Women journalists

In Which Nellie Bly Exhibits Her Role in History

Peat O'Neil (r) and David Stanton at the Newseum. Washington DC.

L Peat O’Neil (r) and David Stanton at the Newseum. Washington DC.

Washington DC was not on Nellie’s world trip itinerary,  but it had to be on mine.  The satchel she carried around the world is on display at  the the Newseum there, courtesy of Nellie Bly biographer Brooke Kroeger.  I had to see it.

Nellie Boy on display at the Newseum

Nellie Bly on display at the Newseum

Adjacent to the Capitol, the Newseum transports you across five centuries of journalism through multi-media presentations, hands-on exhibits and galleries.

I’d been hoping to be able to carry Nellie’s satchel or gripsack as she called it — just for a minute — but it’s  well- protected and inaccessible inside a Plexiglas display.  Even so, it was exciting to see an icon of her epic journey that so totally captures her spirit. When Nellie’s editor said he’d have to send a man around the world because a woman required a chaperone and innumerable trunks, Nellie showed him by stuffing everything she needed in a 16×7 inch satchel and travelling alone. Go Nellie.

Aside from her own display, Nellie stars  in a 4-D ‘film experience’ designed to introduce us to the power of journalism.  It recounts  the 10 days she spent in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women in New York and the reforms that followed her exposure of the cruelty there. It was terrific to see her role in investigative journalism celebrated so vividly — even if we had to endure shaking chairs and flashing lights to ‘heighten’ the 4-D experience.

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer

Nellie is in good company at the Newseum with exhibits monitoring press freedom, a memorial to fallen journalists, a large section of the Berlin Wall, front pages from around the world and vivid Pulitzer-prize winning photographs. The legendary Joseph Pulitzer, creator of the  prizes, was the owner of The New York World and Nellie Bly’s boss.

I visited the Newseum with my great friend Louisa Peat O’Neil, a travel writer and former journalist at The Washington Post, and my husband David Stanton who flew over from London. We were met by Peat’s friend John Maynard, Senior Manager, Exhibit Progamming at the Newseum.

Where Nellie Bly Lives On

APOLLO, PENNSYLVANIA
Nellie Bly’s hometown

The Apollo Area Historical Museum is located in the former Women's Christian Temperance Union building.

The Apollo Area Historical Museum is located in the former Women’s Christian Temperance Union building.

If it were not for Nellie’s 150th birthday on 5 May 2014, I might not have known about the Apollo Area Historical Society in southwestern Pennsylvania and its esteem for Nellie Bly, their famous hometown girl. Run by local volunteers who look after their own Apollo Historical Museum, the Society keeps alive the spirit and pluck of Nellie Bly and honour her each year on her birthday. Her 150th was commemorated with a films and a performance by Apollo-Ridge High School drama club members. It made the Valley News Dispatch and I found the article on the internet which included the Society’s facebook page.

I got in touch with Vice President Sue Ott and said I wanted to visit Nellie Bly’s hometown the weekend of 5-6 October which just happened to coincide with the Society’s monthly meeting. Of course I would be delighted to address the Society about my trip. I’d be in Washington DC anyway, a mere four-hour drive away. In any case, I would be eligible for the Apollo Area Historical Society discount at Dolly McCoy’s Guest House if I wanted to stay in town. I did.

Dolly McCoy and I outside Nellie's childhood home with a historical marker honouring her.

Dolly McCoy and I outside Nellie’s childhood home with a historical marker honouring her.

It feels like most people in Apollo, 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, know each other — or may even be related. Apollo’s heyday seems to have passed, but the Historical Society keeps alive its vibrant past as a prominent steel and iron town.

Locals gather at Lackey’s Dairy Queen, or the authentic Yakkity Yak Diner just down the road. Lackey’s Dairy Queen opened in 1955 and is owned by Dolly McCoy’s sister-in-law. It closes for the season as autumn approaches. When I was there, people were stocking up on  ice cream supplies ready for the harsh Pennsylvania winter. They know it will be harsh because so many furry black caterpillars have been spotted – a true omen in these parts.

