Hongkong

Friday, August 30, 1929

Came ashore in a sampan about nine-thirty, Quarantine had been aboard while I was dead to the world and now we had re-anchored—this time inside the spacious harbor. A week ago a little cyclone tore through here at 120 miles per, but they were all prepared for it and not so much damage was done—a roof here and there hit the trail. The ships had all been ordered to the typhoon moorage. Notwithstanding, a few got the roving spirit and dragged their anchors all over the harbor. Not much loss though—three or four ships were lost or planted near the shore.

Once on shore I directed the coolie rickshaw horse toward the main business section. As I said before, Hongkong is an island. Maybe I didn’t say that before, but it is—an island of goodly size as small islands go, and very mountainous, the highest peak rising to the respectable height of 1,835 feet. Like Gib[ralter], the town is situated at the foot and rises up the side till the sheer declivity permits of no more building. Hongkong is a British Crown Colony, until a few years ago a Free Port. I won’t go into details about how England got it now. The capital city is Victoria, on the harbor across from Kowloon, and what I’ve been driving at is that Victoria has but about three main drags parallel to the harbor. All others and the side streets are not much more than lanes. Connaught Road, Des Voeux Road, Queen’s Road—then you start climbing the hill into the smaller by-ways of the Chinese. Passing down any one of these three main roads you are in a canyon, walled by four-storey buildings in which are all descriptions of Chinese business ventures on the ground floor and living quarters above. Of course everything is very much painted up in gilt and there are tons of flag poles pointing out over the street.

Near the Battery, rather the post office, the European section of business has its innings in a number of fine 6- to 10-storey skyscrapers and many imposing banks, some hotels, etc. A very nice place and clean. Arrived at the American Express; I received 10 letters, 5 bundles of newspapers, and a package of socks, ties, and a razor. Had a heck of a time getting myself down to the ferry with the additional baggage. These boats leave every 5 minutes or so and land at the Kowloon side 5 minutes later—by the railway station. The Y is but a block away—a nice place. Being full up, I took a bed in a room with 5 more. The eldest of my “sharers” is the Rev. Karl Ludvig Reichelt, an amiable old soul who has been a Catholic missionary in China for 26 years and is the co-author of a sizable book on China. His friend is younger, also a Norwegian, and I believe also a missionary. A Norse sailor from the boat we passed in the Saigon River is also here for the night. From our veranda we have a fine view of Hongkong and the hills across the harbor—especially pretty at night.

I went back to Victoria in the afternoon and messed around the Chinese section of narrow streets, full of life and smell and all descriptions of activity. Put on the glad rags for dinner.

Inquiring as to the whereabouts of a Chinese theatre, the clerk suggested I go to Lee Gardens. After dinner, accordingly, I re-crossed the harbor and took a tram to the selected spot. The trams are double-deckers. first class being in the peanut gallery.

The park is built on a hill or lump of dirt in comparison to what one sees if he looks about him. Twenty cents at the gate entitles you to a paper full of Chinese characters that probably says “admit one”. Along one side extends a long row of booths—the same as in our amusement parks, where you blow your dimes and get nothing. In front of these booths the hunk of dirt sloped up till a level was reached half way to the top. There, enclosed by a vine-clad railing, was the open air “beer garden” where a number of Chinese were dividing their time between their drinks and a Chinese singer. This latter sat on a chair placed in a well-lighted bandstand. Behind her a noisy Chinese orchestra rent the air with all manner of queer noises. The young lady sat perfectly still, moving only her jaws to emit what she chose to call singing.

Feeling sure it would sound much better at a distance, I strolled up the hill to where two more refreshment gardens commanded a view of things in general. As I listened to the fair young artist vocalize, a very energetic young man started a conversation on a little bit of everything, telling me how he had lost his job as a telephone operator in an American company here because the women played tricks on him, etc. He was interesting, and so we walked around a bit ending up at the native theatre. He knew Lee, the park owner, so we went in free and there I was introduced to young Lee. His father had been shot, my friend said, because he was a rich man.

Chinese theaters are a little uncertain. If you want to see the whole performance, you might have to sit in your seat one evening or four or five days and nights. Therefore I have a strong suspicion the actors and actresses do not memorize their parts but extemporize as they go along.  Having heard many on the streets giving out great volumes of extemporaneous conversations, I am not surprised that the foot-light performers who surely must be more proficient, can tear on at an unmitigated pace by the hour. Fortunately, this show was short, lasting only about three and a half hours. When I mentioned the fact that all the characters were played by women in this Shanghai company, my host assured me that there are male and female troupes but they never mix. The thought of such a thing hit him like the sight of a 1930 bathing suit would have hit the parson in 1895, only the latter would be more popular.

