by COUNT E. ARMFELT
VISIONS of palm trees and mango groves, of mosques and pagodas, rise in the
imagination as one beholds the swarthy sons of the Orient, whose quaint costumes
bring colour into the London streets, whose presence is emblematic of England's
far-reaching commerce and power.
The Maharajah who wears a diamond star and the ayah with her children, the Japanese who dress in solemn black, the Persian philosopher and the Parsee student, the Turk the Egyptian, the Arab, and Chinaman one meets in the West-End are all interesting figures. But to understand what Oriental London means from the points of view of character, costume, and life scenes, one must travel from the fashionable West to the humble East, for it embraces all the various spheres of society, high and low. It is in the crowded thoroughfares leading to the docks, in the lodging houses kept by East Indians, in the shops frequented by Arabs, Indians, and Chinese, and in the spirit houses and opium-smoking rooms that one meets the most singular and most picturesque types of Eastern humanity, and the most striking scenes of Oriental life.
The pale yellowish Chinaman from Peking who almost trails his pigtail, and whose loose flowing robes are caught by the breeze, and whose soft thick felt shoes glide silently through the streets, and his brother from Canton or Hong Kong who wears sailor's clothes, and whose hair is neatly plaited round his head and covered with a large golf-cap; the red-turbaned Lascars whose toes are as nimble as monkey's hands, and whose sea-chests contain treasures of odds and ends of cast-off European clothing mixed with bits of odorous Bombay ducks ; the alert, up-to-date Japanese, whose pilot jacket has capacious pockets bulging with weird-looking little idols, the penates of his ancestors, which he will turn into cash as soon as he can ; the jaunty-looking Malays, so handy with the kris and whose lips are blood-red with the juice of betel; the Arabs and the Zanzibaris, lithe and resolute, who wear tarbooshes and turbans [-82-] and large sashes, and the Cingalese, whose figures are hid in long overcoats, and who shiver with cold in the sun of an English summer, can all be observed on the quays of the docks and in the favourite haunts of Asiatics.
The Oriental lodging-houses and homes of Limehouse and Poplar are nearly all of them private. The residents stay three on four days, sometimes a week or a fortnight, and longer as the money lasts. In the majority of cases each race and taste has its own home. The Mohammedan Lascars and the Hindus eat apart from each other, though their food may only be rice. But the Lascars outnumber all the other sailors. When ashore for any length of time they prefer a nearly empty room with just a bed and a mattress. They carry with them their own bedding and their prayer rugs. They often sleep two or three on one bed, and one room may accommodate a half-dozen or more. There are any number of these lodging-houses, yet anybody not thoroughly acquainted with the locality would be at a loss to find one, for they look half deserted, and there is nothing to show that rooms are to let within.
Usually the lodging-house is a disused shop ; its shutters are up and barred, and it admits only a faint glimmer of light through a small aperture high up near the ceiling. The street door is unlocked, but shut to so that it need only be pushed open.
The Orientals glide in and out silently, and the shut-up shop, round which are beds and divans, is a delightful retreat from the Oriental point of view; the half darkness being grateful to the eyes and restful to the nerves induces that delightful sensation called Keyf.
Although most of the houses are generally well conducted, it occasionally happens that an Arab or Malay will cause a terrible disturbance. These gentry occasionally get intoxicated through the bhang and the hasheesh that they chew and eat amid which makes them raving mad.
Their hallucination is that the world around them is red, and they try too make it so by cutting and mutilating anyone that comes near to them . As a rule, however, thanks to the watchful care of the proprietor and his deputies, they are kept prisoners till the fit is over, but alas in nine cases out of ten their reason has left them for ever.
