Friday, January 17, 2014

Boats, birds and river thieves

In 1745 Whampoa (Huangpu) – the dock area and waterfront of Canton (now Guangzhou) was a city of boats as well as houses. In the harbour huge junks from Singapore, Java, Borneo and Manila jostled for space alongside European and American cargo vessels, river craft, and other junks laden with salt.  Avenues of shop boats sold toys, flowers, food and clothing.  Alongside palatial houseboats belonging to wealthy Chinese, were boats from which barbers, fortune-tellers, theatrical companies, and caged bird sellers offered their services.  The Chinese are passionate about keeping small birds.  They bring them to the parks during the day and hang the cages among the trees.  I can't decide whether doing so is a kindness or horribly cruel.  In the past they believed that buying caged birds and releasing them ensured the owner a place in Heaven. Weaving among these shop boats were sampans and ferries laden with people hurrying about their business.
But despite guard boats patrolling the anchorage at night, river thieves were as much a problem here as in London's river Thames.  Carrying a length of coir rope and a crowbar the thieves would quietly enter the water some distance upstream and float down with only their heads above water, their faces hidden under a scrap of matting or a broken basket. On reaching one of the foreign sailing ships they would tie themselves to her anchor cable then, working quietly so as not to alert the watchman, lever off the plates of copper sheathing. Losing this protection exposed the wooden hull to worm and barnacles which slowed the ship in the water and added days to her voyage, costing the owner both for the delay and to replace the copper plating.

Jane Jackson


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What an interesting post, Jane. It makes me long to time travel, as well as travel geographically. It's the colour and variety of what goes along the river-side which is so appealing

Jane Jackson said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. It's these details that bring history alive for me. The post was supposed to show the impact on Susanna, my heroine in 'A Place of Birds' of all the new sights, sounds and smells - so different from the Cornish town she was born in. Only I forgot to mention the book's title. I'm not very good at this promotion lark!

Christina Courtenay said...

My first novel, Trade Winds, was about a Swedish East India ship's journey to Canton and from the descriptions I read, Whampoa and the city of Canton were fascinating places! I'm sure that to Europeans they must have seemed very exotic indeed :-)