China Boat

Chapter 40

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

-William Shakespeare, 1564 — 1616
Sonnet 43

* * *

Thursday, May 6th, 1937
10:10 a.m.
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

The letters were tiny, and they were in faint pencil, and they ran along the extreme bottom of the envelope, on the back side; I almost missed them. 'Open Me In The Morning', the small message read.


Uh-oh, I thought to myself; smiling.


I had letters from Jack, this morning — I guessed it was to be the pattern going forward; three working ships, two flights per week, three or four letters per flight — and I'd just brought them up from the front desk.

I had of course made the usual arrangements with the desk-clerk on duty, to hold my mail separately. The nonchalance with which he had accepted my money — a far larger sum than I'd employed in San Francisco — made me think that such arrangements were not at all uncommon in Shanghai. Or not at the Cathay, at any rate.

Well, it was still morning. And the 'Open Me In The Morning' envelope bore the latest postmark.

I set the other two envelopes aside, for the moment; and then, on second thought, I moved to the writing-desk … With one of Jack's surprise enclosures, there was no telling what might come spilling out, or flying out. Better not to get it all over the carpet.

I examined the envelope carefully, for a moment — it did seem bulkier than one of Jack's usual letters — and then, I slowly, gently slit it open with the blade of my penknife — 

I'd been right to be careful.

Inside the envelope was a card, obviously hand-made, of sturdy, bright-red paper; and when I pulled it out, loose ribbons of gold-colored foil spilled out with it, all over the desk. Some more ribbons were attached to the card, with glue, and they waved free in the air, as I laughed, and read the card — 

Pasted to the face of the card, in letters cut out of silver foil, was the legend;

Good Morning Rhys!!!


Jack's letter, written in his usual quick, slanting hand, was on regular airmail-paper, folded inside the card.

Wednesday, April 28th, 1937
The _______ School
_______, _________

Good Morning, Rhys!

I hope you don't mind; but I couldn't resist the special greeting.

You see, I had a dream, last night, that you were back here at school, with me. And it was a very real dream; I dreamed it was morning, and you were back in your bed, down the row from me, and I was going to wake you up, the way that I always do … I swear, it brought your smiling face, and your usual cheerful, morning manner back to me, so very vividly … 

I puffed out a little cough of laughter, even as I blinked, rapidly, struck and stung by the imagery — 

He was being facetious, of course. Jack is the one who is disgustingly cheerful, and alert, and happy, on any given morning; and I am most decidedly, not. So, he is the one to come over to try to wake me up, of necessity; a thankless task. More than once, that has involved him straddling me in bed — decorously-clad in his pyjamas, of course — and singing absurd Gilbert and Sullivan ditties down at me, while I try to cover my head with my pillow, and our fellow classmates laugh at us … 

We are a team.

Of course, if we are staying at one another's house over a holiday, he has much more pleasant and effective ways of waking me up.

I very much wished he were with me, to wake me up, here in Shanghai. I'd even take the Gilbert and Sullivan.

 … and so, I couldn't resist sending you a special wake-up greeting, from far away.

And besides, Rhys, I have several special gifts from you, to thank you for!

There are, of course, your photos of the China Clipper; they are magnificent! I can't express how much I wish I'd been there, to see it with you. Thank you for taking them, and for thinking of me!

Incidentally, I was able to look up the registration number, from both your letter, and the photo you took as it flew overhead; and it really is the China Clipper. There's only one, you know; the other two ships are the Hawaii Clipper and the Philippine Clipper, but the China Clipper was the first — the first of the Martin ships, anyway — and it's always been my favorite. Thank you!

But of course, your best gift came in your letter of April 9th, your last letter from San Francisco. You know what I mean; the three gifts, actually … 

He was referring to the three hairs I'd sent him; in answer to the three he'd sent me. And as with his gift, only two of them had come from my head … 

They are actually quite precious, to me; I keep them with me, always.

As I kept his, in a folded square of paper, in my wallet; close to my heart.

And in fact, to celebrate my good dream, I took one of them out, and I licked it!

I shivered, at that; and I felt a rush of blood, below my belt … I knew Jack; he'd actually done it, he wouldn't have written it, if he hadn't … 

I have to think, Rhys, that my dream was a good omen. You'll be back soon; I'm sure of it.

