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