Hongkong to Canton, 23 July 1893

Every European staying in Hongkong intends to visit the city on the Pearl river or Tschu-kiang which has still kept its original true-Chinese character and thus offers a couple of new and interesting impressions. The realization of my desire to see this strange city was made possible by the Chinese maritime customs service that kindly offered their steamer, the customs cruiser „Tschuen-tiao“ for the trip. Without this favor we could not have undertaken this excursion today as no passenger steamboats are operating on Sundays. In the pouring rain and thick fog I embarked with our commander as well as the gentlemen of the staff, Scala, Ramberg and Dr. Plumert.

The captain of the tax cruiser, an English trade ship captain, who had taken three steamboats according to the pattern of „Tschuen-tiao“ in the incredibly short time of 28 days from England to Hongkong — a performance of seamanship he can be justly proud of. The captain had repaired the ship so splendidly that it looked as new as „out of the box“. Everything was gleaming and shiny that it was a pleasure to see. The tax cruiser of 500 to 700 t displacement are tasked to prevent the very active smuggling going on in the Chinese waters, especially with opium and salt, and are therefore equipped with excellent machines and suitably armed. Our „Tschuen-tiao“ carried two  9.5 cm Armstrong guns and two rapid-fire cannons . A quite pretty salon served as a dining room while I used the captain’s cabin that he had ceded to me.

Crossing the harbor of Hongkong we came past a steam ship sunk a few days ago whose sad masts and smokestack rose out of the water. This steam ship, „Amigo“, had a strange tragic fate. It had left Yokohama with a full load and set the course for Hongkong. After only two days the telegraphic message arrived that „Amigo“ had been rammed by another ship during a typhoon and had sunk. But the message proved to be false as after three more days the ship arrived safely at the harbor of Hongkong and was just on the way of mooring to clear its load when it was in fact rammed by another ship within the harbor and sank within a few minutes. This accident led also to the loss of life as many children drowned.

Close to the spot of the accident is also a very heavily damaged large sailing ship that had lost all four masts in a heavy typhoon and had been driven around on the ocean until fortunately a steamship met it and towed it to the harbor.

The course first led us between  the mainland and Lantao and then took us through a maze of other islands until we reached the mouth of the Pearl river but we could not really see much of it or the mainland, as the rain and fog reduced our sight to almost nothing.

At the mouth of the river, called Bocca Tigris, rise on both shores two dark bare rocky mountains only partially covered with sparce moss. They had been equipped with fortifications said to be armed  with modern guns, namely from Krupp. Whether these fortifications could really resist an energetic attempt to enter for long, I will not discuss, but consider from my distant point of observation the design of the batteries to be outdated and neglected. The same impression I received from a number of fortifications further upstream that are placed on hills that rise out of the ground.

Beyond Bocca Tigris the region is flat. rice paddies cover the plain — not a picturesque view. From a hill a seven story pagoda — the first we have seen — looks down upon the river and we greeted it as a familiar symbol of the Heavenly Kingdom known from Chinoiserie. Now and then we could see small settlements.

In some of the places the river is blocked by pole barricades  that only leave a narrow opening — a learning from the experience China has made in conflicts with European powers. Since the erection of these river blockades, Whampoa, in former time the anchorage of all ships but later become desolate and derelict, has grown again in importance as vehicles whose depth and tonnage surpasses a certain limit are unable to pass the river blockade and are forced to anchor in Whampoa.

The captain chose not the usually selected Whampoa Canal to reach Canton but the more Southern Blenheim Passage, and finally the great city lay in front of us after the more frequent appearance of settlements and the increased traffic on the river had clearly announced its proximity.

