongkong devotes himself to business. All the world rushes through the streets to do business, namely in the Chinese quarter. There is a never-ending rush here and there by the pushy crowd that is sometimes interrupted by festive processions, marriage and funeral corteges whose approach is from afar announced by shattering noises of the inevitable gongs.

In the smaller alleys crossing the parallel main streets the shops are as if stuck together and in the middle of these traffic veins mobile cookshops have established themselves that offer fruits and all kinds of undefinable dishes for a pittance.  The Chinese tend to eat everything and one could write a book about the diversity of Chinese ingredients and dishes as well as the respectful stomach of the pig-tailed brothers that tolerates things that are in a state very close to putrescence. The cost of life is extremely cheap in consideration of this frugality in terms of the quality of food which is beneficial to the numerous population. For about ten Kreuzer of our currency an adult man is able to get completely adequate daily nurture.

The further a walker advances to the the West the more numerous become beverage stands, opium dens and gambling houses and other entertainment venues of the most dubious nature. These are the places frequented by sailors and coolies as the stomping grounds of the wildest passions where ugly scenes are happening in the evening and during the night.

After the worst heat of the day is over, at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon the throng and crush in the streets takes on a bee swarm-like character. Everybody walks, pushes, moves, rushes and runs in shambles. A pedestrian is not infrequently in danger to be pushed over  by one of the rickshaw runners while crossing the street. Even though the coolies are very skilled in turning and evading, now and then a small accident happens as our as cherished as portly chief physician can attest. His rickshaw runner could not slowdown his vehicle at a very steep slope due to the not inconsiderable weight of the passenger and drove at full pace into a Chinese store where our worthy chief physician was dropped a bit unkindly amidst all the goods.

Soon here and there excited, attracted and enthralled by these strange vivid images and scenes, I finally entered many shops that offered articles of Chinese origin in order to indulge in my shopping habit. There the same play repeated itself. The haggling found no end as the sellers asked for exorbitant prices which they reduced to a third after a half hour of hard bargaining, thus completing the trade. Finally the problem about the total amount due was also solved after extended calculations with a computing machine and agreements made regarding the transport of the bought treasures to our ship. Satisfied, I could continue my journey.

Despite the rain there was an oppressive heat during the day that caused uninterrupted transpiration. The continuously high temperature that hardly relents even for a moment makes staying in these latitudes uncomfortable as even the night offers not only no relief but makes the dull heat more susceptible. The organism feels weak, without force. Even the most vivid interest for the new impressions offered weakens finally under the influence of the heat. Those who give in to the temptation of seeking relieve in drinking refreshing beverages will suffer all the more by a higher susceptibility to the high temperature.

The hot days which we also enjoy at home as „canicular days“  can not in the slightest be compared in their de-energizing effect to the glowing and very humid atmosphere of the tropical regions during the rainy season, so that it seems to be hard work for children of the temperate zone to live permanently in a tropical region. Our constitution, our being is not suitable for a tropical climate. Body and soul lose their vigor that is required to stay in good health and perform at the highest level. I at least would in time become very melancholic in these oppressive temperature of these latitudes. Everything on this earth can be borne but not a number of — hot days.

The evening I spent on board, unfortunately clouded by a major disappointment. We had been very confident that finally in Hongkong the much expected mail would be received as we had been nearly four months without news from home and had put all our hopes on this harbor, but we were informed that Coudenhove had taken along the voluminous mail that had already arrived on his journey to Bangkok where we had been expecting to meet him in the commendable intention for us to get the mail at the earliest moment.

Now we had to be patient again until the arrival of Coudenhove, which was easier said than done as the displeasure about our postal misfortune that was dogging us chronically had crushed the best resolutions and caused loud maledictions to be uttered. Namely one of the gentlemen from the staff, an exemplary tender husband who was writing a letter each day to his young wife, was very unhappy. We consoled him approving and admiring his endurance by making audacious assurances that the mail would certainly include a legion of new letters.

Links

  • Location: Hongkong
  • ANNO – on 21.07.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is closed for summer until 15 September. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is performing Viennese waltzes and a ballet „Sonne und Erde“.

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