Tag Archives: China

Borneo & birds nests – In Conversation with Annie

Bexhill to Bexhill

Image courtesy of Bexhill Museum.

Arriving in Borneo and focus shifts from Annie’s “A Voyage in the Sunbeam” (1878) to her posthumously published “Last Voyage” (1889). Borneo, and the caves therein, triggered the deterioration of her health after catching a fever. Annie had suffered with her health for a long time, particularly with malaria, although she also commented on her arm troubling her at times, thought to be due to a riding accident (Julian Porter, curator, conversations at Bexhill Museum). The caves in Borneo and the story of their role in Annie’s deteriorating health are the reason I included Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) in my itinerary. Transfixed by the existence of the caves and discovery that the birds’ nests she went in search of, now held at Bexhill Museum, committed me to this journey and planted the seeds for this residency (and ‘In Conversation with Annie‘). 

Bexhill to Bexhill

Birds’ nest, courtesy of Bexhill Museum.

Annie’s interest with Gormatong and Madai caves was principally the habitation of the swiftlets within and their nest building. Prized for the soup, a particular delicacy in China, birds’ nests would be collected from within the caves and boiled down to make a glutenous liquid for serving. My interest was particularly piqued through Annie’s accounts detailed in “The Last Voyage” and the accompanying illustrations. It is described as quite an adventure to find said caves and the sense of far away lands are especially evident here.

Bexhill to Bexhill

Entrance to Madai Caves, image courtesy of Bexhill Museum.

Black bird's nests caves, Borneo "looking awkward" (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Black bird’s nests caves, Madai caves, Borneo “looking awkward” (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Gormatong Caves (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Swamps and rainforest eventually precluded Annie from reaching Gormatong. Men were sent to find the caves and she accepted defeat only after three day treks proved the challenge of reaching them. She had to be satisfied with Madai. In contrast I had gone in hope of finding Madai caves and had to settle for finding Gormatong. They were a good deal more accessible than they were in 1887, although much of Northern Borneo is still a little challenging to navigate without your own transport (and all the correct permits). They did look similar to Annie’s photographs of Darvel Valley and Madai caves and I trust smelled the same (I was fortunate to be harbouring a cold by then). The floor covered in guano, the walls in cockroaches. There were men living inside guarding the valuable bounty and rickety wooden ladders lashed together as Annie describes. The main difference was not at the caves themselves but when I came to leave Borneo. Arriving at the airport for my flight to Australia, I spotted a shop window filled with clear perspex boxes, each filled with small white birds’ nests.


Revisiting China – In Conversation with Annie

Day three and I’ve arrived in Guangzhou (Canton in 1877). This city came at the end of my three week race around China. Beijing was my introduction, and a rather imposing one, all the more intimidating for mostly being closed. Streets were cordoned off by soldiers, Tiananman Square and The Forbidden City were both closed. On reflection this strikes me with a sense of irony which at the time was lost to a mild irritation at being unable to see much of Beijing in the few days I had there. I spent almost as much time at Beijing train stations as I did sightseeing. I might have spent more time at Beijing train stations. I arrived at Beijing West (Beijing Xi Zhan) eight hours before my train. My intention had been to leave my bags and visit the Summer Palace. Once in I couldn’t find a ‘left luggage’ and showing my ticket and trying to explain, to ask, I was simply ushered deeper and deeper into the station. There were so many checks and gates and scanners to pass through I wondered if I left would I ever get back again. My last day in Beijing was mostly spent at Beijing Xi Zhan. I passed time talking to Dieter, a pleasant German man on his way to a new teaching job in a rural part of Western China. We stood out like sore thumbs and gravitated towards each other fairly easily. Unfortunately his train came and left several hours before mine. It gave me plenty of time to assess the whole business of waiting for trains in China though. There is a particular procedure in each country and in China everyone waits patiently in the waiting room, closed off securely from the platform. Not that dissimilar to the UK, people wait with bags on seats for imaginary people to sit on. A request through the use of mime and performance to sit on the seat is greeted with disdain and disinterested confusion. The seat is clearly taken, of course I cannot sit there. the waiting room is intermittently packed and almost empty, filling and emptying with each train passing through. As soon as the train is in sight there is a stampede of people who appear to come from nowhere. I sit and wait, the crowd thins and I board my train to Xi’an.

