A Lady on a Tramp

by Kenneth Champeon, Feb 28, 2002 | Destinations: Hong Kong / Malaysia / Singapore / China / Kuala Lumpur

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Review of Isabella Bird's The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither

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"I shall have a memory of having been 'once in Elysium.' Still, Elysium should have no mosquitoes...." - Isabella Bird

Palmerston's quip that the British obtained their empire "in a fit of absent-mindedness" is not without historical merit. Like Rome, the empire was not built in a day, but grew up over centuries from a few scattered wealth-seekers and adventurers (and, of course, convicts) into a colossus too expensive, morally and financially, to maintain. Nevertheless, its mark on the world is unmistakable: the world's top three financial centers are London, New York, and Hong Kong, and not far behind are the former colonies Sydney, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore.... The list goes on like the Thames.

In 1878, a sprightly British lady by the name of Isabella L. Bird set out from Japan on a junket. It ultimately took her to the major imperial outposts in the Far East, those listed above as well as Canton, Penang, and Malacca. The record of her experiences was later published under the title The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither. A few years before, the alleged opium fiend Queen Victoria had been crowned Empress of India (and vicinity), thus making The Golden Chersonese a definitive account of the empire in its relatively humble and hopeful beginnings.

Like all tourists, Bird is contagiously enthusiastic. Her sentences often end in lady-like exclamation marks; one sentence ends in four!!!! To her, most if not all colonized peoples regard the British as saviors. They brought law and order, an end to slavery; and, of course, they brought Christ. In contrast, the French are too lax, the Dutch too greedy, the Portuguese too fond of miscegenation, and the Americans too busy colonizing California to be bothered. Bird happily subscribes to the "Orientalism" recently deconstructed by academics like Edward Said in his book of the same name. She writes of the "grand Oriental calm", "the Asian mystery", "indefiniteness, dreaminess, featurelessness, indolence, and silence." To her, "true Orientalism" is "that water of which it may truly be said that who so drinks 'shall thirst again.'" She also takes the familiar view that a European in Asia was susceptible to "complete degeneracy" and she notes with suppressed distaste an empty gin bottle in a colonial office. Luckily, all the Britons she meets are top-notch, and so is she: every time a hospitable Asian offers her champagne, she takes tea, thanks.

It may be argued that liberated, educated, and courageous women like Bird define colonizers as apart from colonized. She notes that the Chinese often bind their women's feet and dispose of their female offspring; and that the Malay women being "Mussulmen" are usually covered up, if not secluded. Bird, meanwhile, boldly goes where no white woman has gone before, including into a village that had fomented a bloody uprising against its - saviors.

Because Bird's intended audience consisted of folks back home, her account is filled with an artist's fondness for lovely scenery and a scientist's fondness for random facts. To this day her work is cited in books about Southeast Asia, and in it you will find asides on botany, zoology, proverbs, prisons, religion, and even etymology -- the word 'amok', for example, being of Malaysian origin. Whatever one may think about the British, they took good notes.

It is a little hard to figure out just how Bird feels about Asia. She seems to think it a nice place to look at - the colorful shops, the gorgeous vegetation, the ornamental clothes - but of Asian people themselves she has mixed feelings. The industry and sobriety of the Chinese impress her, but she finds them a bit rude and inscrutable, and she is absolutely flabbergasted that they call white folk "barbarians" and "foreign devils"! She admires the monotheism and ancient traditions of the Muslim Malays, but she thinks Islam in general to be a retarding influence, and, again, is put off by being regarded as a kafir, or infidel. (She prefers the word "heathen", which she applies generously to nonbelievers.)

Yet given her background, it is remarkable how often she withholds judgment and even judges in the Asians' favor. For example, though she thinks the Malays lazy, she understands why: they have everything they need in the way of sustenance. Even a bit of envy creeps into her musings, as she cites a poem: "-Why / should life all labor be? -- / There is no joy but calm; / Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?"

But at bottom Bird is a publicist, and she cannot resist ferocious hyperbole: "blackness", "filth", "vermin", "stench", "foul", "scum", "ruffians." She has a particularly annoying habit of telling us whether people are "ugly" or not. Most are. A notable exception is Indian women, whom Bird thinks perfect, except for their noses, "disfigured" by rings.

As a basis for her copious appraisals, she at one point all but tries to define civilization. It requires etiquette, laws, monotheism, decent clothing, houses, and something she calls "domesticity." The monotheism clause alone would consign half the modern world to savagery, myself included, but no matter: the Chinese thinks she's a brute too.

It is difficult to imagine a work similar to The Golden Chersonese ever being written again. Not because of its sophisticated language and panoramic form, but because if I want to know what the Far East is like, I am liable to go there, or to watch, say, the Discovery Channel, or to ask my Far Eastern friends about it. Malaysia was to England then, as Mars is to us now. But we cannot therefore expect one day to hold in our hands The Red Planet and the Way Thither. The closest thing to it is probably Star Trek, were Star Trek real.

This is sad. On the other hand, as ebullient Bird herself says, "Mr. Darwin" - yes, I think she means that Mr. Darwin - "says so truly that a visit to the tropics (and such tropics) is like a visit to a new planet. This new wonder-world, so enchanting, tantalizing, intoxicating, makes me despair, for I cannot make you see what I am seeing!" Latter-day Isabellas need despair no longer. But the modern equivalent of dozing off as you read old Isabella's sometimes prolix retelling of her grand vacation is, of course, dozing off when the new Isabella insists on showing you her endless photographs of same. "This new wonder-world..." becomes "This is me in Hong Kong...."

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