Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring Cleaning in Xiamen, 1860s

Bill Brown ... Xiamen University
While working on my "Old Xiamen in Foreigners' Eyes" book, I came across Lise Boehm's delightful account of Spring Cleaning in Amoy in the 1860s....
Enjoy Amoy!

Boehm, Lise, “China Coast Tales,” Kelly and Walsh Limited, Shanghai, 1897. “In the Sixties,” Part 1, page 1-3
…a grand cleaning, scrubbing and dusting had been going on for a fortnight in the house of the Commissioner of Imperial Maritime Customs, Amoy, South China.

Now the Commissioner was a man who usually left his servants to do just as much, or as little, as they chose to do. His was precisely the establishment a Chinaman delights in, where there is no troublesome "missisy" to demand monthly, weekly, or even daily accounts, to compare expenses with some experienced friend, and to generally make herself obnoxious. Provided his meals were served punctually, Mr. Watkins was fairly indifferent as to what he was made to swallow. Provided his own particular armchair held together, he did not care if the rest of his furniture was allowed to crumble away through neglect or white ants.

Such was the normal state of Mr. Watkins and of Mr. Watkins' household for eleven months in every year.

But when the twelfth month, marked in the calendar as May, came round, the aspect of the great dreary house on the top of the hill changed. Every available coolie, both in Mr. Watkins' house and in his office, every Customs boatman, every watchman, every odd man, was pressed into the work of cleaning.

The odour of carbolic fluids, of patent soaps and insect-destroying powders pervaded the whole compound, and made the house smell like the disinfecting ward of a hospital. Scrubbing cloths and dusting brushes, sufficient to last an ordinary Chinese household for a generation, were recklessly given out. Mosquito-nets were repaired, centipedes and lizards were terrified from their resting places, boxes of stores arrived from Hongkong, the official servants received fresh uniforms, and Mr. Watkins himself spent a whole day picking out white trousers, and coats which were neither frayed at the cuffs, nor shaky about the buttonholes, nor badly ironmoulded. For Mrs. Ratcliff was expected for her yearly visit.

Everybody in China knew Mrs. Ratcliff, or at any rate knew all about her…. (read the book to find out just what everyone knew about her, and why her annual pilgrimage to Mr. Watkin's home in Amoy so titillated the foreign community...
And, again, Enjoy Amoy!

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