After dinner at the Yakkitty Yak Diner, we headed to the Apollo Area Historial Museum for the monthly meeting. It’s in the former Women’s Christian Temperance Union building. An entire case is devoted to Nellie Bly. Bliss.

Mayor of Gerberoy, France Pierre Chavonnet salutes the Apollo Bicentennial coming up in 2016.

Mayor of Gerberoy, France Pierre Chavonnet salutes the Apollo Bicentennial coming up in 2016.

Going upstairs to the meeting room, I was presented with a hand-stencilled hot pink poster announcing the bicentennial of Apollo in 2016 by Donna Darlene Dunmore  who wanted me to take it to England in hopes that the Queen might see it. I did. I took it with me on a recent visit to  Gerberoy, France – the country’s smallest city and one of its most beautiful, where I snapped a photo of Mayor Pierre Chavonnet, holding it in front of Gerberoy’s own historical museum.

It felt really good to be in the company of true blue Nellie Bly fans—where they knew as much, or more, than I did about her. I basked in their knowledge; nothing needed to be explained from scratch as it had in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan, even the UK. And they were pleased as punch that I was celebrating Nellie’s record-breaking world journey.

Dolly McCoy Arnold and I visited the millstone holding a tribute to Nellie Bly in her birthplace Cochran Mills.

Dolly McCoy, Arnold Blystone and I visited the millstone with a tribute to Nellie Bly in her birthplace Cochran Mills.

In nearby Cochran Mills where Nellie Bly was born, a mill stone is embedded with a special plaque honouring their hometown girl. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran at Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania on 5 May 1864 to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran. Her father ran a prosperous grist mill there on the banks of Crooked Creek.

Cochran Mills, where Nellie Bly was born, has disappeared.

Cochran Mills, where Nellie Bly was born, has disappeared.

Dolly McCoy of the Apollo Area Historical Society (and Dolly’s Guest House) and Arnold Blystone, co-founder of the Burrell Township Historical Society took a morning off to show me around Nellie’s birthplace. The house where she was born and the mill run by her father are long since gone. The only vestiges of the once thriving mill town are a few foundation stones shrouded in moss. But Nellie remains the area’s most famous resident and her legacy carries on.

 

 

 

 

 

125 Years Ago Today: Nellie Steams Into History

Nellie Bly 125 years ago

Nellie Bly 125 years ago

Exactly 125 years ago on November 14, 1889, crusading journalist Nellie Bly left New York Harbour to start what would become the fastest-ever  journey around the globe.

She  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 in Around the World in Eighty Days.  Seventy-two days later, she won the race and became a global celebrity.  125 years later, I set out to follow in her footsteps around the world.

We both travelled alone with one small case. She went by ocean liner and train. I flew. She raced, I didn’t. She covered 28,000 miles in 72 days, I completed 22,500 miles in 32 days. She journeyed through the Victorian age, breaking conventions along the way. I travelled through the Information age, blogging along the way.  She started from New York. I started from London.  We both finished with book-length memories and a profound appreciation for the kindness shown to us everywhere we went.

Nellie crossed the Atlantic on the  Augusta Victoria.

Nellie crossed the Atlantic on the Augusta Victoria.

To this day Nellie Bly is one of the top 10 female adventurers. But what seems to have been forgotten is her role as a pioneer of investigative journalism who paved the way for women reporters.

Nellie’s crusades in print brought about sweeping reforms in asylums, sweatshops, orphanages and prisons. Back in 1887, she had herself committed to the Women’s Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island)  and exposed the cruelties and hardships the patients endured. She burst into male-only newsrooms proving that women were more than capable and was the first woman to report from the Eastern Front in WWI.

Nellie exposed the abuses taking place inside the Women's Asylum.

Nellie exposed the abuses taking place inside the Women’s Asylum.

Let’s pay tribute to the courage, spunk and determination of Nellie Bly on the 125th anniversary of the day she steamed out of America on the Augusta Victoria … and into history.

