The boy kept talking, but Robert wasn’t listening. Instead he was still seeing the mercenary shooting the infants in the water.
“Do all foreigners have different colored hair?” Chen asked. “Yours look like wet sand. I seen red and yellow too. Does it come in green and blue? Look at my hair.” The boy ran a hand through his thick dark hair. When he took his hand away, the hair fell back into place. It looked as if someone had put a bowl on his head to cut it. The ten-year-old boy, a thin lad about four feet tall, was Robert Hart’s first Mandarin teacher. He spoke enough English to correct Robert when his Chinese pronunciations were off.
Robert’s first weeks in China were spent on Hong Kong Island at the conslate in Victoria City practicing simple Chinese with this boy, who was a messenger for the British.
Hart’s routine was to arrive by nine in the morning and work twelve hours. The desk was by a window that revealed Victoria Harbor. Chen was usually there when Robert arrived. In prior conversations, Chen had asked questions about Ireland. This time he was attempting to earn a bit more than the consulate paid.
“I know woman who love to see your hair,” Chen continued. “Would you like to meet her? She singsong girl and is better than prostitute.”
When Hart didn’t respond, Chen said, “If you want more than evening with prostitute, I arrange time with suitable sing-song girl and price is lower than decent girl from peasant family. You buy singsong girl as young as thirteen for mere two hundred yuan and make her your concubine or Chinese wife. When you return to England, I help sell her someone else. I not charge much, and she keep you warm in winter. She also save money by not letting merchants cheat you as they do foreign devils.”
The price Chen quoted was low. Two hundred-yuan was about thirty-three pounds. It shocked Robert that a woman could be bought in China like a chair or a piece of art. It bothered him more that he found the idea tempting. “How much more would it cost to buy a respectable village girl?” Robert asked, disgusted with his curiosity. Asking that question reminded him of all the girls he had seduced in Belfast while in college. His family had been shocked when they found out. He shouldn’t be listening to this boy and asking questions. He didn’t want to disappoint his family and friends again, but he couldn’t help himself.
Chen shook his head. “It cost more and be difficult. Most peasants not sell daughter to foreigner. It much easier to buy young virgin singsong girl. That way you avoid getting prostitute. But if you want village girl, I help.”
Robert had not counted on the Chinese culture seducing him so soon after his arrival. His mind wasn’t ready for it. He had been raised to respect women as equals—not property. He resolved to attend church services twice that Sabbath to atone for being tempted and decided to look for someone else to help him learn Mandarin.
“Mr. Hart.” A bold voice called. Robert turned and there in the doorway stood the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring. His appearance was striking. He had a wide forehead with a receding hairline. What gray hair he had was thick and curly. He wore small wire framed glasses, and his features were rugged as if they had been chiseled out of weathered granite. Sir Bowring was also Her British Majesty’s Minister to China and was soon to be on his way to Peking to negotiate with the Imperial government.
When Chen saw the governor, he bolted from the room.
Sir Bowring may have heard the conversation, so Robert again regretted his question about the price for a village girl. His face burned with embarrassment. The governor would think him a libertine. What a horrible first impression.
“Don’t let the boy shock you,” Sir John said. “You are no longer in England. I can see by the look on your face that you’re upset.”
“Not as much as I was when my ship sailed into the bay,” Robert said in an attempt to change the subject.
“Oh,” the governor replied. “What happened?”
“There was this American shooting at targets in the water. I don’t remember the man’s name. I heard that he was a mercenary on his way to Shanghai. When I went to watch, he was shooting at little bodies floating in the bay.”
“Did he have long, black hair?” the governor asked.
“Yes, that’s right. You know him then?”
“I was introduced to him. His name is Frederick Townsend Ward, and he’s looking for employment. He’s taking advantage of the situation in China to make a name for himself and a fortune.”
“What I saw him do was horrible,” Robert said. “I almost lost my supper. He was shooting at three bloated infants floating in the water.”
“They were girls,” the governor said. “The peasants living along the Hsi River throw them into the water to get rid of them after they’re born. Girls are considered a burden in China by most Chinese. It is a common practice here. Those who live in poverty in China don’t have much to go around, and feeding a female child means less food for the rest of the family. It might help to know that the infants were already dead when Ward was shooting at them.”
“It was barbarous!” Robert said. “How can anyone civilized do such things?”
“The Chinese don’t see it that way,” the governor said. “Just because it is shocking, don’t turn away from such lessons in life. Study everything around you. Go out and walk in the streets and read the shop signs. Bend over the bookstalls and read the titles. Listen to the talk of the people. If you acquire these habits, you’ll not only learn something new every time you leave your door, but you’ll always carry with you an antidote for boredom.”