Canton, Guangzhou, as is generally known a Anglo-French possession during the years of 1859 to 1861 is said to be the most populated city of the Chinese Empire as the number of inhabitants surpasses 1.5 million. Situated on the Northern shore of the Whampoa canal, an arm of the Pearl river, Canton is the capital of the province of Guangdong and the seat of the governor general of the two Guang provinces. In the history of trade with East Asia, Canton plays a predominant role and through centuries trade with the West was concentrated in this city which had been opened by the Portuguese and grown tremendously under the English. But only the treaty of Nanking of 29 August 1842 had liberated commercial trade with China from the burdening limitations and the strange form that had developed in Canton and given it a new constitution. It opened multiple harbors — subsequently other harbors were added — for foreign trade and permitted the installation of foreign merchants in dedicated „concessions“ and consuls etc. Since that time Canton was no longer the unique spot for trading with the West and lost importance. The growing rise of Hongkong also had quite a negative impact on the commercial importance of the place.

The city is surrounded by a 16 km long, 12 m high circular wall whose broad crowns are said to be armed with numerous guns. But these fortifications and their condition can not really cause concerns to European soldiers. On the flat terrain between the city wall and the river are numerous huts partly on firm ground partly on poles. They constitute part of the water city that is continued in a floating part in which countless ships are moored close together. The population of this water city is estimated at 80.000 to 100.000.

While on the one hand Canton offers a very original and interesting view from the riverside which is not missing attractions as the river is filled with constant motion of the most diverse vehicles, on the other hand the view of the enclosure of the city wall has few merits. It rises in the North towards hills laying there and divides into two parts that are separated by a wall with a moat running parallel to the river:  In the one, much larger area is the old Tatar town in the North and in the smaller area toward the river is the actual business district of New Canton. The circular wall is broken by eight, the interior separation wall is broken by four gates while two water gates are intended for boats which enter and leave the main canal. All these gates are closed during the night and open during the day, protected by the military.

The Tatar city contains only in part groups of houses of an urban character. The rest is agricultural land and open areas on which stand dispersed temples as well as big public buildings among them the governor general’s palace, that of the Tatar general, the examination halls the temple of the five genii and in the rising part the five story pagoda. Close to the Northern gate a mint has been built in the year 1889.

In contrast to the Tatar city, New Canton is filled with closely packed seldom more than one story high houses. Next to the pagodas the godowns attract the attention already from the ship. These buildings overtop the houses and serve according to their purpose as warehouses and are built to resist burglars and fire. Narrow alleys run between the labyrinth of houses.

West of the city, outside the circular walls extend the newer suburbs. South of it lies the mud island of Shamian, the seat of the foreigners‘ colony that had been made habitable at considerable expense of shared costs by the English and French government money as the concession stipulated during the years between 1859 and 1861. Three bridges that were under strict military observation connect the island with the mainland but are locked of at 7 o’clock in the evening as after this hour no European is allowed to be in the city and no Chinese is permitted to set foot on Shamian with the exception of the palanquin carriers.

Already the first impression that the visitor — just arrived, still on board — receives from Canton leaves no doubt that he is faced with Chinesedom in its full originality and genuineness. All the more a contrast is the effect of seeing the Roman Catholic cathedral whose twin towers in the South-western part of the business district is surpassing all the other buildings of Canton. The building costs were paid in part by the war indemnities China had to pay according to the Peking peace treaty of 24 October 1860, in part out of funds of the French mission. It is likely that the Chinese are displeased by this proud building and it remains questionable whether it would not have been politically smarter to be satisfied with a less conspicuous building. As experience teaches, the yellow brothers too can be disgruntled if they realize its intention. At the moment their very own remarkable skill of self-deception and their also very keenly developed sense of superiority means that they seem to have accepted the cathedral by the fact that they interpret the two towers as the ram’s horns, Canton’s animal in its coat of arms and thus see in the church only a  glorification of the city of Canton by the „foreign devils“.

Mr. Drew, the secretary general of the Chinese maritime customs service, came on board to invite me to be his guest during my stay in Canton. I would have preferred a hotel, on the one hand in order not to disturb others, on the other hand not to be forced by necessity to wear a dress coat. As Canton does not possess a hotel that matches European taste even halfway I accepted Mr. Drew’s friendly offer with many thanks.