 

 

Epilogue: Nellie Bly’s Final Resting Place

Alice Robbins-Fox, cmetery historian Susan Olsen and Sally Emery at Elizabeth Bisland's grave.

(l to r) Alice Robbins-Fox, cemetery historian Susan Olsen and Sally Emery at Elizabeth Bisland’s grave.

After following Nellie Bly so intently around the world, I wanted to visit her gravesite when I arrived in New York City to pay my respects. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark in the Bronx.

Elizabeth Bisland, who was circling the globe at the same time as Nellie, is also buried at Woodlawn along with newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer publisher of the New York World, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Duke Ellington and many other notable people.

My friends Alice and Sally and I were met by cemetery historian Susan Olsen who took us by car for a tour of this fascinating burial ground stretching more than 400 acres and home to  300,000 graves.

We passed the tombs of America’s most-loved people, some adorned with Tiffany glass. The first stop was at Elizabeth Bisland’s gravesite where I laid one of the 12 white roses I brought for the occasion.

Joseph Pulitzer's grave at Woodlawn

Joseph Pulitzer’s grave at Woodlawn

Our second stop was the tomb of Joseph Pulitzer, Nellie’s boss at the New York World.  He built a newspaper empire from scratch. It was his idea to send Nellie to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island to uncover the abuses that mentally ill women suffered. That story resulted in sweeping reforms in the care of mentally ill people.

Nellie's gravesite

Nellie’s gravesite

At last we were on our way to Nellie’s tomb — plot 212, section 19 in the Honeysuckle Lot. It’s where many victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918 are buried, according to Susan Olsen. Nellie’s was one of the few graves in the Honeysuckle Lot that boasted a headstone. But it wasn’t even erected until 1978 when the New York Press Club dedicated it ‘in honor a of famous news reporter’.

To me, Nellie Bly was so much more than a famous news reporter. She not only paved the way for women in journalism;  she  pioneered investigative journalism – the kind of reporting that brings about change and reforms….and makes the world a better place. When most women were relegated to the home, she travelled the world on her own with a small gripsack and the clothes on her back.

With that in mind, I laid the 11 remaining white roses on her grave.

I’m not sure whether it was the discovery that she was buried in a pauper’s grave unmarked for 56 years, or if this visit represented the culmination of a special journey for both Nellie and I, but I was overcome with emotion.

Rest in peace Nellie Bly.

In Which Nellie Explores Tokyo

Tokyo, Japan 

Emperor's Palace, Tokyo

Emperor’s Palace, Tokyo

“It would fill a large book if I attempted to describe all I saw during my stay in Japan,” Nellie wrote. I wish she had described more, but at least I was able to track what she did recount in Tokyo.

Nellie went to see the Mikado’s Japanese and European castles. Today the Emperor’s Palace can be viewed from the outer garden. To get inside, as Nellie did, advance reservations must be made.

DSC03509

The Sangedatsumon Gate is said to deliver us from greed, anger and stupidity.

All that remains of the great Shiba Temple – today’s Zojoji Temple – that Nellie saw is the majestic vermillion-lacquered main gate built in 1622 and the enormous Diabonsho Bell dating to 1673 weighing 15 tons.

Dianshon Bell

The Dianshon Bell is tolled six times a day

The gate, soaring 21 metres high, is called Sangedatsumon—meaning a gate of deliverance from three earthly states of mind – greed, anger and stupidity. The gate itself was ‘delivered’ from World War II air raids that obliterated the rest of the site.  A memorial service packed the main hall at Zojoji Temple, overlooked by Tokyo Tower, when I went. Many hundreds of people were lined up for their turn to pray and bow before the Buddha. Zojoji is now one of Japan’s principal Buddhist temples.

Garden of the Unborn Children

Garden of the Unborn Children

With row upon row of small statues shaped like little children, a garden in the temple grounds is devoted to unborn babies. Keeping in mind Nellie Bly’s crusading journalism on behalf of mothers and children, I’m sure she would’ve been drawn here. With uplifted faces and hands folded in prayer, the statues wear crocheted hats and scarves. Alongside them are vibrant flowers and whirring pinwheels that gently lighten the solemnity.