“I do not want to see little baby girls floating dead in the sea like so much flotsam. I still relive it in nightmares and wake soaked in sweat each morning.”
“Nevertheless,” the governor said, “take everything that happens and learn from it. In the end you will be a better, stronger person. Don’t shy away from understanding such things even if you disagree with them.”
* * * *
Robert decided to follow Sir Bowring’s advice and explored the open-air markets in Hong Kong. It was also a way to avoid Chen, who still wanted to sell him a woman. Robert visited the fruit and vegetable market in the mornings where he started with a bowl of hot soybean juice. He liked it in the morning when it was fresh.
One aisle stood out—the meat market where the pungent smell of live poultry hurried him along. The cages were filled with quiet chickens and ducks as if they knew they were on their way to the executioner. There’d always be at least one who continuously chirped or quacked in a tone that sounded like someone begging for mercy. Robert bought a turtle that was kept in a shallow tank. The vendor gutted the creature for him, and he cooked it in the consulate kitchen. His meals were always simple—usually two dishes. One day when Robert was cooking cabbage and chicken, Chen, the messenger boy, walked in.
Not him. Robert wanted to be elsewhere.
“Why you doing that?” the boy asked.
“Doing what?” Robert sounded irritated.
“Cooking cabbage by itself and chicken by itself. It not going to have flavor. If you want it to taste good, you have to cook cabbage and chicken together. That way cabbage adds flavor to chicken and chicken adds to cabbage. Not only do you foreign devils have crazy colored hair, but you do not know how to eat.”
Robert tried it and Chen was right. As the years went by, he saw the Chinese combine foods to enhance flavor. They also liked the texture of food and the way it felt on the tongue. This explained why they ate smelly tofu, jelly fish and seaweed—things Hart never got used to, especially smelly tofu, which reminded him of unwashed dirty socks that hadn’t seen daylight for years.
After buying meat in the open-air market, Robert turned to the fruits and vegetables. The Chinese grew an amazing variety, and he enjoyed haggling over the prices. This was how he learned to pronounce his first Chinese words properly.
“No, that costs too much,” he said in his clumsy Chinese, which at the time was mostly limited to different values of currency. The vendors talked so fast that he couldn’t understand them. As far as he knew, they were insulting him.
He made sure to hold the amount he was willing to pay where the vendor could see it. Then he turned to walk away. Sometimes they let him go, but somewhere in the teeming market he got his price. It was probably higher than the Chinese paid but a bargain compared to Ireland. It didn’t take long to discover that what he earned in a month was equal to what Chinese workers earned in a year.
When he went at night to the craft market, he discovered small stalls set up in narrow lanes. Every time Robert went, the market was stuffed with crowds of people. All kinds of clothing, leather goods and crafts were sold. After walking away from a tempting hand carved bamboo birdcage that looked like a miniature pagoda, he bought his first piece of treasured Chinese art for a few yuan. It was a small hand sized woodcarving of a smiling round bellied Buddha dancing on the back of a turtle.
He wanted a boulder-sized chunk of jade with an entire miniature village carved into it. The town was detailed down to the tiles on the temple roof. There were carved timbers on a bridge that spanned a creek where the rippling water had been sculpted to look like frothy rapids. The jade weighed at least a hundred pounds. He didn’t buy it. It was difficult for Robert to see himself traveling with it. Besides, the price was too high.
* * * *
After learning about the singsong girls, prostitutes and open-air markets, Robert was introduced to Chinese pirates. The consulate in Ningpo, about eight hundred miles northwest from Hong Kong, became his permanent duty station. As no ships sailed directly to Ningpo from Hong Kong, he had to transit through Shanghai, another hundred miles farther north.
He sailed on the Iona, a hundred and fifty-ton opium schooner. Halfway to Shanghai, a pirate junk, a Cantonese Comanting with an eye painted on the bow, surprised the Iona by darting out from the coast. Robert stood by the rail and gripped it so hard that his hands ached. It was a relief when the schooner captain piled on sails to escape. After spending months traveling halfway around the world, Robert wasn’t ready to die like this.
At first, Robert thought it might be safer below decks. However, since many passengers were seasick and the smell down there was so dreadful, he decided to stay topside and take his chances.
Dark patches of clouds swept down on the ship as quickly as the sails went up and a sudden squall struck. With the wind whistling through the rigging, Robert’s sense of danger evaporated and was replaced by excitement. As a child, he’d loved running with the wind pushing him.
“Hold on, Hart,” the captain yelled, as the breeze became a gale, and he saw Robert being battered about. “I don’t want to lose any of my passengers to these waves. Go below where it’s safer.”