* * *

"Mister Williamson? Mister Rhys Williamson?"

He'd been waiting for me in the Cathay's lobby; he'd spotted me as soon as I left the elevator.

"Yes — ?"

"Hi, my name is Chen, Walt Chen. Your dad's bank sent me over. Pleased to meet you!" He stuck out a large hand, and beamed down at me, from his considerable height.

"Pleased to meet you, too."

Mister Chen was very tall — at least six feet tall, taller than Doctor Yang, even — and young; perhaps twenty-five, or twenty-six? He was slender, under his immaculately-tailored, double-breasted suit; but his shoulders were nicely-proportioned, neither too wide, nor too narrow. His complexion was perhaps just slightly darker than some native Shanghailanders I'd seen, so far — 

And his face was beautiful.

He was, altogether, in fact, conspicuously, arrestingly beautiful; in a boyish, but masculine, way. I had to keep myself from staring at him.

"You can call me Walt; please," he said, letting my hand free, and still beaming at me.

"Umm … very well," I said; a little hesitantly. "And please, call me Rhys — ?"

"Sure, Boss," he said, easily.

His smile was as beautiful as the rest of him, lighting up his whole face, animating it — 

And for some reason, for whatever reason, — I immediately did not trust him.

Perhaps, I told myself, it's just that his smile had seemed to come so easily, and seemed so sincere, without his even knowing me in the slightest — 


We moved off into the lobby lounge, and sat down, facing each other in two of the low, plush chairs; to hold a council of war. He seemed aware, already, that I was to be delivering a package to the Hongkew District.

The package — it was just a thick envelope, actually — stayed in my book-bag. I handed him a slip of paper, with the address to which it was to be delivered.

The address was written out in Roman characters; accompanied by Chinese characters. The handwriting was most definitely not Father's.

"Whoa," from Mister Chen — Walt — as he read the address; then, "Whoa, there." He looked up at me, leaning forward in his chair, with a concerned expression on his beautiful face. "Um, Boss — did you have any plans about how we're going to get here — ?"

I blinked at him.

"By taxi? I suppose — ?" I made it into a question.

He hesitated, a moment; and his beautiful face showed concern, and regret.

"Umm … Well, Boss, here's the thing. This address is in the most crowded part of the Hongkew … and I'm not sure a taxi could even get through, or at least all of the way through. And if it did, we'd be attracting an awful lot of attention. Little kids running after us, begging, people staring, people maybe deliberately blocking us — that sort of thing." He gave me a quick, apologetic smile. "And I sort of got the impression, from my father, that you wanted this delivery made — a little quietly — ?"

I blinked at him, again.

Father had implied as much, both yesterday, and when he'd given me the package this morning. But he hadn't said anything directly.

He hadn't said anything else about the package, either. Nor about the addressee. Nor about the business involved. I felt completely, utterly blind.

"I suppose that's true, sir. Walt, I mean," I went on, clumsily. I paused a moment, as I looked at him. "What do you think we should do — ?"

A quick, bright smile flashed across his beautiful face.

"Well, if it were up to me, I'd say take rickshaws … it's what everybody does, here."

I tried to keep my face still.

"Um … may I ask, is it far from here?"

Mister Chen glanced back down at the written address. "Far — ? Hmm — I'd say it's about two miles, more or less."

Two miles?

"May we walk, instead, Mister — I mean, Walt? I need the exercise, and I haven't seen that part of Shanghai yet … "

The look of surprise on his face was almost comic; and then, his expression grew sorrowful.

"Well, Boss … the thing is, people — especially Westerners — don't really walk around in the Hongkew the way they do, up here; not unless they're really broke. It's not the safest thing to do … "

"All right." I resigned myself to the inevitable.

" … But you know, that brings up another thing to think about." His face grew solemn, again.

"Sir — ?"

"Well, if you don't mind me saying it — we're both pretty well-dressed, for going to that part of town. We'd stick out, some … and that also isn't the safest way to go. Necessarily."

I understood, immediately.

Jack and I keep some spare clothes, at the Park Avenue apartment, for when we just want to go knocking around in New York City. They aren't shabby, not exactly … but they are comfortable, and they are very practical. After all, if we tried to go to the Lower East Side dressed the way we usually dress, we'd be beaten up on general principle.