Tokyo’s Ueno Park, like London’s South Kensington and Berlin’s Museum Island, is home to first-rate state museums; but also temples, pagodas, gardens and amusements. Nellie described only a memorial tree and a very clever monkey.

I found the tree, but not the monkeys.

Trees planted by !8th US President Gen Ulysses S Grant and his wife Julia at Yuei Park

Trees planted by 18th US President Gen Ulysses S Grant and his wife Julia in 1879 at Ueno Park

In fact there were two trees, planted by General Ulysses S Grant and his wife Julia during a world tour they undertook following his US presidency (1869-1877). The cypress planted by the General and magnolia planted by his wife on 25 August 1879 still stand. Fearing ‘that few people knew about the history of the trees’, a monument was erected 50 years after their planting by ‘those who had the privilege of participating in the welcome event.’  You can find it between the ice cream stand and bumper cars at Ueno Park, adjacent to the area set aside for smokers.

In Which Nellie Falls for JAPAN

Nellie’s dates: 2-7 January 1890
My  dates: 19-24 September 2014

Yokohama 

Port of Yokohama in Nellie Bly's time

Port of Yokohama in Nellie Bly’s time

Nellie simply adored Japan. “If I loved and married, I would say to my mate: ‘Come I know where Eden is,’” she wrote, “and … desert the land of my birth for Japan.” She called it ‘the land of love-beauty-poetry-cleanliness.’

She idolized the people there too heaping praise upon them — ‘charming, sweet, happy, cheerful, delightful, graceful, pretty, artistic, obliging and progressive.’

“In short I found nothing but what delighted the finer senses while in Japan,” gushed a usually rather snide Nellie Bly.

Her port, Yokohama, 20 miles outside Tokyo, had a ‘cleaned up Sunday appearance.’ That was in 1890. By 1923, almost everything had vanished – swallowed by the Great Kantō earthquake that claimed the lives of 30,771 and injured 47,908.

Yokohama water tap that once lined the streets of Yokohama in 300 foot intervals.

Yokohama water tap

An ornate iron water tap, one that lined the streets every 300 yards when the city’s waterworks were installed, was among the scant physical evidence of Nellie’s time. It was in the garden of the  Yokohama Archives of History – the former British Consulate built after the earthquake.

The Grand Hotel described by Nellie as good ‘barring an enormous and monotonous collection of rats’ was long gone. The city’s celebrated Doll Museum has taken its place.

The Grand Hotel which Nellie described as good despite a colony of rats.

The Grand Hotel which Nellie described as good despite a colony of rats.

A new Grand Hotel built in 1927 still stands in Colonial splendour at the port. The concierge there took time to explore the area’s history with me.

Yokohama's Doll Museum now occupies the spot where the Grand Hotel once stood.

Yokohama’s Doll Museum now occupies the spot where the Grand Hotel once stood.

So did Yuki Saito at the Museum of Cultural History. She combed her collection for books, photographs and vintage postcards to bring Nellie’s time in Yokohama to life for me.

Nellie landed at the Port of Yokohama, now the  31st largest in the world, at Osanbashi Pier.  The port’s oldest pier, today  Osanbashi is the site of an ultra-modern wave-shaped international passenger terminal, one of Yokohama’s premier landmarks.

In 1890, the port hosted the American sloop USS Omaha where a luncheon was held in Nellie’s honour – “one of the pleasant events of my stay,” she wrote. Several days later, when Nellie set sail from Yokohama to San Francisco, the band on the Omaha played ‘Home Sweet Home’, ‘Hail Columbia,’ and ‘The Girl I Left Behind.’

shared postcards of Yokohama's Colonial Period.

Yuki Saito shared postcards of Yokohama’s Colonial Period.

In Which Nellie sees Stars and Stripes

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

Shamian Island, Canton, China

19th Century Shamian Island map

Charming white stone footbridges lead to Shamian Island.

