The publication of Following Nellie Bly: Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World by Pen and Sword is set for 30 March 2021.
It is the tale of intrepid journalist Nellie Bly and her race through a ‘man’s world’ — alone and literally with just the clothes on her back — to beat the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. She won the race in 72 days on 25 January 1890 and became a global celebrity.
I set off 125 years later to retrace Nellie Bly’s footsteps in an expedition registered with the Royal Geographical Society. Through the recreation of that epic global journey, I aim to bring to life Nellie Bly’s remarkable achievements and shine the light on one of the world’s greatest female adventurers … and a forgotten heroine of history. Please join Nellie and I on our global journeys in the pages of Following Nellie Bly.
Magazine of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
As told to Katie Burton; Published in I’m a Geographer 03 Jul 2020
Rosemary Brown is a freelance journalist. In 2014, she followed in the footsteps of American journalist and adventurer Nellie Bly, who carried out a record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889. A book about Rosemary’s trip is due out next year.
‘Last year, two of my lifelong dreams came true. One was to write a book, and the other was to get a Churchill Fellowship. The book is about my trip in the footsteps of Nellie Bly. I maybe didn’t do as much research in advance as I should have, but I’ve learned since that it’s better to get going than to get lost in the research. I did spend some time at the British Library, reading the microfiche newspaper accounts of her trip from the New York World newspaper. My eyes have never been the same.
I’ve always admired these Victorian explorers. I used to read about Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark, Isabella Bird, Mary Kingsley (they have her hat at the Royal Geographical Society). So they’d always intrigued me. My daughter was 19 at the time, and she won’t like me saying this, but I didn’t really approve of her role models. I just thought, look at what these amazing women were doing, when they couldn’t really do it. It was a man’s world then. Truly.
Nellie Bly redefined the role of women in journalism. In 1889, she set off on a 72-day trip around the world, which inspired Rosemary to trace the journey herself. She chronicles her experiences in her upcoming book.
And so I wanted to do something to put Nellie Bly on the map, and to put female explorers back on the map – the ones from the past and the ones now who just don’t get the same coverage. I thought, I’m not going to rant about it. I’m just going to try to do something.
These women just busted convention. Nellie Bly burst into an all-male newsroom, and she wasn’t welcome, but she excelled. And when she said, ‘I want to go around the world to see if I can go faster than Phileas Fogg’, [the protagonist of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days] they said, ‘No we’re going to let a man go’. And she said, ‘Very well. You send a man. I’m going to the competing newspaper and let’s see who wins.’
So she and I clicked. She was an adventurer. She was a journalist. She pioneered investigative journalism. If she wanted to do it, she just did it. And this is what I think we aren’t doing so much anymore. We seem to be afraid to get out of our comfort zones.
The experience was really great. It’s not the way I like to travel. I don’t like to just go from one place to the other, so that part was quite frustrating. But I had to let Nellie take over. Don’t think I’m bananas, but there were a couple of times when I think she might have helped me. I got stuck in a typhoon in Hong Kong as I was trying to get into China – she went to Canton, which is now Guangzhou. So I thought, what would Nellie Bly do? I just walked down into the typhoon and believe it or not, the trains were running even though Hong Kong was shut down.
Canton, now known as Guangzhou, was one of the places that Nellie Bly visited during her 1889-90 expedition around the world – a trip that would inspire Rosemary Brown to write her upcoming book.
Photo: Royal Geographical Society Archives, Ato Photographic Association
People help you all along the way. And that’s one of the things I say – she believed in humanity. Her colleagues said, if you’re going on this trip, you’ve got to take a revolver. And she said, ‘I don’t believe I’m going to need one’. She didn’t take the camera either which was a drag – there are no pictures.
I thought once I got back and finished up the blog, that would be it. But oh no, Nellie Bly was not through with me. I’ve been able to do talks and we put together the Heritage of Women in Exploration conference – which I believe is the first conference like that ever held at the Royal Geographical Society. I’m also a founding trustee of the Women’s Adventure Expo – a hub for women adventurers. It’s really just about letting people know what women have done and what they’re doing now. If you do what you always do, you get what you always got, so it’s about just getting out there, seeing the horizon.
