FOOT LOOSE IN CHINA
Adventure to the Hinterlands
The British colony of Hong Kong was Theo’s first taste of a Chinese city, a city of noise, chaos and a million souls reaching out blindly in every direction. He arrived in the middle of a bitter cold spell and in spite of the poor freezing to death in doorways, he liked the city, notwithstanding that it was a British colony. He liked it because it was unlike Basel or any other city in Europe that he knew. It was squalid and overcrowded but filled with wonderment at every turn. Every street was an experience. He was attracted by the fleets of junks down from China, rafted together in the harbor, and he wanted to paint them. Hong Kong was a dynamic drama of human existence and Theo thrilled at being a part of it. He reveled in walking the streets and feeling the pavement beneath his feet. He was tempted to rent a room and start painting but his desire to reach further afield, to tread upon unfamiliar ground, burned strong. He was not a man of prayer but he found himself asking God for time to see and do all the things in life that he wanted to do. Reluctantly, he had to say goodbye to Hong Kong or else lose himself to another temptation. To Theo life was a temptation and there were times he had to be circumspect. And this was one of them.
He deposited a roll of paintings and a suitcase at the Y.M.C.A., and with his easel and paint kit strapped to his back, he boarded a train to Canton. He marveled that the train, belching out black smoke that lingered in the sky in an unending ribbon, must have been a hundred years old, or if not that old, certainly one of the first steam trains to be put into service in China. He was thrilled to be on his way and he hung on the platform between the compartments like a schoolboy on holiday. “Nee how ma,” he learned his first Chinese words-“How are you?”
Theo found Canton to be a city not too much different than Hong Kong, but sadly enough, a city in turmoil. He went to see the Swiss consul, the Honorary Mr. Karl Spalinger, to register into the country as he was told to do. Theo found the consul to be friendly and hospitable, but very much alarmed that one of his country’s citizens was parading around the streets of Canton unaware of his own safety. He invited Theo to come stay with him-out of harm’s way.
The consul lived in the European settlement which was completely enclosed in barbed wire. Inside the conclave, the consul, a silk merchant by trade, enjoyed the good life in the grand style of most Europeans in the East. He lived with his wife, also Swiss, in a Chinese colonial mansion, common in the 1920s, with a balustraded verandah on the upper level, pillars of Elizabethan style at the front facade, a red tiled roof and a carriage porch, and all the rudiments that marked European opulence in Asia. Like all the other Europeans, the consul lived apart from the Chinese. Europeans were under orders that when they ventured outside their settlement, and never on foot, they were to return well before sunset. Theo was advised to follow this rule, which he broke the second night after his arrival. He spent the night in the company of Sing Song girls on the Canton River. He was aware the consul would admonish him the next day but knew he could sweet talk his way through it. What he dared not admit to the consul and his wife was that he found the Sing Song girls very amusing and his only regret was that he hadn’t taken his sketchpad with him. He did do sketches of them on rice paper that he gave in exchange for drinks, and for their services. Everyone was happy.
Canton in 1933 was not a very pleasant place to live for foreigners. It was already overshadowed by the coming war by the time Theo arrived. Many houses were braced with scaffolding as protection against air raids; concrete road blocks were set up in streets; and sand bags as high as a man could reach protected the glass fronted shops. Most unnerving were the hand grenades that exploded at odd times in the center of the city. One grenade blew up under Theo’s very nose, outside the newly inaugurated New Asia Hotel, putting an abrupt end to a wedding that was to have taken place there, and to which Theo had been invited.
Inspite of the generosity of the consul general, Theo found living in the English settlement not to his liking. He discovered that the colonials, everywhere he went, had three things in common: (1) they relished local gossip like who was bedding with whom, (2) they were braggarts about how good their servants were, those trained by them or how bad they were, if trained by someone else and (3) how much cheaper it was living in Asia compared to living back home. Theo figured there were better ways for him to spend his time rather than listening to meaningless gossip and banter.
Theo hadn’t forgotten the letter of introduction given to him from Mr. Wongue, the banker in Tahiti, to his doctor brother, Dr. Wong, in Canton. The first chance Theo had to break away from the consul he went to find Dr. Wong.
Dr. Wong lived in a middle class residential area of Canton. He lived in a gabled brick house with his clinic on the ground floor. When Theo appeared at his door he was quick to tell Theo he didn’t treat foreigners. When Theo said he was not there for medical purposes the doctor became visibly uncomfortable. It was quite unusual for a white man to come looking for him.
The doctor was a tall man, slight of build who wore pince-nez glasses which he immediately removed and began wiping on his smock when Theo replied he wasn’t there for medical reasons. Without further words, seeing that the doctor was uncomfortable, Theo handed him the letter. The doctor took it in his hands, turned it over once or twice and then put his glasses back on. He carefully opened the envelope and slowly began reading. His face changed from that of a sullen, sad man to a cherubic glow. He had to take a seat. He motioned for Theo to be seated across from him. He read the letter again.
The doctor sat there for the longest time. Then he said to Theo that he would never know how much that letter meant to him. He began asking Theo all sorts of questions, how his brother was managing, his family, his health. He ordered tea and they moved into the courtyard and more questions followed. It was obvious to Theo that the two brothers did not have much contact with each other over the years. When the doctor learned where Theo was living, and he was not happy there, he invited him to stay with him. Theo gladly accepted.
Less than a fortnight after Theo’s arrival, the doctor announced his intention of setting off on a month-long pilgrimage to Foochow. It sounded to Theo it might be perhaps a penance for his misdeeds, but he didn’t know. “You can come along if you wish, but I must say to you it will not be an easy trip.” How difficult a trip would it be, Theo asked himself. Dr. Wong didn’t appear to be a Hercules of a man.
“I am sure I can manage it,” Theo said.
The doctor didn’t explain his reason for the mission, only that it would be to the territory above Foochow. “We will travel on foot the whole way with one frugal meal a day,” the doctor said. Theo noted in his journal that it sounded “rather Spartan,” but he accepted anyway. What better way could there be to see China? He strapped his easel to his back and placed his painting kit and canvases in a sturdy leather bag that he slung over one shoulder. “Wa shir ha,” he shouted to the doctor. “Women zhou.” I am fine; let’s go. For the first time the doctor laughed when he saw Theo decked out and ready to go.
As it turned out, it wasn’t as difficult as Theo was lead to believe, at least not for the doctor. He rode on horseback supporting a yellow flag on a long pole. The flag displayed his medical ensign. A few miles from town the road gave way to a rutted trail. Heavy lorries and confiscated military vehicles negotiated the trail, but mostly traffic was oxen carts which bobbled painstakingly along. Some carts were pulled not by oxen but by humans, men and boys with ropes slug over their shoulders. It was most pitiful for Theo to watch them labor as they had to when their heavy burdensome carts got stuck in ruts. Then they groaned and slipped and fell to their knees struggling to get the carts free. At first, feeling pity for them, Theo stopped to help them but he soon realized it was a useless endeavor. He couldn’t help them all.