My scribblings on the back of a receipt from a Hong Kong Starbucks
The forest spreads
The water streams
Roots push stones
That shelter bones
The dead commune, and gasp
At dragonfly aeronautics
Everything breathes life
In this dwelling place of the dead
I cannot live my life gazing towards the future. For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed reading and thinking about the past. I read books by living authors, but more often than that I read books by authors who died a long time ago. These are authors who have no marketing departments to promote their books, and their books are often cheap, cheaper than those by living authors. The dead authors that have stood the test of time and whose books continue to be read are all custodians of some important truth, and for that reason they often merit our most serious admiration and study. Their books are very often brilliant. We cannot discount the dead – they are in our neurons, they are part of our make-up, and they somehow determine where we all end up. The writers of the past have an uncanny ability to be prophetic, to take prophetic leaps into the future, and in their writings we can recognise ourselves, find a sense of kinship, and understand that the evolution of history is not predominantly about progress and innovation but is perhaps more about patterns of recognition and repetition. It has always struck me as odd that we reserve the term ‘visionary’ for someone who develops innovative and creative visions for the future; we never use it to characterize those who show us how the present moment has extension behind it and who shed new light on the past traditions within which we are created and exist. To know where we are likely to be going we have to understand the force lines of our past energies, and through them perceive the patterns of the past. I cannot possibly envisage a prospect more unsettling than a society in a state of cultural and historical dementia, a society in which people have stopped accessing the minds of the past, or stopped seeking those places in which we find past minds inscribed – in art, in literature, and in cemeteries. If I derive some consolation from the study of the past, and if I sometimes find greater reassurance in examining the lives and productions of the past than I do in reflecting on things in my own time, then I feel quite certain that this is far removed from a nostalgic or escapist perspective. I do not long for a better time or feel homesick for another world. I do never think simply that the past was a happier, more harmonious time; indeed when we look into our human past we may see nothing we really like. I do however admit that I am guilty of some sentimental preference for certain scenes of my own past life, and I can sometimes feel overcome by a melancholic sadness about certain things and practices that have disappeared or are disappearing, bearing in mind that a sense of loss can be directed towards the future as much as it can be directed back in time towards the past.
And so I walk around in Hong Kong, a place characterized by a cult of the present and the future; in this city our focus is almost fully on our presence here and now, and on preparing us for realising our optimum potential in the future. People here seem mostly interested in the present moment, which is so unimaginably short that no one really has time to seize it, or they look to the future, which we remain powerless to comprehend, and have only a limited capacity to influence. Hong Kong is a city dedicated to an accelerating culture of novelty over longevity, but on one afternoon in mid-September I insisted on my right to linger in the past and I had come to the best place in the city to commune with the dead and to reflect about our past history. Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley, also known as Hong Kong Colonial Cemetery.
Very soon after the founding of Hong Kong as a British colony, settlers found it desirable to build imposing villas up the slopes of Happy Valley with stupendous views over the harbour and the city’s famous racecourse that was established on this location in 1846. But up the hills around Happy Valley death quickly took a deft hand in life, and many villas soon stood abandoned after their occupants had died of malaria. Around the fringes of the settled areas were undrained marshes and paddy fields with stagnant water that provided breeding grounds for the mosquitoes against which the westerners did not have the natural immunity of the native Chinese. Sitting on their verandas in the unbearable heat and humidity, hoping to catch a light breeze, the bodies of the residents turned to wax and the mosquitoes from which one can never hide swarmed around them. At night people tossed and turned in their sleep and then woke up covered with stings, feverish from the mosquito poison coursing through their bodies. Here the air had a terrible composition and the climate engendered embolisms. Within a short time residents found themselves in the worst imaginable turmoil; they fell ill and then made a recovery, but they could never make a full recovery; at best they could make a partial recovery as part of their illness continued to linger inside their bodies, and they experienced no deep sleep in a natural way, no fully relaxed sleep; in fact for them there could be no fully relaxed state of brain and body. Within a shockingly short time, the people that moved up the slopes of Happy Valley, for some reason an area so desirable for settlers, found themselves permanently disturbed, chronically, irreparably disturbed. Up here life retreated and death rose like a mountain, sheer and unscalable. Funerals became a softly resonant afternoon ceremony, as regular as high tea. Eventually, as the noise from the people and from the construction of houses subsided, the green hillsides were restored to primeval stillness, and it soon became clear that the future of the area would be as a cemetery. The British came to refer to the area as Happy Valley, which was a common British euphemism for a cemetery; the local name for the area was Wang Nai Chung Kuk, literally Yellow Mud Stream Valley. Having travelled by tram from Kennedy Town in the island’s western end, I arrived in the terminus of Happy Valley, the place where the dead come to rest; Hong Kong’s necropolis. Here are found six cemeteries; the Jewish Cemetery, the Hindu Cemetery, the Parsee Cemetery, the Protestant Hong Kong Cemetery, St. Michael's Catholic Cemetery, and the Muslim Cemetery. My destination this afternoon was the Hong Kong Protestant cemetery, and I had come to seek the grave of Henrietta Hall Shuck, a young American missionary who was the first western woman to settle in Hong Kong.
