Civil War, History, Hong Kong, Upstate New York

Mr. Seward in Hong Kong.

Wm Seward LOC

William Seward. (Library of Congress). If he were alive today, he’d undoubtedly be a patron of global education

William Seward would have liked Al Gore’s quip:  “Hello, I used to be the next President of the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

IN 1860, Seward was famous, respected, and expected to be the Republican candidate for President.  But…following his campaign manager’s advice, rather than condescending to scrape up primary votes, he had spent much of the prior year overseas, traveling through Europe and the Middle East to cultivate an image as a Statesman.

Despite the bitterness of losing the Republican nomination, Seward campaigned for Lincoln — and became his friend and right-hand man throughout the Civil War.

Seward finally retired in 1869, at the age of 69.  He had barely survived an assassination attempt on the same night that Lincoln was murdered;  his wife, already in poor health, died of a heart attack two months later.  He’d been Governor of New York and a U.S. Senator.

He’d served as the Secretary of State for eight tumultuous years, the 2nd-longest hitch in US history.

paddle steamer China

Paddle Steamer “China” from Wm. Seward’s “Travels Around the World”

69 years old — and he still was incapable of remaining at rest. Almost immediately, he undertook a nine month journey — from New York to the Pacific coast, and from Mexico to Alaska (“Seward’s Folly”), with a stop in Cuba.

 

L0055633 The harbour, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The harbour, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Hong Kong harbour. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868 – 1871, Wellcome Library, London. During Seward’s visit, roughly 120,000 people in the city and surrounding area

He returned home to his beautiful mansion in Auburn, NY, for all of four months, and then was off again.  In August 1870, he headed west on a round-the-world tour;  he would not return home until October 1871.  He died one year later, in his home office, working on his “Travels Around the World” book.

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HK during my time there. Seven million people. Over 16,000 per square mile.

Travels Around the World,”  finished posthumously by his adopted daughter, reveals that Seward was not just a tourist or good-will ambassador, but often an astute observer of other cultures and world politics.  He promoted the advantages of openness and trade, and opposed the U.S. political factions fighting to ban Asian immigrants.

Ten years after his death, our beloved U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Junk 1907 LOC-003

Junk. Library of Congress

During the years I attended Washington College, I studied abroad, was a docent at the Seward House Museum (in Auburn, NY), and edited a student journal for the Global Studies office at the college.  These three experiences intersect at Hong Kong.  During my semester in that city, as a student at Lingnan University, I decided to seek out sights that Seward would have seen during his visit, more than a century ago — looking for whatever pockets of the 1871 city still survived.

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A modern tour boat, superimposed on a traditional sail.

It was a quixotic task, of course.  Hong Kong is no longer a small, sleepy outpost of the British Empire.  It is a densely-packed, high-rise, dynamic powerhouse.  Most of the city that Seward experienced in 1871 is gone — burned down, torn down, re-built by British colonialists and then re-built again by Hong Kong’s own, wildly successful capitalists.

Remember that every large city during the 19th century seems to have experienced a catastrophic fire — 1864 Atlanta, 1865 Richmond, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Great Boston Fire of 1872, the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, etc.

2013 Victoria Peak

Victoria Peak. For almost 100 years, the amazing Peak Tram (a cog railroad) has taken people up the mountain. Pretty sure Mr. Seward did not attempt it on foot.

In 1871 Hong Kong was primarily a dense collection of mostly wooden structures, and it suffered a series of large fires.  Seward had arrived on Christmas 1871, and exactly seven years later to the day, the Great Fire of 1878 destroyed the central city.    Newspapers reported the destruction of up to six hundred buildings.  But interesting, and sometimes beautiful fragments of the past remain — stone Victorian barracks (some still in use by the People’s Liberation Army), little Buddhist temples, gateways and bits of walled villages swallowed by the megalopolis.  I’ll post a small sampling.

Victoria Peak 1890 LOC

Victoria Peak in 1890. Library of Congress

I’ve gathered old-time photos from the Library of Congress, Wellcome Library in London,  and from a few modern-day sites, to supplement my photos of buildings that survived, or were reconstructed, or scenes that give an impression of what Seward experienced.

straw hat HK-002

Street sweeper. The modern garb, and, if you look closely, the zippers, are a dead giveaway – – this was 2012, not 1871.

