Weihaiwei

Lance Banbury

 

 

 

King George V and Queen Mary at the Delhi Durbar in 1911.

Lands of the East, awake!

Soon shall your sons be free;

The sleep of ages break,

And rise to liberty:

On your far hills, long cold and gray,

Has dawned the everlasting day.

 

 

OAKLEY, Hills of the North, 13-18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAP OF CHINA

 

 

 

PREFACE

 

In 1898, the British government leased the port of Weihaiwei on the Shantung peninsula, the southern naval gateway to the Gulf of Chihli (Po Hai), from the Manchu dynasty, to counter the Russian presence at the northern gateway of Port Arthur. This strategic situation opposite Korea on the Yellow Sea was built up as a naval base for British surveillance of the Far Eastern waters north of Shanghai and the steamer route to Tientsin and thence Peking.

The lease was 'for so long a period as Port Arthur shall remain in the occupation of Russia'. Customs officers were established there, as well as the naval station on the south-west end of Liukung Island with a number of piers. The island is 3.2 km. long and 1.6 km. wide and protects the harbour on the east, which can take vessels of up to 10 m. draft, although strong north-west winds reduce safe depths by up to 1 m., and was also known as Port Edward.

It was part of the worldwide network of bases for the Royal Navy, and apart from collection of duties on shipments to and from the interior, educational institutions were created in the leased territory. All points within a certain radius of the port of Weihaiwei City were held not to be affected by Chinese ordinances without British consent.

Strange as it may seem, however, when war was declared in 1914, with the German stronghold at Tsingtao a major objective for the Allies in the Far East and the Pacific, and with the base only 370 km. by sea, Rear Adm. (later Adm.) Sir Martin Jerram mobilised at Hong Kong, and HMS 'Triumph' sailed from the south to establish a close watch on Tsingtao with the Japanese, before the landing on Sept. 2 and the surrender on Nov. 7. When the Chinese government established a special administrative area, the lease was voluntarily surrendered in 1930.

With coaling facilities and dry dock, Weihaiwei had its place, for the 32 years the lease was held, in the chain of command for British naval operations in the Far East and around the world. However, it never carried a volume of traffic to be compared with Singapore or Trincomalee.

The following poem is set within the broadest narrative framework, as it is also partly a romance on the decades when there were three kings in the city: Christ, opium and George V. Today, there are none.

I have employed a Kiplingesque metre and a lyrical mode to treat the cultural, military and social life of the city in this era, as well as the larger, historical perspective.

 

 

In 1928 Chiang Kai-Shek entered Peking. A new central government with Chiang at its head was established at Nanking, farther south.

In the same year Chiang became Christian, apparently at the insistence of the westernised Soong family, whose youngest daughter Mei-ling, had recently become his wife.

William HOLMAN HUNT, Great Britain, 1827-1910, The Risen Christ with the Two Marys in the Garden of Joseph of Arimathea, 1847, Christ and background painted c. 1897, London, oil on canvas, 117.5 x 94 cm.

 

 

I

 

Brown smoke-clouds roll on the limpid skyline to the sound of temple chime,

From Taoist bells that ring for Lao-Tzu,

And the smokestacks of 'Canopus' pour upon the orient noon.

'Inflexible' appears there, too;

They've rounded Chengshan Tow by now, the union jack flags down the wind,

The prows carve through their line in waves: you feel as though you'd sinned;

When the mist is thin on the olive hills, then over the bay,

Flits the metonymy of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

II

 

The flagship arcs back in umber billows; white pagodas on pillows,

Are rising in cumulus above her,—

'Inflexible' comes on full steam ahead, and bursts through her smokescreen.

Firemen are deep under cover,

Inside, shovelling coal to the boilers, furious and red hot,

Not to say their captain's pleased with his crew, for he is not!

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

III

 

There, many a young English Apollo looked through eyes that were hollow,

On the ships anchored from around the world:

Old rustbuckets and tramps from the Cape and great junks and frail sampans

Riding at level, flags unfurled.

The warships berthed near the swirl of markets, workers, women and noise,

And already, union flags in the hands of girls and boys.

When the fog is faint on the citron hills, then over the bay,

Wings the happy symbol of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

IV

 

It's out on the gangway, down to the dock, Randy and a white-capped flock,

Busy buying and selling and spending,

Out in the blending of cultures and Britons announcing new rule.

It's girls in laughter and lending;

Ferries to the mainland! Hustle and hawkers down old Joo Chiat Road,

Girls' plaintive stares, tea in dark shade in a varnished abode.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

V.

 

Other replacements came and went in time, 'Colossus', 'Glasgow', that's fine,

Odd months patrolling the Gulf of Po Hai,

From toiling through typhoons up the long, overburdened China coast,

And snowflakes in winter, oh my!