As it happened I had come to Happy Valley on this day following an extended period in hospital during which I had slumped into the lowest frame of mind. At this time, when the melancholy and intellectual inertia endured during my stay in hospital was receding but when no clarity had yet taken its place, I was eager to find a new project to occupy my mind and to learn new things about our shared past. I first learned about Henrietta Shuck in the only book I managed to read through during the six weeks I spent in hospital, Susanna Hoe’s The Private Life of Old Hong Kong: Western Women in the British Colony 1841-1941, which Oxford University Press published in 1991. Hoe’s book offered a new and essential perspective on Hong Kong’s history that reconstructs the lives of women from all strata of society. The cast includes governors’ wives, merchants’ wives, doctors’ wives, missionaries and teachers, milliners and dress-makers, the wives of policemen and prison keepers, and prostitutes. In a painstaking detective work, Hoe draws on journals, unpublished diaries and letters that are articulate, very often entertaining, and surprisingly revealing of the inner lives of the western women who chose to settle in this distant corner of the Far East. Friendships and loyalties are disentangled, as are amorous affairs, social divisions, and the ways in which ladies’ leisure time was spent in dining rooms, drawing rooms, and on verandas as the new colony expanded. The author rekindles unheard voices with extraordinary clarity, empathy and sincerity, and she succeeds in providing an entirely fresh perspective on the time prior to the treaty of Nanking in August 1842 that ended the first Opium War and formalised the take-over of Hong Kong by the British. Charles Elliot, the name of the person responsible for the establishment of Hong Kong as a British colony and its first administrator, is well-known to students of Hong Kong history. But for Hoe the focus is on the woman who accompanied the man, Clara Elliot, the woman who led a private life, and not a public life like her husband. The private correspondence between husband and wife recounts exciting history, and it reveals the conflicts of public and private domains, of marital loyalties, and the intense pain of separation, from spouse and children. As a study of the social history of early Hong Kong, Ms Hoe’s book far exceeded my boldest expectations, and it succeeded uniquely in bringing early colonial days to life for me. I do not know Ms Hoe personally, but I do know that I would be very glad to meet her. From her preface, I understand that Ms Hoe wrote her book while being herself a resident in Hong Kong, having accompanied her husband here. For some reason I found it quite a comforting book to read when I was recovering in hospital. I suppose this had to do with the infinite care taken by the author to access the minds of the past and to retain and preserve past voices. There is something quite touching, I have always thought, about a scholar who invests so much time and effort seeking to summon back the dead and re-animate their past voices with boundless care and sympathy. The book’s list of acknowledgements is the opposite of short and it shows exemplary generosity in its attributions. It also demonstrates both the painstaking archival research carried out in detective-like fashion by Ms Hoe, as well as the extensive correspondence she would have been engaged in with descendants and relatives of many of the book’s historical personages. That so many individuals chose to cooperate willingly and assist Ms Hoe’s investigation indicates the tact and dedication that she must have displayed as she approached them. As an author, Ms Hoe is never eager to dazzle with insight and erudition; her writing is never prolix in argumentation, but offers restrained and unpretentious commentary without the off-putting, highfalutin verbiage or psychological clowning around that has come to plague so much recent scholarly writing, and that are really nothing but authorial pretension. As I was reading The Private Lives of Old Hong Kong, I quickly saw that it managed to present familiar history from a completely new angle, and in a way mercifully free of theory, free of academia’s usual hyper-educated speech tics, and endless, unbearable speculations about meaning.
One of Ms Hoe’s little historical vignettes concerns the American Baptist missionary Henrietta Hall Shuck, and the details about her life are easily summed up. Rooted in the evangelistic movement that swept the United States in the 1820s and 30s, Henrietta left her home and family in Virginia newly married at the age of seventeen to bring the Gospel message to heathen lands. She arrived with her husband and son in Macau in September 1836 where she immediately began her educational work and adopted into her family several Chinese boys and girls from impoverished homes, whose relatives were happy to give them up to secure their board and lodging. On August 4 1839, the young Henrietta and her small family sailed on the vessel Scaleby Castle from Macau to Hong Kong, which she found “a most romantic spot, the lofty and green covered hills surrounded us on all sides… and said to be the finest harbour in the world”. At this time, before the British take-over of Hong Kong, she would have witnessed an unspoilt scene of a green and pleasant waterfront with a few scattered villages and rice paddies in the areas known today as Happy Valley and Causeway Bay. Later, in March 1842 Henrietta and her family relocated from Macau to Hong Kong, now ceded to the British by treaty and slowly starting to take shape as a thriving settlement. It is highly probable that Henrietta Shuck was the first western woman to settle in Hong Kong, with the exception, perhaps, of a few captains’ wives on merchant vessels, so-called floating wives, who have left us no records. In Hong Kong, Henrietta, now in her early twenties, set up a boarding school for Chinese boys and girls which by 1844 counted 32 boarders, and she threw herself with remarkable ardour into teaching and religious instruction. Besides pioneering education for girls, she also took many orphans into her home and gave birth to five children in her short life. Illness was her constant companion; children in her care were taken ill with smallpox, chicken pox, and dysentery, and Henrietta herself was taken seriously ill on several occasions. From the surviving correspondence with her family back in the United States we see a young woman who was constantly weighed down by a mournful premonition of her own death. Henrietta was suddenly taken ill following the birth of her fifth child and she died on November 26, 1844, at the age of twenty-seven.
As I read about Henrietta’s short and remarkable life in Susanna Hoe’s book I was seized by a desire to go see her grave for myself in the old Hong Kong Cemetery together with some of the graves of her fellow missionaries buried in same location. I also thought I might try to make some observations about Henrietta’s life in writing, to let her step back over the threshold, so to speak, and take care of her for a while. To write about Henrietta would mean to embrace the unfamiliar, to look at the simplicity and sadness of ordinary life, and to attempt to penetrate the showiness of things, and perhaps arrive at a core, at the intimacy, the privacy of things. The good thing about the dead is that they will put up no resistance to such assaults. The past is that which weighs us down, but that is not to say that the past is necessarily oppressive or burdensome, it can also have the power to liberate us from our present constraints. One thing I do know for sure; the past is never an easy, straight-forward story, it is hazy, veiled over, and it requires our active participation and interpretation to make any sense of it. The past is subdued and transmuted with the mere passing of years; what once felt like calamitous episodes may no longer feel like calamitous episodes, and what was once tangible fears may no longer feel tangible, or may have been replaced by other fears. But it is possible to enter into past minds, at least to re-animate those minds with a tolerable degree of accuracy, but to do so we have to make an effort. It certainly helps to enter those places where the din of the streets dies away and is replaced by the peace of the dead, to enter the place which is a city within the city and in which one day is exactly like the next. Hong Kong Cemetery is exactly that kind of place. It is the one place in Hong Kong which is about preservation and not about disappearance; it is the city’s arsenal, but it is not an arsenal of weapons; it is an arsenal of memories. It is also a city archive, an archive that tells us who we are, who we were and how we got here. This is a place where you would perhaps want to come alone, and not with a friend or a relative.
