Captain Dan Patridge was a man of strong opinions and a teller of tall tales. He was also an opium merchant. While sailing on the brigantine Erin from Shanghai to Ningpo, Robert shared a cabin with Patridge, who was the principal agent in China for the English merchant Jardine, Matheson & Company. He stood six-foot and had the shape of an upside-down pear with thin legs. He’d also been on the Iona out of Hong Kong but bunked in another cabin. Robert hadn’t spoken to him on that voyage.
“Politicians can’t be trusted,” Patridge said, as if he were lecturing a student, but his words were laced with passion. “Especially those in the British House of Lords, which should be abolished so people have more say. The fact that they can overrule the House of Commons makes a mockery of the system, and I don’t like it that the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England sit there too. The Americans were correct in keeping the church out of their government. I’m sure they didn’t want the mess.
Robert wasn’t a political creature. Even if he had been, he wouldn’t have agreed with everything Patridge said. Hart had never met anyone like the man. “My first concubine was Han Chinese,” Patridge said. “She didn’t say a word for months, but she kept my bed warm and made sure there was good food when I was hungry. Then she ran away. I complained to the matchmaker. A week later the girl showed up looking as if she’d been beaten.
“When she got back to her village, her parents almost bludgeoned her to death. I understand it had to do with loss of face. It is something to know. The Chinese do not like to be embarrassed. If you know how to use that to your advantage, it can benefit you.”
“Her parents wanted to kill her,” Robert said, shaking his head. “How old was she?”
“She was twelve or thirteen at the time. She’s fortunate the matchmaker stopped her parents before they dropped her down a well. Said I’d be angry and demand my money back if they damaged the goods.”
Robert started to ask another question, but before one word escaped, Patridge’s mouth was running again. Hart found it disconcerting that Patridge seldom looked at him while talking.
“How about this example to show what a woman’s place in China is like? Thousands if not tens of thousands of girl babies float down the rivers and into the ocean to be fish food yearly. When a girl is born to a poor family, she is considered a burden and many are dumped in the nearest river. They keep the boys.” Patridge noticed the stunned look on Hart’s face. “Robert, this isn’t Europe. Girls sold to men like us have it much better than village life. They count themselves fortunate, because they never go hungry.”
“I know what you are talking about. I saw dead babies in the water when I arrived in Hong Kong. I can’t get used to it. It haunts me.” Robert thought of his aunts, his mother, and his sisters and was glad they lived in Ireland where women were not treated like firewood.
* * * *
The repulsive smell of Ningpo assaulted Hart’s senses before the Erin sailed into sight of the city. Raw sewage ran freely into the Yung River staining the water dark brown. When the medieval walls came into sight, he saw a large fleet of junks in the river. The dense forest of masts hid most of the city, but a large pagoda in the center towered above everything.
“How can they stand it?” Robert said, trying not to breathe through his nose.
“That’s China,” Patridge replied. “But to be fair, London and most large European cities aren’t much different. You must be from the countryside.” The two men were on deck standing by the rail. “The older cities like Ningpo are worse. They’re rat warrens with narrow twisted streets going everywhere without apparent purpose.”
Where Patridge saw rat warrens, Robert saw exotic beauty. Questions lined up inside his head. Before he had a chance to ask one, Patridge said, “Look over there.” He was pointing at a flagstaff flying the British ensign. “That’s our consulate with the blue tile roof.” His hand swiveled to point out an American flag farther up the river. “And over there is the American consulate.” Then he pointed at a bend in the river. “That’s the Portuguese where you see their flag.”
Robert searched to see the places Patridge pointed out. The Erin soon reached the receiving ship-alongside of which she found her berth. There were no docks. All the ships were anchored in the river.
Before parting, Captain Patridge offered an invitation. “If you can’t get used to the city, you’re welcome to join me in July at the home I built on Zhoushan Island. I guarantee that with the heat, the humidity, the sewage, the flies and the mosquitoes, you’ll find Ningpo unbearable in the summer. On the other hand, the sea breeze makes my summer home a refuge from refuse.” He laughed. It was an obnoxious sound that grated on Robert’s nerves.
