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23 August 2022

From the NS archive: Values

18 August 1923: There was thick fog at the mouth of the Yangtze and Captain Kinneaird had lost his way.

By Bassett Digby

This short story from 1923, by the traveller and natural historian Bassett Digby, is set on the banks of the Yangtze River. A boat has grounded on the riverbank, furiously churning the mud and turning the river into “whipped coffee”. But it is the locals arriving in their sampan boats that have caught the attention of a passenger on board. Mr Smith, a newly placed clerk in the region, watches the locals as they smack the water with their nets. “They’re not getting much luck!” he remarks as he watches them scoop a scrap of cabbage, a fish’s head, a cinder hardly bigger than a walnut into their nets, “there can’t be many fish on the surface”. “Fish? They’re not after fish,” the ship’s doctor quickly corrects him, “it’s a scavenging sampan. They are netting our refuse.” “Good Lord,” exclaimed Mr Smith, “what things some people will do for a living!” From the Chinese point of view, however, things look different.

The Mongolic had missed the tide. There was thick fog at the mouth of the Yangtze and Captain Kinneaird had lost his way. For two hours the liner had been stationary or steaming dead slow, while the passengers herded along the deck-rail, staring down into the swirling yellowness that looked more mud than water, and listening to the sing-song cry of the leadsman. Twice she grounded, a soft bump that set the engine-room bell clanging for full speed astern. A furious churning in her wake, that turned the river to whipped coffee. Then off she slid.

At last the blare of her syren was answered by a faint and faraway blast, and the wireless man ran back to his keyboard. A quarter of an hour later, pitching so badly that the dripping keel of her bows lifted clear out of the heavy swell, the pilot boat loomed suddenly up to starboard — a surprisingly big craft for a lone pilot, one thought.

She looked as big as an English cross-Channel steamer. She circled astern and dropped a boat. Pulling a powerful stroke and keeping perfect time, four Chinese oarsmen brought the pilot alongside. He climbed briskly up the ladder, the boat cast off. The gong clanged, and, with a surefooted confidence she had lacked before, the liner set off upstream on the last lap of her voyage half round the world.

But she missed the tide. She had to anchor off the Woosung forts and wait until dusk before there was enough water in the other river to float her up to Shanghai…

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For half-an-hour she was alone, out in a deserted waste of swiftly flowing yellow waters that made one feel that the laws of gravity had been suspended and that all the seas were running downhill to Australia. So wide was this great river that one could not see its farther bank. To starboard lay China, a couple of miles away. With its low dyke-flanked shore and its neat toy trees it might have been Holland, but for a queer look about the silhouette of the mud-walled farms, and an odd-looking tower or two behind the wall of Woosung.

Then, out from the jetty of the Woosung bund came a sampan. It was a fight to keep abreast of the ebb tide, but she managed it pretty well and drifted down to the stern of the liner, where her master threw a cord that a native quartermaster gave orders to have made fast round a stanchion.

There was a cold wind blowing and most of the passengers were down in the saloons, or putting the finishing touches to their packing. But Mr William Smith strolled down the deck to have a look at these bizarre passengers, among whom he was to spend the next three years of his life . . .

For a minute or two only a little girl was to be seen. A comely little thing, in a blue blouse-shirt and crimson trousers, she squatted in the prow, smiling up at him when she caught his eye. “She ought to wear gloves,” thought Mr Smith. “It is bitterly cold.”

Presently, straw mats hanging in front of the semi-circular wooden shelter amidships were pushed aside and out came more children, so many children that it seemed hard to believe that they all belonged to one family. And a wizened woman with iron-grey hair and very small feet; on her back, in a fold in a sash of sacking, was a baby. A man’s head appeared. He called out shrill sing-song directions and began to pass out nets, queer shaped nets rather like big lacrosse racquets.

“Going to fish?” Mr Smith inquired of a Chinese deckhand who went shuffling by. “Yays,” said the deckhand, who knew no English, but this useful word which seemed to be what white men generally wanted.

It sounded dull. Mr Smith turned and decided to get an appetite for tea by walking round the deck. As he walked he pondered his affairs. They pleased him. He had become a shade bored with clerking at home. Now he had secured a clerkship in the Far East, which carried more than double the salary, though, of course, living expenses would be higher.

Arrived at the stern again, he saw that the fishing had started. The little girl who had smiled up at him was standing in the bows with a long Brazil-nut-shaped net. A few feet behind her was another little red-trousered girl with a similar net, similar but shorter handled. On the far side of the sampan were two more little red-trousered girls and a little blue-trousered boy. Right astern stood the man, also with a net.

The little girl in the bows made a swoop. Smack went the net. She staggered as she pressed the ten-foot handle to her breast and wrestled with the tide. Up came the net and the water cascaded through the mesh as she drew it in.

“Missed it!” said Mr Smith. “Only a crust and some bits of orange peel. She’s picking them out, but she’s not throwing them overboard again. The crust may be useful for ground bait, but why keep the orange peel?”

Smack went another net, and smack, another . . .

“They’re not getting much luck!” Mr Smith remarked with a grin to the ship’s doctor who came by. “Can’t be many fish on the surface.”