When I entered Hong Kong cemetery from the main entrance that is located opposite the towering grandstands of the neighbouring racecourse, I shook off the noise of the city, took a right hand turn and soon found myself facing one of the most striking and peculiar monuments in the entire cemetery, and, I thought, in all of Hong Kong; the sarcophagus in a ornate classical Roman style of the German missionary Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff. On this elaborate tomb, which is really an amalgam of sarcophagus, sepulchre, burial vault, mausoleum, cenotaph, and urn, can be read the following inscription:
IN MEMORY OF
KARL FRIEDERICK AUGUST GUTZLAFF
BORN JULY 8 1803 WHO ENTERED INTO HIS REST ON
AUGUST 9TH 1851
AGED 48 YEARS
THE FIRST LUTHERAN MISSIONARY TO CHINA
On the other side can be read the same information in German about “der Apostels der Chinesen” but with quotations in German from Psalm 73 (“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”) and from Daniel 12 (“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”) Inside this tomb lie the earthly remains of this first Lutheran missionary to China; a colourful, eccentric, and a rather flamboyant self-promoter, and the person who played a significant role in the rapid popularization of China missions in the 1830s and 40s. Exuding optimism and enthusiasm of the deepest dye in his many hyperbolic calls for missionaries, he did much to heighten hopes of evangelizing China, and made it attractive for many young people in Europe and America to join ‘the great and glorious work’ in the nation with the largest number of heathens in the world. Three years before Henrietta landed in China with high-wrought anticipation, in 1833, Gützlaff wrote the following in one of the missionary journals. Henrietta would probably have read these words.
I had ample reason to praise our Saviour for opening so wide a door to the introduction of the holy gospel… had I had a million of tracts, and fifty thousand copies of the Scriptures, they would all have been scattered amongst eager readers. My most sanguine expectations have been far surpassed. I marvel and adore in the dust.
Such extravagant and unguarded statements were also a gross misrepresentation about the actual spread and impact of religious literature in China. Young and idealistic missionaries who disembarked the ships in Hong Kong harbour would soon find out that their evangelizing efforts bore very little fruit and that Chinese conversion did not follow automatically upon receipt of the Gospel. And, crucially, China was not open for missionaries. Before the enforced opening of the Chinese treaty ports in 1842 foreigners were not allowed to travel freely in the mainland and there was considerable Chinese government hostility against foreign teaching and preaching. Young, fervent, and idealistic missionaries often succumbed to disparagement at the magnitude of the task before them and they were likely to become martyrs instead of successful proselytizers.
Gützlaff, the self-proclaimed ‘apostle to China, was a successful publicist, salesman, and an indefatigable popularizer of China missions who went on fund-raising tours in Europe and organized many Christian support societies. Bordering on the fraudulent, he declared to the missionary boards back home that a religious revival of mass-conversion was unfolding in China. He received enormous amounts of donations, but negative data mounted steadfastly against him and his vision for religious revivalism; the number of genuine converts in China remained depressingly low and apostasy, the backsliding to pre-conversion habits, occurred very frequently. In the 1840s contributions to the China missions declined, as the enormous complexities faced in the far East became widely known, and because of mounting awareness of, and opposition to, the opium trade. Many Western support societies collapsed and some colossal and sobering reassessment of missionary methodology for China soon became urgent.
When I first read about Gützlaff I pictured him as a character in a picaresque novel, an intrepid pioneer and frontiersman. For him the freedom to preach went hand in hand with freedom of commerce, and, entering into an unholy alliance with the biggest trading companies of Hong Kong he served as interpreter and consultant on the fast-sailing opium clippers that scooted up and down the coast of mainland China. With opium smuggling and Christian evangelism thoroughly linked, Gützlaff was able to finance his many Chinese language publications and, at considerable risk to himself, was allowed to visit local villages to preach and disseminate his pamphlets. Never half-hearted in any of his endeavors, he became an autodidact linguist and translator, who understood the popular idiom and spoke several local dialects, including Cantonese, Fukkien, and Hakka, which enabled him to interact with all classes of Chinese society, and reach a degree of penetration into rural areas out of reach to other foreigners. In this respect he should be regarded as highly accomplished. Temperamentally, Gützlaff was easily excited and he allowed even the tiniest fraction of a minor success to transport his spirit and rhetoric to the loftiest heights.
In her outstanding study of Gützlaff and his mission, Jessie Lutz characterizes him as “less a charlatan than a tragic figure, victim of his own hyperbole in popularizing China missions and of self-delusion in commitment to the cause of Christianizing China.” There can be no doubt that Gützlaff was duped. He recruited a number of native missionaries who were opium addicts and who never traveled to the places they claimed, but their glowing fictionalized accounts of conversions and New Testaments sold excited Gützlaff greatly. Also, paid Chinese colporteurs, or book distributors, eager for easy money, falsified travel records and made up conversion reports, and then sold Gützlaff’s printed pamphlets to local printers and booksellers who sometimes sold them back to Gützlaff for a handsome profit. When he realized that most of his colporteurs had deceived him, he sank into a depression and eventually concentrated his efforts on educating native Chinese missionaries and on diplomatic work (he was appointed Chinese secretary of the new colony of Hong Kong in 1842). A prolific writer, Gützlaff published A Sketch of Chinese History Ancient and Modern, Journal of Three Voyages along the Coast of China, and the two volumes of China Opened; all titles that were circulated and excerpted in numerous forms and were widely translated. The frontispiece to his China Opened shows the tall German, head held high, dressed in a splendid local Fujian costume and with a fake Manchurian braided queue, the type of costume in which he would disguise himself as he disembarked the opium clippers to bring the treasures of the gospel to lost souls.
On this afternoon in Hong Kong Cemetery I had Gützlaff entirely to myself. I stood and looked at his tomb hewn in grey granite. It had cracked in several places and in one place, directly above the marble plaque with Gützlaff’s name, a tiny green plant had emerged. Somehow a seed must have found its way into the darkness of the sarcophagus where it had sprouted and commingled with the bones of the Chinese apostle, and then sent forth one if its branches on a mission to find sunlight. The grave stood raised on a rectangular grey granite podium which resembled a catafalque. I stood and looked at the imposing tomb until the silence between me and Gützlaff grew a little uncomfortable, and then I went across the narrow path to sit down on the steps of the cemetery’s small funeral chapel, an attractive small cross-shaped building. In most books on Hong Kong history we read that the oldest remaining building in the entire Hong Kong territory is Flagstaff House in Cotton Tree Drive which, in the days before extensive land reclamation, would have stood on the waterfront above Queen’s Road in Central. Headquarters House as it was originally called was built in 1846 in the Western Greek-revival style as the residence of the Commander of the British Forces, at that time Major General George Charles D'Aguilar. But I actually think that the small and unassuming cross-shaped funeral chapel in the colonial cemetery may be the oldest building and date from the first year of the cemetery’s foundation. A little further down the path, outside a small, modern store building three cemetery workers with dark brown leathery skin were engrossed in light banter and enjoyed an afternoon tea break. They sat on sand bags that had been bleached by the sun and attacked by rodents and rot, and sand had begun to run out of them.