Wanting the man to stop talking, Robert glanced toward the city’s ancient wall and wondered what it was like inside. “I appreciate the invitation,” he replied, and hurried to climb down into a sampan summoned to take him ashore. He stared up at Patridge. “How do I find this Zhoushan Island if I decide to accept your offer?” Robert was being polite. He had no desire to spend a summer listening to Patridge’s constant prattle, and he didn’t want to hear that laugh again.
“I can tell by the expression on your face that you aren’t interested, but I’ll bet you’ll show up.” Patridge was smiling when he said this. “Just wait until the boredom sets in. When you change your mind, Payne Hollister will show you how to get there.”
“Payne Hollister?” Robert asked.
“I’m not surprised that they didn’t tell you who he was back in Hong Kong or Shanghai,” Patridge said. “That’s an example of the dammed bureaucracy for you. They post a man and don’t tell him anything about where he’s going. Payne is the British Consul here. We shared a house once. He’s cooperative.”
Robert wondered what he meant by that.
Patridge shaded his eyes against the glare of the sun and leaned over the rail. “See, he’s over there.” He pointed. Robert turned and saw a man wearing white trousers and a snuff colored coat standing near the water’s edge.
The British Consulate was known to the Chinese as the Yin Kwei Yamen. Yamen meant a place where a department of a government did business. As Robert was rowed ashore, he felt excitement foaming to the surface. Before reaching land, he was shocked at the sight of a woman rinsing rice in the water that carried the sewage from the city. People bathed, cooked and washed clothes with the same water.
The sampan ran up on the riverbank into the muck. The Chinese man jumped out and with an obvious effort pulled the sampan closer to dry soil. Since Robert didn’t get his shoes wet or dirty, he added a tip to the agreed on fare. The Chinese man handed back the extra money and left.
The man in the snuff colored coat walked up to him. “You must be Hart,” he said, and offered a hand to shake. “I’m Payne Hollister, the British Consul here.” His hair was a dark sandy color mixed with a touch of gray, and he had blue eyes.
“How did you guess it was I?” Robert asked.
“Didn’t,” Hollister said. “This way.” He turned and started walking toward the consulate with sharp, crisp steps. “Every time a ship arrives from Shanghai, I come to see. I’ve been working the consulate alone for more than a month since my last assistant quit.”
Robert wanted to know why the man he was replacing had quit but felt it wasn’t right to pry. Instead he pointed toward the pagoda inside the city walls. “That looks interesting,” he said.
“I’ll show you around tomorrow, and I’ll give you tips on how to survive here. One thing that helps is the European community. There are about a dozen missionaries and a handful of merchants. If we didn’t depend on one another, you could easily go crazy living among these Chinese heathens. You’re invited to join a gathering of the missionaries and their families this Friday if you’re so inclined.”
“Of course,” Robert said. “By the way, is there a Wesleyan minister among them? If so I want to attend services in that church.”
Payne thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. There are Protestants and such, but I don’t know exactly what churches are here. I don’t attend services. I’ve got better things to do. You can discover more from the ministers on Friday. When the time comes, we’ll cross to the other side of the river where most of them live.”
Payne had some boys carry Robert’s luggage to the walled British compound. Once inside, Payne said, “This is your room. Take the rest of the morning off and settle in. I’ll see you later this afternoon.”
It was a small room with a fireplace opposite the bed. After Payne left, Robert opened his trunk. There was a noise. He looked up to see two Chinese women peering through the room’s one window, which faced an alley.
They were lovely and he stared back. He wanted to turn away. He didn’t think it right of him to ogle them. He couldn’t help himself. He realized that he’d been without a woman for too long. It wasn’t going to get easier because he was determined to stay chaste. They laughed and vanished. Again Robert was reminded of what he’d learned from the messenger boy in Hong Kong and the American merchant in Shanghai, so he stepped over to the window and closed the shutters on temptation.