"I don't really have anything … more informal … with me, here in Shanghai," I began, slowly. "Except for my gym clothes — ?"

He winced a little, in sympathy. "That might be worse, Boss."

"Do you know anyplace where I could buy some clothes that are more — suitable — ?"

I watched a smile bloom on his beautiful face. He had, I noticed, very attractive dimples.

"Well, you know, Boss — as a matter of fact, I do. I have an uncle — actually, he's a cousin, but he's like an uncle to me — who has a used clothing shop, just off Nanking Road. He could outfit us, all right." His eyes widened, a little. "Oh — his clothes are all very clean. He washes them twice, in lye soap, and he boils everything. No need to worry about lice."

I hesitated for a few seconds; but it was just for show.

"Can we go there, now — ?"

He beamed at me, happily.

"We sure can, Boss!"

Having a spare set — or two — of nondescript clothes, clothes that would help me to blend in with the background crowds — well. It fit my personal agenda, perfectly.

If I did need to bolt, to run away, to hide — they would very much come in handy.

* * *

The shop turned out to be extremely small, highly cluttered, and remarkably clean. With the help of a great deal of talk — all of it between Mister Chen and his uncle, in Shanghainese — I was soon outfitted as someone who might be an office clerk; a Caucasian, not-very-well-paid office clerk, in a small, struggling company. An errand-boy, really.

Well, I thought to myself; errand-boy. That's what I am, right now, after all.

I actually bought more than one change of clothing; and a canvas bag, as a temporary replacement to my leather book-bag. I arranged to leave the extra clothing, and my book-bag, and the clothes I'd worn in, to be picked up on our return from the Hongkew District.

Or, rather, I should say 'we' arranged to pick up our clothing, upon our return from the Hongkew. Mister Chen had left behind his beautiful suit, and was now dressed as a slightly-older version of myself, an office clerk with just a little bit more status and seniority, in the same, struggling firm.

He was wearing a tie. To my great joy and comfort, I was not.

And, just now, we were walking back towards the Bund, where we hoped to engage our rickshaws. And I could not resist asking him a few, very cautious, questions.

I thought it just possible that he knew more about Father's business, in this matter, than I. He could hardly know less.

"Uh, sir — ? I mean, Walt … oh, damn," I said; chagrined.

"Hm — ?"

I made a face; to myself, really. "Would you mind very much, if I called you Mister Chen? It just feels — awkward — calling you by your personal name; since you are an adult, and I am not."

I did not add, that the racial implications of a Caucasian youth calling an Asian man by his personal name, in China, made me feel much more awkward still.

Mister Chen actually stopped, for a moment; and he looked at me. I had the feeling that he could see right though me; a small smile wrinkled the dimple at one side of his mouth.

"You can call me whatever you want, Boss; I don't mind … but, if you get to call me Mister Chen, I think it's only fair that I get to call you Mister Williamson, once in a while. Okay?"

A pause, between us.

There may have been a touch of irony, in his words, in his expression — but I thought I could also see a degree of respect.


"That's fine with me, sir … " We resumed walking. "I was actually just going to ask, if it's not too personal a question — have you spent time in the States? The United States, I mean. You sound very American."

"I do — ?" By his expression, he seemed pleased. "Yeah; well, no, no, I've never been there, although I'd like to visit some day … But I did go to the American School here in Shanghai for years and years; that's probably what you're hearing. My father pulled some strings to get me in."

"Sir — ?"

A look of wry amusement, from Mister Chen.

"It's all about the family business, you know. We arrange things, between, well, the East, and the West; so I got to go to the American School during the daytime, and learn English, and learn about the West; and then I'd go to Chinese school at night, and learn about the East." Another smile from him, as we crossed Szechuan Road, headed towards the Bund. "I had to go home, in between, to change uniforms. It could all get a little — well, confusing — sometimes."

"That … sounds like a lot of work, sir." I blinked at him, sideways; and I saw him shrug.

"My dad thinks it's worth it. For most of that time, I was the only Chinese boy in the whole, entire American School; so maybe he's right, maybe that'll give us some kind of advantage … "

I noticed the 'us', in reference to he and his father; to their business.

