Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Canton and Its Population


A correspondent writes from Canton, China, as follows:

As we arrive in front of the city the famous boat population presents itself. The river is covered with boats of many sizes and shapes, and as we look at them we can readily believe what is told us, that 60,000 people live on these boats. The statement is literal, not figurative. They are born, they are reared, they live, they grow to old age, they die in these boats. So lived their ancestors, and so will live their descendants.

Here is a boat rowed by two women. A child sits in a little compartment provided for him, or creeps about the deck. A cord is around his waist and fastened to the boat or a billet of wood, and as he knows that he cannot receive any attention, he does not demand it. The hotel runners that board the steamer on our arrival are women, and they carry our baggage without the slightest intimation that we are wanting in deference to their sex. Of the small boats on the river, I think at least half are manned by women, (you see the joke?) and sometimes there are whole crews of them.

From the boat population of Canton come the men who serve as sailors in junks and other craft along the coast, and a large majority of the Chinese seamen on foreign ships are, doubtless, from the same source. It is said that these people are not allowed to live on shore either at Canton or elsewhere, but I cannot say if the statement be true or not. I have inquired of several persons who ought to know about it, but as no two tell the same story, the reader may believe whatever he likes.

The strange sights that greet one's eyes on shore are so numerous and varied that a mere list would be hopeless. The streets are so narrow that carriages are out of the question, and even the sedan chairs in which we ride find occasional difficulty in passing other chairs bound in the opposite direction. Burdens great and small are carried by coolies, and some of these burdens are novel indeed. A coolie carries his load, or rather his two loads, balanced on a bamboo pole across his shoulder, and sometimes a baby in one basket preserves the equilibrium of a quantity of vegetables in another. Here comes a man transporting a couple of live pigs, each in a case so very small that the animal cannot move, and possibly cannot, as he certainly does not, squeal.

Boxes and bags and baskets are thus borne along, and though the crowd is dense, nobody is run down; and though our chair-bearers walk at a good pace, they do not overturn a single pedestrian. The principal streets are little else than rows of shops, whose entire fronts are thrown open to speak a welcome to the possible visitor. The shops are gayer, brighter and cleaner than in any other part of China, and if we enter we are pretty certain to be received with the utmost politeness. Silk-weavers are busy at their looms, and ivory carvers at their benches; in fact, all the trades of Canton seemed to be maintained without mystery, and we may steal the art of any one of them, and carry it home with us, if so disposed.

Everybody appears happy and contented, with the exception of an occasional beggar, who is gotten up in a style of wretchedness regardless of expense. Canton is a veritable kaleidoscope of sights.

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