One of my favourite sayings is ‘leap and the net will arrive’. I’m not leaping so much anymore. But I think if you put yourself out there, things happen.’
1954: Born in Toronto
1976–1983: Journalist for the Lakeland Ledger and the Tampa Tribune
1983: Journalism masters
1986–1989: Lived and worked with homeless women in Soho at the House of St Barnabas
2003–2017: Chair of the board at The Rights Practice
2004–2017: Communications manager at NGOs including The Rainforest Foundation
2013: Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro
2014: Nellie Bly trip
2019: Churchill Fellowship for work with refugees
2021: Release of Following Nellie Bly: Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World
Originally printed in Geographical, the monthly print magazine of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
Nellie Bly is ‘back on the front page’ as a chart-topper in the historical, convention-busting, inspiring and feminist leagues.
“No one but a man can do this,” Nellie Bly’s editor told her when she suggested travelling round the world in less than 80 days. She would need a protector, he said – and how would she ever carry all the luggage a lady would need on such a trip? Bly didn’t worry too much about the first quibble, and travelled light, crushing all her belongings into a single handbag. She made it home in 72 days. That wasn’t the first time the pioneering American journalist had attracted attention through her work – a year earlier, in 1887, she faked madness to go undercover in an asylum, exposing its poor conditions and abusive staff.” Here’s the entire list of 10 Best Feminists
In 10 Books About Innovative Women You Should Know More About, Kathleen Culliton names Nellie Bly: Daredevil. Reporter.Feminist by Brooke Kroeger. This is what she says on online site Bustle:
“Here’s what I love about stories of women who innovate: they’re two stories. First you’ve got the story of the brilliant idea, or the world-changing artifact, the traveling of the globe, the charting of the star, the rallying of the people. Then, you’ve got the story of how the hell a woman got people to listen to her in the first place. These are stories not just of human beings who were crazy-smart, but women who were as tough as nails… Journalist Nellie Bly faked insanity to get committed in an asylum. She reported on its atrocities as she experienced them. When that was done, she circled the globe.”
Brooke Kroeger wrote this book because she could not find a single reliable source that accurately captured the story of Nellie Bly. Instead of a credible biography, she found brief encyclopedia entries and children’s books. And she was baffled because Bly not only had a major impact on journalism, but a fascinating life. In an age that relegated women reporters to the ‘Homes and Gardens’ section of the newspaper, Bly faked her own insanity to gain admission into and report on one of the nation’s most notorious insane asylums and effectively invented stunt journalism.”
Here’s the full list of 10 Books about Inspirational Women You Should Know More About.
Online worldwide news site Buzzfeed named Nellie Bly as one of the Top 12 Historical Women Who Didn’t Give a ‘you know what’.
“Nellie Bly was a daring and influential investigative journalist who wrote groundbreaking stories about political corruption and poverty. She once faked madness in order to report undercover from an abusive mental institution in New York City, which led to outcry and reform. Her jealous peers referred to her investigations as “stunt reporting”, but Nellie, of course, didn’t give a x*!x*! about those whiny little x*!x*! Oh, and she once travelled around the world in a record-breaking 72 days, just ‘cause. Here’s the post.
She was named among the top 7 of inspiring ‘convention-breaking‘ women by Mother Nature Network who said:
Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist who went undercover in a mental hospital to secure a job at a newspaper when she moved to New York City. She wrote about her experience spending 10 days in a mental ward: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”
Following that blockbuster story, Bly circled the world in 72 days in imitation of Jules Verne’s book, married a millionaire, ran his steel manufacturing company after he died, and developed a number of patents for her business. She covered the suffragist movement in an article titled “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors” in 1913 but correctly predicted women wouldn’t get the vote until 1920.
See full post here.
“She was a leading woman of her time who was tough and never willing to stand down.”
Megan Laham, 16, Stoneham, Massachusetts
“… 125 years from now, imagine the changes that could occur if we attack inequality with the same fervour that Nellie Bly possessed.”
Callie Slevin, 16, La Crosse, Wisconsin
“She was kind, self-reliant and used her voice as a journalist to help others who didn’t have a voice.”
