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By Christopher New
Asia 2000 LimitedCopyright © 1985 Christopher New
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Chapter OneIt must have been the change in the ship's motion that woke him, the roll of the open sea giving way to calm of the estuary. Propping himself up on his elbow, Denton looked out of the port-hole, through which the scuttle was channelling warm, moist air onto his face. It was dawn. He could see a pink flush in the sky, and across the smooth, still-dark, oily water he could make out the dim shape of land, a low, smudged bar of earth darker and more solid than the sea.
The other passengers in the crowded cabin were still snoring and sighing in their sleep. Dressing quickly and stealthily to avoid waking them, he made his way up to the lower deck. The sun had risen over the horizon already when he reached it, and the banks of the river, clear and distinct now, were closing in on the ship. The pilot was just climbing aboard; his launch, pouring black smoke from its sooty grey funnel, was curling away to a cluster of tumbledown grey stone buildings on the bank. The water was a yellowish muddy colour, its opaque surface glittering under the long slanting rays of the sun.
For more than an hour Denton leant over the stern, watching the level countryside slip placidly past: vivid green squares of paddy fields, tall thick bamboo groves, squat stone and mud villages, little shrines with curled,tiled roofs glistening in the rising heat of the sun. Everywhere there were narrow overgrown ditches lacing the fields, their torpid waters gleaming through the green. The villages looked still and empty, not even a dog barking, but the fields were alive and full, men and women standing knee-deep in the paddy, legs spread, backs bent double, as they groped in the mud for the rice seedlings. They all wore wide straw hats with shallow conical crowns, the browny-yellow brims spreading out over their shoulders. Under each brim, black, braided queues swung down, men and women alike. Occasionally the peasants slowly straightened their backs, looked incuriously up at the liner steaming remotely past, then bowed to their work again.
Now and then Denton saw water buffalo plodding through the mud of the few unplanted fields, or ambling along the banks between them. Grey and slimy from the water, they were prodded on by half-naked children with pointed sticks, who kept shouting out strange shrill cries. Some of the children waved at the boat, grinning or making faces. So this is China, he kept thinking, half-awed. So this is China.
Then Everett joined him. 'We've passed the Woosung forts, then?' he asked, his freckled fists gripping the rail beside Denton.
'Yes, the pilot gets on there. Bit of a ruin. We shelled them in eighteen forty something or other. When we took Shanghai.'
'Oh yes, I saw the pilot coming on board.'
Everett nodded, breathing deeply and regularly through his nose, making long hissing sounds in his nostrils. 'You'll be seeing them again, I should think. There's a Customs post there, too.'
The breakfast gong sounded on the first class deck above them, struck by a dough-faced, spotty youth, insolent in his white P&O steward's uniform. Time for them to eat too, then, in the airless third class saloon with its plain wooden tables and smells of stale cooking.
'Coming?' Everett asked.
'Not just yet,' Denton answered awkwardly. 'Think I'll just watch a bit more first.'
He stayed on deck till it was too late to eat, gazing across the yellowish water that swirled gently past the ship's smooth white hull. He watched wooden junks drift past, their stiff, ribbed sails like patched grey bats' wings, he watched the light and dark green squares of the paddy fields, he listened to the clanging of occasional bells, behind the feathery bamboos that sometimes screened the villages. The sun grew slowly hotter. His cheek began to burn. He moved reluctantly into the shade of one of the lifeboats. But still he watched.
And then, at last, the thing he scarcely knew he'd been waiting for: the city of Shanghai began to emerge from the shimmering haze ahead. First tall black columns of smoke from unseen funnels and chimneys, then the bright shapes of large buildings, windows intermittently sparkling in the sunlight, then the dark rigid fingers of pointing cranes and the masts of ships, bare as leafless trees. While he gazed at the approaching city, he heard the deep throbbing blast of a siren, and almost at once a rust-streaked liner slid round the next bend, heading downstream towards the sea. For a few moments Denton looked at the two raked stacks billowing sooty smoke and at the silent faces of the passengers lining the side, then the ship had passed and he was watching the Russian flag flopping limply at the stern above the muddy foaming wake churned by its propellers. Another liner was making its tortuous way upstream behind them, sailing almost in their wake. As it slowly turned at a buoy in the middle of the channel, he saw the American flag drooping from its mast.