I thought about what Father and I had come to; the increasing distance between us. And I felt, for the moment, hollow, and sad … 

* * *

In the end, we compromised on the transportation. We walked to the Astor Hotel, before engaging our rickshaws.


It was a fine day for it; the air was warm, if humid, and a little smoky. The sun glittered on the Whangpoo; the river was crowded with boats, large, Western-style barges pulled by chugging tugboats, Chinese junks and sampans piled impossibly-high with Western-style crates and wicker baskets alike — 

The Bund followed the river north and east; and then it moved inland a little, with the greenery of the Public Garden on the right, river-side, protruding into the water, and on the left, the white stone-work and green grounds of the British Consulate, looking very much like a university-college magically transported from England — 

And then, it was over Soochow Creek via the Garden Bridge; a modern, steel cantilever structure that would have looked perfectly at home in any American city, bridging a crowded, sampan-filled creek that was unmistakably Chinese in nature, and utterly exotic, to me — 

And finally, a public rickshaw-stand near, but not too near, the Astor Hotel; a grouping of yellow, battered-looking contraptions, meant for clerks and tradesmen like us.


As it turns out, there is an art to getting into a rickshaw.


When a rickshaw is free, the puller lets the poles rest on the ground; he will stand next to his vehicle, ready to negotiate a price and destination.

This Mister Chen did for both of us, of course, in loud Shanghainese, mixed with a few English words — 

"One dollar. One dollar, each!" from one of the two pullers; animatedly. This after several minutes of Chinese discussion.

"One dollar, both!" from Mister Chen, enthusiastically; and he followed with a short phrase in Shanghainese, which he repeated, twice — 

What purpose the English served, I do not know. But eventually, at last, a price was agreed-upon; and then, we needed to mount.

As I said, it is an art.

At rest, a rickshaw's poles are on the ground; and the whole vehicle leans forward and down, dramatically. The passenger seat is far too tilted for sitting.

So, one must step over the poles — or, a lady will step between the poles, from the front — and then, step up onto the foot-plate, and then maneuver one's self to face forward, holding onto the armrests — 

And then, as the rickshaw-puller assumes his position, and lifts his poles, one must sit down gracefully, in time to his hoist.

I almost fell, trying it that first time. My backside hit the seat, hard, and my puller grunted. And then we waited, as Mister Chen did the same thing with a fluid grace, as if he'd been doing it all his life — 

Which, of course, he had.


As I mentioned, the Bund swerves inland, as it approaches Soochow Creek. Once across the Creek, it becomes East Seward Road; named, as I found out later, not after the Secretary of State, but rather a former American Consul-General, who had been instrumental in setting out the American Concession. To the right are docks and warehouses, cutting the public off from the river; it is a working waterfront, after all, like San Francisco's Embarcadero, like New York's East River, and the Hudson. To the left were more warehouses, and small factories of some kind, walls painted in Chinese characters — 

Mister Chen's rickshaw was in the lead; I saw his tall head over the folded-down canvas top of his contraption, and every few moments he glanced back, to see that I was following, smiling reassuringly as he did so — 

He may have felt compelled to smile, by my expression. I was dying of embarrassment.

I was ashamed, actually. I felt humiliated. Here I was, being transported through the streets of Shanghai like a maharaja, by human power — and for all of Mister Grey's temporizing on the subject, my rickshaw-puller was sweating, as he leaned into his strap — when I was an American, a believer in equality and dignity, who moreover would have deeply preferred walking, or even running … For heaven's sake, two miles was a warm-up run, for me — 

I decided I did not like rickshaws.


At some point our procession turned right, towards the river, for a block, and then left again — 

The neighborhood changed. It grew less commercial, and more — residential, I suppose; although I did not see apartment-houses, per se. But there were storefront-businesses, dry-goods emporia hung about with incomprehensible signage, and people with bags hung on the ends of their carrying-poles, jostling each other for space on the sidewalks, and in the street itself, often enough directly in front of us — 

Our pace slowed. I understood, now, Mister Chen's reservations about trying to take a taxi.