Soon we arrived at the home of our host on the island of Shamian where his wife, an American, welcomed us and offered us hot tea. Unfortunately I could not make conversation with the lady who seemed to be a very kind woman, as she only spoke English. Mr. Drew however not only speaks a bit of French but knows quite a bit of vocabulary of German words — a skill due to his longer stay in Vienna where Mr. Drew acted as Chinese commissary during the world exhibition of 1873 and felt very comfortable so that he speaks of that time with satisfaction.

Shamian island offers the eye a delightful resting place: friendly villas surrounded by gardens with trees that provide shade cover the small island. Beautiful avenues run along the shore and well kept roads cross the settlement which offers a quiet impression in the midst of the activity of river life even though there are not only private dwellings but also the establishments of great merchants whose businesses keep millions in circulation. But the creaking and rustling of bills of exchange, the turning and sound of the coins stay beyond the hearing of the tourist.

Mr. Drew’s villa lies at the river shore. Two qualities distinguish the dwelling positively: namely very good cooking and a cool bath. Worth a special mention are also the beds that promised a quiet sleep, not the least due to the dense nets that prevented the ambush of the bloodsucking mosquitoes on the sleeping person.

As it was only 5 o’clock in the afternoon we wanted to visit the Buddha temple on Ho-nan island. We had already had a general impression of the water city but found during the journey to that island the opportunity to see probably one of the strangest settlements of humanity up close. Boats of all kind, form and size lay here moored one next to the other: Junks, sampans and slipper boats full of young and old people, men, women and children who have al they possess in this swimming homes. They are born here, live here, strive here, love here and die here.

My curiosity made me look at a number of the smaller vehicles in which to my surprise reigned an unexpected cleanliness and cosiness. The boat have vaulted mats that form two rooms, a kind of cabin and anteroom both decoratively equipped with colored paper and all kinds of images. A larger stone or a clay layer serves as the hearth where the frugal meal made out of rice, beans and tea is cooked. The barrel of Diogenes seems to me surpassed by these domiciles. As the sage was the only owner of his home, the individual boats, however small a space they offer, are mostly populated with many as the families living on the water are no less blessed with many children as those living on the mainland. The jobs these boat occupants seemed to be able to find are said to be very poor and only barely reaches the level of „starvation wages“ of a European worker for a whole family.

The use of the space of the boats is imaginably perfect. Except for the babies who usually find their place on the back of their mothers, the younger generation is kept in small sheds covered with a top on the floor or at the aft where they keep mostly quiet in contrast to our noisy youth. If one opens one of the tops of these „children container homes“, one looks at some tiny naked Chinese already equipped with a pig-tail who immediately start to climb out skilful like monkeys.

Only Chinese modesty can accept conditions of living such as we found here as still satisfactory and it seems even comfortable.

Between the moored boats all kinds of ships moved without rest so that it was very difficult to find a path for one’s own boat through the throng. Among all the strange vehicles on the Pearl river the most strange probably are the passenger boats who resemble steam boats, have a wheel on the side which however is not propelled by steam but by human force. About 25 sweating coolies  move it by their steps. When the first steamboats of the Europeans appeared upriver, the surprised Chinese are said to have tried to copy this invention but they only partially succeeded. The construction of the machinery proved difficult. The yellow brothers found a way out by replacing the machinery by coolies which allowed the use of a simple mechanism and was also very cheap as a coolie who will work eight tiring and hard hours daily cost apparently only 75 fl. in our currency per month! In order that the work looked also from the exterior like the invention of the „barbarians“ the ship was equipped with a tall smokestack out of which rose thick smoke as they burned types of wood below that produced much smoke. Thus the Chinese steamboat was complete. Later the burning smokestack was dropped, the wheel with the treadmill was kept.

With some effort numerous sampans were pushed to the side to allow our boat to land on the island of Ho-nan. After a few steps we stood in front of Hoitschong-dsy (Hai-tschoang-sy), one of the 125 temples of various cults in Canton.