Our hearts are sick at the thought of the slick on the oily swell,

And the work in the harbour, quickened by ardour, closer to hell.

When the haze is faint on the willow hills, then over the bay,

Skims the metaphor of real Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

VI

 

Ruby lamps on the starboard silhouette glow within the deep sunset,

Shining out like the boldest stars can shine,

Point up the rage for central night, for oil drum bonfires' flaming right.

Now the cutter is on the brine,

Chin Chew Street waits for a good time in her curtained opium dens,

Daring to dream, far-flung outpost, beyond the range of pens.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

VII

 

Large motives, greater schemes wait for Randy, with a bottle of brandy,

In the darkened lounge of a private club,

Zukini's her name and he'd not come this far, to care for her fame.

What the cockroach on your neck, bub?

You've seen a thousand million more, further down under the jetty,

And she's as much for bluffest power as Canongate's Letty.

When the mackerel scales are on the hills, then over the bay,

Flies the correlative of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

VIII

 

Every warship had a Randy, yes sirs, and warm hearts dearer than hers,

During the roaring days, the glory days,

And the death of Queen Victoria draped some shops in black and then purple crępe.

Duty was the daughter of God's ways,

So heathen hearts just as big for maintaining Manchuria,

As ever and the rollicking life pulsed through the area.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser.

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

IX

 

Good Celerita sold fruit cordial when thirst was primordial,

Near the trestle bridge where the children swam.

When the summer sweat and grime stained tropical whites and you lost your way,

Ignorant of all, save 'I am!'

Sailors lost their way, who had found their trail over oceans and deeps,

In the quaint clapboard maze and the alleys where the incense seeps.

When the veil is clear on the rainbow hills, over the bay,

Shoots the secure fable of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

X

 

Swear, you'd sell your lousy soul for a map, bound to be such a good chap,

With one epaulette on your shoulder;

For the eastern mystery, the teem of life goes on around you.

Directionless, you feel older,

But the harbour is a sure sign and we've come so far already,

Vast hinterland, with your ghosts of revolution steady!

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XI

 

Firm Oxford and Cambridge lie far behind, wetting dry lips on the rind.

Here, boys graduate in plastic raincoats,

Instead of gowns from primary school—and improvised, white mortarboards.

So, down with propriety's gloats,

Out here at the end of the chain of command and uphold the King,

Where reality's nearly succumbed to loss of meaning.

When the faze is low on the dusky hills, then over the bay,

Comes the referential of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XII

 

The regent or president who was in, on the posters from Peking,

Blazed on walls and in public places,

Advertised a Christian message in the speech of common passage,

Till your conscience quailed in places

And the chaplain's weekly sermons, more mind-blowing since ex-London,

Seemed but mirrors of their tales of what is done and undone.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XIII

 

The liquid airs of warm and human night, tender in the memory's sight,

After a family dinner of rice,

Bid farewell to the respected Guest at the poor lintel's doorway

And attempting hard to be nice,

Leave advice to the young Alberto to study in the museum,

The only practical hint in this trap of Elysium.

When the shade is soft on the mystic hills, then over the bay,

Speeds the bard's persona of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XIV

 

The iron chains slack in the ebbing flow, we've a mind of shot to go,

Pulling on down to the Master again,

Knowing and knowing our home and global, metropolitan dust.

Yes, we'll end as we did begin,

And facing up to a will to live it and thus to survive it,

The loyal maelstrom of Yüan and Lloyd George who could drive it.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XV

 

Think of it: to jump ship now or sooner, living fishing for tuna

Till death comes, unfound with friends who you please,

No more 'heave away, haul away' along the indented coastline.

The War to end all wars will freeze

More than Chefoo, but chill nirvana fantasies for me and you,

To disappear, not hiding here waiting for you-know-who.

When the blear is clear on the russet hills, then over the bay,

Glides back the synecdoche of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XVI

 

When from clouded Tsingtao, Von Spee breaks out with not a shout,

To bombard Tahiti in September,

There'd be work for the sake of work itself, trusting in existence,

The challenge one to remember:

If by muse you heard old news about the dramatic appearance,

Of the 'Emden' off the River Hooghly, karma's your trance!

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XVII

 

After four years, plain tired of sagging and continuous flagging

Down junks that are lagging downward of us,

With nothing to do except search through brothels the whole, drunken night,

As part of the marine's office,

The enemy's surrendered, so the people continue to trade.

The need to convince us of our usefulness, made us fade.

When the wisps are few on the weepy hills, then over the bay,

Soars the kissing icon of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

 

XVIII

 

So, it's back to the bilges and salt spray, no moral qualms anyway,

Surging out here on the centrific sphere,

Waging and rolling with the elements, Chou Street's intelligence,

Battening downside outside fear.