Rachel Dennis, 13, of Renton, Washington.
“We were delighted to discover an entire branch of journalism (investigative reporting) she had created.”
Jacqui Hale, 16, Bedford, Massachusetts
Recently deemed one of the 12 feistiest women in history by internet news giant Buzzfeed, Victorian journalist Nellie Bly remains among the world’s top 10 female adventurers. Her legacy as a pioneer of investigative journalism, intrepid traveller, feminist and humanitarian lives on in best-selling books, television documentaries and editorials. Her grave in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery draws a steady stream of visitors, says Susan Olsen, Woodlawn’s Director of Historical Services.
Exactly 125 years after breaking the record for circling the globe and 93 years since her death, Nellie Bly is still ‘alive and well’, especially in the eyes of today’s young women.
“I am always warmed by the abiding interest in the adventures of Nellie Bly,” says Nellie’s biographer Brooke Kroeger, journalist , author and professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “I think it’s remarkable how current she is with the junior set.”
Nellie’s ‘currency with the younger set ‘ is demonstrated by the number of American teenage girls who research her legacy for National History Day (NHD), a nationwide competition to promote history and research skills. Every year since the NHD competition was launched in 1974, Nellie Bly features among the leading entries.
Indeed, at least two projects devoted to Nellie Bly reach the National History Day finals every year, according to Micah Azzano, NHD Director of Public Affairs. Nellie Bly has also been proposed by fans for inclusion on NHD’s list of 100 Significant Leaders in World History where voting is open to the public.
That doesn’t surprise Brooke Kroeger.
“Since the publication of Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist in 1994, I get anywhere from 10 to 30 queries a year from middle school girls — always girls — who have chosen Nellie as their research subject,” says Brooke Kroeger. “It’s impressive how many historical themes for which she incites the imagination.”
Megan Laham, Emily Manfra and Saige Calkins, all 16, of Stoneham, Massachusetts, pooled their imagination and talent for a performance about Nellie Bly that made it all the way to NHD’s state finals last year and received an honourable mention.
“It was good to spread the word of Nellie,” says Megan, 16. “All three of us see Nellie Bly as a role model. Through her works and fighting to get a job as a female reporter, she really set the standards to all reporters.”
Jaqui Hale, Sarah Nosal, Rachel Arnold, all 16, and Nili Ezekiel, 17, of Bedford, Massachusetts, saluted Nellie in their comprehensive website for the NHD competition: Nellie Bly’s Multi-faceted Legacy: Leading a Progressive Generation of Journalists and Social Reformers.
“All of the things that she led during her lifetime then transferred into a lasting legacy in journalism and social reform,” said Jacqui, who represented the group. “…She taught us that women can be brave and accomplish many things as long as they push themselves like she did. She was so helpful to those she considered helpless, and often ignored her own safety because she was set on learning the truth,” says Jacqui.
Rachel Dennis, 13, of Renton, Washington, is putting the finishing touches on a website for NHD’s latest competition.
“Nellie Bly was a leader in journalism, a firm supporter for women’s rights and someone who believed in justice and equality,” says Rachel. “She was most famous for her trip around the world, but she made a difference in many people’s lives by writing articles about the working and living conditions of people less fortunate than her.”
Callie Slevin, 16, of La Crosse, Wisconsin first ‘met’ Nellie Bly at Washington DC’s Newseum where she features in a display and film. Callie’s NHD exhibit Feigning Insanity for the Betterment of Society: Nellie Bly demonstrates Nellie’s courage in revealing the ‘horrid mistreatment of patients in asylums during the late 1800s’ which she endured and wrote about in the newspaper and later in her book Ten Days in a Mad-house.
Callie most admires Nellie’s ‘unending ardour.’ “She not only made waves within the field of journalism, but she made waves as a woman in the field of journalism,” Callie says.
“Her legacy included the lives she changed, but also everyone she inspired to succeed, to fight injustice, and to keep going no matter the difficulty of their situation.”
“I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in 72 days, but because I was home again.”