On one occasion a tall, haggard man, a native of Bombay, who had a good discharge certificate as ordinary seaman, was on the point of being engaged on board a ship which had been chartered to convey munitions of [-83-] war to the Cape, when some Lascars interposed. The truth was that he was known to them as a most dangerous monomaniac. He had a notion that the holds of ships were full of devils and jinns, and that they disturbed his sleep by their moans and groans when at sea. As he explained to his messmates these devils felt cold and damp down below and craved for a fire. And so to satisfy them he had on two occasions thrown lighted oakum and pitch among the cargo. This man was once a capital sailor, obedient and courageous too). But he had given way to intoxicants, and he will never serve in another ship.
Now and again a man, who has had a stroke of good luck, will come in the lodging-house for a rest. It may be that he is not a drinker, and thus the usual allurements fail to untie his purse-string's. In that case one of the most profitable dodges is that of selling a Hhagab or charm to the lucky Khalasi in the hope that he may have still further prosperity and luck.''
The Oriental, whether he be a Mussulman or a Hindu, is only a grown-up child. He is credulous of things which are wonderful, monstrous, and absurd, and incredulous of scientific facts. He most firmly believes in the baneful influence of the J inns, the Spirits of the Night, and the Evil Eye, and he purchases amulets to protect him against them and sickness, cholera, the plague, and the dangers of travel and the sea. These amulets, which usually consist of verses of the Koran, of gems, little pieces of green and white stones and corals, are sewn in little leather cases, sometimes of a triangular form, and embroidered with silver; and they are worn around the neck or round the left forearm on carried in a pocket of the waistband.
There is a market for charms and amulets which have brought unexpected prosperity to their owners, and the lodging-house keeper not infrequently drives a lucrative trade in them, especially with the sailors.
Altogether the Oriental crimp lodging-house keeper with his oily, protesting tongue, and his greedy and cruel look, is not an inviting character, and it can hardly surprise anyone that all the most reputable Orientals, who, as sailors or merchants, have business in the East-End and in the City, prefer the advantages of that most excellent institution, the "Strangers' Home."
Here, on the broad steps of the portico which faces the sun, or seated within the institution, one may often find groups of Orientals in all the glory of their native picturesque garbs, which rival the colours of the kaleidoscope. Here you may see Indians, Burmese, Arabs, Japanese, Chinese, Malays, Cingalese, Zanzibaris, Sumatrans, and other Orientals, for the "Strangers Home" for Asiatics and others admits all creeds, all races, all castes, and all callings.
It has reading and smoking and bagatelle rooms, bedrooms, baggage rooms, kitchens, and dining rooms, where every individual can cook and eat his meal with the ritual which his conscience commands him, undefiled by even the shadow of an infidel.
Further down the road towards the West India Docks there is a quaint inscription in four Chinese characters. It signifies that here is the Chinese mission-house. This is open twice a day for general purposes. The missionary, the Reverend George Piercy, lived thirty years in China, and he has gained much renown and respect among the Chinese of all classes. In Limehouse [-84-] the old and the young, the residents and the new-comers, look upon him as the father, the friend, and the adviser of all who are in difficulty or trouble. Chinamen who have been unjustly accused of crimes and offences, a thing which is not uncommon, and crews which have refused to work under some misapprehension, have owed their liberation to his kindly offices and many young boys and girls of the colony have to thank him for advice and help.
On Sunday evenings, about six o'clock, you will see in the mission-house a table laid for a score or more of young Chinamen who under the presidency of Mr. Piercy, will regale themselves with tea, bread and butter cakes and biscuits. It is a homely gathering. The missionary chats with all, answers questions and imparts information on every subject.
Close by the mission-house is I.imehouse causeway, and there and in the adjoining streets are the houses inhabited by the Chinese, and the shops where all things Chinese can be procured, or ordered direct from Peking and Canton.
Rare delicacies, soys, condiments, curries, gingers, medicines, drugs can be obtained there. Pills from Canton for counteracting the reductive effects of opium, and the opium itself candies, bars of soap, with the name of Wong Chung Li, and oil made of beans for the sacred lamp can be purchased, and a clever young man will enter the amounts in a ledger with the date in one character, and one single character will suffice to enumerate the lot.
