Duties In Our New Home
The moment we stepped out the gate half a hundred rickshaw drivers, two lines of them that extended far down the hill besieged us. “Hey, Joe, hey Joe, rickshaw,” they called out, holding on to their rickshaws with one hand and extending the other in pleading gestures. At the slightest signal from a Marine, they dashed forward. We made our selections, agreed to ten cents a ride, and in a phalanx like charging chariots shot down the hill to the EM Club.
We learned instantly that rickshaws are delicately balanced machines. A heavy-set Marine could lean back in his seat and lift the driver right off his feet. A couple of Marines tried to put drivers into the seats and take over but it didn’t work. It took skill, balance and practice to pull a rickshaw. We saw scores of other rickshaws farther down the road parked by the wayside. They were serving as shelters, even homes, for their owners. The drivers had covers over the tops, and many were stretched out fast asleep.
We were about to have our first real look at a Chinese city. There were no waving, cheering people now. What did greet us was reality. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope and not seeing colors but instead a scene of gloom and despair. To farm boys like most of us were, who .had only seen Charleston, South Carolina, when we got out of Parris Island boot camp, this was shocking. We were too bewildered to make comments. No one cracked jokes or made wisecracks. We couldn’t comment, only stare in disbelief. Every direction we turned there was something startling to see. We were awed by the Chinese, the confusion of traffic, the vehicles, the noise, the filth, the dilapidation, the smell. Charcoal burning trucks bounced over tom pavements, some so heavily loaded we thought their axles might bust. Some did, and traffic had a devil of a time getting around them. Battered buses with people hanging on the outside like flies on flypaper rolled past, their exhausts kicking out evil black smoke. On some, passengers sat on top. Nationalist troops in columns of two marched through the streets. Policemen in black uniforms and Sam Brown belts across their chests stood on concrete posts at busy cross sections, blowing whistles and waving their arms frantically. No one seemed to pay attention to them. Stalls with dirty sagging canvas awnings overhead lined the sidewalks, and here merchants sold their wares and customers argued with them about prices. Motorcars with doors falling off, and some tied with twine to keep the doors on, rumbled past. None of the signs, not a single one, could we read. They were all in unintelligible Chinese characters. We could only imagine what was behind the signs and closed doors.
The saddest thing we witnessed were the heavy, overloaded carts, pulled not by animals but by men, human beings. It was inhumane to watch. These carts were the backbone of the transportation system. They were on all the streets, clumsy carts, with two huge wooden wheels with spokes and steel rims. The coolies that worked them did so with backbreaking effort. Two, sometimes three men labored in unison at each cart to keep it in motion. Over their shoulders they slung ropes, and upon these they bent their weight as they pushed, and at the same time they pulled on the two handlebars sticking out from the front. They slid and often fell to the pavement, bloodying their knees and elbows, but not giving up. When their carts became rutted and stuck, they twisted and turned them sideways and pushed and pulled again until they had them free. Such a curse against humanity that man should labor so hard.
And among all this traffic, rickshaws shot in and out, darting away from oncoming trucks and avoiding crashing into other rickshaws. Rickshaw boys called out warnings and threats that no one seemed to heed. Now and then an immaculately kept rickshaw, shiny black and polished, with neatly crafted gold trim, ambled past. They were the envy of everyone. Their drivers were smart; they wore new canvas shoes; their clothing was uniform and clean. They pulled well-dressed Chinese men and women, and some school children. Whether man, woman or child, these passengers sat back smug and arrogant and looked upon the world around them condescendingly. Some of the rickshaws, not the wealthy ones, had young boys running alongside, and when they came to an incline the boys helped push. Some boys couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. These drivers and boys wore cast off clothing. No two pieces were the same.
The masses, the throngs of people, moved along the sidewalks and out into the streets as recklessly as the traffic. Many, mostly school children, had their faces covered with white surgical masks. Men wore long robes, slit up the sides. Women wore simple dresses that reached below the knees, also slit up the sides. Every fifth person had a pockmarked face. Smallpox had disfigured them permanently. All the women had bangs, and when they smiled, which wasn’t often, they revealed gold teeth. As we looked over the scene, there was lack of color, no pastels or light colors among the whole lot. Things were either black or brown. The Chinese, the shoppers, the merchants, the pedestrians, they all appeared oblivious to the beggars, and beggars were as numerous as the shoppers. There was no escaping them-lepers, the blind holding on to sticks following young children, men with missing limbs, young girls hardly old enough to be mothers yet still cradling infants, and child beggars who came in hordes running after our rickshaws. “No mama, no papa,” they called. “Kumshaw, kumshaw!”
Mingled with all this chaos and confusion was the smell of China. The smell wasn’t anything in particular but everything in general. It was a blend of the whole of China. It was a smell we first detected far out at sea, and it was the same smell that followed us ashore. It was the unwashed bodies, the human waste gathered to fertilize their crops, the garlic they ate to sustain their lives. It was a smell that would never escape us.
There were some souls we saw-we couldn’t call them beggars for they didn’t beg-who appeared to have never washed in their lives. Their skin was black, black as coal miners coming from the pits, their hair uncut, matted and tangled, and their clothing tattered rags as filthy as their bodies. They had to have demented, sick minds, for there could be no other excuse for their existence, and yet, we wondered, wasn’t there a place for them to go other than the streets of Tsingtao.
The fleet of rickshaws carried us to the EM Club without mishap. Upon seeing the three-story redbrick building with a sign WELCOME SAILORS AND MARINES, our mood quickly changed. We each gave our rickshaw boys the money due them, but they demanded more and ran after us. We charged into the club leaving them on the steps below. Laughing and hollering, happy that we were still in one piece, we burst through the doors like conquering heroes.