They swung slowly round another bend and all at once they were in the middle of the city. On the starboard side, large stone buildings with colonnaded facades lay back behind a wide green park. On the port side a dirty grey slum of houses, factories and godowns sprawled, all crammed together. The river was dense with ships of all kinds there - liners, cargo ships, coalers, barges, lighters and junks. Between them and the shore, smaller boats dawdled over the smooth, sluggish water, Chinese sampans rowed from the stern with a single oar. From the quays came a continuous hubbub of noise - voices shouting and chanting, wheels grinding, chains squealing, whistles blowing, cargo thudding onto shore or barge. So this is China, he thought again half-exhilarated, half-afraid. He went below.
Everyone else in the six-berthed cabin had gone, their trunks and boxes piled outside. Denton quickly folded his few remaining clothes and started packing them into the dented metal trunk his father had bought him from a pawnbroker in London. The cramped cabin was on the lowest deck, hot and stifling now that the ship had stopped moving and the scuttle no longer scooped in any air. He began to sweat, and took off his jacket and tie. His best collar, which he had had starched for threepence in the ship's laundry the day before, was damp and curling already.
As he was closing the lid the stamp of approaching feet sounded outside, then an abrupt, authoritative voice. A large man in a white drill uniform pushed the door open and ducked inside, holding his topee in his hand. He seemed to fill the doorway.
'Denton?' His face was red and perspiring, and he had a bristly ginger moustache. 'My name's Mason. Been sent to meet you.' He made it sound more a duty than a pleasure.
'Where's your kit? That all?' He sniffed and then, as an afterthought thrust out a meaty red hand that was also perspiring. 'Masons the name,' he said again. 'How do. Only one trunk?' He shouted over his shoulder in a hectoring voice, and a small crooked-backed Chinese padded in on bare feet, peering deferentially, warily, round the cabin, as if expecting to be cuffed or kicked. Mason gestured to the trunk. 'One piecee topside,' he ordered curtly.
The Chinese wore faded blue trousers and a shapeless, torn tunic. 'Master no more piecee?' he asked in a sing-song voice, shaking his head so that his waist-long queue twitched at his back. His head was shaved in front, giving his face a strangely naked and mask-like appearance.
'One piecee!' Mason repeated impatiently. 'Quick, quick top-side! Master later look-see, you blithering idiot.' He looked round the cabin distastefully as the Chinese heaved the trunk onto his shoulder and staggered out with it. 'Glad to get out of this, I should think, won't you be?'
Before Denton could answer, Mason frowned. 'I say, you have got a jacket and tie, haven't you? Better put 'em on, then.'
'Yes, I was just going to -'
'Put 'em on if I were you,' Mason said again, ignoring Denton's assurance. 'The Chief's hot on that sort of thing.'
'Yes.' Denton obediently adjusted his tie and slipped on his jacket" under Masons watchful, rather peevish, gaze.
'You'll be hot in that,' Mason said accusingly, brushing the tips of his moustache upwards with his knuckle. 'Couldn't you get tropical kit before you left?'
'They said it would be cheaper here?' Denton turned 'their' statement into a hesitant, mild inquiry.
'Did they now?' Mason asked indifferently. 'Well, they were right about that at least.'
'The lascar cabin steward appeared in the doorway, a towel over his arm, smiling and nodding at Denton.
Denton gazed at him inquiringly.
'Wants his tip,' Mason muttered. 'Slip him a quid.'
'Oh,' He gave the man a pound note. Now he'd only got nine left.
The steward stared down at the note without moving. 'You are not liking my service?' he asked in a sullen, injured voice.
'Only one pound?'
'Isn't that enough?' Denton asked meekly.
''Course it is!' Mason answered for him roughly. 'More than enough!'
'Other passengers are giving more.'
'Other passengers are bloody fools, then.' Mason pushed past the lascar. 'Come on, let's go. Just leave him to whine and snivel here. He'll soon get fed up with it.'
But as he followed Mason out, Denton added five shillings surreptitiously to the pound note. The steward took it ungraciously, still muttering his dissatisfaction.
On deck, Mason made his way through the waiting passengers commandingly, his uniform giving him licence. As they crossed the gangway down to the landing stage, Denton looked down at the beggar boats that had swarmed round the vessel's side. They were bare, dirty sampans rowed by women or children, who held up deformed infants, filthy, naked, covered with sores, while they wailed and clamoured against each other. 'Dollar, master! Baby hungry! Baby hungry!'
'Beggars!' Mason glanced at them contemptuously. 'I suppose you've seen enough of them on the way out?'
Denton nodded. Malta, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong-everywhere there had been beggars, smelly, sore, mutilated, emaciated and importunate. And everywhere they'd made him feel obscurely guilty. 'Yes,' he answered. 'Not so many as here, though. There must be a lot of poverty.'