At 3.51 p.m. on 25 January 1890, journalist Nellie Bly completed her epic travels. Her train pulled into Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, signalling the finale of the world journey she completed in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes. She had raced through a ‘man’s world’ – alone and literally with the clothes on her back — to beat the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. She was said to be the most famous woman in the world that day. After crossing three oceans and four continents, she ended her journey with a ‘flying trip’ by train across America.
“I only remember my trip across the continent as one maze of happy greetings, happy wishes, congratulations, telegrams, fruit, flowers, loud cheers, wild hurrahs, rapid hand-shaking and a beautiful car filled with fragrant flowers attached to a swift engine that was tearing like mad through flower-dotted valley and over snow-tipped mountain on-on-on! It was glorious!” she wrote.
At stations across America, enormous crowds gathered to cheer Nellie on:Fresno, Topeka, Dodge City, Kansas City, Chicago, Columbus, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia…
At her final destination, Jersey City, “the station was packed with thousands of people and the moment I landed on the platform, one yell went up from them…and the cannons at the Battery and Fort Greene boomed out the news of my arrival,” wrote Nellie. “From Jersey to Jersey is around the world and I am in Jersey now.”
Today she is best known for her record-breaking journey. But even more importantly, Nellie Bly pioneered investigative journalism and paved the way for female reporters.
Let’s pay tribute to the courage and determination of Nellie Bly on the 125th anniversary of the day she stepped off the train in Jersey City … and into history.
This toolkit provides material you can use on Twitter and Facebook to celebrate Nellie’s triumph.
TEN TWEETS & AND A FACEBOOK POST TO CELEBRATE 125th ANNIVERSARY OF NELLIE BLY’S RECORD-BREAKING TRIP
25 January 2015
Let’s get #NellieBly125 trending on twitter. Copy these or write your own. Use the #NellieBly125 hashtag. You can copy and paste the images in this post or look here, they’re in the public domain.
125yrs ago #NellieBly125 was fastest to circle globe.She would’ve set twitter alight.Make it happen now.Pls retweet. http://bitly.com/1xsFo1A
#NellieBly125 pioneered investigative journalism,paved way for women reporters &circled globe fastest 125yrs ago.http://bitly.com/1xsFo1A
Globetrotter #NellieBly125 circled globe in 72 days beating the record 125 years ago today. http://bitly.com/1xsFo1A
If you like, you can add:
@ – author of bio Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist
@ – Women in Journalism,UK
@ – New York Women in Communications,USA
@ – Royal Geographical Society
@explorerstweet – Explorers Connect
Use this, edit it or write your own facebook post.
25 JANUARY 2015: 125th ANNIVERSARY OF NELLIE BLY’S RECORD-BREAKING WORLD TRIP
No-one had ever circled the globe with such speed. Journalist-adventurer Nellie Bly stepped off the train in Jersey City on January 25, 1890 … and into history. She raced through a ‘man’s world’ in 72 days — alone and literally with the clothes on her back — to beat the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. She was a global celebrity. Today, she remains one of the top 10 female adventurers. http://bitly.com/1xsFo1A
“To so many people this wide world over am I indebted for kindnesses that I cannot… thank them all individually. They form a chain around the earth. To each and all of you, men, women and children, in my land and in the lands I visited, I am most truly grateful. Every kind act and thought, but if an unuttered wish, a cheer, a tiny flower, is imbedded in my memory as one of the pleasant things of my novel tour.” Nellie Bly 1890
I’m with Nellie. My trip couldn’t have been so successful … or even ever happened…without the ‘kindnesses’ shown by so many. I send my heartfelt thanks to the countless people en route who helped me along the way and also to all those who generously donated to UNICEF through my Footsteps of Nellie Bly page.
I must first acknowledge the support from my husband David Stanton and daughter Acadia. David helped me design my itinerary, plot the flights and pack my small suitcase so everything fit. Best of all they both believed in what I wanted to do.
