Trip To China

In the morning, my first concern was to find out about the weather over the Yellow Sea between China and Japan. The sea crossing was 538 miles, and if I should meet a headwind of 20mph I should be forced down short of Japan. The only way to get a weather report was to go to the Observatory of the Jesuit convent at Siccawei.

This was outside the International Settlement, and I spent the whole of the next day travelling. First we hooted our way yard by yard through narrow alleys barely wide enough for the car, with cries from coolies, jingling of rickshaw bells and Chinese chatter continually in our ears. Thoms’s Chinese chauffeur was lucky to run 10 yards without the human swarm closing round us and forcing the car to stop with a jerk. At last we reached the convent, which stood in a deserted old-world garden, with mossy stone flags.

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I waited in a cool, silent, stone hall, while a priest went to find Father Gherzi. He was a thin tall man, with a slender high-browed head, and a narrow black beard. He wore a long black robe, under which appeared two enormous black boots. He was impatient, impetuous and clever. In a rapid, emphatic way, he said that there was a typhoon centred east of Formosa, that it was travelling fast straight for Shanghai, that it was impossible for me to leave for Japan because of a 35mph headwind, and that I must secure my seaplane at once. After my experience the day before with the emphatic reporter in the sampan, I started cross-examining Father Gherzi about this weather. He showed clearly that he resented this, and that he thought me a fool.

Scared for the survival of the seaplane, I returned to Thoms’s office as soon as possible to find the best shelter for my Gipsy Moth. Looking for the RAF Intelligence Officer, we visited the long narrow bar of the Shanghai Club, which ran deep into a building like a straight high passage. It was full, and I received a number of remarkable suggestions for saving the seaplane. On looking back, the best would have been to fly west-north-west – away from the typhoon to Peking – a suggestion that came from Paddy Fowlds, an ex-RAF pilot, now with Shell in China. But I didn’t want to go so far inland, and at last we located the RAF Intelligence Officer, who said, ‘Had I tried the seaplane hangar?’

‘What seaplane hangar?’

‘The North China Aviation Company has a big hangar beside the river with a concrete slipway.’

We could get no answer on the telephone, so Palmer took me up to the hangar in a launch. The slipway was on a lee shore with a strong wind blowing on to it at an angle. The hangar was also closed up and locked, but in any case it would have been impossible to get the seaplane to it in that wind. I had to leave her where she was that night.

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