'Brought it to a fine art,' Mason sniffed disdainfully. 'Don't give 'em a cent, you'll never shake 'em off if you do.'
'The children look very sick,' Denton protested uneasily, remembering the missionaries' slide shows in the church ball at Enfield, the blurry pictures of starving children that their weekly threepences would feed.
'Sick?' Mason scoffed, either at Denton or at the beggars. 'They're probably dead. They steal corpses to beg with. Dead babies their parents have chucked out. Begin to pong by midday, too.'
Denton stared at him incredulously, but he bad gone on ahead to shout at the Chinese, who was patiently waiting with the battered trunk.
Already gangs of coolies were trotting up and down the gangways to the holds, chanting deep rhythmic cries as they lolloped along, giant loads swaying at each end of the springy bamboo poles they balanced on their shoulders. Denton sniffed the air of the quayside. It was rich and heavy, smelling of the muddy water, of dirt, sweat, greasy smoke, of incense and the food cooking on nearby charcoal braziers. All around him there was the din of shouting coolies, bustling hawkers, grinding cranes and squealing pulleys. Only a few ship's officers and a bearded Sikh policeman were aloof and quiet, surveying the tumult with detached superiority. And another Customs officer, dressed like Mason, whom Mason nodded casually to, brushing his moustache upward with his knuckle again.
A hand touched Denton's shoulder. It was Everett again. 'Cheerio,' he smiled amiably. 'Might run into each other some time, eh?'
'Yes. All the best.'
'Friend of yours?' Mason asked, or demanded rather, as if he had a right to know.
'He was in my cabin. He's with the police here.'
'Oh, with the slops, eh?' His voice seemed to drop a tone in disparagement. He strode on through the gangs of coolies towards a brick arch with an iron gate, guarded by another Sikh policeman. 'We'll take a rickshaw.'
'Is it far?'
'Nowhere's far here.' He brushed past the policeman. 'Customs,' he said brusquely. The policeman saluted.
Mason's puffy, florid face was sweating copiously. He mopped it with a silk handkerchief. Denton noticed dark stains of sweat under his raised arm and round the high collar of his uniform, which his neck bulged over, red and irascible.
'It's very hot,' he said peaceably.
'Hot?' Mason gave a short, ill-tempered laugh. 'That's not the trouble. It's the humidity that's killing.' He turned away to shout something at the man carrying Denton's trunk.
Outside the gate they were surrounded by an insistent mob of rickshaw coolies, all calling out and beckoning, lowering the shafts of their rickshaws invitingly so that the two Englishmen almost tripped over them. Mason kicked out sullenly at several, before he chose one. 'Here, this'll do. Hop in. The trunk can go in the one behind. Suppose you've seen these things before, Hong Kong and so on?'
'Yes. And Singapore. But what's that?' Denton pointed to a large wheelbarrow on which three Chinese women were sitting, chirping noisily, while a single coolie pushed it along. 'I haven't seen that before. What is it?'
'That? A wheelbarrow. What's it look like?'
Denton gazed at the coolie's arms, stretched wide to grip the wheelbarrow shafts. A strip of cloth, fastened to each shaft, passed over his shoulders to help him take the weight. It was about three times the size of an English wheelbarrow. 'They carry people in them?'
'Unless my eyes deceive me,' Mason said with weighty sarcasm. 'I've seen the big ones carrying twelve people.' He laughed sardonically, derisively. 'It's their idea of an omnibus.' But then, 'After all,' he added with a note of sulky concession, 'You couldn't run a team of horses through these little streets.'
They climbed into the rickshaw, Mason's bulk squashing Denton to the side. The rickshaw coolie was small and stringy, grey hairs glinting among the black in his queue. Surely he was too frail to carry them both? But he lifted the shafts and, leaning against the cross-piece, with a sigh and a grunt tugged them into motion. Denton watched his calves, nothing but skin and corded muscles, jogging along at a trot. The coolie had the cart so finely balanced that his bare, calloused feet seemed scarcely to touch the ground as he lifted himself at each stride.
They jolted down a crowded, unpaved alley, lined on each side by barbers, fruit and vegetable hawkers and sweet-meat sellers, each squatting in the shade of a make-shift awning or large wax-paper parasol.
Excerpted from SHANGHAI by Christopher New Copyright © 1985 by Christopher New
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Gripping til the end.
This author develops his charactors very well. I was sorry the book ended reading this book made it seem you were in the chinese city. When events happened to the charactors you willfeel as they do