China Books

Tales of Old Hong Kong


The new Tales of Old Hong Kong compiled and written by Derek Sandhaus is available at Earnshaw Books.

Below we run an extract.

Excerpt from Tales of Old Hong Kong

edited and written by Derek Sandhaus

Boat People
In A Voyage in the ‘Sunbeam’ by Annie Allnut Brassey, 1881:
Off the town of Victoria the crowd of shipping is immense, and it became a difficult task to thread our way between the fleets of sampans and junks. The latter are the most extraordinary-looking craft I ever saw, with high, overhanging sterns and roll, or rather draw, up sails, sometimes actually made of silk, and puffed like a lady’s net ball-dress. Then their decks are so crowded with lumber, live and dead, that you wonder how the boats can be navigated at all…The sampans are long boats, pointed at both ends, and provided with a small awning. They have deep keels; and underneath the floor there is one place for a cooking fire, another for an altar, and a third where the children are stowed to be out of the way. In these sampans whole families, sometimes five generations, live and move and have their being. I never shall forget my astonishment when, going ashore very early one morning in one of these strange craft, the proprietor lifted up what I had thought was the bottom of the boat, and disclosed three or four children, packed away as tight as herrings, while under the seats were half-a-dozen people of larger growth. The young mother of the small family generally rows with the smallest baby strapped on to her back, and the next-sized one in her arms, whom she is also teaching to row. The children begin to row by themselves when they are about two years old. The boys have a gourd, intended for a life-preserver, tied round their necks as soon as they are born. The girls are left to their fate, a Chinaman thinking it rather an advantage to lose a daughter or two occasionally… Many of these sampan people have never set foot on shore in their lives, and this water-life of China is one of the most extraordinary features of the country.

The Peak Tram
The summer heat in Hong Kong drove many of its more affluent residents up the Peak, but for decades the journey to and from the top was neither fast nor convenient, requiring a team of coolies with sedan chairs. All this changed in 1888, when Governor Des Voeux unveiled a funicular railway that could climb the Peak in less than ten minutes. Des Voeux and subsequent governors would use the Peak Tram, as it was called, to travel between Government House and Mountain Lodge (their summer residence) with a special seat bearing the inscription ‘This seat is reserved for his Excellency The Governor’. It was the height of modern engineering at the time of its construction and, to this day, has never had an accident.

Man Overboard!
From A Merry Banker in the Far East by Walter H. Young, 1916:
When we reached a certain quiet bay we knew of, some twenty miles from Hong Kong, we would anchor our launch; put on our bathing suits; drop into the dinghy, have a swim round and some cherry-brandy; and then go a-fishing with our little bits of dynamite tied to sticks of firewood, with a foot or two of fuse attached. Having lighted the fuse, we would chuck it far away from the boat; then lie on our oars holding ready little rope nets, tacked to the end of long bamboos. When the explosion occurred, lots of fish came stunned to the surface, and these we used to rake in for chow-chow.

On one occasion, our dinghy kept drifting nearer and nearer the dynamite, which smouldered but wouldn’t go off. When we were nearly on top of it expecting at any moment to be frightfully shocked (we were too paralysed to pull away) one of our pals in the boat – a nervy chap – dived overboard in a mortal funk. Then the long-waited- for explosion exploded, and, as usual, the shock struck downwards; so our dear old pal with the other silly fishes came floating to the surface tummy topside! We didn’t cook or fillet him – just smacked him to life – then passed the cherry-brandy round!

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