Happenings

By junk, sedan chair, mule and on foot

Aug 2009    

The Rev W. G. Shellabear here recounts his amusing experiences on a visit to China more than a hundred years ago. It is a useful reminder that missionaries must be prepared, like those of old, to face all manner of inconveniences in the course of their duty.

THE JOURNEY FROM ‘FOOCHOW to Amoy, however, begins [in a junk] with a run down the Min River, manned, of course, by Chinese, and rigged like their junks with two great battened lug-sails.

First of all, clothes and bedding for the journey must be packed in the round topped waterproof basket of the country, and one’s food in a kind of magnified tiffin basket; and these two baskets will be a convenient load for the coolie to carry on a bamboo over his shoulder … The recent rains have caused a freshet in the river, and the stream carries us rapidly down through the avenues of junks which lie moored all across the river, relics of Foochow’s more prosperous days.

As we get clear of the town our sails are hoisted and we beat down river some 12 to 15 miles with a head wind to the anchorage for big ships, and there we must wait for the flood tide to help us sail another branch of the river, for in China one always travels by water, if possible – it is quicker, easier and cheaper than going on foot.

As morning dawns we are awakened by the chatter of the children who live in the barge alongside of us in the narrow creek, and find ourselves in the midst of a fertile valley covered with carefully cultivated rice fields, and intersected with long rows of orange trees … My friend’s chair with three coolies to carry him and one for his baskets had been sent all the way from Ngu Cheng, nearly 30 miles, to meet him; he engaged a local chair for me, but at first we preferred to walk and talk together, conversation being practically impossible while riding in chairs, one being necessarily some distance ahead of the other.

Later on, when we thought about riding, my chair was nowhere to be seen, so we took turns with the other chair for a time till we found another. Walking was very pleasant in the fresh morning air, and for me there were many novel sights. The poverty-stricken appearance of the people and their dirty one-storey houses with mud walls and tiled roofs, and the remains of mud walls of deserted buildings, did not compare favourably with the well-kept and beautifully terraced rice fields, but the frequent patches of poppy cultivation would perhaps explain the evident lack of prosperity …

As we pass over a range of hills into the Hok Chiang district, the appearance of the country changes – there is less vegetation … Hok Chiang is a walled city of considerable size. Its streets reminded me forcibly of those of Pompeii, being very narrow and paved with stone slabs, and the houses being all of one storey.

The walls of the city are all faced with the same rough slabs of granite, with which they build bridges and pave the miles and miles of footpaths all over the country…

After passing through a mass of narrow streets, we entered the courtyard of the Methodist Church in which there is also a small day-school, and the residence of the pastor and the Presiding Elder of the District … Here we could sit down and
enjoy our midday meal, and my brother missionary talked over the affairs of the church with the Chinese brethren.

From Ngu Cheng I continued my journey alone … My old Singapore friend, Brother Brewster of Hinghua, was kind enough to send a man to meet me on the road and direct me to the canal where I could take a boat after dark to Hinghua city, and thus avoid spending a night at a Chinese inn, an experience which I was glad to escape …

On leaving Hinghua I was persuaded that it would be much cheaper and more comfortable for me to ride on a mule rather than in a chair. The man with my two baskets, however, started off too quickly for me, and the mule and I got lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets. When I got back to the Mission compound nothing would induce the mule to make a start in the right direction … which finally bolted with me back into the school compound … but eventually the mule was persuaded to proceed, threading his way through the crowd, over the slippery stones, up and down flights of stone steps, till we got out into the country.

Unfortunately, however, it seemed necessary to my friend the mule to go through a similar performance in every Chinese inn that we came to, so after travelling some five or six miles in this fashion I came to the conclusion that it would tire me less to walk than to struggle with a Chinese mule … I made much better time for the rest of the day on foot, reaching the Methodist Church at Hong Deng in the evening, where I got out my bedding and mosquito net, and prepared to spend the night … – MM July 1907, p.77ff, edited. ’

■ The MCS Archives and History Library is open from Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5.30 pm except during lunchtime from 12.30 pm to 1.30 pm. Tel: 6478-4775.
■ Web site: http://archives.methodist.org.sg

Earnest Lau, an Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

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