Land of the lonely foreign bachelor

by Carl Crow
For many years the foreign population of China was composed exclusively of men. While the Son of Heaven allowed the male barbarians to live in their factories in Canton under certain conditions, the females of the species were rigorously barred from setting foot on the soil of China, as they were later from residence in Japan. To the Oriental mind the Western woman, and especially the American and the English woman, was always an unmitigated nuisance.
Their prominent eyes, their hilly contours and their comic blond hair made them hideous sights to contemplate, while their brazen manners suggested associations it is just as well not to discuss. It was certain that no good would come of allowing them to live in China and there might be unpleasant consequences. If the British and American sailors fought over the flower-boat girls on the Canton water front what might be expected if the hussies of their own nationalities were allowed to come in?
The Chinese government took no chances and rigidly excluded them. It was in fact impossible for the Chinese to understand why women should want to come to China. It was to them unthinkable that women should travel to strange and distant places. Chinese women always remained at home. An official might be sent to some distant post where he remained for years but his wife never went with him. Not many foreigners were affected by the prohibition against the residence of women. Most of the early traders were bachelors. The few married men left their families in the Portuguese colony of Macao where all the foreigners lived in the between seasons period when the last ships had departed with their cargo of tea.
There was in fact no great outcry over this prohibition, which ensured a comfortable bachelor society free from feminine intrusion. One Englishman, after a married experience of a few years, found the restriction against female residence in Canton an opportunity for escape from his nagging spouse. This was George Chinnery, the famous painter, who went to live in Canton solely because his wife could not follow him there. He was one of a dozen or more famous men who were buried in the little foreign cemetery in Macao located near the grotto where Camoens, the exiled Portuguese poet wrote his great “The Lusiad.” Like most of the other old foreign cemeteries in China there are few gravestones bearing the names of women.
The right of foreign women to live in China was one of the privileges accorded by the treaties which opened the ports to the trade of foreigners. The restriction was not lifted at the insistence of the foreign traders but at that of the Protestant missionaries and the first foreign women to live in China were missionaries or the wives of missionaries. The traders lived in the ports where they organized clubs and bachelor messes and enjoyed life as best they could. Most of the missionaries established themselves in the interior and while the Catholic priests were voluntary bachelors the Protestant missionaries appeared to have a peculiar dread of that state for practically all of them married.
Only young unmarried men were employed by the big companies and they did not marry until after several years’ residence in China. Bachelors were always in the majority. Even after a great many women came to China, the predominant influence of the bachelor remained and foreign society in China still retains a robust and boisterous masculine flavor. The clubs were all men’s clubs and most of them contained rules rigorously barring all women except on an annual ladies’ night.
Everything was run by the men and for the men. If a man doesn’t have an opportunity to attend a stag dinner at least once a month he thinks there must be something wrong. The first foreign dishes provided by Chinese cooks were the result of painstaking teaching by bachelors who had no technical equipment beyond the possession of a cookbook and memories of their mothers’ kitchens. They didn’t bother much about salads. Women now make out the menus but they are confined within the scope of the cook’s capabilities with the result that the average China Coast meal caters to male rather than female appetites.
Chinese girls of the better-class families were kept cooped up at home in a harem-like seclusion, and the foreign bachelor rarely caught a glimpse of one. They would not have been very attractive in his eyes, for not until a very recent period did they adopt the styles which make them the charming figures they are today. There were almost insuperable social barriers to prevent the marriage of foreigners and the better-class Chinese, and none of the easily arranged temporary marriages as in Japan. Sailors came into contact with Chinese of a much lower social strata.
There were many marriages of this sort bringing into existence the unfortunate Eurasian. He is neither a Westerner nor an Oriental, is not welcomed by either and is generally looked on as a social outcast, a stigma that he must pass on to his children like a stream of tainted blood. Most of the first generation Eurasians had British fathers, but a considerable number of them were of American parentage.
The bachelor mess was a China Coast institution that has not completely disappeared in spite of the growth of hotels, restaurants, and boardinghouses. Here the bachelors planned their own meals and ordered their own lives undisturbed by the feminine routine of house cleaning. Each was a small residential club to which newcomers were admitted only by the unanimous consent of the members.