As I looked out over a part of the old cemetery garden, my eyes found rest in a horizontal garden panorama so different from the usual vertiginous perspective of a city in which vast edifices and towers of metal and glass constantly direct the gaze upwards. Here, I looked out across green lawns with seemingly never-ending rows of tombstones; in this spot the beauty of nature vaults over the dead, trees bend under the dense tropical pressure, and flowers sprout up between the stone slabs, or peep out through granite cracks. Here, nature insinuates itself at any point. And here we can experience, I thought, a tranquil sense of the sublime, which at least for me has to do with solitude, quiet, seclusion, and with feeling the strong, vibrant presence of the past. Sitting on the steps of the chapel building and looking out over a cemetery garden that exudes an air of calm, gentle decay, I felt tired, but I was also filled with a sense of well-being so profound I did not wish to go to sleep. I thought that a cemetery is the best place to find repose and, possibly, to behold reality in a full blaze of light. Most people do not allow themselves to taste solitude, they are rarely alone, and so they rarely commune with themselves. Walking in a cemetery, I thought as I sat on the steps of the chapel, is a chance to turn things upside down and to find out what lies beneath. Here, in this dwelling place of the dead in which everything breathes life we have an occasion to imagine ourselves otherwise, above the mediocrity of our horribly regimented lives, above social conventions, and self-imposed constraints, and above the eternal self-doubt that keeps our freedoms in check. In this kind of reflecting, all things become solitary and slow.
To me there are two kinds of places; there are the few precious places that encourage skepsis, critical doubt, and where we are free to explore possibilities and stand above our lives. In such places we are likely to feel that being normal is a waste of time. Then there are places in which our unfreedoms silently imprison us, places where we attempt to conform, fit in, and be normal. The more time we spend in the first kind of place, the better. Spending time in this space can help us lead our lives enthusiastically and not deferred; in it we find a deeper exploration of life and moments of independence to be contemplated and even enjoyed. Here we can feel our own pressing individualism in the midst of society. For me a cemetery is one such place, a quiet corner of a city where we can enjoy the freedom of anonymity and where other human beings may seem like phantoms. In a cemetery walking becomes the most life-affirming of human activities. And the afternoon, the time when the day is in decline, when the day is already half over is the best time to come here to commune with ourselves. To be realistic, I know that I have never been particularly industrious, and I have seen enough to be able to say with certainty that I am prone to procrastination. I know for a fact that I am quite messy. I am in my mid-forties but I have yet to father a son. I have also yet to father a girl. For far too many mornings I have woken up in a place where I would not have woken up if I had chosen to reside in a place that suits my soul. But now it so happened, for reasons that are myriad and complex, that I was sitting on the steps of the funeral chapel in Hong Kong’s largest cemetery and what I felt as I sat here was a new determination to be productive, to communicate, and to write, which I know is a process that can be exhilarating or palliative (though most of the time it is neither); my intention was to try to enter into the past life of a long-term resident of Hong Kong’s necropolis and to reawaken long-extinguished memories and impressions. My thinking would remain with what has been and its remembrance. I got up and continued my search for Henrietta’s grave.
I know that the Swedish writer Johan August Strindberg visited the Cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris many times and that his walks there inspired him to write a remarkable essay about his impressions. Strindberg, whom we know to have been engaged in the study of the occult and to be influenced by the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, noticed an odd taste in his mouth that lingered after he returned from the Parisian cemetery, and which he understood to be caused by the souls, the dematerialised bodies of the dead floating through the air. Returning to the cemetery with a small open flask containing lead acetate he set about hunting for souls “like a bird catcher”, and, once he returned home, he filtered off the abundant precipitation and placed it under his microscope to see dead matter swell up, stir, and begin to come alive. The result of his experiments remained inconclusive and he decided not to continue with them; “the dead have a foul breath” he asserted. I understand and share Strindberg’s fondness for visiting cemeteries, and I enjoy his reflections, but his impressions were different from mine, and his leanings appear bizarre and esoteric. In Hong Kong Cemetery I will not attempt to snare immaterial souls with my butterfly net. But I am prepared to acknowledge that the dead can be revived and be understood to have a presence among us today. The facial features and expressions of those who are no longer will have been passed down through the generations and they add to our collection of traces today. The dead once taught students, guided souls, and they founded institutions that impacted many lives and may have survived right up to our time. And many of the people interred here in Hong Kong Cemetery wrote books that we can read today, none more so than the missionaries that lived in the territory; they published books, they wrote, translated, printed, and circulated texts, and sent copious amounts of letters home. A cemetery, much like a library, is full of dead people who can be brought to life when we handle their books and open them up to read what is inside of them.