Charming white stone footbridges lead to Shamian Island.

Predictably, both Nellie and I felt most at home on Shamian, a tiny island once set aside for Europeans.  Surrounded by water, Shamian or Shameen, resembles a large ship mooring alongside a wharf. Crossing to the island over charming white stone footbridges, you enter another reality.

Nellie wrote it was “green and picturesque, with handsome houses of Oriental design, and grand shade trees, and wide, velvety green roads…”, broken only by a single path, made by the bare feet of the chair-carriers.”

American Consulate in Nellie's time.

American Consulate in Nellie’s time

More than 150 western-style buildings  — consulates, churches, banks, post offices, telegraph offices, hospitals, residences and hotels —  were built on Shamian. Proud of its colonial heritage, the little island signposts its splendid past seen in gracious foreign consulates that have since opted for Canton’s soaring Central Business District (CBD).

Many of Shamian’s fine buildings are labelled — directing you straight back to colonial times. I found the former American Consulate where Nellie challenged her companions.

“Here for the first time since leaving New York, I saw the stars and stripes. It was floating over the gateway to the American Consulate. The moment I saw it floating there in then soft, lazy breeze I took off my cap and said: “That is the most beautiful flag in the world, and I am ready to whip anyone who says it isn’t.”

Former British Consulate on Shamian Island.

Former British Consulate on Shamian Island.

“No one said a word.  Everyone was afraid,” she wrote. “I saw an Englishman in the party glance towards the Union Jack, which was floating over the English Consulate, but in a hesitating manner, as if he feared to let me see.”

Many of the places Nellie saw on Shamian 125 years ago still exist in their original roles — the tennis courts, Christ Church and Queen’s Park.

Christ Church

Queen's Park on Shamian  Island

Queen’s Park

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.

In which Nellie Experiences Peaks… and Troughs… in Hong Kong

HONG KONG

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.

Competition

Nellie had no idea that Elizabeth Bisland was racing around the world in the opposite direction.

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.

slippery warningHappy Valley Cemetery  

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.”

Hong Kong Cemetery

Hong Kong Cemetery

Snakes!

Snakes!

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!

What a blast - the Noonday Gun

What a blast – the Noonday Gun

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.

Peak experience

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.

Riding the historic Peak Tram

Riding the historic Peak Tram

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…”

Windie Chui and I at the Umbrella Seat where sedan chair carriers rested before reaching the top.

Windy Chiu and I at the Umbrella Seat where sedan chair carriers rested before reaching the top.

Hong Kong Tourist Office Tram at Victoria Peak

Hong Kong Tourist Board Tram at Victoria Peak

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…

In Which Nellie Makes It Half-Way Round the World

SINGAPORE
Nellie’s dates: 18 December 1889
My dates: 11-14 September 2014

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore

By the time she reached Singapore, Nellie Bly was half-way round the world and at the southernmost tip of her journey. Arriving at dark the night before, it was too risky to dock. The P & O Oriental was forced to anchor in the harbour, much to Nellie’s frustration.

“The sooner we got in, the sooner we could leave, and every hour lost meant so much to me,” she wrote.

When Nellie came on deck the next morning, “the ship lay alongside the wharf and naked coolies were carrying, two by two, baskets of coal suspended between them on a pole, constantly traversing the gangplank between the ship and the shore, while in little boats about were peddlers with silks, photographs, fruits, laces and monkeys to sell.’’

Nellie didn’t buy a monkey from the peddlers in little boats; but from the family of her driver.

“When I saw the monkey my willpower melted and I began straight away to bargain for it. I got it,” she wrote. That monkey travelled around the rest of the world with her. He was called McGinty and became one of the icons of her world voyage. It’s illegal to buy monkeys in Singapore today.

Nellie noted the shophouses  in Singapore “where families seem to occupy the second story, the lower being devoted to business purposes.’’ Today those shophouses are hot properties hosting chic hotels, restaurants and boutiques. I stayed in a renovated shophouse in Chinatown – a former pawn shop – now the Adler Hostel.