Thank heavens I arrived late and left early—for a number of reasons. The theatre consisted of a large tin corrugated roof set up on two rows of pillars. Between these pillars, high up near the ceiling hung some most taking [i.e., fetching] works of art done on canvas or cheesecloth. The place was of good size and those seats nearest the stage were better than others. Along either side, just outside the pillars and a railing, stood perhaps 75 people with plenty of kids—a peanut heaven brought to earth. A narrow shelf fitted on the back of each seat served as a table for those in the row behind who wish food or drink.  The stage was of average size. All along the back the scenery, too short to reach the floor by two feet, floated too and fro in the breeze. On the right side of the stage stood some more peanut gallery spectators. On the left was the ear-core—an orchestra of five noises. The drummer was by far the loudest and constant. The other four contributed with their native instruments, all of which naturally drowned out the voices of the players.

I entered during a sob scene. The hero and heroine, brother and sister, were seated on the stage sobbing away and jawing to each other. Jawing is the proper word. These sisters were never chosen for beauty. When the band stopped for a moment you could hear a torrent of Chinese tear forth into the night. When the band played, you had the impression of two fish out of water working their gills and mouths.

After a lengthening sob session, they dramatically retired to a cloth-covered pop stand in the middle of the stage. A bench represented the bed. Poles at the ends supported a red curtain, the door, and across the top a white band of Chinese characters [that] probably told the fascinated audience what it was all about. The curtain dropped—the brother and sister were in the bedroom. To be more exact, two stage hands dropped the bedroom curtains. These latter were always on the stage, either shifting scenes, handing the players necessary equipment, or trying to snatch a little glory for themselves by acting funny.

In rushes the father clothed in a black flowing robe and brandishing a knife. Brushing a stage hand out of the way he advances to the fore-stage where the knife is put through its daily dozen. A wicked-looking drooping mustache was draped from beneath the nose. Things looked black indeed—father—clothes—mustache and situation. All sorts of cruel words were pushed through the ever-slipping mustache, and fortunately all swallowed up by the noisy band.

At length he rushed to the cigar stand, tore aside the curtains. Brother and sister rushed forth. A game of tag ensued, the father trying in vain to tag his son in the neck with his silvery dagger. Dodging dozens of times, the son at last was collared at last in the steel grip of Paw, who raised his knife for the fatal blow, waited till the daughter grabbed his arm, then struggled fiercely to break loose. The audience was tense. Son and daughter began to plead. My friend said the argument was who would bury the old man and pray for him after death if the son were killed? It was a good one, for at length the children fled, leaving father perched on the bed in deep thought, licked by cruel pangs of torture.

His peace was short-lived for in tripped a woman I took to be his wife, short and squatty, begoggled and hair decked with a blue band. The lecture to hubby over, this unhappy individual handed his sword to a stage hand and walked out. Maw had her say to the tune of the drums. When she had run down, a large red bandanna floated down from somewhere amid the scenes.

The following act was a thriller. Up went the curtain—around rushed the stage hands placing chairs here, pillows there. Brother walks in to sob some more. As his pitiful plight is unfolded by himself, he begins to shake and stagger about the stage with a dying-calf look in is eyes. I was on the point of asking my good friend if the hero had been drinking when this jolly fellow volunteered that the hero was freezing to death in a snow storm. The stage hand decided that a pink pillow would look better than a blue on a chair half way across the stage. He walked over, changed cushions, noticing the tottering hero, remembered hero can’t freeze until he has something to fall on. Rushing back across the stage, he tossed draperies, chairs, tables, and pillows about in a mad effort to find some cold, cold ground. At last! Back onto the stage he jumped, spread the blue cloth out behind the hero, then tore back for a pillow. When the hero was assured the snow had made a soft bed for him, he sank nicely into same and gave up the stage to Maw.

This worthy woman, Dumpy for short, entered hugging a thin blanket. Forgetting to discover the hero for whom she had brought the blanket, Dumpy spieled out a lengthy soliloquey (?)(love spelling) while hero froze deader. With a thought for the future, the stage hand set about shifting chairs and the stage in general for the next big scene. Pants and sleeveless shirt being too many clothes for comfort, he rolled the shirt up to his armpits to cool off his stomach.

But even snowstorms cannot kill heroes, and soon after the blanket had been dropped on his frozen body, he stirred. Finding himself thawed, he leapt up and threw the pillow at the stage hand. It might have represented a snow ball but I think he did it to even up matters; probably the stage hand left a lump in the otherwise soft snow. At any rate the effect was most happy on this shirtless individual. He beamed, tossed the pillow around, and danced his way to the sidelines.

The stage was soon given to the heroine, so she could have a try at hanging herself on a tree. The feat of erecting a tree on the stage seemed a hard one. Nevertheless, none daunted, our stage man, with much show of true importance, arranged two chairs on the place of torture and to their backs tied a tall cross of bamboo sticks, that standing upright having the tree symptoms, a branch of a dozen leaves tied to the top. Not satisfied with his work, he pulled it all down and untied the horizontal stick. In the end there stood a tree from which waved a top-knot of leaves. Part way down a wire hook held a scarf in place. The heroine essayed to make the level of the chair seats twice before succeeding. And while the S.T. held the tree up, the fair (???) daughter wrapped the shawl about her neck. In rushed Maw and pulled her down—and never a word of thanks did she get—only more sobs and some sick fish looks. Hardly for a moment had the band ceased to function. I had undergone enough for one evening, and when the bandanna fell again, I nudged my friend and we left.

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