It took only a short time for Robert to unpack and put his personal things away. Besides his clothing and a few other items, there were old letters from family and close friends at home in Portadown, in the county of Armagh. Since he had an hour or two before he had to report to Mr. Hollister, he sat on the bed and read one letter after another. He’d read some of them so many times that he’d memorized the passages.
Rereading the letters put tears in his eyes. One letter from his sister Mary, the oldest of his eleven siblings, described the walk down the hill and over the bridge and along the road with the high trees on both sides that let to the church the family attended. He’d loved taking that walk each Sabbath. He missed his friends and his family. He especially missed Mary. Since he was the oldest and she was the second, he was closer to her than the others. He compared her laugh to Patridge's. Her's sounded like chimes carried by the wind. It was pleasant to listen to her laugh.
Once he’d left Belfast and college, Robert ended the acquaintances he had. They were into having fun, and he knew that he couldn’t depend on them. All they were good for was drinking ale in a pub and chasing promiscuous women. On the other hand, his Christian friends from Portadown were the right kind of people to stay close to. Since he wanted to live a productive life and do something for God each day like his father had taught him, he knew they were right for him.
His mother had offered a daguerreotype of the family to take with him, but Robert had left it behind. He had felt guilty every time he looked at it and lost sleep from imagining what thoughts must’ve lurked behind their eyes because of his behavior in Belfast.
* * * *
It didn’t take long to discover that Payne kept a Chinese concubine. He called her his wife, but they had never been officially married. She stood about five-foot and had a triangular face with a wide forehead and a small chin.
“This is Me-ta-tae,” Payne said, matter-of-fact, as if he were pointing out his hat or a cane. He patted the top of her head like she was a pet. “Don’t mind her. She lives in the consulate with me. She makes life easier by doing the cooking and cleaning. She washes our clothes too.”
Robert wanted to ask if she kept him warm at night but restrained himself. He would soon discover that the Christian ministers in Ningpo called her ‘Payne’s whore’ when Hollister wasn’t around to hear them. This kind of talk bothered Robert. He’d been raised to respect women, so over time he made it a point to treat her with courtesy to make up for the cruel things the others said about her.
* * * *
The city of Ningpo had been built in the tenth century during the Tang Dynasty. The river protected it on one side, and it was encircled with medieval walls and moats. There was a lake inside the walls with a canal leading through an open gate under the wall that allowed small boats in from the river. When Hollister took Robert on the tour, he found the streets, houses, wood carved doorways and windows intricate—a hint of a culture he was eager to unwrap layer by layer.
“They live like rats,” Hollister said. “The cities were planned without logic. The streets are like a twisted maze. It’s easy to get lost.”
Robert didn’t find the city a rat warren. He found it fascinating. Eventually, when he was alone, he explored the noisy business district along the main east-west street. It was a jumble of storefronts and noodle shops hung with glazed duck carcasses. Dry good shops, job printers, and bakeries were crowded together. Pharmacies sold roots and herbs, powdered deer antlers, withered frogs and snake glands. Each narrow alley was the center of a different industry—one creating things out of bamboo and another making lanterns. It was all packed into a ghetto about a mile and a half across.
When Robert mentioned that he wanted to employ a Chinese man to teach him Mandarin, Hollister said, “Don’t waste your money or time, Hart. They’ll cheat you and you’ll learn nothing. When I first arrived here, I hired one. He confused me. Just follow my example. I make do. Besides, it is their place to understand us. We don’t have to understand them.”
Robert disagreed and hired a teacher anyway. He made a point of not telling Hollister about it. The cost was seven yuan a month, about one British pound. The Chinese teacher wasn’t that good. He didn’t have much patience. He told Robert the reason the Chinese built their cities the way they did. When Robert first asked, the teacher looked over his glasses and studied Hart’s face as if he were stupid. “Theanswer is simple,” the man said. “The streets are narrow and crooked to keep the bad spirits out and confuse them when they get inside.”
This was Robert’s first lesson that the Chinese were a superstitious lot.
Learning Mandarin turned into a lonely and tedious task. It didn’t help that his teacher snapped at him when he mispronounced words. He was also assigned to help the British ship captains and European merchants do business with the local Chinese Customs House in Ningpo. This became a challenge as he hadn’t mastered the rudimentary knowledge of the language, but he had no choice. It was his job. He was determined to make the best of it. He didn’t complain.