The National Museum

The National Museum visited by Nellie and me

In her one day in Singapore, she visited the Raffles Museum, now the recently restored and very impressive National Museum  standing today as it did in Nellie’s time. Nellie described it as “most interesting.” I visited it too and found Yeo Li Li to ask for help in tracing a Hindu temple that refused Nellie’s entry.
Nellie was incensed.
“Why? I demanded, curious to know why my sex in heathen lands should exclude me from a temple, as in America it confines me to the side entrances of hotels and other strange an incommodious things,” she wrote. “My comrades were told that removing their shoes would give them admission but I should be denied that privilege because I was a woman.”

I spent the afternoon temple-hopping in Singapore’s Little India only to discover that this temple that served the dhobies – those who made their living doing laundry in the nearby Stamford Canal — was now the site of Dhoby-Ghaut metro station. No worshipping here – hundreds of thousands of people pour in and out on pilgrimages to the area’s colossal shopping malls. That will teach them for excluding Nellie Bly.

Nellie landed in Singapore 70 years after Sir Thomas Stamford  Raffles, often known as the ‘father of Singapore.’ By the time she got here, he was already a legend. I stood before his statue, as Nellie did, and read the same inscription:

“On this historic site Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819 and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” The statue was sculpted in bronze by Thomas Woolner in 1887 – two years before Nellie’s arrival.

The Arts House at the Old Parliament Building

The Arts House at the Old Parliament Building

Around him soar some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers in the ultra-contemporary metropolis that is Singapore today. But look below these silver monumental giants and you will find the Singapore of Nellie’s time in graciously restored Victorian government buildings now devoted to art and culture — the Arts House at the Old Parliament Building, Victoria Theatre and Asian Civilisations Museum. Not far away, the Raffles Hotel maintains its original vocation hosting the wealthy and selling over-priced Singapore Slings ($35) to the rest of us. We’re drinking in the Colonial atmosphere as much as the gin-based cocktail invented at Raffles in 1915. The Long Bar retains the original air circulation system – individual palm-leaf fans in a horizontal row moving mechanically back and forth to ease the tropical heat. Nellie was fascinated by these fans.

The harbour at Nellie's time with Johnston Pier (left) illustrated on a postage stamp.

The harbour at Nellie’s time with Johnston Pier (left) illustrated on a postage stamp.

The Fullerton Hotel started life as Singapore’s General Post Office in 1928. It’s size and grandeur – taking up a full city block –are testimony to the major role of the post in Colonial times. Although not exactly the same era as Nellie, I picked up many clues on a guided tour of the hotel by Florence Minjout  arranged by Stephen Wang at the Singapore Visitor’s Centre . Nellie would have disembarked at the former Johnston Pier, long since replaced. She would’ve crossed the Cavenagh Bridge  built in 1870 – the oldest existing bridge in Singapore.

The Cavenagh Bridge crossed by Nellie Bly

The Cavenagh Bridge crossed by Nellie Bly

It’s easy to get lost in Victorian times via time-honoured places like Raffles, The Fullerton Hotel and the Arts House. Not so at the former Governor’s House which is totally off limits except for a few times a year when the public is allowed in. Now called Istana, the current home of Singapore’s President Tony Tan Keng Yam is heavily gated and guarded. You can’t even see it. Nellie was entertained there by the Governor of Singapore. It was built by convict labourers on the site of a nutmeg farm.

Heavily-guarded former Governor's Residence.

Heavily-guarded former Governor’s Residence.

The original Governor’s Residence sat atop the highest hill in Singapore until the 1850s, a welcome refuge from the heat below. Now called Fort Canning Park, it is also the site of Singapore’s first botanical garden and features a replica of the mast that would’ve guided Nellie’s ship into the harbour.

Nellie sailed into a colonial Singapore.  I flew into a ‘Disneyfied’ Singapore with its Westernised veneer, harbour light shows bouncing off of soaring steel and glass;  and street vendors now corralled into area hawkers centres. All with a slight nod to the past. Fascinating!