We continued along the street, the rickshaw-pullers taking smaller and smaller steps … and I noticed, all at once, another change in the neighborhood. The painted characters on walls and banners, here, seemed slightly different, somehow; and I saw a few signs, here and there, in Western characters — 

When we came to an open-air market festooned with miniature Japanese flags, the Rising Sun on white, I finally understood. It appeared to be a Japanese enclave; like a Chinatown in the West, but in this case a distinct Asian culture, surrounded by another. I hadn't even thought of the possibility, although it made perfect sense … 

I wondered at it, a little, though; a Japan-town, in a city which had seen real fighting between the Japanese and Chinese Armies, just a few years before, and which might very well see such fighting again, soon — 

When my rickshaw-puller coughed up a quantity of phlegm, and spit it carefully into the street in front of an establishment with a large Japanese flag on display and a gold-lettered window marked 'The Hokkaido Steamship Lines', I wondered a little less.


The memories of that first rickshaw-trip into the Hongkew will, I suspect, remain vivid for me, for a long time; not least, because I was making mental notes, to include in my next letter to Jack.

There was, for instance, another open-air market we passed; only this one went up three stories, three stories without walls, only railings, crowded with sellers, crowded with buyers, making a cacophony that was loud to me, even out in the street — 

The overwhelming theme of the ground floor of that market, was one of wicker baskets. Baskets, everywhere; baskets, labelled in Chinese, full of rice, full of other grains; baskets full of fruits and vegetables that I would swear I'd never seen before, not even in New York's Chinatown, the most exotic, unlikely-looking shapes imaginable — 

Then there were the larger, closed baskets, filled with poultry; chickens, ducks, all alive and quacking or squawking, as the shoppers looked at them, and prodded them … 

And the crowds. People, everywhere; mostly Asian, now, barely a Caucasian to be seen, walking along, jostling each other, elbowing each other as they made their way; it put even a crowded, downtown New York sidewalk to shame … 

Perhaps running wouldn't have been even a theoretical possibility.


At long last, Mister Chen looked back, and lifted his arm in a signal, and the interminable journey came to an end — 

And I discovered that getting out of a rickshaw is almost as much an art, as getting into one. I very nearly pitched myself into my rickshaw-puller's back, as he lowered his poles to the ground.

By the time I recovered, and stepped out from between the poles, and straightened my canvas book-bag, Mister Chen was counting out coins into the pullers' open palms. I automatically reached for my wallet — 

"No, Boss," from Mister Chen, shaking his head. "No; it's all part of the service. Your — ah — employer — has basically already paid for this." He flashed his beautiful smile at me.

I blinked at him; but I took the hint, at once. We needed to be discreet, here. Even before the rickshaw-men.

I waited, as the counting-out finished, and the rickshaw-pullers maneuvered their empty vehicles over to join a group of their fellows, smoking by a wall; looking around myself, the whole time.

We were on a busy street; before us was a heavily-built stone archway, set between what was clearly a cobbler's shop, and a building-front containing what looked for all the world like a concession-stand from Grand Central Station, back home. Some kind of narrow street, or alley-way, ran back from the archway; I could see that it stretched some ways. There were two-story buildings, of brick, lining the alley; bamboo poles stretched across the alley, connecting the top floors to either side, and they were hung with what was obviously drying laundry. A few bicycles, and some potted shrubs, lined the way.

"What is this place?" I asked Mister Chen.

"Hm — ? Oh; it's your destination, for one thing; in there. This is — " he paused, a moment, looking slightly baffled. "You know, I never had to come up with an English word for it, before … it's a li-long; that what we call it. It's a whole compound, of alleyway houses; you know, houses that share outside walls — "

"Brownstones," I said; to myself, really.

"Excuse me — ?"

"Oh; sorry. It's a type of apartment building back home, in New York."

"Oh … Well, we call these 'Shikumen'. They're really common; most people in Shanghai live in neighborhoods like this."

"Do you?" I asked; and immediately regretted it, the question was personal. But Mister Chen just smiled a dimpled, slightly-sheepish smile.

"Well … no, actually. My family's got a house in the French Concession." He shrugged. "Our family's kind of large."


The family of the head Comprador for Father's banking office in Shanghai — I was not surprised. I suspected they lived in a walled villa; I had seen many such, already, in the Concession.

"Anyway," he said, looking down at the address on the slip of paper I had given him. "This li-long is called 'The Neighborhood of Perpetual Prosperity'; and you want Number Two-Forty-Eight … Shall we go — ?" And he smiled his beautiful smile at me, again.

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