It helps, I think, that in Asia, many people regard historic buildings in the same way as in the famous anecdote of “Abe Lincoln’s ax,”  or “George Washington’s ax” (This ax is the real McCoy — the handle has been replaced three times, and the head replaced twice).  The ancient Greeks called this “Theseus’ Paradox” — if every inch of an object has been replaced over the years, is it still the same object?  I think most Asian people feel it is a completely authentic, as long as a building is carefully re-built in an authentic manner, duplicating the original — it is genuine and basically, it is the same building.

stone tower HK

“The Pagoda of Gathering Stars”

Here is the first sight on an 1871 tour — a temple which has survived partially intact from ancient times:  the Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda.  It was originally several stories taller, but it is amazing that it could survive at all, since it was constructed over five hundred years ago of soft un-fired bricks.

English Church HK

St. John’s Cathedral — the tallest building during Seward’s visit. HK now has 100’s of skyscrapers & high-rise apartments by the thousands. The tallest is 118 stories (the Empire State Building = 102).

L0069395 Hong Kong: panoramic view. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Hong Kong: panoramic view. Photograph by Felice Beato, 1860. 1860 By: Felice BeatoPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

1860 Hong Kong panoramic view by Felice Beato credit: Wellcome Library, London. The tower of St. John’s Cathedral on the right. The officers’ quarters, part of the Murray Barracks in the background, with veranda on all sides, was moved to Stanley Harbor and is now a beautiful restaurant.

St. John’s is a few centuries younger than the pagoda, finished in 1849, but it is the oldest Anglican church in the Far East.  The Portuguese and the Catholic Church had established a presence in Macau during the 1500’s, but the British only gained control of Hong Kong, really just a collection of small villages, in 1841.  You can see the church in Felice Beato’s 1860 panorama shot of the harbor.

Murray House

Murray House, formerly the officers’ barracks, relocated to the Stanley Harbor. credit: HKTB Hong Kong Tourism Board.

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OK I actually took this one in Canada, but the uniforms and weapons are correct for Seward’s visit. Some of HK’s Victorian barracks, constructed after the Opium Wars, are still in use today by the People’s Liberation Army.

In 1871, Hong Kong was an outpost of the British Empire, just as New York City had been, one hundred years earlier.

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the Lt. Gov’s residence “Flagstaff House” — the Lt. Governor in the 1840’s was not just a general and administrator, but also an artist, who painted this at the time the house was built. credit: George Charles D’Aguilar

Flagstaff House Museum of tea ware

Flagstaff House is now part of the HK Museum of Art, and has displays of beautiful and unusual “tea ware.” photo from the Museum.

The Nan Lian Garden, on Diamond Hill, Kowloon — evocative of the gardens and tea houses visited by Seward during his travels through Japan and China. This beautiful garden is a modern creation, but done in an ancient style.  Kowloon, the peninsula portion of the city, was mostly farms and forts in 1871.

.Hong Kong garden

Nan Lian Garden Nan Lian Gardens, Diamond Hill, HK-001

Kowloon_City,_Mainland,_opposite_Hong_Kong

Kowloon in the 19th century. LOC

Nan Lian Garden, Diamond Hill, Kowloon, HK-001

Nan Lian Garden

Britain set up shop in Hong Kong because they recognized the potential of its wonderful harbor, and it is still a busy port, although the current government in Beijing is trying to direct traffic to other, less independent cities.

But to my surprise, small, traditional fishing villages have survived, within eye-shot of the skyscrapers.

Tai O-001

Tai-O fishing village during my visit

Aberdeen Harbor 1890 LOC

Aberdeen Harbor in the 19th century. LOC

fishing village 5 HK-001

2012 view of Tai-O fishing village

If you ignore the outboard motors, today’s fishing villages would not look too unfamiliar to Mr. Seward, although few families, if any, actually live aboard their boats, as they did in 1871.

HK fishing village 1-001

Stilt houses in Tai O. Home to fishermen, squatters, and in the old days, smugglers.

Tin Hau Temple - Causeway Bay - Antiquities and Monuments Office HK

Tin Hau Temple. photo by the Antiquities and Monuments Office, HK

L0055651 Buddhist temple, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Buddhist temple, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. Tin Hau temple in Causeway Bay. A worshipper [?] entering, a monk [?] sitting on the steps. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Buddhist Temple “Tin Hau” in Causeway Bay. Photograph by: John Thomson, published: 1868 – 1871. Wellcome Library, London.

 The “Past” doesn’t always go away all at once.  Attitudes, ways of thinking, the way we express ourselves, the things we eat, or don’t eat…countless aspects of our lives are saturated by the past.  We cannot capture the sights, sounds, and smells of 1871 Hong Kong, but searching out these old buildings is an addictive exercise…some rainy night, read Seward’s Travels, immerse yourself in old photos, listen to native music on your ear-buds, and walk down the same streets, and see if you can achieve a few seconds of time-travel.

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