A visit to China’s Venice
Published on: Saturday, October 10, 2020
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January 16, 1931 

Most of the large villages and walled towns of Kiangsu and Chekiang stand on the canals which serve as the highway of the two provinces. Whichever route we took to go to the hills on our annual summer holiday our houseboat had to pass through places of considerable local importance and they always thrilled us. 

What memories the names call up: Kashing, and Huchow, Dongsi, Teching, and Pi U. When we came to them by day the boatmen were on the watch, poles in hand, and we children were warned not to get in the way. 

We craned our heads out of the window, however, to catch the first glimpses of the city wall stretching grey and grim ahead, with towers to mark the gates. 

Many of the cities had as many houses outside the gates as inside, and these stretched away in long, straggling suburbs; and there were always swarms of boats and a screaming, gesticulating crowd of buyers in the boat markets. 

Sometimes we went through the watergate into the city itself, and sometimes we edged around through the congested outskirts. All the travelling in those districts was done by water. The land streets were narrow, cobbled passages which allowed of no vehicular traffic. 

Now and then on the banks we saw sedan chairs conveying Chinese officials from place to place, the runners going ahead to shout and clear the way. 

Our cook was very busy when we approached a city, looking out for provisions. Canoes piled high with greens, sweet potatoes, bamboo shoots, and eggs would come alongside, usually rowed by women and children who screamed to us to buy from them. 

We sat on the edge of the deck and watched the cook haggling. Sometimes the boats were full of fruit: bunches of yellow beboes, sweet as honey; soft, ripe persimmons, lotus root; and baskets of purple arbutus fruit as large as walnuts, and as fuzzy as plane tree bobbles. 

Our mouths watered for them as they lay piled on their fresh green leaves in the baskets.  If the season were bad for cholera, we were not allowed to have them until they were stewed, but if the season were a good one, we waited until they were placed in a potion of permanganate of potash and thoroughly disinfected, and then we were allowed to eat them raw. 

It was fun to buy fish from the cormorant men. They came darting up in their narrow canoes, their great black birds sitting in a double row along the edges of the boats, all swaying with the movement of the paddle, their heads shrugged between their hunched up shoulders and their angry eyes staring sullenly forward. 

You could see the rings around their necks to prevent them from swallowing the fish which they had dived to catch. 

The cormorant men sat in wedge-shaped seats at the end of the boats, and towed with their feet, grasping the paddles with their toes while they showed us the fish which lay in the bottoms of the boats. 

If the cook could not get all that he required from the market boats he would climb into a small canoe and go along to the shops inside the walls, and we were always anxious to be assured that the houseboat would not go on without him. He returned with rice, pork, fowls, bamboo shoots, and eggs. 

Sometimes if father had to visit the Missions churches in the city we would be allowed to go with him through the gates into the crowded, narrow lanes inside; and we looked hopefully for sweet shops where we could buy sugared peanuts and sesamum-seed cakes, clear candy, and long, twisted rice fritters. 

It was very exciting to row through the water-streets. The houses were built down to the edge of the canal on either side, with seldom a foot-path along the shore. 

Usually, the stone steps led straight up into the shops and dwellings, and the walls of the houses, went down sheer into the water. The balconies hung over us as we passed slowly underneath, and those of teashops were always crowded with customers who leaned over to see us and to pass remarks about our party. 

The stones of these Chinese Venices were black with age and water, and were cut into solid cubes piled on one another; relics of an age of sturdy architecture. 

In the wider thoroughfares there was room for two houseboats to pass if we scraped along the walls, but in the narrower ones there was only room for one at a time, and smaller sampans would edge through side turnings or pull themselves almost up step to get out of our way as we moved, shouting and yelling to warn those ahead. 

The boatmen could not row here, as there was no room for the oar. They fixed their bamboos into projections in the walls ahead, pulling the boat up even with them, and then bracing the end of the hooks into the ledges and walking along the length of the boat, pushing the poles before them. 

There was always a fearful joy about going through these water-streets. 

The houses were so close on either hand! Clothes-lines full of washing hung overhead; and roots, greens, and fish were spread out to dry on the sloping tiled roofs. Old women squatted on the steps of their shops and sloshed rice in baskets to clean it for boiling, or banged their laundry with boards on the stones. 

When our boat came along, filling up the canal, it drove a wave before it that made these old women retreat a step or two higher. There they would sit and watch us until we were past. 

Little naked children ran along beside us the length of their houses, and shouted to us. We envied them, living in such wonderful surroundings. 

Fancy having to get into a boat whenever you wanted to leave your own house! Some of the houses were wonderfully carved and gilded all along the doors and roofs and many of them had fanciful windows in which mother-o-pearl was used instead of glass, in tiny octagonal panes.

These lattices often enclosed the whole of the upper balconies. 

There was a chill, damp, mossy smell about the water-streets which we liked, and feared at the same time. Such a smell always brings back to me the memories of those days. 

There used to be fleets of ducks quacking in those thoroughfares, turning and retreating when they saw our boat coming. 

Sometimes they seemed to be squeezed up between us and the wall, but they always passed safely, through quacking more loudly than ever. 

Sometimes they climbed out of the water on to the steps and waggled their clumsy way up into their respective homes. Fowls hopped over the thresholds of the houses at our approach, and cats retreated to ledges of roofs.

Dogs came down as close as they dared, barking at us with extended necks, and tails down. There was always a buzz and clamour as we passed, the loud remarks about our appearance and probably destination sounding clearly in ears. 

Sometimes young lads called out impolite remarks about Europeans; but more often there were cheery greetings and hopes for a good journey. 

Usually the crowded street ended at a bridge, and beyond it we suddenly left the stir and shouting of the city and went out into the quiet of the countryside where the creek widened and we could row peacefully along between the rice fields and mulberry groves. 


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