Yet, there's room left to wander and imagine even more plunder,

Bungling and stumbling on, crashing toward the brain's blunder.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XIX

 

The constellations slave in black concave and sparkle on the water.

The sentry is keen and his rifle's lean,

Gives a casual elegance to the loneliness of the shore.

Both cosmic stars and man-made stars,

Call away, to business in the city or prayers in the sky,

Stealing a march on the sad shires at last and asking why.

When the curlicue's on the fragrant hills, then over the bay,

Flaps the figure of speech of the Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XX

 

In the shade of their stalls, old mothers yearn with an unusual charm,

The toenails of those bare feet painted red.

She makes little, sometimes the only money's earned by the father,

Cooking behind a canteen shed.

Despite so much pathos, leaking junks from Macao are tempting fares,

Dropping away from the reefs as we say, 'Who really cares?'

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

 

XXI

 

It's down in the holds under loose hatches that the singing voice catches,

When every bolt rattles as a gun fires,

Though merely for target practice, steaming up the grey-green roadstead.

Get out the spanners and pliers,

Seamen—get to, and secure the plates and tighten the metal fixtures,

For afterward, there's taya brewed ashore with potent mixtures!

When the sheet is low on the fields and hills, then over the bay,

Curves the smooth quintessence of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XXII

 

In the shanties, see the King's photograph, pinned with ribbons of the waif,

Way, way out here where the bright air is clear,

Two continents from the subject, except when he went to Delhi.

He's allowed by the village seer,

Who teaches cross-legged beneath a tree, the strays, like the Buddha,

So off with the caps, transformed once more to cannon fodder.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XXIII

 

Now, there are places remote and obscure and resorts of epicure,

And there are junctions of necessity,

But I call to mind the pathos that's kind across the sweeping sea.

Humble shack or 'Purple City',

What does it matter when land is sighted and the bow swings in foam?

The white ensign swings to new compass points, abaft, alone!

When the stardust touches the dove grey hills, then over the bay,

Hovers the simile of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XXIV

 

The rickshaws are lined up along the quay but footslog's visionary,

Leading to the statued Taos and Temple.

Once inside, the ancestral figures pose and teach and loom above.

In a sunlit door it's simple,

To sit for half a day in contemplation while the shrine-cat trots,

Back and forth with Tibetan stories, around cut shallots.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XXV

 

Then, after an hour an outstretched hand, casual, thoughtless and unplanned,

Touches a brochure on the seat of stone.

The angular cat from Lhasa or wherever, looks up nonplussed.

Fascination thrills to the bone,

The odds of seeing what is on the picture have never been diced:

Compliant secret of the orient—the risen Christ.

When the glaze is thick on the dawning hills, then over the bay,

Planes the parable sign of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XXVI

 

So away with the Admiralty's plan, how to train a naval man,

He's here, he's there, eyeballing a rhesus,

Which scrambles along a teashop counter, then turns up a card.

What is it? The baby Jesus!

His stroll continues up the lane, turned to original abyss.

No more questions, this is why his ship sailed—for this, for this.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XXVII

 

However, now, when all is said and done, not to seem to be too dumb,

A few sentenced to cleaning the deck,

After MP's hauled you from opium pipes and continent dream,

You're not yet on the honeyed trek.

You'll still make good, if not by Singapore, then coaling at Aden,

Although you'll hear no more symphony concerts of Haydn.

When the frost is slight on the gamboge hills, then over the bay,

Turns the apotheosis of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XXVIII

 

‘The Lord hears the cry of the poor, Blessed be the Lord ...,' blessed

Be the mission priest who chose the lesson,

The stained glass lights, the shelter from ideologic debasement.

Who brought Pre-Raphaelite frisson,

Windows and modelled crucifixes thousands of kilometres?

Did the Bible Society rob Paul's to pay Peter's?

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XXIX

 

What more apt or appropriate gospel, man, one favoured by Livingstone,

Than the miraculous loaves and fishes?

No, they'll not forget for the salt stinging them yet, high elation,

Was the saints' love of His wishes,

To cast into the teeth of fate and be foreign devils for remission,

Of a piece of the lightness of earth as a prison.

When visibility's nil on the hills, then over the bay,

Chirps the participle of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XXX

 

When you're under the surge and nauseous sway of a maritime highway,

There's no biding home then, the strength is set,

Since it's outward bound not inward, away to gain what's liberty.

Sea and sky have taken your bet

And it's strangely inexplicable, if the risk wasn't appalling,

There'd be no culture still to spread, no ignorance galling.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XXXI

 

Nonetheless, what joy is there to defend at the great and wide world's end?