In fact some of the boardinghouse keepers followed a procedure of this kind and did not take new paying guests until the older boarders had been sounded out. Whether in a club or boardinghouse, life on the China Coast was too intimate to take chances on one potential troublemaker. One of the aristocratic establishments would not take boarders who were connected with the retail trade.
Many of the messes were maintained by employees of the same hong. In the early days in Canton all the companies maintained quarters for staff members and some continued this practice after the center of the foreign population moved to Shanghai. One found in them an atmosphere much like that of a Greek-letter fraternity house but without the restraints of campus discipline. They were inclined to be rowdy. I knew one mess where almost every Sunday morning the cocktail shaker was buried as an implement for which the messmates had no further use, but someone always dug it up again.
Some of the most famous messes in Shanghai were those of the volunteer fire companies which for more than half a century provided the only protection against the constant threat of fires. The taxpayers who had already paid the premiums on their insurance policies objected to the expense of a municipal enterprise which would be of more direct benefit to the insurance companies than to anyone else, and year after year refused to appropriate any money for the maintenance of a fire department maintaining that as losses had to be paid by the insurance companies it was the sole responsibility of the companies to prevent losses.
Young men employed by firms which held insurance agencies organized fire companies, and the insurance companies contributed a small percentage of their annual premium collections toward the purchase of equipment. For some years after the taxpayers assumed the expense of maintaining a fire department all of the work was done by unpaid volunteers. The fire companies were such jolly organizations and the young men had so much fun fighting fires that many wanted to join and candidates were looked over as carefully as if they were applying for membership in some exclusive club.
The fire company messes were comfortably furnished, though often with a miscellaneous collection of silverware, china and linen in which there were few pieces of the same pattern. The volunteers always brought back souvenirs of every fire they attended but only articles which could be used in the mess. I often ate dinner at one of these messes; and once just as the soup was served a bell rang and I found myself all alone for my hosts were on their way to a fire. As they slid down the pole to the ground floor one of them called out:
“Don’t forget we need two soup spoons.”
The boys frequently ruined their clothing at a fire and no one objected to this collection of souvenirs which would have been destroyed except for their efforts. Occasionally a local resident would retrieve some treasured heirloom, giving in exchange something of greater value.
After fire-fighting became professional nearly every bachelor served for a time either in the Shanghai Volunteer Corps or in the special police. The volunteer corps is really a little standing army of about 2,000 men which has been referred to as the most complete and efficient small army in the world. Its members do not play at soldiering for during the past decade all of them have been on duty for weeks at a time. I was a member of the special police for three years, was, if I may be allowed to say so, in command of a squad. We patrolled beats, enforced curfew regulations and made searches for arms. In times of trouble we were sometimes on duty, or on call, twenty-four hours a day. Men have been wounded and killed in both branches of the service.
Two of the most famous bachelor establishments in Shanghai were run by veteran employees of the Standard Oil Company who are now retired. No one ever refused a dinner party invitation by Hash or Sam for he was sure to get a meal that he would remember for a long time. There was a good deal of friendly rivalry between them as to who set the best table and had the best-stocked wine cellar, a rivalry which their friends did nothing to discourage for it meant better dinners and more invitations. The rivalry finally reached a point where some one suggested a trial by jury — a jury of stag dinner guests - who would eat meals prepared by the two cooks and render a decision. Sam was to serve one dinner and Hash was to be the host a week later.
At the conclusion of Sam’s dinner someone rushed out to the kitchen and dragged in the unwilling cook to receive our congratulations on what had been a genuinely marvelous meal.
“That’s my cook,” shouted Hash.
“What nonsense! He is my cook,” said Sam.
Each was right for the same cook had been on two payrolls for years. As neither would consent to give him up this joint arrangement was continued until the two bachelors retired and went to live in America. As he had successfully served two masters for years he was given retirement pay by each and at the time of the Japanese invasion was spending his old age in comfort. The hospitality of the two bachelors continues for every now and then the old cook prepares a gorgeous meal and sends out invitations to his masters’ old friends. The guests have to make a three hours’ journey to his ancestral village to attend the dinner party but it is well worth it.
