This is an excerpt from Wanderings in China: Hong Kong and Canton, Christmas and New Year, 1878/1879 by Constance Gordon-Cumming, a Victorian traveller and artist who arrived in Hong Kong on Christmas Day in 1878. It’s introduced and annotated by Paul French as part of his China Revisited series.
Merry Christmas, one and all, 145 years later!
Care of Mrs Snowden, City of Victoria
Isle of Hong-Kong,
Certainly fortune has favoured me, for we reached this most lovely city early this morning, and have had a most enjoyable Christmas-day. I had not the remotest conception that I was coming to anything so beautiful; so, when with the earliest light of dawn, we slowly – very slowly – steamed into this exquisite harbour, its beauty, so suddenly revealed, left me mute with delight. Perhaps the contrast between these encircling ranges of shapely hills and the dead level of the Shanghai coast, help to make these seem more impressive. Certainly I have seen no harbour to compare with this, though I suppose Rio Janeiro claims the palm of beauty above all others.
This is like a great inland lake, so entirely do the jagged mountain-ranges of the mainland and the island of Kowlung seem to close around the Rocky Isle, whose great city bears the name of England’s Queen, and from whose crowning peak floats the Union Jack. The said peak is really only 1825 feet in height. Though it looks so imposing, it is simply the termination of the ridge which forms the backbone of the isle and along whose base extends the city – a granite city, hewn from the granite mountains, with granite fortifications, granite drains to provide for the rush of the summer rains; everything seems to be granite, but yet there is nothing cold in its appearance, for all is gilded by the mellow sunlight. All the principal houses have lovely shrubberies, with fine ornamental trees, which soften the effect, and make each terraced road seem delightful.
There is so very little, if any, level ground, save what has been reclaimed artificially, that steep streets of stairs lead from the business quarters on the sea embankment right up the face of the hill, the lower spurs of which are all dotted over with most luxurious houses and shady gardens, now gay with camellias and roses and scarlet poinsettias. And in the midst of it all is the loveliest Botanical Garden, beautifully laid out, and where all the rich and rare forms of foliage, from tropical or temperate climes, combine to produce a garden of delight, whence you look down upon the emerald green and dazzling blue of this beautiful harbour, where a thousand vessels, and boats and junks without number, can ride in absolute safety.
I had a glimpse of it all this afternoon, but indeed it would be difficult to obtain a more entrancing view than from this house itself, which really belongs to Sir John Small, the Chief-Justice, but, in his absence, is tenanted by Mr Snowden, the acting Chief-Justice, who, on the strength of a letter from Sir Harry Parkes (one of the many acts of kindness for which I am indebted to him), came to offer me a welcome to Hong-Kong, and to this lovely home.
But I must tell you first of our arrival. My fellow-passenger from Japan, Miss Shervinton, had come to rejoin her father and we waited a little while expecting to see him appear. But being impatient to get ashore, we chartered a sampan, i.e., a covered boat, inhabited by a whole Chinese family consisting of a long-tailed father, four funny little children, and a comely mother with beautifully dressed glossy hair, a comfortable blouse, and very loose short trousers, showing neat firm feet and ankles. Not having previously been in a sampan, I was glad to begin the day with a new experience!
We met Colonel Shervinton almost as soon as we landed and we all went together to breakfast at the principal hotel, and thence to the Cathedral, which, though not to be compared in beauty with that at Shanghai, is a fine roomy church. There is a surplice choir, but the Christmas decorations are of a severe type, being confined to flowers in pots on the chancel-steps and round the font. A full congregation, and a nice hearty service, with sermon by Bishop Burdon (the Bishop of this diocese of Victoria) who, though still in the prime of life, is the fortunate possessor of such snow-white locks and beard as must surely be accounted a special episcopal endowment in a land where even grey hair commands such special honour as in China!
We returned to the hotel for luncheon, immediately after which, in prompt answer to letters from various friends in Japan, came several most kind residents, inviting me to their homes. Fortunately for me, the first to arrive was Mr Snowden (fortunately, I mean, because this house is so beautifully situated some way up the hill, overlooking the whole town and harbour, whereas the other quarters, so cordially offered to me, lay in the town itself).
Having despatched my luggage, Mr Snowden took me for a turn through the crowded business parts of the city – the Chinese and the Portuguese quarters – all built in terraces along horizontal streets, but connected one with another by steep streets of stairs. There is a specially picturesque spot right below the house, where five Chinese and Portuguese streets meet.
From this crowded centre we went on to a very different scene, namely, the beautiful gardens, where we revelled in the fragrance of flowers bathed in sunlight, and as we wandered through shady bamboo-groves, or stood beneath the broad shadow of great banyan-trees, at every turn we caught glimpses of white sails floating on the calm blue harbour far below us, reflecting the cloudless blue of heaven – a scene of most perfect peace, with never a jarring sound to suggest the busy bustling life, and all the noise of the city.
In short, I have already seen enough to convince me that it would be difficult to find more fascinating winter quarters than this oft-abused city. As to climate, although in the same latitude as Calcutta, it is far cooler, and whatever it may be in June or July, to-day it is delicious and balmy, like the sweetest summer day in England; and I am told that this is a fair sample of the whole winter at Hong-Kong, and that for five consecutive months there will probably not be even a shower! Only think what a paradise for an artist! Every day at the same hour the identical lights and shadows, and any number of willing and intelligent coolies ready to fetch and carry him and his goods, and save him all physical fatigue!
We arrived here in time to find Mrs Snowden waiting to welcome me to cosy five o’clock tea in the pretty English drawing-room. In short, everything is so pleasant that already I have begun to feel myself quite at home in this British isle of Hong-Kong. Now it is time to dress for dinner. Every one here seems to have a dinner-party to-night.