Guangzhou

Geographical Magazine: How I followed in Nellie Bly’s footsteps

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Magazine of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Rosemary Brown: freelance journalist, humanitarian worker and explorer

 As told to Katie Burton; Published in I’m a Geographer  03 Jul 2020

mug shotRosemary 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 BellFreya StarkIsabella BirdMary 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
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_1

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.’

CV
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).

In Which Nellie Spends Christmas in Canton

CANTON (GUANGZHOU) CHINA

Nellie’s dates: 25-26 December 1889
My dates: 16-17 September 2014

Typhoon Kalmaegi  at peak intensity when I was leaving Hong Kong. WIKIPEDIA

Typhoon Kalmaegi at peak intensity when I was leaving Hong Kong. WIKIPEDIA

Typhoon warnings

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.

Nellie's global gripsack

Nellie’s global gripsack

Wesley had a bag just like Nellie’s

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.

Temple-hopping 

Cheng Huang Temple, the Temple of Horrors

Cheng Huang Temple, the Temple of Horrors

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.

Hualin Temple houses 500 golden saints

Hualin Temple houses 500 golden saints including a look-alike Marco Polo (right)

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 DSC03244expression 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.

Keeping time

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.

Who would guess what was inside the Zhenai Tower?

Who would guess what was inside the Zhenhai Tower?

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?

The elusive bronze water clock complete with signs.

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.

A sculpture on the ancient bronze water clock that Nellie described.

A sculpture on the ancient bronze water clock that Nellie described.