Somehow he managed to translate between the English merchants and the Chinese officials, who spoke no English. It was as if he’d been tossed in the fire and had to avoid being burned. It didn’t take long to guess why the last interpreter must have quit.
A Chinese servant named Guan-jiah was assigned to him. Guan-jiah told Robert he’d been born near the end of 1836, which according to the Chinese calendar was the year of the Monkey. He spoke clumsy English but understood more. He was a bony, short man with a turned-up nose and eyes set far apart. He kept his skull shaved except for a tail of hair called a queue growing out of the back of his head. He had long ear lobes, which he was proud of because they resembled Buddha’s ear lobes. The Chinese believed this was a sign that a person was born to be kind-natured, and he was sometimes too agreeable. He demonstrated a deep desire for knowledge and proved to have an excellent memory.
“This servant of yours is an odd lot,” Hollister said in a low voice when Guan-jiah was doing a chore outside, “but maybe that’s because he applied to become a servant inside the Forbidden City when he turned thirteen.”
“What do you mean by that?” Robert asked. “How does applying for a job make you odd?” Guan-jiah was hard working and seemed honest. His behavior had not marked him as strange. His voice sounded more like a girl’s, but what was strange about that? He was still young and hadn’t grown into his man’s voice yet.
Payne smirked. “You have much to learn, Hart. You can’t apply for a job inside the Forbidden City unless you’re a eunuch.”
Robert knew eunuchs were castrated men. “No!” he said, shocked. How could Hollister say something so vicious? “Do you mean to tell me that Guan-jiah is a eunuch and without testicles?” Robert did not want to believe it was true .
Payne nodded. “He lost more than that. They chopped off his member too. He’s flat as a woman down there. He didn’t get the job, so he came home and learned English instead and started working as a servant for foreign merchants. This job is a move up for him—more pay.”
“Why would a man castrate himself to get a job? That is madness!”
“Live here long enough and you’ll see many crazy things that make no sense. I’ve got better things to do than talk about your servant. He’s odd, because he chopped his member off before he turned thirteen. One thing to learn is that you should never trust the Chinese. What kind of person in his right mind would do something like that?”
Robert would learn that what Guan-jiah had done for his family was a sign of piety and respect for his elders. He’d sacrificed his manhood to help his family survive. When he’d failed to get the job in the Forbidden City, he’d gone to work for foreigners. What he was doing to help his grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts and siblings caused him to gain face for the sacrifice but lose face, because he worked for foreigners. It was a balancing act.
At first Robert found this strange, but once he learned the true meaning behind piety; gaining face or losing face, it was easier to accept. Guan-jiah was willing to sacrifice for his family. Robert respected that.
“Look, Master,” Guan-jiah said, before Robert’s first week in Ningpo ended, “if you want to go out and buy anything, I will help you save money. Tell me what it is you want and let me go to the shop and buy it for the Chinese price. If you try, they will charge you as much as ten times what I pay.” He smiled. It was a pleasant smile that reminded Robert of one lass he had seduced in Belfast.
Robert stared at Guan-jiah thinking that he wasn’t exactly a man but was closer to being like a woman without breasts. If Guan-jiah had let his hair grow long instead of shaving his head almost bald, he would have been cute. The eunuch’s skin was smooth like a woman’s and his eyelashes appeared feminine. Robert found this thinking strange and made it a point to avoid his servant as much as possible for the next few days. Eventually, he forgot that for an instant he’d thought the young man oddly attractive.
Robert decided to test Guan-jiah to make sure he was honest. He felt sorry for the man, because he had castrated himself. He refused to let that influence him. Robert went to the shop first without telling his servant and found out what the asking price was for a foreigner. Then he sent Guan-jiah. After the servant proved himself, he let the eunuch do the shopping. If Guan-jiah made a small profit for himself, that was okay with Robert.
As the years went by, Guan-jiah proved his loyalty and worth many times. He stayed with Hart to the end.