The gladness of a young mother to be,

Toothless at sixteen, cohabiting unmarried and rejoicing,

There's that facet to the ruby,

That sparkles in the crown that commissioned this time transcendental.

There's that, if she weren't so thin and young and ornamental.

When the nebula spans the hills ultra-vert, then over the bay,

Circles the borrowed pastiche of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XXXII

 

Thank goodness modest midshipmen don't care for the manners which are bare,

As it's complex, unlearned emotion;

What a cameo of it all, when the alien lieutenant knew more

Of the poet she'd a notion,

In serious discussion, she liked more than any other - Hsin Ch'i-chi.

Of course, she emphasised, he was of her nation, you see.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XXXIII

 

When you've theorised a concept of time and the planet's one huge crime,

And then you're abroad to do what you can,

Sing of rusting hulls, water-lines and funnels of the P. and 0.,

Brass rails and the engine-room fan.

Storming up from the vague south-east sails 'Hampshire', and the next replacement,

Ringing bells and siren shells to shame local equipment.

When nimbus is dank on the limey hills, then over the bay,

Passes the quality of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XXXIV

 

She'd had business of a sort at Hong Kong and then finding nothing wrong,

Slashed a full ten hours straight off the run,

As dreadful as it promised and as it was in fact, their job was done,

They cast moorings after the sun

Sank beautifully beyond the Wall—striped buoys marked the channel,

Lines of red lights where they went into a dark, black flannel.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XXXV

 

Off the coast, the lights of Shantung blazing, struck each man as amazing,

Until they drifted out of consciousness,

And then it's tumbling down the slope of the horizon without hope,

From the port upon every map,

On every schoolgirl's map of Mercator's projection showing that

The Navy's bases held the world, the whole world, round or flat.

When the shroud is full on the tannish hills, then over the bay,

Darts the sure procedure of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XXXVI

 

Communists and Nationalists struggled, the British were not boggled,

Holding on beyond the Jazz Age Twenties,

At an arm's length from the menaces of domestic politics.

Welcome lamps burned on in shanties,

Slums and suburbs loving what was but the show of English order,

While ever the marines held them neutral by the border.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XXVII

 

Whitehall was backing down from being tough, as if her force had had enough,

Of being just a sentimental prize,

In humble huts, the heroes of the social whirl of the circus,

A costly sailor's exercise.

Framed portraits of Queen Mary in the place of honour in the rooms,

Made common cadets not want their country to leave too soon.

When twilight is dim on the fuzzy hills, then over the bay,

Streams the oxymoron of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XXXVIII

 

All over, it's 'to your tents, Israel', be it task or be it goal,

To rest with songs and entire creation,

So to rise with coffee at first light, to work the street or the shop.

Sentries of the British nation,

Alone, aboard, are watching through the midnight and the morning hours,

The mangrove margin from the bunks, the turrets and the towers.

Yes, you're way up north, mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XXXIX

 

Buck and roll, as the ferry engines screech into action for the breach,

Rippling the surface of the Liukung Straits.

Passengers, pine crates of fruit, teachers, dockyard workers, all are mute.

True that neither time nor tide waits.

Ease at church's put in perspective as the workers make corrective,

Part of the organism of the sleeping dragon's active.

When cirrus is above the copper hills, then over the bay,

Scoots the one perfection of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XL

 

The locals have slept the night on the floor, in soft wool the old tars snore,

No matter now, there's a race to be run.

For, so what? It seems they're backing down, it seems they're pulling out,

With the troubles they've overcome!

There'll be no more Christian God, dear, kind hearts and no more corruption,

And no more 'God save the King' and opiate destruction.

Yes, you're way up north mates, with but a single battle-cruiser,

Guards on the Empire's China station—oh, may we never lose her.

 

 

XLI

 

Amen and many an amen again, with amen they did begin,

The regime of Chiang Kai-shek in Nanking,

Set up a new, rural province and the imperialists gave in,

A distant speck lost to the King.

No flags were waved and no bands played, they left without saying goodbye,

Ending not with a bang but with the proverbial sigh.

When the breeze is still on the daybreak hills, then over the bay,

Slices the parabola of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

 

XLII

 

Seagulls tacked over the battleship's wake, over her shudder and shake;

She was old and slow, ploughing white horses,

From the Gulf of Chihli, round the corner, into the Yellow Sea,

And it wasn't other causes,

And it wasn't those before her, whose pennants cracked to shore, dear,

And it wasn't any chance of coming back—grand marauder!

When the gunsmoke drifts on the virgin hills, then over the bay,

Gives the airborne 'halloo' of Empire—the bluebird of Weihaiwei.

 

Forward turrets of HMS ‘Duke of York’ with 14 in. guns.

Illustration by Sir Edward Burne-Jones for King Poppy (1892), a satirical allegory by Lord Lytton.