Canton

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

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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.