My Chain Around the World
Also on the home front, thank you to Anna Barfield and Janet Goodman for the lovely bubbly send-off at Heathrow. Barbara Richardson, Liz Khan, Susan Lacy, Christina Watson, Vicky Webster, Dinah Nichol and Patsy Puttnam also spurred me on, as did everyone in my freelance writing course at City Lit led by Susan Grossman. Alan Taylor contacted our friend Nikhil Hirdaramani who introduced me by email to his lovely friends in Colombo. I am delighted that Women in Journalism endorsed my trip and the Royal Geographical Society registered it. Many thanks to Michael Blunt, Vice-President of Corporate Communications at oneworld Alliance who asked his airline colleagues en route to offer assistance if necessary. Happy to report that I never needed to call on them because everything went smoothly. Nellie Bly herself travelled with a similar ‘letter of introduction’ from ocean liner officials.
Louisa Peat O’Neil gave me good advice from the start. She’s always been an inspiration. Back in 1980, she embroidered Rainbow of the Road on my bright yellow backpack and sent me off. Alice Robbins-Fox, a terrific travel companion who keeps me on track, met me in New York City to share the journey and her birthday. Sally Emery made connections there and helped us plot urban itineraries. Victoria Fulmer offered to come around the world with me…as long as it was on a private jet. Pat Streifel and Vim Maguire helped pave the way. Dolly McCoy and Arnold Blystone took me to explore Nellie’s birthplace in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania. Donald and Marilyn Schlief kindly offered their apartment in Washington, DC so we could visit the Newseum that features Nellie Bly. Kristina Heintz‘ birthday card to me featured a dancing girl with the words ‘she could no longer deny the gypsy in her soul.’ Perfect. My trip was enriched by the writing and research of Brooke Kroeger — Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist and Matthew Goodman – Eighty Days.
Thanuja Kanchana Camlo Lanka Tours met me at the airport in Colombo and managed to extract my credit card from the machine that swallowed it – rescuing my source of funds for the rest of the trip.
The Stapels family — Bernie, Redda and Julia from Germany — invited me to join them and their guide in Kandy and together we visited the Royal Botanic Gardens that so impressed Nellie.
Folks at the Adler Hostel helped me to map out itineraries taking in all of Nellie’s sites. Stephen Wang at the Your Singapore Tourist Information Office provided tons of history and organised a tour of the Fullerton Hotel with Florence Minjout who shared her knowledge about Singapore in the 1890s.
Sanford Lee, Windy Chiu and Chung of the Hong Kong Tourism Board based at Victoria Gap joined my quest to find the umbrella seat where Nellie rested on her way to the peak. Windy and I trekked to the top and found it!
With the generous help from the team at the Customs Hotel, I was able to find obscure Nellie sites. Business man Joe Yang not only gave me directions, but delivered me to the Nanyue King’s Tomb Museum. Jenny at the Hilton Hotel near Yuexiu Park gave me a map, advice and sent me off in the right direction.
Yoshihisa and Yoshie Togo whisked me off to Hakone with spectacular views of Mount Fuji and Kamakura with the Great Buddha Diabutsu.
Hoboken, New Jersey
Nellie’s date: 14 November 1889
My date: 25 September 2014
“On Thursday November 14, 1889 at 9.40.30 o’clock, I started on my tour around the world,” wrote Nellie Bly in Chapter 2, entitled The Start, in her book Around the World in 72 Days.
Nellie was not an early riser. She scolded ‘the good people who spend so much time in trying to invent flying machines’ saying they should devote more energy to promoting a system in which boats and trains would always make their start at noon or afterwards’ to be of greater assistance to a ‘suffering society.’
Departing with a lump in her throat, Nellie encouraged herself by thinking: “It’s only a matter of 28,000 miles and 75 days and four hours until I shall be back again.”
“The morning was beautiful and the bay never looked lovelier,” she recalls of her departure from Hoboken, New Jersey in New York Harbour. “But when the whistle blew and they were on the pier and I was on the Augusta Victoria, which was slowly but surely moving away from everything I knew, taking me to strange lands and strange people, I felt lost,” she wrote.
“My head felt dizzy and my heart felt as though it would burst. … the world lost its roundness and seemed a long distance with no end.”
Nellie had never ever been on a sea voyage before.