With so many unattached bachelors every city on the China Coast became a place of great romantic possibilities for girls who came out as tourists or visitors or in search of a job. I don’t know what the steamship companies did to adjust matters but a great many girls who came to the China Coast with return-trip tickets couldn’t possibly use them until their validity had expired and then only under the new names they had acquired by marriage. Moonlight walks on the deck of a steamer, the intimacy imposed by strange surroundings and the glamour of the Orient doubtless have something to do with it. There is also the unromantic law of supply and demand. There are many marriageable bachelors and few marriageable girls. If brides had a money value it would be very high on the China Coast.
Every year a great many American girls come to Shanghai in search of employment as trained nurses or stenographers or beauticians. Whether or not they will get on a pay roll is always problematical but it is a safe bet that if they stay around long enough they will have plenty of opportunities to marry. Of the many girl reporters who have from time to time worked on Shanghai papers over a period of more than twenty-five years I can recall only one who did not find a husband there. A great many of the marriage ceremonies were performed by Judge Purdy of the United States Court who took great pride in the fact that no couple he had married was ever divorced. As all the divorce proceedings would come before his court it was easy for him to maintain this record. In fact a Purdy marriage was looked on as being indissoluble — unless one of the parties could get into another jurisdiction.
The new employees of the big companies were limited to bachelors and in most cases their contracts provided that they could not marry except after attaining a certain age and earning capacity — and then only with the consent of the taipan. The lovesick swain had to gain the consent of the girl, the approval of her parents, and then lay his heart open to the scrutiny of a possibly liverish and unsentimental boss. If the latter had the interests of his company at heart he could not overlook the fact that it cost twice as much to pay home passage for a couple as for a single man, to say nothing of the growing transportation costs for the children which the future might bring. The course of true love rarely faced greater impediments.
Even after all these hurdles had been surmounted there were other impediments to keep the ratio of foreign population in China predominantly male. The girl was usually in America or England and unless the pair was willing to wait until the next home-leave period the girl would have to come to the Far East to be married. This brought up a question of etiquette which I do not believe is covered in Miss Post’s invaluable work. Should the prospective husband pay the carriage charges or should the parents undertake this expense and the groom take delivery of the cargo c.i.f.c. (cost, insurance, freight and customs).
If the responsibility fell on the groom-to-be, what sort of accommodations would she demand? Would she be content to travel like ordinary passengers or would she be likely to arrive in a bad humor because two other women had been put in the same cabin with her and she hadn’t been invited to sit at the captain’s table? If he had made more than one Pacific crossing the young man knew that this was not at all improbable for ocean travel does something to women’s tempers.
But the most serious hurdle he faced was one which the lonely and enamored bachelor would never suspect — one that I would have thought possible only in a fiction story unless I had known personally of so many instances, a few of them affecting my friends. Since these little personal tragedies, which only become doubtfully humorous with the passage of years, are motivated by feminine fickleness, let’s start with the psychological analysis of the girl at home who is coming out to get married. She is usually taking her first ocean journey and for the first time is completely independent.
There is the dangerous hiatus between transplanting from one family to another, from the duties of a daughter to the responsibilities of a wife. The old life is on one side of the world’s broadest ocean, the new life on the other side and the conventions of neither obtain on board a ship. The old social restraints are absent in form and strange new scenes make them dim in memory. The Chinese social system would never allow a poor weak female to be faced with a situation like this. When the Chinese bride-to-be leaves her ancestral home she is locked in a curtained chair and the key is carried posthaste to the home of the prospective bridegroom who alone can release the imprisoned girl. If the steamship companies could do something like this they would be performing a very useful service.
The fact that she is going to China to be married naturally singles the girl out for the attentions of all the young men on board. A mild flirtation seems to her to be the most harmless thing in the world. She will be married in a month and will probably never see this nice young man who is going out to Zamboanga. It will be the last chance and there are plenty of opportunities in strolls about the deck or in the gay cocktail parties which usually mark transpacific voyages. She is devotedly in love with John, but she hasn’t seen John for a long time, is lonely for him.
What more natural than that she should visualize John in the person of the handsome young man who is at her elbow. He soon appears to possess all the remembered charms of John plus his own and becomes a more desirable mate. So far as he is concerned the old caveman instinct to steal some other man’s woman asserts itself. Too often the bride who was traveling to marry John in Shanghai married shipmate Bill in Yokohama and wrote John a letter. I don’t know whether or not the psychologists have a name for it, but they should.