The scale of the population explosion is starkly apparent as there is less space for more people to inhabit. After what now seems (with the benefit of rose tinted glasses) a cosy week or so on board a train and travelling through more rural areas of Mongolia, even with oversized intimidating statues of Ghengis Khan overshadowing nearby mountain ranges, Beijing and China were big and daunting. The Great Wall was great and the Terracotta Warriors were formidable. A calm (ish) pause in Hong Kong and I return to China, cashing in my double entry visa I worked so hard to get. Despite Hong Kong being returned to China in 1997, it still counts as another country if you want to go back in. They made me work hard for this (my application was rejected twice) so I wanted to make the most of it. A few days in glorious Guilin and Yuangshuo followed but in the mean time I needed to catch up with Annie in gruesome Guangzhou.

“On the outskirts may be seen prisoners in chains, or wearing the cangue, imprisoned in a cage, or else suffering one of the numerous tortures inflicted in this country. I did not go to see any of these horrors, neither did I visit the execution ground; but some of the party did, and described it as a most horrible sight. Skulls were lying about in all directions, one of which had been quite recently severed from its trunk, the ground being still moist and red.” Annie Brassey, Friday, 2nd March 1877 (A Voyage in the Sunbeam). 

Bexhill to Bexhill

Chinese prisoner chains, Bexhill Museum (Louise Kenward, 2015)

The chains (pictured above) are covered in fabric, presumed to reduce the amount of noise they make as prisoners walk and move in them. Unfortunately there is only a very scant label attached with the box, the

index card reads:

Ethnographical                                                       203

“Chains used for Chinese prisoners”

No data – source unknown

An estimated date of around 1900 is suggested by Julian Porter (Museum Curator). However, as the box gets examined more closely the label on the side is noticed to be dedicated to the Lady Brassey collection. The inscription is crossed out in black marker pen but it prompts an interesting discussion as to who else would have brought such things back to Bexhill, and that they may indeed be earlier than 1900. Annie has a wide and varied collecting behaviour, she may well have deemed these an appropriate item to bring back to show people at home how people were being treated in China. Or she may not have. We will never know. It is curious, the overlaps and weaving of Annie with my time here. She is inherently a part of it, she is the reason I am here. Yet the network of information and gaps in documentation create all kinds of spaces for wonder as well.

Bexhill to Bexhill

Label on the side of box of prison chains “Lady Brassey collection” crossed out. Bexhill Museum. Louise Kenward (2015)

 Re-reading Annie’s experiences in Canton I also find reference to the foot binding mentioned in ‘day 2 – revisiting Hong Kong’ where I worked with some miniature embroidered silk on linen shoes. These were also Chinese but had temporarily crossed the border with some artistic licence.

“…poor little women tottered and tumbled on their crippled feet, holding on to one another, or leaning on a stick.” Annie Brassey (A Voyage in the Sunbeam) 2nd March, 1877.

Bexhill to Bexhill

Chinese Shoes, Bexhill Museum (Louise Kenward, 2015)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Chinese shoes, Bexhill Museum (Louise Kenward, 2015)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Embroidered silk garment from Costume Gallery, c.1900 China, Bexhill Museum (Louise Kenward, 2015)

In conversation with Annie: Hong Kong

I set out my objects from St Petersburg again and sift through paraphernalia bought back from my time in Hong Kong. A train ticket from Shanghai to Jui Long, a brochure from the aviary. I recall the soft horizon and pink skies. The view from the top of The Peak across the city below and the islands beyond. The vast maze of shopping centres and well dressed locals. Clearly defined from China, this identity is emphasised with signs that forbid spitting and give instruction on how to use a Western toilet. It is a curious place between West and East, between time spent in China and Vietnam.

Re reading Annie’s journal entries my memory is jogged, we went to the races at Happy Valley, I caught up with an old school friend and had my first  conversation for three weeks. China was challenging. I focus on associations with Bexhill. Henry Young, a founder of Bexhill Museum, made a statue of Queen Victoria at his Pimlico foundry. I smile as I learn more about Victoria’s journey to Hong Kong and recall my journey looking for her.

