(January 2, 1931)
HOUSEHOLD was an extremely convenient way of traveling in China for missionary families like ours in the old days of Shanghai, as large numbers of children and luggage could be packed into a boat and transported to the hills where we took refuge from the heat of the Levels.
The garden bridge was the starting point for the houseboats, which were pulled in rows of a dozen or more by steam launches along the rivers and canals that connect the cities of the adjacent provinces.
As soon as we passed the bridge, we left the narrow creek towards the Whangpoo River, where we felt the wind from the mouth and saw the large steamers anchoring at the quays. Sampans that carried people to Pootung rocked on the open river, and there was a moment of jerky jumping when the river current met the incoming tide.
Then we turned right and walked upstream along the Bund. It made us children feel so serious that we knew we were really on our way. Seen from the river, the dam looked so impressive! The opposite bank was far away.
The buildings on the Shanghai side looked so big, and the carriages and rickshaws were moving up and down so busily! How small the same buildings seem these days and how poor the traffic!
The boat we rented depended on the size of the group. When we children were small and numerous, we needed a good, great craft. Outwardly, the big and the small were the same.
They were made of brown, polished teak with a wonderful sheen and had a characteristic smell of oil, varnish and charcoal smoke. We delighted this smell when we got on board because it was the essence of the holidays.
The boats had flat bottoms, were bulky and had angular ends like barges. Fore and aft were decks; the one in front opened to the sky and the one behind covered itself, because that was where the boaters were lying and the long yulow or sweep oar was being tampered with.
The boat’s polished boards were smoothly rounded across the top; but beyond that a low mat roof was raised on beams, and here the boaters really slept outside the boat with the cover only two feet above them.
They reached that edge from the quarterdeck: a lantern hung in a beautifully carved frame over each side of the front door, and those lanterns were lit at dusk.
The fore and aft decks were connected with narrow boards on which the boaters walked. These hung just above the waterline under the square windows that ran along the sides of the ship.
We always endeavored to explore the boat we rented even though we knew exactly how it would be. You climbed onto the open, square deck in front of you and bent to step into the front door, from which a three-step ladder led into the forward cabin.
This was a small place the width of the boat, perhaps eight or nine feet wide and about seven long. Two wooden bunks were built in, one on each side of the stairs.
At night these could be connected by boards so that a wide bed could be made if necessary. The boards of the bunks were removable, and so much luggage could be stored in the hollows.
Behind this first cabin was a second, the largest in the boat, which was commonly used as a dining and general room. There were wooden bunks on either side, and between them, as the boat widened significantly in the middle, was space for a square table under which tools were placed that could be taken out and used as a seat during meals.
Behind the table, at right angles to the boat, was the houseboat’s state bed. It was almost twice the size of the other wooden bunks, and on the back wall of the large cabin (which formed the side of the bed) there was usually a large mirror or picture surrounded by carved and gilded panels, sometimes of great beauty were .
When you passed this bed, you were in a corridor that led to the quarterdeck, and from this passage opened two or three small cabins, each with a wooden bunk.
All the floorboards of the boat were raised and under them, right on the flat bottom of the boat, we stored things that needed to be brought to the mountains for the summer.
Usually the children were assigned to the small rear cubicles where they could be watched; Our parents took the state bunk or platform in the main cabin. and bachelors were housed in the forward cabin.
We children were jealous of those in front of us because they had such easy access to the deck; but it was really uncomfortable to sleep there because the mosquito net had to be removed and the bed linen rolled up first thing in the morning as the cabin had to be used as a passage to the foredeck.
Boaters, too, often came in to get ropes and spare equipment, which were kept in a room below deck that was only accessed from inside the cabin. To get into this room, one had to remove the steps and crawl inside. We loved bending over and peering into the dark alcoves of this shop space. Our cats also enjoyed when they found cockroaches and rats there.
There were no chairs on the houseboat other than what we could bring to the mountains in the summer.
Whenever we could, we had our meals spread out on the deck, on the boards, with our backs against the sloping sides of the houseboat.
If it was too hot or too wet outside, we would curl up on the wooden bunks in the front cabin and make pillows out of our sheets.
I remember the hot, oily smell of the paint when it threw back the heat of the sun and the stink of the hot oilcloth when the flap was over the door.
How many long days do I remember when we lay sprawled on the bunks, playing or reading “Happy Families” or “Pit” while the sun burned hard on the canal or the rain hit a tattoo on the boat as it slipped along.
These days of peace were long but never monotonous; Because our houseboat, cut off from the usual world of streets and buildings, was a haven for fairies, in which we were free from the rules of ordinary life. – AB – H. – The Singapore Free Press