Re-tracing the start … and finish
The morning was grey with sudden squalls when we headed to Pier 11 near Wall Street for the ferry to Hoboken to retrace Nellie’s departure. Two ominous Osprey aircraft suddenly came swooping onto the Downtown Manhattan Heliport nearby. They were followed by a drove of helicopters and police cars with flashing lights. A Coast Guard cutter plied the waters. We looked up to see snipers atop the roofs of nearby buildings. President Obama and the First Lady were leaving town by Air Force One after three days at the United Nations of discussions on climate change, foreign terrorist fighters, education for all, and the Ebola epidemic. Soon the harbour was shut and ferries were frozen. Flocks of people in black suits delivered in long black cars strode towards the aircraft so we even never knew if we saw the President and Michelle Obama. Within minutes of lift-off, the scene was cleared, the ferries were back in business and the Obamas were on their way to the White House.
And we were on the way to Hoboken where Nellie started, and then Jersey City where she finished her epic travels. Nellie’s train pulled in to Jersey City at 3.51 p.m. on 25 January 1890, 72 days, 6 hours,11 minutes and 14 seconds since she had left. No one had ever gone around the globe as fast. By then she was the most famous woman in the world.
After traversing 18 waters from New York Harbour to San Francisco Bay , she was at the end of her ‘flying trip’ by train across America.
“I only remember my trip across the continent as one maze of happy greetings, happy wishes, congratulations, telegrams, fruit, flowers, loud cheers, wild hurrahs, rapid hand-shaking and a beautiful car filled with fragrant flowers attached to a swift engine that was tearing like mad through flower-dotted valley and over snow-tipped mountain on-on-on! It was glorious!” she wrote.
People dressed in their Sunday best flocked to the train stations along her route to cheer on Nellie Bly. Multitudes of well-wishers filled the stations as she travelled through Albuquerque, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia. At Pittsburgh’s Union Station, not far from her hometown of Apollo, thousands turned out at 3.10 in the morning to wave her on. Nellie stepped onto the rear platform of her car and waved with tears in her eyes to all those who came in the middle of the night to see her.
When she reached on the afternoon of January 25th, 1890, she had won the race. The station was overflowing. On her victory parade to the New York World‘s headquarters at Park Row, the streets were choked with people and the windows of skyscrapers lining Broadway were filled with faces as Nellie’s carriage made its way.
“I wanted to yell with the crowd,” Nellie wrote. “ Not because I had gone around the world in 72 days, but because I was home again.”
CANTON (GUANGZHOU) CHINA
Nellie’s dates: 25-26 December 1889
My dates: 16-17 September 2014
Typhoon, or no typhoon, I had to get to Canton. It was one of the most exotic stops on Nellie’s world tour and the place where she spent Christmas Day. Besides, I invested time, money and untold stress to get a visa for mainland China. In any case, I would’ve been homeless in Hong Kong because there was no room for another night at the ‘inn’ – the heartless Bishop Lei International House in the business district Wan Chai.
Nellie travelled up the Pearl River by boat to Canton. Not a good idea during a typhoon so I chose the train.
The roaring winds and thrashing rain of typhoon Kalmaegi actually cleared the way for my journey to China’s third largest city.
On track for Canton
Officially shut down, Hong Kong was deserted and so was Hung Hom train station across Victoria Bay. No queue to buy tickets and before I knew it I was aboard a luxurious train, seated beside a dapper Cathay Pacific flight attendant, awaiting breakfast.
I was ready to congratulate myself for prevailing over the typhoon when I spotted my seatmate Wesley’s travel bag. It was the spitting image of the small ‘gripsack’ that Nellie Bly carried around the world! Honest. Even Wesley was astonished when I showed him a photograph of Nellie’s bag.
This wasn’t to be the only time that Nellie joined me in Canton, the most challenging of all my destinations.
Canton – officially Guangzhou – totally enthralled Nellie, and me. In the spirit of Nellie’s times, I’m going to call it Canton. Nellie was enticed by Canton’s macabre side – a leper colony, mortuaries and execution grounds that I never located. Whew. Many of Nellie’s destinations have long since disappeared or been re-classified with Communist-approved nomenclature. And some were restored for the 2010 Asian Games held in Canton.
