Expatriate Pre World War II Travel in China



Classic vehicle photographed by Alf van Been at the Lawman museum, The Netherlands, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s and 30s an army of Americans and Europeans lived their lives as expatriates in the Far East. American businessmen were limited mostly to travel between coastal Yangtze River ports where westerners were permitted to live and trade according to treaties established between the Peking (Beijing) government and foreign countries.

While some foreigners, mostly missionaries, ventured inland, travel was primitive and uncertain away from the protection of Shanghai and the other treaty ports. One medical missionary, Dr. Basil Winslow, described a trip upcountry to his new home.

Chinese porters counted baggage items as pieces. The Winslows 48 pieces consisted of a  piano, two bicycles, a sewing machine, barrels of dishes and cooking utensils, trunks, boxes of books and food supplies, etc. There were some sixty carriers and it took 8 to carry the piano alone, The Winslows brought up the rear with several “salt guards” trotting beside them for protection.


Dirt Road, Gohnarch Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


The Winslows began their journey balancing small packages in the back seat of a car  alongside a truck with baggage piled high. Three men squeezed into the front seat of the car with the driver and the cook. Six men sprawled over the top of the truck “to help in case of a breakdown,” the driver announced. At the edge of the city four more men took to the running boards of the car and the truck was covered with “willing helpers.” These extra passengers were known as “road lice” or “cold fish.” They had paid the driver “wine money” as a a tip. Ruts on the road were so deep that the chassis occasionally dragged on the ground. Wire and rope kept the car running in spite of frequent breakdowns.

Word was out that the party would arrive long before they reached their destination. Soon small groups of tattered unkempt diseased beggars joined the caravan crying “Whun yin,” (welcome), pressing about them asking for money. Not knowing the local customs, Winslow refused to give them anything. As their numbers increased along the way, so did their clamor. By the time they arrived, some hundred howling beggars had joined the train, incensed that Winslow had not complied with their requests. By the time the district inspector arrived, the beggars had surrounded the front gate of the walled city in an unfriendly mood to bring bad luck and a loss of face.

Once the group was safely inside the walled compound,  the District Manager took over and sent an office clerk out to negotiate with the headman of the beggars. He settled for ten dollars in local cash. This satisfied them and they all dispersed happily.

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