“If you don’t mind,” Robert shouted to be heard above the din, “I’d rather stay on deck, so I don’t miss a thing.” He thought of the putrid stale air below and how invigorating the wind was. He didn’t want to give it up. Robert leaped for the nearest rope and held on. The wind tugged at his body. He laughed. There was nothing to worry about now. With the schooner’s sudden speed, the pirates were going to be left behind. Soon he was soaked to the skin. As a boy he’d been caught in a rainstorm like this once on the way home from school, and it hadn’t bothered him. His mother had been horrified when he’d arrived home soaked to the skin. He’d loved it.
The waves, some higher than the deck, battered the Iona. The rain came down so thick that the pirates were lost to sight. The captain reduced the amount of canvas and sailed into a cove for shelter. Robert was shocked when minutes later he saw the pirate ship appear on the far side of the cove. It was unnerving to have them so close. His stomach felt as if he’d eaten spoiled food.
“If those bastards catch us, we’re doomed!” the captain yelled. “We’re safe now. We are out of range of their cannons, but we’re going back into the storm anyway. I don’t want to take any chances.” Robert looked around. He saw the fear in the crewmen’s eyes. The crew scrambled into the rigging, but the storm swept away as suddenly as it had arrived and the wind died.
We’re doomed, Robert thought, and again he considered going below deck. Then he gauged the distance to land and wondered if he could swim ashore to escape the pirates if the threat they posed became worse.
Even from this distance he saw hundreds of cutthroats crowded on the pirate ship. Robert went below, unpacked his pistol and loaded it. When he returned topside, he had the pistol in his coat pocket. He saw that some of the other passengers had come on deck.
“Get out the boats,” the captain ordered. The crewmen raced out of the rigging, and the ship’s boats were lowered into the water. A long, hemp cable was used. Soon the Iona was being towed.
“Are they going to kill us?” another passenger asked. Robert was thinking the same thing.
“There is nothing to worry about yet,” the captain replied, as he stared through his telescope. “It looks as if they don’t have any small boats to come after us.”
Robert pulled out his pistol and checked the loads. Once he was satisfied the weapon was ready, he slipped it back into his pocket.
“But maybe they will,” one of the crewmen said, as he crossed himself. “You see that painted eye on the bow of their ship. It’s been watching us. That’s how they found where we went. I say it’s a wolf’s eye but Jerry here,” he pointed at another crewman nearby, “says it’s an eagle eye.”
Robert realized that the man was superstitious, but it was a frightening thought anyway.
“Don’t listen to him,” the captain said. “He’s an old fool. That eye is nothing but paint. What about you, Hart? Are you ready for a fight against pirates?”
Robert pulled the loaded pistol from his pocket again. “I’m a good shot, Captain. I don’t expect being a burden if it comes to a fight.” He did his best to keep his voice from revealing the fear he felt. He checked the loads again before he put it away.
The captain walked over and slapped him on the back. Then he turned to his first mate. “Keep the crew in the rigging, so we are ready to make sail once the wind picks up. We don’t want to miss the chance to slip away from those devils.”
The first mate walked off yelling orders.
“Have you run into pirates before?” Robert asked and wished he hadn’t. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.
“In these waters it is part of the job,” the captain replied. “Don’t worry. I’ve been in China for a decade and haven’t been caught by the bastards yet.”
When it got dark, it bothered Robert that he couldn’t see what the pirates were up to. The hours seemed so long. Robert relaxed when the wind picked up, and the Iona slipped out of the cove under the cover of darkness. Once he felt it was safe, he returned his pistol to the trunk in his cabin. Then he went back on deck to enjoy the wind and fresh air.
After the captain announced they were safe, the monsoon swept down and what should've taken a week to reach Shanghai stretched into three. The schooner struggled through one storm after another. It creaked and groaned as the rough seas tossed it about. Robert couldn’t sleep, and his body ached from exhaustion. If the ship had been a living creature, he knew exactly how it would feel.
The provisions on board ran out. Robert thought they might starve, but the captain took a risk and went ashore with a few men from the crew to find food. Robert’s empty stomach felt as if it had been turned inside out. Until then, Robert never realized how fortunate his life had been. He’d never gone long without food.
The captain returned, and everyone ate nothing but peanuts and the tough meat of water buffalo for the rest of the voyage. It was the only food that the captain could get. Some of the passengers complained, but Robert didn’t say a word. He took what he was given and ate it.
Twenty-two days after leaving Hong Kong, the schooner dropped anchor off Shanghai in the waters of the Huangpu at the mouth of the Yangtze River.