These number may not astonish us much as the population is so large and China has three religious systems: the philosophy of Confucius that represents government rule and thus the court. The officials are overall part of the educated classes. The Buddha or Foh service to which the lower classes and the great majority of the Chinese declare allegiance. Finally, a relatively small number of adherents of Lao Zi that sees every human being as its own end in itself and are faced with the task of seeking inner perfection in order to return to the highest being, called Dao. As the system of Confucius has the character of a government institution its observance seems mandatory for each official. But he may also be Buddhist or Daoist.

Hoi-tschong-dsy is the largest Buddha temple in Canton and extends over an important area with a number of buildings and courts. Gardens and burial places complete the site. Furthermore a monastery is linked to the temple where apparently 175 monks are dedicating themselves to the service of Buddha. The entrance to the temple is guarded by four grotesque larger than life statues whose task it is to instil fear in the devoted pilgrim. They can apparently be appeased by votive papers that are glued to the feet of the monsters. Following a path on granite plates in an avenue of Ficus trees providing shade, one reaches a pavilion where a mystic semi-obscure reigns. Three gilded Buddha figures made out of clay are in the middle of the room while on the wall to the right and left stand a bit smaller figures made out of the same material which represent the 18 disciples of Buddha

He is shown here in a manner different from the one common in India as the Buddha of the Chinese is a portly god whose well-nourished smiling face expresses complete satisfaction. The considerable embonpoint the Chinese equip their Buddha signifies in their understanding that portliness means wealth and that fat people are highly regarded. In front of the images of the gods are large altars with drums, bells and sacrificial vessels the latter made out of silver and lesser noble metals but mostly artfully created and have a form of tall candle holders or urns with dragon heads that are intended to hold burning incense cones.

The next room of the temple contains an image of the god Kun-jem (Goang-in), a very beautiful marble pagoda in front of which lay holy books that are used by the bonzes to perform their services. The pagoda reaches up to the ceiling and is decorated with delightful small bronze bells on some ledges and thanks to its slim form and the elegant line creates an artful effect.

As a break, we were shown four free holy pigs that are so fat due to their life without sorrows that they are barely able to move. One of the bonzes accompanying us beat one, without consideration for their holiness, with a diabolical grin without producing another effect than a vivid grunting.

A third room we saw included a figure of a god about whose true life style there seemed to be contradicting opinions among our guides. In any case the audacity of the Chinese fantasy has not been limited in the imagination of this god.

Next to the temple buildings follow the dwellings of the priests, a true labyrinth of dirty small houses in which the dining room and the kitchen give a special impression of neglect. The end of the temple are is formed by a large garden with rich flower decorations where we were led to a grave of a holy man as well as that of a notorious Tatar general who has made sure that he is remembered with sadness as he arranged a massacre that killed 60.000 humans.

The Buddhist priests accompanying us had shaved heads and had a deprave exterior. In their means they had a canny, sly look and their begging was for charity with very great insistence and bereft of all dignity. The religious activity of these temple assistants is limited to a thrice daily prayer while the other part of their daily activities is dedicated to doing nothing, hanging around and begging. It is thus no wonder that the educated Chinese scorn Buddhist priests and regard them as hypocrites who seek an easy life and succumbing to their vices. On me the bonzes active in Ho-nan temple have in any kind created a highly unfavorable impression.

The evening was devoted to the visit of a speciality of Canton, the famous and often described so called „flower boats“. The purpose of these junks moored like the other vehicles in the river in the water city is to serve as restaurants and establishments where Canton amuses itself and the pig-tail wearers grow merry.  Here much is happening as feasts are celebrated and music played, songs rang out and the eternal female presents its higher charms. The flower boats are present in higher numbers but naturally very different depending on the class of the population that constitute its visitors in terms of what they offer and the wealth of their decorations. The boats we visited had multiple rooms among them a salon for opium smokers and separate rooms for small groups that celebrate a joint dinner, thus Chinese chambres séparées. The furniture is very rich, beautifully carved pieces of furniture covered with stitched cloths are filling the establishments. There are valuable tea sets and tables for opium smokers decorated with mother of pearl and delicate stones. On the walls are gilded  ornaments in meandering patterns and clear light that is mirrored by numerous glasses and mirrors floods the rooms.