Having recently celebrated Chinese New Year I take fortune cookies in to the museum and we celebrate the year of the sheep’s arrival. A photo of Peter the sheep is added to the wall, football mascot during World War I. 

Coins are found from the archives, mine are prettier, Hong Kong dollars now sporting more elaborate scalloped edges. Also from the archives some very small Chinese shoes. Probably a model rather than anything actually worn. There is a discussion about foot binding when the children’s workshop comes to visit. They concentrate well and enjoy their afternoon at the museum. 

Bexhill to Bexhill

Chinese shoes, Bexhill Museum (Louise Kenward, 2015)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Chinese shoes, Bexhill Museum (Louise Kenward, 2015)

Of Annie’s journal entries I am particularly drawn to the following comments on life in Hong Kong (Victoria) and the treatment of girls and boys:

“Off the town of Victoria the crowd of shipping is immense, and it became a difficult task to thread our way between the fleets of sampans and junks…The sampans are long boats, pointed at both ends, and provided with a small awning…In these sampans whole families, sometimes five generations, live and move and have their being. I never shall forget my astonishment when, going ashore very early one morning in one of these strange craft, the proprietor lifted up what I had thought was the bottom of the boat, and disclosed three or four children, packed away as tightly as herrings, while under the seats were half-a dozen people of larger growth. The young mother of the small family generally rows with the smallest baby strapped on to her back, and the next-sized one in her arms, whom she is also teaching to row. The children begin to row by themselves when they are about two years old. The boys have a gourd, intended for a life-preserver, tied round their necks as soon as they are born. The girls are left to their fate, a Chinaman thinking it rather an advantage to lose a daughter or two occasionally.” Annie Brassey from A Voyage in the Sunbeam, 1879.

I spare the young visitors this information and hope that changes to Hong Kong extend beyond architecture and prolific use of concrete. There is much more to Hong Kong than there was in 1879, and a great deal more of it too. Much has been reclaimed from the sea. Victoria harbour remains, but no longer with that name and it is now a further away from China than it was 136 years ago.

I spend my day adding to the mind map on the wall, continuing my journey from Russia. Quotes from Annie are added and I start to draw. The shoes  captivate me. Attempts at photographs do not do them justice. I am compelled to draw, to explore them further. Simple line drawings of pattern of embroidery is soothing and early attempts to create shape and form are more successful than later ones. I want to use colour but find pastels clumsy and heavy. I make a note to bring watercolour pencils next time.

In Conversation with Annie is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Notes from a journal…post offices in China

“…bought a picture for Jo’s birthday in Xi’an.  A colourful couple facing each other, a framed pair of shadow puppets…wandering streets of market stalls, watching and then eating peanut crackle and spicy potatoes prepared at the side of the street.

An exercise in international parcel delivery and Chinese post offices to get said framed picture back to the UK for birthday. What an impractical present to buy…Very efficient system of boxes and packaging, however, with many people offering assistance and instruction. Many forms to fill out. Different tasks to be completed at different windows. It’s a morning’s work.

…I like Xi’an, it’s described to me today as the ‘roots’ of China, Beijing as the ‘leaves’ and Shanghai the ‘flowers'”.

Tuesday, 22nd October

Notes from a Journal…Arriving in China

Friday 18th October

“Waking up in China to a densely built up landscape. Gone are the forests of Siberia and the golden plains of Mongolia. It is autumn again, time goes backwards and we briefly travel through more familiar pine forests and woodland. Auburn leaves cling stubbornly to branches. It is rocky and flat alternately. There is evidence of agriculture with ploughed fields, the first since Siberia. The view is changing much more quickly now. Inhabited to wild, agriculture to city scape. House construction is different, older properties with tiled roofs. Evidence of man is more frequent here…”

It felt like I’d been cocooned by the train, my home for a full 7 days and nights of the three week journey. I have come to the end of my Trans Siberian/Trans Mongolian train journey. Nearly three weeks after leaving Moscow I am about to arrive in Beijing, leaving my new family behind as we all take our own paths onwards…

Bexhill to Bexhill

Last morning on the Trans Mongolian train, dawn slowly brings China into view, Louise Kenward (2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

My view has been framed in this way for such a long time, I will miss the train. Louise Kenward (2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Arriving in China, Louise Kenward (2013)