“Fish? They’re not after fish,” answered the doctor. “It’s a scavenging sampan. They are netting our refuse.”

“But whatever for? There can’t be much of it anyway.”

“Um-m, I don’t know. It mounts up, after a while, what with the stuff we sling out of the kitchens and the stokeholds. I admire the beggars’ patience.”

Mr Smith leant over the rail and looked down the Mongolic’s house-high, salt-stained flank at the scavengers. It certainly did need patience. Now ten minutes, now half-an-hour passed without a single thing floating by. Then, out of a port, came a bushel of kitchen refuse, or down an ash-shute a bucketful of coke and cinders. Sometimes both at once.

Smack! Smack! went the nets. What the little girl in the bows missed the child behind her swooped upon, and what the next child — and the first two — had missed was netted by the man astern. Nothing was too small to escape their vigilance: a scrap of cabbage-stalk, a fish’s head, a cinder hardly bigger than a walnut. The nets were oft swung inboard to where crouched the mother and a group of toddling children. A deft turn of the wrist and out on the streaming deck the nets were turned. Mother and babies sorted the catch into heaps. There were heaps of cinders and heaps of orange peel, heaps of apple peel, and heaps of potato peel, a little mound of fish heads, of entrails, of broken biscuits, of cheese-rind, of meat-bones, of crusts. Mr Smith winced as he saw the woman give one of the sodden crusts to a tiny child who was stacking up scraps of coke . . .

“Disgusting!” he said to the doctor at dinner that evening, as the ship weighed anchor and steamed in past Woosung. “What on earth do they do with that garbage? It is muck we’ve thrown overboard. They oughtn’t to be allowed to pick it up again.”

“They get fat on it,” said the doctor. “Can I trouble you for the pickles? . . . . What they don’t want they sell to the poor men’s restaurants.”

“Good Lord!” exclaimed Mr William Smith, comparing the lot of the scavengers to his own life of comfort and security. “What things some people will do for a living!”

* * * *

The Mongolic was back again, in the forlorn grey estuary of her home port. She had injured a propeller blade a couple of days out and now she must go into dry dock. The Chinese deckhands were sent to the Seamen’s Home until the ship should be ready. Among them was Wei Mok Lung, son of a Hong-Kong scavenger, a youth of nineteen, who had been impelled, for the first and last time, to go on a voyage with his cousin, to look at the other side of the world. Their wanderings through the shipping quarter did not impress them very favourably; the amenities of life in this region of mud and shuttered warehouses and soot-grimed blank walls were lamentably few. It seemed to Wei Mok Lung very much like a vision of the Black Place where bad Chinese go when they die. But, unlike his comrades, he had an inquiring mind and an apperceptive eye, and he pursued various investigations that interested him.

On several occasions the Superintendent of the Home, two of whose messengers had fallen sick, sent him to the city offices of steamship companies with letters. As he sat, docile and blinking, on a bench, awaiting a reply, he used to observe the ways and works, the habits and customs and surroundings of clerks. Clerks fascinated him. He discussed them with the Superintendent, and with his associates, in particular with his cousin Wong Nei Dok, who knew the cities of white men.

“Are they slaves?” he asked.

“No,” said Wong.

“Are they expiating foul crimes?”

“No,” said Wong.

“Are they mad?”

“No,” said Wong.

“Then why do they spend their days in these pursuits?” asked Wei Mok Lung. “They know not the rosy flush of the sky that comes before the dawn, the fresh salt breeze that follows, the silver ripples that lap the prow of the sampan as we crouch round the glowing brazier for our morning meal. They bolt their breakfasts and dash away to stand swaying in mobs in trains that take them to the city. If their train is late they must meekly submit to insults lest their employment be taken from them and they be left to starve. They know not the leisure of long, reposeful days when one of us keeps watch and the rest lie dozing or sprawling on the hot sandy shore; they know not the thrill of sighting a foreign devil’s fire-boat as she rounds a distant cape, and the wagers we make on the harvest we shall glean. They know not the zest of pulling out against a tide that battles with the wind in a welter of white-caps and spray, the long strong pull that sends the blood coursing through our veins. They know not the joy of singing at their work.”

“True,” said Wong. “The clerk who sings at his work is sent away to starve.”

“They are immured. For half the year they do not see the world by day, and it is dark when they emerge from their prison-houses to take their leisure. With all the world before them — mountains and green fields, woods and cliffs, lakes and beaches and harbours, sunlit streets of life and colour, majestic fire-ships and gleaming river mouths — they fetter their souls and shut themselves up in lamplit cellars, computing and transcribing figures.”

“Thousands of them spend their days where no green leaf, no bird or beast or passer-by can be seen from the window, only a smoke-grimed wall, like the walls that encompass The Black Place,” said Wong.

“And the lamps that hang on cords from the roof glow all day long, so that there is neither the sunshine, nor the play of scudding cloud by day, nor the soft radiance of the moon, nor the glittering of stars by night.”

“Have these men one life then, or many lives, that they put aside freedom and the joy of living and enter willingly into this bondage? Merciful Buddha! What things some people will do for a living!” exclaimed Wei Mok Lung, the scavenger and son of a scavenger.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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