It finally became the custom for the young-men from the China Coast to meet their sweethearts in Yokohama. No one of them ever thought his girl would run out on him like that but as soon as his friends heard of the prospective marriage, they would begin pointing out to him the advantages of a wedding in Japan. No one ever mentioned the real reason but there were specious arguments presented in an attempt to protect the love¬sick swain from female fickleness.
After a long and lonely sea trip it would be unfair to make the girl wait four or five days longer before seeing him. He could show her the sights of Japan, protect her against the probable rudeness of Japanese policemen. By bringing her to Shanghai as his wife instead of a lone and inexperienced traveler he could relieve her of the bother of passing the customs examinations and dealing with the wharf coolies. By these and other crafty arguments in which the real reason was never hinted at they usually managed to convince the prospective husband that he would be lacking in all sense of decency if he did not arrange for the marriage to be performed in Kobe or Yokohama, and this finally became the social custom.
It did not entirely put a stop to the pilfering of brides. Many a girl whose heart should have been near the bursting point with happiness at first sight of her beloved felt herself sink into the depths of despair as she saw him from the rail of her steamer. He did look funny in his China-made clothes and that hat he was wearing was out of fashion two years ago. Could it be possible that he had put on a little weight? Were those pouches under his eyes natural? Were they there before? Or had John forgotten his promise to cut his drinking down to reasonable proportions? Oh, well, it’s too late now and she had to say farewell to her charming shipmate. Sometimes the ship romance had gone too far and John met his girl only to learn that she had changed her mind.
There is one classic and unexaggerated story of the curdled romance of a young American who was proprietor of his own business in Moukden. He had left a girl behind him in Iowa and the only hindrance to their marriage lay in the difficulty he had in saving enough money to set up a housekeeping establishment and meet the rather heavy cost of transportation. Finally his savings were augmented by drawing a lucky number in a sweepstake and he joyfully mailed a draft with a detailed letter of instructions. He had reserved passage on a specified steamer from Seattle and he would meet the steamer in Yokohama where they would be married and spend their honeymoon on the beautiful Inland Sea of Japan. As the steamer schedule did not allow time for any further correspondence, she was to cable him a single code word which would mean that she had received the letter and would be on the boat.
John received the cable and was in Yokohama for the arrival of the boat but there was no Mary among the passengers who crowded the rail. Her name was not on the passenger list and she sent him no message. Full of anxiety he sent her a cable and in reply received a message:
“Letter in Moukden.”
The letter didn’t arrive until several weeks later and read as follows:
Dear John:I know you are going to he very disappointed and may be angry with me, but it can’t be helped. I did intend to marry you like I said I would, but it was a long time ago and I never knew for sure whether you were going to be able to save up the money or not. After you went back to China the last time I began going with Sam and he wanted me to marry him and I told him I wouldn’t but he kept asking me just the same and was jealous every time I got a letter from you.
When your letter came with the money in it and I sent you the message I told him about it and he felt awful bad. He said he didn’t have nothing more to live for and talked about committing suicide. I felt very sorry for him.
Then he told me what a terrible place China was to live in and how the Chinese eat rats and kill all their girl babies and a lot of other things you never told me about. He said I would be lonesome there because I wouldn’t know anyone but you, and I guess I would of been but I hadn’t thought of it before. We’ve got the dandiest crowd here now and the boys have organized a string quartette and we have a dance at the Odd Fellows Hall every other Saturday night. The boys pay the rent for the hall and the girls bring the supper. It’s lots of fun - more fun than when you were here because the boys hadn’t started their orchestra.
Well, Sam and I talked it over a long time. I said I was sorry for you and he said I shouldn’t be because you very probably had a Chinese girl, which I hadn’t suspected you of after all the things you wrote me about how funny looking the Chinese girls are. I saw one of them in Des Moines, and how any white man would have anything to do with them I can’t understand.
Sam said you had given me the money to do what I liked with and that if I would marry him he would pay it back to you so that you would have some money coming to you that you didn’t expect. So that is what we did and Sam will begin paying the money back after the first of the year. There wasn’t quite enough to pay on the rugs and the refrigerator. Sam says we ought to be awful grateful to you, and we are.
Yours very sincerely,Mary (Mrs. Samuel H. Jones.)
The last time I saw John in Moukden he was still a bachelor and the framed letter occupied a prominent position over his cocktail bar.