The only thing more melancholy than a graveyard is a graveyard unvisited, I thought, and on this afternoon I noticed two other visitors who had come here to walk among the graves, but I could not help seeing them as intruders who had come to disturb us, the dead and I. I wanted only the exuberant melody of birds to disturb this stillness, my stillness. Dragonflies and damselflies swarmed around me and performed their aerial courtship ballet, their translucent greenish wings glistening in the sunshine. A small bird sat perched on an old decorative iron railing that encircled a grave. I walked around the level ground around the main entrance and the funeral chapel which is where the cemetery’s oldest graves are found. Before me was an archive, a cross-section of colonial society with its own gradations of social hierarchy. Buried here were missionaries, colonial administrators, merchants, doctors, soldiers, policemen, and sailors. And, right in the middle of it all stood the old cemetery fountain, the oldest classical fountain in Hong Kong, which no longer contained any water; it had been filled with sand and stood today, I thought, as a sadly dilapidated allegory of the Garden of Eden; inside it growing every tree and flower that is pleasant to the sight and the four semi-circular bays on each side of the central pool symbolising the four rivers that according to Genesis 2, 10-14 flow out of Eden to the four corners of the world. From this old fountain it was a leisurely walk up to the cemetery’s higher levels where terraces had been formed that were linked by a network of stairs, bridges, and gently curving footpaths. Up here the graves were in an advanced state of disrepair, one could almost say wilful neglect, in contrast to the gentle decay of the lower levels which had seemed so completely appropriate. Here the foliage was unkempt and the roots of the trees had toppled granite memorials and bent iron railings. Roots grow out of stone and they pop up between stone work joints. Bundles of thick arboreal roots writhe and well out of granite crypts like grotesque, morbid art installations. Beneath the ground the roots of the trees stir the bones of the dead that cannot be animated by any human agency, and I was expecting to find pieces of human skeleton pushed to the surface any moment. The mobility of the dead in Hong Kong had found another expression in this cemetery in the large ossuary also found up here in the higher levels. As a plaque on the wall explained, the niches found here contained remains that had been exhumed from original graves to make way for the construction of the Aberdeen tunnel in 1975, or they contained the niches transferred here from a former ossuary that was demolished that same year. The development of Hong Kong has been relentless, and the dead have had to move over. I walked around among the hundreds of niches in the new ossuary and noticed given names that hark from another era: Urian, Cecil, Percival, Archibald, Eunice, Auther, Withurell, Eldred, Harwood. Outside the ossuary stood a tall column that dates back to one of the first years of the colony’s history, and is one of several memorials to commemorate the collective loss of a group. This one remembers those in the 95th regiment who succumbed to tropical fever from June to the 30th of September 1842. The victims remain nameless but are listed as nine sergeants, eight corporals, four drummers, sixty-seven privates, four women, and four children. The 95th Regiment had a difficult summer in 1842, truly. My head was buzzing with impressions and I went to sit on a bench next to the memorial to the 95th Regiment. I dug into my pocket and found an old receipt from a coffee shop and on the back I scribbled the following lines
The forest spreads
The water streams
Roots push stones
That shelter bones
The dead commune, and gasp
At dragonfly aeronautics
Everything breathes life
In this dwelling place of the dead
I had come to Hong Kong Cemetery to search for one specific grave and eventually I found it, not least thanks to a photocopied map with which the very helpful staff in the cemetery office had provided me; it showed the various sections of the cemetery and had a few graves indicated, for the benefit, I thought, of a few visitors and necro-intellectual tourists such as myself. The grave of Henrietta Hall Shuck is located in section S.11 of the Cemetery’s lower levels in which the old graves have been laid out in a simple geometric grid. A granite tablet memorial with a simple floral pattern at top marks her grave and bears the following inscription on a marble tablet framed in the grey granite.
THE FIRST AMERICAN FEMALE MISSIONARY TO CHINA
THE REV. Addison Hall of Virginia, United States
THE REV. J. LEWIS SHUCK, MISSIONARY TO CHINA
American Baptist Board for Foreign Missions
She was born October 28. 1817
Married 8th September 1855
Arrived in China September 1836
In the prime of her life, in the midst of her labors, and in
the meridian of her usefulness suddenly, but
SHE DIED AT HONG KONG, NOVEMBER 27 1844
AGED 27 YEARS
Hallowed and blessed is the memory of the good
This modest granite memorial, that records Henrietta’s association with a few male figures and the seminal years of her life, must be considered modest in comparison to the many expensive granite box tombs and memorial columns that surround it. But Henrietta keeps fine company here in this city of the dead. Just around the corner is the tomb of Karl Gützlaff, undoubtedly one of the models for her own missionary labours. To her immediate left is the large granite box tomb of Major Eldred Pottinger, the nephew of Henry Pottinger, the first Governor of Hong Kong, who was an Anglo-Indian army officer and diplomat and who died while on a visit to Hong Kong in November 1843. To the right of Henrietta’s memorial is the box tomb of Theodosia Dean, who was a dear friend and collaborator of Henrietta’s. Theodosia arrived at Macau as Theodosia Barker at the age of seventeen and eventually she moved in with the Shucks in Hong Kong, where she became a dear friend of Henrietta’s and greatly relieved her in her work with the many pupils and orphans in her missionary school, but unfortunately Dean died of smallpox in March 1843. Henrietta died and the age of twenty-seven and Theodosia at twenty-three, and now the two pious ladies, little more than girls, who served with zeal and integrity here in Hong Kong, reside in their respective granite bone boxes, so close together that they could reach out and hold hands.
I wished that I could feel sure that the graves here contain the bones of the deceased but in fact we cannot know for certain. The bodies of those who died in Hong Kong before the foundation of Hong Kong Cemetery in 1845 were reinterred here from the older Wan Chai Cemetery, but the bodily remains did not always follow the gravestones or get placed correctly. An article in the China Mail in May 1857 lamented the state of the old Wan Chai cemetery: “the tombstones capsized, some broken, and others carried away by the Chinese for building purposes; while the ground is strewed with filth and with skulls and other relics of mortality.” I could not bear to think of the relics of Henrietta and Theodosia carelessly scattered on the ground in Wanchai. Instead I was determined now to make my way to the nearby Hong Kong Central Library to see what more I could find out about Henrietta’s work in Hong Kong and to begin to jot down some observations about her life.
We will never know
what went through the mind of the young Henrietta
when she wrote her short composition on the question
which her teacher Mrs Little wrote on the blackboard
“Where will I be a hundred years hence?”.
Henrietta Hall was about ten years old
when she was sent to Mrs Little’s girl’s school in Fredericksburg
by parents who entertained enlarged and liberal views
on the subject of female education.
Henrietta had left her home town of Kilmarnock
in north eastern Virginia,
on the peninsula known as the Northern Neck
on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers.
Later Mrs Little fondly recalled
a young girl of pleasant manners
who showed gaiety of temperament,
enhanced by a highly individual intelligence
and a most fervent piety;
a girl of sprightly mind and strong social affections,
diligent in her studies
and with a fondness for religious and literary instruction,
always blameless in her course of conduct.
For the young Henrietta,
who was nurtured in the lap of piety,
Mrs Little’s question marked a new beginning;
it awakened serious meditation
And a new sense of accountability to God.
In recollection, Mrs Little recalled the new intensity of emotion
of the girl whose eyes
were now filled with the light of a supreme conviction.
“The Lord Himself had directed the arrow to its mark”,
Mrs Little said and knew she had before her
a young probationer for an endless state of existence.
