Seeing Shanghai from comfort of a houseboat
Published on: Saturday, October 17, 2020
By: British North Borneo Herald
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(January 2, 1931)

HOUSEHOLDING was a most convenient mode of travelling in China for missionary families like ours, in the old Shanghai days, for large numbers of children and quantities of luggage could be packed into one boat and conveyed to the hills where we sought refuge from the heat of the plains. 

The Garden Bridge was the point of departure for the houseboats, which, in strings of a dozen or more, were towed by steam launches along the rivers and canals which link the towns of the adjoining provinces. 

Once through the bridge, we left the narrow creek for the Whangpoo River, where we felt the wind from the estuary, and saw the large steamers anchored along the wharves. Sampans ferrying people across to Pootung bobbed on the open river, and there was a moment or so of choppy bouncing where the river current met the incoming tide. 

Then we turned fairly to the right and went upstream, along the Bund. It gave us children a solemn feeling to know that we were really on our way. Seen from the river the embankment seemed so imposing! The opposite shore was far away. 

The buildings on the Shanghai side looked so large, and the carriages and rickshaws plied so busily up and down! How small the same buildings would seem to use in these days, and how meagre the traffic! 

The boat we rented depended upon the size of the party. When we children were young and numerous we needed a good big craft. Externally the large ones and the small were alike. 

They were built of brown, polished teak of a wonderful glossiness, and had a characteristic odour of oil and varnish and charcoal smoke. We snuffed this smell with rapture when we climbed aboard, for it was the essence of the holidays. 

The boats were flat-bottomed, chunky, and had squared-off ends like barges. At the front and back were decks; the front one open to the sky, and the rear one covered over, for there the boatmen lied and the long yulow, or sweep-oar was manipulated. 

The polished boards of the boat were rounded smoothly over the top; but at the back, above this, a low matting roof was raised on beams, and here the boatmen slept, really on the outside of the boat, with the cover only two feet above them. 

This ledge they reached from the back deck: Above each side of the front door hung a lantern in a beautifully carved frame, and these lanterns were lit at dusk. 

Joining the front and back decks were narrow planks along which the boatmen used to walk. These hung just above the waterline below the square windows which ran down the sides of the vessel. 

We were always eager to explore the boat which had been hired for us, although we knew exactly what it would be like. You climbed on to the open, square deck in front, and stooped over to enter the front door from which a ladder of three steps led down into the front cabin. 

This was a small place the width of the boat, eight or nine feet across, perhaps, and about seven long. Two wooden bunks were built in, one on each side of the steps. 

At night these could be joined by planks so that a wide bed could be made if required. The boards of the bunks were removable, and into the hollows ever so much luggage could be stored. 

Beyond this first cabin was a second one, the largest in the boat, and commonly used as a dining and general room. On both sides were wooden bunks, and between them were was room, as the boat broadened in the middle considerably, for a square table under which were placed tools that could be taken out and used for seats during meals. 

Beyond the table, running at right angles to the boat, was the bed of state of the houseboat. It was almost twice the size of the other wooden bunks, and the rear wall of the large cabin (which formed the side of the bed) usually held a large mirror or a picture surrounded by carved and gilded panels, some-times of great beauty. 

Going past this bed you found yourself in a corridor which led to the back deck, and opening off from this passage were two or three small cabins, each containing a wooden bunk. 

All the floor boards of the boat lifted up, and under them, directly upon the flat bottom of the boat, we stored things which had to be taken to the mountains for use during the summer. 

Usually the children were assigned to the little rear cabins where they could be watched; our parents took the state bunk or platform in the main cabin; and bachelors were accommodated in the front cabin. 

We children were envious of those in front, for having such ready access to the deck; but it was really inconvenient to sleep there, for the mosquito-net had to be removed and the bedding rolled up the first thing in the morning, as the cabin had to be used as a passage up on to the front deck. 

Also the boatmen often came down into it to get ropes and spare tackle which were stored in a space under the deck entered only from inside the cabin. To get into this space one had to remove the steps and crawl in. We loved to stoop and peer into the dark recesses of this store-place. Our cats also enjoyed it, as they found cockroaches and rats there. 

There were no chairs on the houseboat, except what we might be taking to the hills for our use during the summer. 

Whenever we could we had our meals up on the deck, sprawled on the boards, with our backs against the sloping sides of the houseboat. 

If it were too hot or wet outside, we curled on the wooden bunks of the front cabin, making cushions of our bedding. 

I recall the hot, oily smell of the varnish as it threw back the heat of the sun, and the reek of the hot oilcloth when the flap was down over the door. 

How many long days do I remember when we lay stretched out on the bunks, playing "Happy Families" or "Pit" or reading, with the sun blazing fiercely down on the canal, or the rain beating a tattoo on the boat as it slipped along. 

Those days of peace were long, but never monotonous; for our houseboat, cut off as it was from the usual world of streets and buildings, was a fairy retreat in which we were free from the rules of the ordinary life.— A.B.–H.— The Singapore Free Press 


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