Take the once-abandoned Temple of Horrors, officially the refurbished Cheng Huang Temple. Inside, ferocious, larger-than-life gods — poised to torture devils — bring the nickname alive. They were meant to instil fear and inspire good deeds in this Taoist temple that protects the people of Guangzhou and Guanghong Province. Today, I’m told, the aim is show the beauty of the gods to guide the public towards ‘goodness’. From surrounding urns of fire, worshippers lit hefty bundles of incense wrapped in bright pink paper. Grasping their burning bundles with both hands, they stood before the Gods and bowed from the waist as smoke encircled them.
Nellie’s favourite was the Temple of 500 Arhats, officially Hualin Temple tucked deep inside the vibrant jade market quarter of Canton. Nellie’s golden ‘gods’ are actually arhats or saints that were destroyed in China’s Cultural Revolution, but replaced in the 1990s. Each of the 500 gleaming golden arhats features a different expression and meaning, and one is said to represent Marco Polo. I found him… eventually.
Tracking these temples required research and perseverance which were equally applied to sites I never found. Most disappointing was the absence of the ‘Temple of Death’ where Nellie ate her Christmas lunch.
I was not alone in my endeavours. The lovely receptionists at Canton’s Customs Hotel were quick to whip out their phones and scour Chinese cyberspace on my behalf. They also wrote in Chinese characters the sites I was seeking so people on the street could point me in the right direction. I couldn’t have done it without them.
Still, we couldn’t pinpoint the ancient bronze water clock that Nellie raved about. Officially known the clepsydra of Canton, it was described as one of the most extraordinary clocks in the world. Dating back to 1316 AD, it once occupied a city axis line at the northern gate pavilion.
Believing I’d found all that could be found, I headed for Yuexiu Park downtown, particularly striking as light showers brightened foliage, flowers and sculptures and encouraged visitors to unfurl their pretty umbrellas. When the showers intensified, I ducked inside the green-tiled Zhenhai Tower, built in 1380, and home to relics of Canton’s 2,000 year-old history. The city’s centuries unfold in each of the tower’s five stories. I roamed the top floors to gain context for Nellie’s times — late 19th century. On the way down to earlier eras, I stopped dead in my tracks.
There it was. Nellie’s water clock! Right in front of me in all its ancient glory. Stunned and elated, I had the inexplicable, but very real feeling, that I had been led to it. Nellie once more?
I took photo upon photo trying to avoid the cherry red universal ‘don’t touch’ signs obscuring this almost timeless timepiece. I used gestures to ask the uniformed guard stationed nearby for permission to move them, just for a few seconds. No, came the swift and resolute reply. When she returned to her post, I quickly moved them anyway. In a split second she was at my side and I was forced to return the signs to their rightful, but annoying, places.
As I continued to photograph the water clock, the guard appeared again at my side. She let me know that she would remove the signs, but I better be quick. The deal was done and I snapped away. I was grateful and she felt good. But not good enough to let me take her photo in front of the water clock.
Nellie’s dates: 23-24 December, 27-28 December 1889
My dates: 14-15, 19 September
Nellie arrived in Hong Kong with the monsoon. I landed in the midst of typhoon warnings and the undercurrents of civil turbulence. Pro-democracy demonstrations — the Umbrella Revolution — erupted one week after I left.
Nellie’s optimism at arriving in Hong Kong two days ahead of schedule quickly sunk to despair. She was only 39 days into her journey, and already in China. She headed straight to the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company to book the first sailing to Japan, only to discover that someone was ahead of her.
Elizabeth Bisland, a journalist and author sent by a competing publication, set out from New York the day Nellie left, circling the world in the opposite direction. Elizabeth had left Hong Kong three days earlier. An astonished Nellie kept her composure when the O&O Steamship officials told her the devastating news. Even worse, she would be stuck in Hong Kong Japan for five days awaiting her passage to Japan.
“That is rather hard, isn’t it?” she said quietly, ‘forcing a smile that was on her lips, but came from nowhere near the heart.’
When they told her that the race was over and she’d lost, Nellie replied: “I am not racing with anyone. I promised to do the trip in 75 days and I will do it.” She did it in 72; Elizabeth Bisland finished in 76 days. The rest is history.