This great change in the spirit of Henrietta
was not the transient excitement in the effervescence of youth,
but marked the fundamental, lasting change
with religion now exerting the controlling influence.
Amid the religious revivals that swept Virginia in the early part of the 1830s
Henrietta attended a Baptist camp meeting,
and, at thirteen, stood up to recognise
her conviction of guilt and danger
and she ascribed her religious impulse to the question posed by the dear Mrs Little.
Then she was baptised in Moraticco Baptist Church
by the Reverend J. B. Jeter,who a decade and a half later,
when Henrietta had departed our world to meet her heavenly father,
would compile her memoir
in which he gives her extravagant adulation
and holds her aloft an an exemplar
of modesty, simplicity, and charity –
the canonical keywords by which we may recognize saints.
In that same year, 1831, Henrietta’s beloved mother
suddenly departed this life
and her daughter fell into a deep dejection.
“Life no longer appeared joyous
but was clothed in gloom and melancholy”,
she wrote in her personal diary,
weighed down by her own dull mortality.
But she emerged from the severest bereavement
strengthened in the conviction they would meet in heaven,
and she greatly desired to be eminently useful
by telling her younger siblings and the dying heathen
the story of Jesus.“I must remain below a little longer — I must
be active a little while in my blessed Saviour's cause”.
At the dinner table, her father, the Reverend Addison Hall,
had told gripping stories of early missionaries to Asia;
Karl Gützlaff, Walter Henry Medhurst, Robert Morrison, Hudson Taylor.
The pioneer missionaries became Henrietta’s role models,
and her fervent piety and romantic disposition led her
to cherish the missionary spirit.
She desired nothing but to emulate their example.
In 1832 Henrietta’s family moved to Richmond
where they joined the First Baptist Church.
One morning at Sunday Service,
presided over by the Reverend I. T. Hinton,
Henrietta sat beside her father and and younger sisters.
The donation box went round the congregation
in support of overseas Protestant missions
and Henrietta put into the box a tiny piece of paper,
very neatly folded, which she had carried with her all morning.
Her father eyes met hers and he bent over
and kissed her on her forehead and he held her hand.
After the service, when Reverend Hinton calculated the donations,
he found the paper, opened it, and read the words
“I give myself”.
He smiled to himself and knew the time had come.
He was not surprised, for he had counselled the young lady
and understood her ardent desire to be useful in the work of the Lord.
It was at that time that Henrietta met Jehu Lewis Shuck,
a wholesome, evangelical lad
fresh out of Virginia Baptist Seminary.
He was ordained in August 1835
and invited Henrietta to accompany him to China,
and to share his joys and sorrows,
and they were united in holy wedlock
before the Saviour
on the 8th of September 1835, preparatory to their departure for the East.
Henrietta was seventeen years old;
to assume that romantic feelings did not mingle
with her high and holy aspirations
would betray an ignorance of human nature.
Henrietta bid a final tearful adieu to her brothers and sisters in Richmond,
a painful separation,
and embarked the steamer Pocahontas with her father and step-mother
to sail through the Chesapeake Bay and up the James River,
experiencing seasickness for the first time,
first to Baltimore and then via Philadelphia to New York
where she found some time for sightseeing,
and finally by the steamer Providence to Boston.
Here gathered twenty-two Baptist missionaries,
nine married couples and four single persons,
all destined, as Henrietta put it, to
“take up our abode among the poor perishing heathen
in the land of moral darkness”.
In the group were the good friends Robert Davenport, a fellow student of Lewis’,
and Mary Frances, his bride of just fifteen, bound for Siam.
On board the vessel The Louvre, a three-masted bark,
father and daughter exchanged Bibles and parting letters,
Henrietta’s including a lock of her hair.
We have these letters today, which are intrinsically excellent
and express the earnestness and deepest affection between father and daughter.
Henrietta’s letter conveys in words the tempest of her emotion
and her intense longing for heaven:
“O my father, it is hard – 'tis trying to thy daughter's heart
to bid thee a final farewell. I bid you adieu no more to see you –
no more to have your kind attention —
no more to bend the knee with you around the family altar.
But, dear father, when I say “no more” to meet,
I speak of this world. Yet, we shall meet again
in a world of glory. We shall not be separated long.
I will continue both sure and steadfast to the end,
and though the deep may roll between us,
and we may be separated by thousands of miles,
we shall soon be called to take up our abode
in the paradise above,
where adieus and farewells are sounds unknown.”
The letter from the Reverend Addison Hall to his daughter,
with a “few private thoughts” annexed,
was venerated by Henrietta and alluded to
in much of her correspondence over the following years.
It contained judicious advice from the paternal figure:
“You have, my dear child, taken upon you
the name and office of a missionary –
a name and office which a Judson, and Newell, and Morrison,
and Gützlaff have caused to be associated with honor.
But you must remember
that you are not necessarily thus associated.
The reputation which those missionaries who have preceded you have attained
cannot be transferred to you.
By patient, continued, and faithful labor
in the cause of Christ,
must you win and share
the honors of a missionary life.
Whilst the result of your toils in this cause
may confer some degree of honor upon yourself,
let it not be forgotten
that this is the least consideration which should animate you.
The desire of distinction, love of novelty, etc.,
are such insidious motives that sometimes
they assume the name of philanthropy,
and it requires great caution and much self-examination to detect them.
On this point I need not enlarge.
You know that for more than twelve months
you have had my thoughts upon it.
You have enlisted for life;
and that unless extraordinary occurrences or Providence
shall otherwise indicate, you are never to return to America;
I should look upon it as a lasting stigma
were you to become tired of your vocation,
and quit the service in which you have engaged.”
Thus the motivating and sobering instructions
from the Reverend to his young daughter.
And he continues his instruction
with this well-intentioned but jarring
advice on the connubial state:
“you must yield to the will of your husband
whenever the point is made;
this must be the case,
or he must submit to you,
I do not mean that it is necessary
to yield a forced obedience, but a willing one.
God has constituted the man, as the stronger in mind and body,
to have the government;
and in proportion as you may be disposed to usurp the authority
which belongs to him,
you destroy the order of Providence.
Never oppose, therefore, the will of your husband.
You may reason with and persuade him,
but do not attempt to dictate to him.
‘I will’ and 'I won't’ are words which should not be found
in a wife's vocabulary.
