Amitav Ghosh on Fanqui Town, Canton in the 1800s #TheCityasMuse
This post is a teaser to entice you into submitting an entry to #TheCityasMuse Contest I’m running on this blog. There are more to come. I’m jumping at the chance to bring my favourite descriptions and narrations of cities from a variety of authors of different genres and nationalities. Hope you enjoy these…and may the words fly from your pen (or keyboard) soon!
I’ve recently completed re-reading the first two books of Amitava Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy in preparation to read the last and final one, Flood of Fire. I’ve been fascinated by his description of Fanqui Town outside of Canton, where foreign traders were permitted to set up enclaves while they were forbidden to enter the actual city. Ghosh describes this small and intensely colourful microcosm of the world through the eyes of various characters very different from each other. Set during the 1830s, at a time when colonialism was at its peak and trade via sea flourished, here are some excerpts from Ghosh’s 2nd book of the trilogy, River of Smoke.
This excerpt is from one of the letters that Robin Chinnery, a Bengali-speaking illegitimate son of a British painter self-exiled in Macau, to his lady friend Paulette, the Bengali-speaking orphaned daughter of a French botanist, both having been friends during their childhood in Calcutta. Robin wrote:
“And so at last to the foreign enclave- or ‘Fanqui-town’ as I have already learnt to call it! It is the farthest extremity of the city, just beyond the citadel’s south-western gate. In appearance Fanqui-town is not at all what you might expect; indeed it is so different from what I had envisioned that it fair took my breath away! I had imagined the factories would be prettily primped with a few Celestial touches- perhaps a few curling eaves or pagoda-like spires like those that so beguile the eyes in Chinese paintings. But if you could see the factories for yourself, Puggly dear, I warrant they would remind you rather of pictures of places that are very far away- Vermeer’s Amsterdam or even… Chinnery’s Calcutta. You would see a row of buildings with columns, capitals, pilasters, tall windows and tiled roof. Some have colonnaded verandahs, with the same khus-khus screens you see in India: if you half close your eyes you could think yourself to be on the Strand, in Calcutta, looking at the bankshalls and daftars of the big English trading houses. The colous are quite different though, brighter and more varied: from a distance the factories look like stripes of paint against the grey walls of the citadel………..
……..I am getting ahead of myself: I have yet to bring you to Fanqui-town’s landing ghat, which is called- and this is true I swear- ‘Jackass Point’ (the fabled Man-Town must, in other words, be entered through the point of Jack’s Unspeakable). Yet this suppository is no different from our Calcutta landing ghats. There is no jetty- instead there are steps, sticky with mud from the last high tide (yes, my darling Puggleshwaree, the Pearl, like our beloved Hooghly, rises and falls twice a day). But even in Calcutta I have never witnessed such a goll-maul as there is at Jackass Point: so many people, so much bobbery, so much hulla-gulla, so many coolies, making such a tamasha of fighting over your bags and bowlas. I counted myself fortunate in being able to steer mine towards a lad with a winning smile, one Ah Lei (why so many Ahs, you might ask, and never any Oohs? On the streets of Macau too you will come across innumerable young men who will pass themselves off as ‘Ah Man, or ‘Ah Gan’ and the like, and if ever you should ask what the ‘Ah!’ signifies you will learn that in Cantonese, as in English, this vocable serves no function other than that of clearing the throat. But just because the bearers of the ‘Ah’ are usually young, or poor, you must not imagine that they possess no other name. In their other incarnations they may well be known as ‘Fire Breathing Dragon or ‘Tireless Steed’- whether accurately ot not only their Wives and Friends will know).”