The walls of the shops are adorned with tablets, inscriptions, and advertisements in Chinese characters, and such well-chosen announcements as "Prosperity by Honesty" and "Righteous Prosperity" can be read by the learned while over the names of the shops appear such celebrated names as Shing, Chang, and Kung.
Most of the residents of the colony understand English a few speak it tolerably well but in the great majority of cases one must be accustomed to the elision of the R before one can really comprehend what they say, for they have learned their English in the seaports where Pidgin is in vogue.
All the established Chinamen have married Englishwomen, and in their case marriage has not been a failure, for they seem happy. Their children look healthy and are comfortably dressed, and most of them are very nice looking. These dark-haired, black- eyed boys and girls, with the rosy cheeks and happy looks, are real little pictures.
The Joss House, it is stated, does not exist in Limehouse. That may or may not be correct; the Celestials, as a rule, know how to keep a secret among themselves. The Chinese are averse to having their world-ancient customs ridiculed. They argue that the men, whose ancestors devised and designed the vestments of modern religions, and who invented the sacred lamp as a beautiful symbol of a pure life, should not have their belief turned into ridicule by the ignorant scoffer.
The symbol of the sacred lamp is brought into operation in disputes and law suits. It is seldom that the Chinese go to law with each other, for they settle all their differences between themselves, but when it does occur the oath that is binding upon their conscience is administered to them by blowing out the right candle. It means- "This light is the emblem of my life. May I die if I do not speak the truth." The Chinaman blows out the light, and calmly awaits the dread result in the event of his telling a lie.
There are mysterious looking shops in Limehouse with little or nothing in the windows, and which have curtains to shut off the street. Now and again a Chinaman or other Asiatic will push the handle and disappear. It is an opium-smoking room. Enter and you will see a counter, a pair of small scales, a few cigars, some tobacco, and other et ceteras. The shop has a back parlour with a dingy yellow curtain. It is furnished with a settee, chairs, and a spacious divan, or wooden structure with one or two mattresses and half-a-dozen hard pillows or bolsters. It is there that the Ya'pian Kan - the prepared [-85-]
[-86-] opium - is smoked, and the majoon, made
of hellebore, hemp, and opium, is chewed, eaten, and smoked.
In the eves of the Chinese residents or London there is no greater man than the Chinese Minister. And the Forbidden City of Peking is not a more sacred place than the Legation in Portland Place above which waves the yellow flag with the Dragon.
The members of the Chinese Legation make many English friends. Occasionally they make wedding presents. Thus, the two Chinese greetings, of which facsimiles are given on page 81, were sent by Mr. Tang to Mr. and Mrs. James Platt (who allow us to reproduce them) on their wedding day. The inscriptions on the cards read in English
"Nigh to the flower-beds are other plants around them whose roots are intertwined."
"The mirror ever reflects two images which stand shoulder to shoulder."
There is no greater contrast than that which exists between the Children of the Rising Sun and the Chrysanthemum and the Children of the Flowery Land and Dragon. Ask a Japanese what is his chief political ambition, he will tell you that his countrymen will never rest until they have built an Empire of the West that shall rival the power and the grandeur of Great Britain. Put the same question to a Chinaman, he will reply in set deprecatory phrases that China desires to be left alone. And there is the whole difference between the two people.
But besides the Chinese, the Japanese, and the others to whom reference has been made, there is a nondescript Oriental population to be found in the very centre of London, a population which is full of character. There is the Turk from Constantinople who has no shop, no warehouse, and sometimes no address, and yet carries on a lucrative trade in old point lace; there is the Syrian who sells beautiful dolls dressed in their native costumes, and there is the insinuating carpet hawker from Jerusalem. All these have their clients who never forsake them. There is, too, the Khol vendor from Egypt, who goes to the houses of the Jews, and who will pencil the eyebrows and the eyelids so as to give intense lustre to the eyes. There is the Japanese tattooer who earns his twenty guineas in two or three sittings; there are the acrobats from every Eastern country in the world; and each of them can be seen in the streets of Oriental London.
George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902