Never use them to your husband,
or you may force him to adopt such as he may lawfully do,
but such as he should never have occasion for –
‘you shall' and 'you shall NOT'.
Don't fret at or quarrel with your husband on any occasion.
He is fallible, and may sometimes err,
and may speak unadvisedly;
but on such occasions be silent and affectionate,
and you will reform him.
Be always neat and cleanly in your person and dress,
and you will increase his love and respect for you.
A sluttish appearance in a wife
distresses, and may even disgust, a husband.”
The letter concludes with a few sensible
but scattered salvoes from the Reverend:
“Take great care of your health:
avoid the sun when it is hot, and the dews,
and all improper food, and don't take medicine too freely,
and without great caution.
Improve your handwriting – it needs it.”
On the morning of the 22nd of September 1835
The Louvre set sail with twenty-two missionaries
commissioned on an embassage of peace and salvation.
“Never did a ship leave Boston harbour more nobly”,
an observer noted,
“No sound interrupted the ascending prayer”,
even those “unaccustomed to tears wept,
not in bitterness, but in exuberance of love.
How cordial and comprehensive
are the sympathies of the true religion.”
The ship found fine wind and favouring tide
Soon the westerlies sent her over the billows of the vast Atlantic.
How can we possibly understand today
what it was like back then to travel such distances
across the vastness of the seas?
Today we sit with wearisome familiarity
inside pressurised airplane cabins
and do all in our power
to blot out the fact that we sit
suspended in air 30.000 feet above ground
and travel at more than 500 miles per hour.
It is an experience that bears no similarity
to what the early pioneers must have experienced
when they began to fly through the sky.
We arrive feeling jaded and jetlagged
in airports that look the same all over the world.
Henrietta travelled in a wooden vessel
with a thousand fathoms of darkness under the keel,
and for one year she suffered the sea-sickness that saps the spirit.
“Dreadfully dreadful”, she sums it up
in a letter to a sister, feeling infinite tedium,
being tossed hither and thither on seas that seem never-ending
with dark water beneath them and the stars conjoined above.
A few months into the journey we find Henrietta
lying alone in her cabin and looking at the beams in the ceiling above her,
She is occupied with religious meditation,
and feels almost beside herself with so much hope.
The first few weeks of the journey were spent in her bed
and she was unable to read or write anything, “owing to constant sea sickness”
on the tiny bedside table were her journal, the letter from her father,
the treasured New Testament received as a parting gift from him,
and a poetry collection entitled Gems of Poetry.
Also a few missionary journals with articles by Karl Gützlaff
that became deeply engraved with flaming letters on the pages of her heart.
In writing Gützlaff had argued so eloquently about the United States
being the nation chosen by God to communicate the treasure of the Christian faith
and being given the power to redeem the most populous nation
in Asia from darkness. Henrietta felt convinced
of a special relationship between America and China, and she wondered
what it would be like to meet Gützlaff, the apostle to China, in person.
Her days were filled with journal writing and letter writing,
mostly to her siblings Susan, Louisa, Robert, and Lucius,
about whose welfare she felt increasing concern;
she sought to awaken them spiritually
and urged them to seize procrastination.
Henrietta engaged in unending self-examination,
and reflection on her father’s august admonitions;
also she practised her handwriting skills and studied the Chinese language,
“but I learn so little, my head is swimming”.
Every evening the familiar sound of church bells rang out aboard The Louvre
and resounded across a tiny portion of the wide Atlantic.
The bells called to family worship, preaching, or offering up of petitions.
On Thursday nights Brother Malcolm lectured on missions generally
and Brother Sutton discoursed on heathen mythology.
About once a month was pancake day,
“they are good,
our steward knows well how to make them.”
In early December, The Louvre, with its vessel congregation
rounded the Cape of Good Hope
which the old Portuguese sailors named Cabo das Tormentas, Cape of Storms.
The seas were tumultuous, and Henrietta,
who otherwise had bid her seasickness farewell,
was so sick she could not stand, or sit, or walk,
“I thought that our ship would upset,
and turn us out into the sea”.
But the lord raised her from her bed of sickness
to celebrate Christmas in the Indian Ocean.
She asked herself, “where shall I be next Christmas day?”.
“Perhaps I shall have bid adieu to earth and all earthly concerns;
if I knew this would be my happy condition,
I should at this moment cry aloud with joy.”
“Strange it is to say,
but I cannot become reconciled to the vessel at present”,
Henrietta wrote in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
The rocking of the boat could be almost intolerable, she noted,
rolling and bruises follow almost every movement.
So hard it is to put on clothes in the morning,
the men are all unshaven, they look unkempt.
“The ship is nothing but a prison
with a chance of being drowned any day”,
the young Mary Frances had said to her,
and indeed the motion of the ship affected the women very badly.
But the captain did all he could to care for his passengers
“The captain certainly fully understands his business.
He is a gentleman and often comes down to chat with us,
indeed almost every evening,
we often have a little pleasant conversation.”
One evening Henrietta asked him
“Dear sir, what led you to become a captain?”
“Oh in so many ways I am absurdly like my grandfather”
was all he had said,
and the answer puzzled the young Henrietta;
“But as I do not know his grandfather
this means little to me.
I imagine he was a sailor, though.”
“The Louvre is just like a little angel –
she is doing anything I wish her to do”,
the captain said to Henrietta one evening,
which she thought was a most wonderful thing to say.
Week after week rolls on, and then
Behold! A miracle!
The Louvre is careering over the billows of the vast seas,
its church bells a-ringing
and its dim cabins loaded
with the treasures of salvation.
Six months into the journey,
within two weeks’ sail of Calcutta,
the wind continually light and favourable
and the vessel tolerably steady,
Henrietta lies in her little aft cabin and listens to the sounds
of the ship that is never silent;
the ship’s old boards seem to creak
as though in pain,
the wind blows in the mizzen sail on the aft-most mast –
the poop sails as the captain calls it –
the sail is increased as the wind is full,
some rigging has come loose, and bangs on the wall of her cabin,
and the waves break against the side.
Suddenly, late at night, she sees the light,
the strange luminescence in the green-blue light spectrum
that makes the low ceiling seem alive,
the wooden beams writhe in a diffuse, vibrating glow
that evolves and changes constantly,
the dim cabin is enveloped in a warm greenish glow.