The Hong Kong that Nellie and Elizabeth experienced now exists only in photos, memories and a smattering of sites that have survived massive urbanisation. My goal was to locate them during my own race to beat the fury of approaching Typhoon Kalmaegi, due to sweep past the city at speeds of 125 km (77 miles) per hour. Warnings from the Hong Kong Observatory escalated.
Setting out from Wan Chai, one of the Umbrella Revolution ‘hot spots’, I travelled by metro, bus and finally tram to Hong Kong’s Happy Valley and the multi-faith cemetery that Nellie raved about. “It rivals in beauty the public gardens and visitors use it as a park,” she wrote. “One wanders along the walks never heeding that they are in the Valley of Death, so thoroughly is it robbed of all that is horrible about graveyards. That those of different faiths should consent to place their dead together in this lovely tropical valley is enough to give it the name of Happy Valley.”
It’s sad now. Neglected and unsafe, signs warn visitors of slippery grounds and stairs, and worst of all snakes! The only living soul that morning in a massive, crumbling, reptile-infested cemetery, I stepped warily (and loudly to ward off any snakes), across broken concrete and overgrown paths to explore the tombstones of Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Protestants. Although bereft of the beauty Nellie described, the cemetery and its ossuary, evoke a sense of the hereafter. A sign in the Muslim section states: “Visiting graves …. benefits both the dead and the living. While it is a tribute paid to the dead, it prompts the living to think about the essence of life.”
What a blast!
Something to ponder as I left Happy Valley for Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay waterfront. I got to the Noonday Gun there just in time for the daily blast. Made famous in Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the tradition began in 1864 when Jardine’s, the company who owns it, was required to fire a one-shot salute every day at noon for perpetuity as punishment. The company kept to the deal and now collects money for charity from those who wish to fire the Noonday Gun.
Nellie would’ve experienced a bigger blast. Jardine’s lowered the power…and the decibels… in 1961 at the request of neighbouring waterfront establishments.
From sea level at Causeway Bay, I headed for the highest point in Hong Kong — Victoria Peak via the historic Peak Tram to Victoria Gap.
Asia’s first funicular and the world’s steepest, the Peak Tram is a feat of modern engineering that Nellie rode a year after it opened in 1888. The steam tram extending 1,350 metres to Victoria Gap cost Nellie 30 cents up and 15 cents down. Today it’s electric and costs $5 US round-trip. The tram carried as many as 150,000 passengers its first year. In 2013, its 125th year, the tram transported 4 million passengers.
Seats have always faced uphill to prevent passengers from falling forward. Intermediate tram stops are named after former British governors/administrators — Kennedy, MacDonnell, May and Barker.
If she stepped off the tram today, Nellie would be aghast to find Peak Tower, a colossal architectural icon devoted to consumption — home to the usual ghastly global suspects — Burger King, Crocs, Sunglass Hut, Adidas, Swatch, Swarovski and Travelex and more.
Fleeing commercialism, I located the Hong Kong Tourism Board based on the Peak Piazza in a former tram. There I met Sanford Lee and Windy Chiu who made my mission their own — to track down the ‘umbrella seat’ that Nellie describes in her book Around the World in 72 Days.
“…We were carried (by sedan chairs) to Victoria Peak. It required three men to a chair ascending the peak. At the Umbrella Seat, merely a bench with a peaked roof, everybody stops long enough to allow the coolies to rest…”
Once I convinced them I was not in search of an umbrella (despite the approaching typhoon) nor a chair, Windy and I set off on an uphill search. Fifteen minutes later the elusive Umbrella Seat was before us. Not content with our original discovery, we climbed further up in the pre-storm heat to the Victoria Peak summit.
Rain was falling in sheets by the time we returned to the tourist office tram. The typhoon signal jumped from 1 (standby) to 3 (strong winds). Taking the Peak Tram down, I arrived back at my hotel in Wan Chai to discover that typhoon signal 8 (gale and storm force winds) was in effect and all government agencies were now shut.
Would I be able to travel to Canton (Guangzhou) the next morning as planned? Certainly not on a boat up the Pearl River like Nellie, but perhaps the trains would be running…