Sunday, 14 October 2012

Continuing the story of George Thomas Howell

(Apologies for the break in service but I have spent the past year in the midst of a property move.  My archive material is now slowly being unpacked so I am able to resume the story of George Thomas Howell.)

It may be remembered that the year is 1892 and George has arrived in Gank’ing (Anqing) 400 miles from Shanghai.  His letters home describe some of the scenes that greet him daily:

“We are greeted with opium fumes from one of the many dens we must pass as we walk westwards and a glance inside reveals some of the victims lying on couches of wood and inhaling the drug which ministers to their lusts and ruins them.  A little further we notice a group of men bending over a dirty pack of cards or throwing the dice and so intently absorbed in their gambling operations that even the “foreigners” pass unnoticed.  Gambling is a vice only second to opium smoking in China and one sees the tiniest of children, all but naked, seated round a dice bowl and learning to gamble almost before they can walk properly.

Turning into one of the main streets, dirty and narrow, we have to pick our way in and out amongst throngs of shouting coolies some of them bearing tremendously heavy burdens: water carriers with their two wooden pails, one slung at each end of the bamboo pole; hawkers of every conceivable kind of ware; and the inevitable barber also carrying his “shop” on a bamboo pole, having the water bowl and a kind of chest containing his kettle of hot water, combs, razors etc. at one end whilst at the other is the stool for his customers to sit upon.  It is quite a common thing to see a man having a shave and getting his queue plaited in open street – no-one taking the least notice or exhibiting the slightest interest in the operation. 

In this street to we shall probably notice a man sitting at a table with a piece of paper having Chinese characters written all over them, pasted on the surface of the table a few sticks in a sort of bamboo bottle without a neck, and perhaps two or three books complete his stock in trade.  With these he will, for a consideration, tell – or profess to tell – the fortune and misfortunes of his numerous patrons.  As the “Foreign Teachers” or “Foreign Devils” pass (according to the favour or disfavour with which he regards us) he will probably have something to say which directs the attention of the group surrounding hin to us, but we walk on, our limited knowledge of the language preventing us hearing as to whether he finds our passing at the auspicious moment an omen of good or evil.”

Over the next few months sickness prevailed and George lost at least one of his fellow missionaries.   He also made the long trip to Shanghai and during the visit met up with members of the Shanghai Municipal Police Force.   

On returning to Gank’ing George sat – and passed – his “first section” examination.  

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