On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff
THERE’S SPECIAL charm—not to say downright adventure—trusting the advice of old guidebooks. Something worth seeing 100 years ago is likely still worth a view, provided, of course, it’s still there. And, if it’s not, there’s likely to be an entertaining tale why it isn’t.
My 1921 edition of The Travelers’ Handbook for China (Including Hongkong) is a perfect example of guidebook serendipity. Carl Crow, its author, certainly qualifies as an old China hand. He lived in Shanghai from 1911 until the Japanese arrived in 1937. He later returned along the Burma Road and worked with U.S. Intelligence during World War II.
Crow was an important member of Shanghai’s international set. He established its first Western advertising agency in 1918 and founded the Shanghai Evening Post & Mercury, the city’s English language newspaper, in 1929. Crow is also credited with inventing the “China Girl” poster.
Crow was a prolific author on the subject of China, its culture and its interactions with the West. One of his 13 books, 400 Million Customers, published in 1937, won an early National Book Award and has been reprinted as recently as 2008.
I have a copy on order of Carl Crow’s autobiography, Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom. The cover alone is intriguing.
Crow’s comments in his Handbook for China are simultaneously informative, timely yet charmingly out of date. On Money and Exchange: “When the foreigners began to settle in the treaty ports, they objected to a currency system which required them to carry about five or ten pound lumps of silver as spending money. To avoid this, they introduced the Mexican, and other silver dollars, and the former remains the standard currency of most ports…. Local foreign banks issue paper notes payable in Mexican dollars.”
On Brigands, Pirates and Rebellions: “Robbers and pirates exist, of course, and there is usually a revolution or rebellion going on in some part of the country, but these things add zest rather than danger to the journey.”
On Pidgin English: “This language consists of several hundred English words, adapted to Chinese pronunciation and used without regard to English grammar, but as they would be in a Chinese phrase.
“When your boy tells you ‘Ice have finish,’ he means there is no more ice.”
This may sound condescendingly racist to our ears. However, a few pages later Crow warns of “the indiscriminate use of Pidgin English, for cultured Chinese naturally dislike being addressed in that jargon.”
He tells the tale of a missionary lady seeking the aid of a local mandarin in replacing a damaged organ. “Have got before time one piecee organ, belong makee sing song,” she prattled on, “Lain come chop chop makee spoilum organ. Just now must makee one more piecee.”
The mandarin, a graduate of an American university and former Paris resident, listened attentively and then replied, “Ah, I understand. A rift in the lute, n’est-ce pas?”
Could a modern guidebook offer such charm? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014