Henrietta looks in disbelief, and then reaches out for her Bible
and finds she is able to read the beginning
of the Book of Genesis
in this strange sparkling luminescence,
which to her is a divine light,
the very light of creation.
When the Spanish seafarers first encountered bioluminescence in the Americas,
they thought it was the work of El Diabolo.
But for Henrietta, whose journey was “dreadfully dreadful”,
there were such moments of divine miracle
as marine light-emission from plankton, algae, and phosphorescent fish
presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle.
Every part of the ocean surface, which during the day is seen as foam,
now glowed with a pale and scintillating light.
Had the youthful and nimble lady climbed up the top mast
(which she did not)
she would have seen the livid flames of phosphorescence in the breaking waves
and a milky train of liquid phosphorus in the wake of The Louvre
as far as the eye could see.
She might also have seen how the sky above the horizon
shone with the reflected glare of the sparkling light,
and was not so utterly obscure
as over the rest of the heavens.
Truly, Henrietta had seen the light of creation
and she began to experience the world as less and less familiar.
On February 4 1836 The Louvre anchored at Kedgeree
a village at the mouth of the Hoogly River
ninety miles below Calcutta.
Her first time on land after more than seven months at sea:
imagine the gratitude of her palate,
as fresh fruits, eggs, fowls, milk and vegetables were taken onboard!
Here she entered on the field of labour
amongst the uncultivated heathen,
but was put off by the dubious character of its inhabitants;
“they look cruel and treacherous”.
“The dress of the locals consists of a small piece of cloth
wrapped around their loins,
poor ignorant creatures!”
But the native huts reminded the young missionary
of the haystacks she knew from the fields around her home in Kilmarnock.
From Kedgeree we follow the vessel congregation to Amherst in Burma
and on to Malacca, Penang and Singapore;
where they first got to work among the Chinese.
In this first encounter with local populations
the young Henrietta was shocked by the degrading influence of idolatry
and longed intensely for the obliteration of local belief,
or, we should say, its replacement by the one true Religion.
Sailing along the coast of Burma’s “dark, benighted land”
Henrietta stood on the deck;
“we can see distinctly from the ship the tall pagodas
and their gods which are worshipped by the poor heathen –
gods which I hope will ere long be worshipped by them no longer.
”In Penang there was much to please the mind and eye,
“it is I think, without exception, the loveliest spot I have ever beheld.
Truly every prospect pleases,
and only man is vile.”
But when Henrietta conversed with Mr Beighton,
who laboured among the Chinese Malay,
she was reminded of challenges that lay ahead;
“He seems to think it almost impossible to acquire the Chinese language.
He has been labouring in Penang seventeen years,
and has no satisfactory evidence that one single soul
has been brought to the knowledge of the true God.”
On the journey Jehu Shuck had entered his dear wife’s cabin,
a place of cloistral seclusion,
sometimes to bring her oranges,
and sometimes to study with her the Chinese language,
at other times, it must not be omitted,
to lie with his toothsome bride.
Henrietta let him have his way with her,
as she understood was right and proper,
never allowing herself to feel any pleasure.
She endured the discomfort, closed her eyes
and pictured before her
Christ hanging on the cross,
maimed and mutilated,
his flesh bloody and ruptured.
Her father had instructed her that it was possible to reconcile
the yearnings of the spirit with those of the flesh;
conceived of in the higher interpretation, he said,
sensuality could be used temporarily,
occasionally in the spiritual friendship
between two people of opposite sex
as the means to the worthy end of begetting a new generation,
and raising it in the Christian faith.
It was in Singapore that Henrietta gave birth to her first son,
“sweet, little Lewis”.
Singapore, a nation of wondrous beauty,
cut by the equator; it knows not autumn
and it knows not spring;
here she saw lizards, antediluvian creatures she thought
that seem hardly of the seed of earth.
Here she was weighed down by the wretchedness of the heathenism
that was everywhere around her
and she felt it most urgent to “snatch the idolaters from the pit
to which the wheels of time are rapidly bearing them.”
But even more so, she found herself repelled
by the behaviour of the Europeans that resided there.
It seemed a lurking place for all sorts of desperadoes,
especially young merchants, noisy, voluble, excitable,
steeped and stupefied in beer,
men of a singularly ferocious character.
She witnessed acts not just indecent but base and contemptible
and felt repulsed by this colonizing of remote and fertile islands
by unprincipled, mercenary pilgrims.
“I long to be in some spot, in the midst of thousands of heathen,
and have no European within hundreds of miles of me,
for certainly the conduct of most of them
retards the progress of the blessed gospel.”
And very soon, from the port of Singapore,
Henrietta saw The Louvre spread her sails
to return to the united states;
a departure swift and unceremonious, she thought.
As the ship left port the wind was light, the waves languid;
all nature seemed supine.
But the rapidity of the current must have been great
for soon all sight of her was lost,
except for the glittering canvas on the horizon;
the ship borne away and lost in sunshine, radiance, and distance.
The sight brought forth strong emotions
in this young lover of the picturesque,
and she uttered a prayer for the dear captain and his crew,
who would soon steer through waters
infested with pirates, buccaneers, and freebooters,
who murder and plunder mercilessly
and inhabit ruined fortifications along the shore.
And she prayed that the ship that sailed under American colours
would not be trapped in a death zone, with malignant calms
and treacherous currents, in the centre of a vast and silent sea,
in melancholy solitude and with her crew put on short rations.
Henrietta prayed for the sailors,
at whose bulging muscles and brown, sinewy arms
she so often had stolen a glance.
Kind men they all were,
but, it must be said, learned in all the lore of outlandish life.
In a letter to her father she noted,
“we are much encouraged respecting the sailors,
five of them have expressed an interest in the Redeemer,
three have applied for baptism.”
In Singapore the missionaries had collected for a monetary reward
(of which the sailors were hopeful),
which was nothing, of course, compared to the ultimate reward of Heaven.
Months from hence, she expected, the unending tradewinds would waft The Louvre
across the vast Atlantic
to sail among fleets of whalemen cruising for spermaceti
until they were greeted, close to familiar shore, by sea gulls,
unsightly, unpoetic birds,
whose ear-splitting, dissonant cries,
would mean that they were close
to Henrietta’s dearest father and beloved siblings.