While merry symposia were celebrated in the dining rooms so many were enjoying the fateful pleasure of opium in the salon. We met one of the smokers who had already lost his conscience and thus had reached the climax of pleasure. But the man was twisting and turned so strongly that it was difficult to interpret this as an expression of blessed dreams. In order to form my own judgement I smoked two pipes of opiums that an old Chinese prepared for me with pleased alacrity, but did not find to develop an appetite for it. The smoke reminded me of very strongly perfumed tobacco and did not like it at all. Trying to smoke opium apparently made the Chinese considerably increase their appreciation of me, as all hastened to offer me tea, fruits and all kinds of refreshments. Unfortunately, I can not make friends with the way tea is drunk here — very hot and without sugar.

A group of young girls took care of serving us and entertaining the guests with music and singing. Some of these ladies are not bad looking according to our tastes but they completely defaced themselves — even though they believe to thus fulfil the Chinese ideal of beauty — by painting their faces completely face and applying a red spot on the lower lip as well as replacing the shaved-off eye brows with  highly arched artificial ones. This metamorphosis gives the girls an unnatural and chronically puzzled expression and makes them look similar to the dolls in the wax figure museums. The hair of the beauties is most artfully composed. Their hairdo requires extreme care and eats up considerable amounts of time, so that the girls use some kind of fixative to increase the consistency for a stylish composition in order not to undergo the arduous process. Thus the hairdo retains its form for multiple days. The finger nails which are especially taken care of the ladies let grow to clunky lengths. Thus, long nails indicate for both sexes that the wearer of the finger ornament is wealthy as he does not have to work with his hands for his living. The girls are clad in gorgeous costumes. Extremely beautiful and tasteful fabrics have been used to create the dresses of the nymphs of the flower boats.

The dolls that surrounded us were quite pretty and funny to watch as long as they walked around us silently, fanning without interruption — but „beware when they are let go“ and started to sing and make music.  The singing was at a truly dizzying pitch and could only be qualified as a wailing, ear-shattering  „squeaking“. The musical instruments were a full match for them as gongs, zithers and guitars produced awful sounds. This does not mean that such a music is not seen as pleasant by the Chinese as they gave their full attention to it and vividly expressed their satisfaction about the art. One of the artists offered an especially lyrical and much praised love song that never fails to create such feelings in the Chinese. If such a dainty beauty tried such a crooning soon in a similar lyrical melodious way in our country she would obtain a very different effect to her feeling as the target of her song would certainly seek his salvation in flight.

My amusement was produced in the first flower boat we visited by a mossy but very jovial head  — a 72 years old noble Chinese whose love of life made him seek the jovial place every evening where he was a regular with his dignified companion, a high mandarin.  The jaunty greybeard distinguished himself with his virtuosity in imitating the rooster’s crowing and the hens‘ cackling. A skill the old sinner seems to perform to the delight of the visitors of the flower boat. Apparently I had attracted his special attention. Without fail, he asked the interpreter to make us stay for longer, offered me tea, took his seat close to me and crowed and cackled happily under the roaring laughter of all people present. „The old butterfly“ was invaluable in his comical air and insisted that I return during the following days when we had to say good-bye after endless salutations and bows.

The walk over to other boats took some equilibristic skills as the connection was made only by narrow planks under which the river rushed by. At the beginning the visitors of these establishments were quite a bit astonished about our appearance but we greeted them with a friendly „Tsing-tsing“ — the usual Chinese formula — which broke the ice so that the regulars not only calmed down but invited us to take a seat and drink tea. In a short time, everywhere a complete entente cordiale was established.

Much satisfied by the day’s impression we returned at a late hour to our cosy villa in Shamian.


  • Location: Canton
  • ANNO – on 23.07.1893 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 a ballet „Ein Tanzmärchen“.


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