Sunday 26 March 2023

China Revisited: guest post by Paul French

Paul French, the series editor of China Revisited, is the bestselling author of Midnight in Peking and Destination Shanghai.

China Revisited is a series of extracted reprints of mid-19th to early-20th century Western impressions of Hong Kong, Macao and Southern China. It comprises excerpts from travelogues or memoirs written by missionaries, diplomats, military personnel, journalists, tourists and temporary sojourners. They came to China from Europe or the United States, some to work or to serve the interests of their country, others out of curiosity. Current titles are: Where Strange Gods Call: Harry Hervey’s 1920s Hong Kong, Macao and Canton Sojourns by Harry Hervey; Wanderings in China: Hong Kong and Canton, Christmas and New Year, 1878 / 1879 by Constance Gordon-Cumming; Ling-Nam: Hong Kong, Canton and Hainan Island in the 1880s by Benjamin Couch ‘BC’ Henry

Paul has fully annotated each title to provide relevant detail of Hong Kong, Macao and China at the time, to illuminate encounters with historically interesting characters, and to explain notable events.

Here, Paul explains the idea behind the series, and how he undertook research during lockdown. 

Lockdown – some people made sourdough, others opted for baking banana bread, taking up yoga, or finally reading Joyce’s Ulysses. I decided to explore the extensive shelves of ‘Topography ; T. China’ in the basement of the London Library in St James’s. Thankfully the Library (a private members institution established in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle), though unable to open its doors, maintained a skeleton crew of librarians who received orders, boxed them up, and posted them to members. An essential service for bibliophiles and the genesis of my new China Revisited series of historical travel writing reprints.

The basic idea of China Revisited is to create a series of abridged and annotated examples of rather forgotten travel writing by visitors to Hong Kong, Macao and Southern China from the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1920s (where we’re at with Public Domain now). I felt the works needed to be abridged as so much older travel writing is excessively bloated and often filled with either vainglorious imperial bombast or Christian missionary certainties – both of which conditions require unnecessarily denigrating and stereotyping the encountered local populations. 

What I was searching for was the ‘diamonds in the dirt’, those moments of unique encounter or experience, passages of fleeting deeper immersion into places now gone or significantly changed and, perhaps, the odd moment of enlightenment as to the condition of those they observed. In short, I read their long tomes so you don’t have to! You get the fresh cream without drinking the sour milk. 

I then decided to annotate the abridged texts. Quite simply many moments in Chinese history are forgotten, confusing, and certainly not taught in many schools. Baffling spellings, the old Wade-Giles transliterations, misremembered names of places and people, forgotten personages… all needed footnoting to make the texts fully comprehensible to us. 

And so I chose three texts to get the series underway – a much travelled Victorian lady artist; a Presbyterian missionary and avid plant collector; and a young, gay, American writer who had dreamt of China since his childhood in Savannah. 

I’m not sure the three would have gotten along particularly well at a dinner party – Constance Gordon-Cumming was used to dining at the tables of the British Establishment wherever she visited – Governors, Consuls, Vicars - while Benjamin Couch “BC” Henry was invariably described as ‘assiduous’, certainly pious, and diligent in cataloguing his plant specimens. Harry Hervey was exuberant, thrilled to be in “the East”, seeking the exotic, the Oriental, and the vibrant to describe in his flamboyant prose. One Scotswoman and two very different Americans. Yet they all left detailed and historically useful records of their travels. They all had unique experiences worth recalling and reprinting to read once again.

BC Henry spent the last three decades of the nineteenth century in Guangdong proselytising, teaching divinity, and collecting plants. Such were his botanical contributions there is even a rhododendron named after him – Henry’s Red, a highly valued landscape ornamental. In his 1886 book Ling-Nam (basically a catch all term for Southern China not dissimilar to what is now more boringly referred to as the Greater Bay Area) he takes us through the narrow streets of Canton (Guangzhou) he came to know so well. Temples, tradesmen, hawkers, and monks proliferate. But the uniqueness of Ling-Nam is that Henry was the first westerner to seriously explore life on Hainan Island. In the 1880s Hainan is remote, barely known even to those closest on the mainland. Nothing more than subsistence coconut farming, a little fishing, and remote villages. For those that have visited Hainan – now the “Hawaii of China” and the permanent home of Miss World! – it is an eye opener to the island 130 years ago. Henry was a missionary, but in these excerpts from Ling-Nam his stubborn Christian certainties are kept to a minimum and we focus on the laneways of Canton and the unknown hamlets of Hainan. 

Constance Gordon-Cumming was no less certain of her Christian faith or the supremacy of the British Empire, but in her book Wanderings in China we get a first-hand account of the 1878 Great Fire of Hong Kong. On Christmas Day the entire Mid-Levels district was burnt to the ground. Wander through the narrow streets of the area today and it is a charming cluster of independent shops and restaurants in stone shop-house-style buildings. But these replaced the burnt and gutted wooden Chinese merchant stores that existed before. Constance saw it all and wrote it all up. She also takes an extended walk through old Canton and then finally visits Happy Valley for race day in February 1879. 

And finally Harry Hervey. Harry so wanted to see China he had perhaps fixed his ideas of the country before he came – exotic being what he so desperately wanted to find. Perhaps his book, Where Strange Gods Call (1924) is an example of a travel writer’s “confirmatory analysis” – he sees China as he wants it to be, rather than as it is. But he has a highly descriptive stream-of-consciousness prose that is engaging. Hervey takes us through Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town, then a district of opium dens, brothels, and variegated Cantonese opera theatres from high to low. As a dedicated Bohemian he is thrilled to finally find himself in a Macao casino. But then in Canton, again wandering those narrow streets (importantly just before Governor Chen Jitang’s extensive bulldozing and modernising of the city that eradicated so much of old Canton) Hervey unexpectedly encountered Dr Sun Yat-sen. He subsequently secured what may have been (as Sun died in early 1925) one of the last interviews with the creator of the Chinese Republic. 

Details: the volumes in China Revisited are published in paperback by Blacksmith Books (Hong Kong), priced in local currencies. Volume 4 will be published later in 2023 with new books following at 6-month intervals.