Round Trip To China

EN ROUTE FOR CHINA In the morning Ovens motored me to Taihoku where I had been ‘commanded’ to meet the Governor-General. At his palace we were ushered into a high room with a row of pillars down the middle, the walls hung with long black tapestries. The Governor sat at a square table, and watched me for a long time without the least sign of any feeling. After a long silence he spoke without taking his eyes off me, and the interpreter said, ‘His Excellency says that he is pleased you reached his country of Formosa with success.’

I also waited before answering, ‘You will please thank His Excellency for the honour he does me?’

Round Trip To China Photo Gallery

His Excellency grunted and there was another long silence before he spoke again. In this manner the conversation had not got very far at the end of a quarter of an hour, but my opinion of the Governor changed. Although both his eyes and features remained completely blank of expression I seemed to become aware of his thoughts. I do not think they were complimentary, though I believe he had a feeling of bored weariness with his office and faintly envied me my bit of fun and freedom. At the end, there was a bad moment when the interpreter said, ‘His Excellency desires to know the horsepower of your motor,’ and I only just managed to suppress a laugh before I answered, ‘You will tell His Excellency that the horsepower of my motor is 80’ – that being the figure I had now reached with five horsepower rises. His Excellency clapped his hands and a bottle of sweet champagne suddenly arrived, of which a single glass was formally drunk.

Ovens then took me to the Chinese Consul to whom the British Ambassador at Peking had cabled his permission for me to visit China. The amiable Chinese asked me where I proposed touching the Chinese coast, and when I replied ‘Funingfu’ he warned me not on any account to have a forced landing or alight anywhere along the section of coast north of it. It was infested with pirates, and every man there was apparently a potential pirate of a valuable-looking seaplane with only one man to guard it.

The rest of that day was a holiday. I discovered at last why my finger had been hurting and irritating so much; the stitched up flesh had healed but a piece of fingernail had grown inside it, and could not get out. I cut open a gap for it with a razor blade. Next morning Ovens hummed and hawed about the work he ought to do and said that he could not come down to the seaplane. In the end I persuaded him to come. The seaplane still rested on empty petrol cases in the mud, and after I had refuelled and stowed my gear, police officials ceremoniously returned me my camera and my thirteen cartridges, solemnly counting them into my hand one by one. I was then led to a kitchen table planted in the mud on which stood the same twelve wine glasses as before (Ovens told me that they were his, borrowed for the occasion). Across the wide muddy river the sunburnt mountainside rose abruptly; the river flowed a few yards from our feet. Iron stakes had been driven into the mud with a dirty rope stretched between them to keep a square patch select, and here we stood round the table in the hazy sunlight, drinking port wine. I felt friendly towards my inquisitors. A squad of coolies lifted the seaplane by means of bamboo poles under the floats. The foreman snatched off one coolie’s conical straw hat which threatened to puncture a wing, and then, sounding their cries like a lot of human swans, the coolies sloshed over the mud and set down their load in the water. They were a good humoured, easy-going, practical lot, I think Formosans and not Japanese. Several were holding the floats when I started the engine, and the slipstream catching one of the enormous round hats sent it bowling over the mud, which drew a roar of applause from the onlookers. The owner of the hat was laughing as much as anybody.

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