Flirting with History: A Romance in Early 20th Century China, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This continuation of a series of posts based on a 1969 interview of Elizabeth Gowan Haskins Workman and her life with first husband Thomas Haskins, member of the American legation, in early 20th century China picks up the story as the couple returned to the Asian nation in 1907 after a leave back in their home state of California and then a worldwide trip by steamer.

The recollections, recorded and transcribed by Elizabeth’s daughter, Anne Workman Janeway, included a description of the weather in Peking (now Beijing), noting that, during the summer “it was very hot and it was our rainy season.  Very humid.  And the winters were clear and cold, very cold.  Not a great deal of snow.  Lots of ice.”  This was, of course, a far cry from the temperate Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles, where Tom had lived and where Elizabeth would later spent most of her life.

Then, there was another particular weather phenomenon in China:  “And we had dust storms.  We usually got one in the Spring.  They came from the Gobi Desert.  And the Chinese called it the Yellow Wind.  We could see it from afar, and it got into bureau drawers; there was just no shutting it out.  And it would last for a couple of days, usually.  We usually had about three a year, and they were horrible.  Sometimes in the winter, alongside a pile of snow, there would be a pile of dust—which is strange.”

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Anne stated that “I seem to be hung up on servants,” something she’d brought up before, as mentioned in the first two parts.  In this portion of the interview, she asked about female servants and her mother replied, “there was not such a thing as a girl servant, except for amah.  An amah was usually an older woman, and she took care of babies.  I had an amah that didn’t live in our place, she did the mending; sewed on buttons and stuff. . . I had very little need for one.”

With further regard to Chinese women, Anne asked about those with bound feet and Elizabeth answered that “they weren’t doing it, so far as I know, in Pekins when I was there.  They had ceased doing it.  But we saw a great many of them, of course.”  She observed that they had “a very ugly walk” and their feet “were so deformed,” though it was called “lily-footed.”

Discussion was also had about transportation, specifically that “it was done most by rickshaw.  There were, of course, Peking carts, but they were extremely uncomfortable because they were just on one level.  There was no well for your feet to go into, so you had to sit curled up . . . and there was one carriage in Peking.  And if you wanted it for any ocasions, you had to speak way ahead for it.  And there were the sedan chairs, carried by four bearers.”

The palanquins were used by the mandarins, though most people rode it carts with foot-warmers or the rickshaws.  There was a train to the district of Shanhaiguan on the coast at the Gulf of Qili and this western introduction “was very comfortable” with a “dining car [that] was very good.  Very good service.”

Oakland_Tribune_Mon__Sep_26__1904_
Oakland Tribune, 26 September 1904.

There was a section about entertaining at the legation and Elizabeth recalled that this often involved “an exchange of people who had entertained us, we entertained in return” for groups that were no more than eight.  These winners involved “people of our own rank” and, during these gatherings . “it was not surprising to find some of our own dishes on the table, glassware.  And even our boys were borrowed for the dinner.”   Matters were different at the homes of ministers “because they had full equipment of everything.”

The interview turned then to Tom’s work at the legation where “he was Assistant Chinese Secretary, which means that he was an interpreter, and he had to do with translating of messages that came through” to and from the Chinese government and Washington, D.C.  Elizabeth remembered that her husband

found the work very interesting, although I doubt very much that he would have stayed with the Government.  He loved the work, but there was so little money in it.  And he had very glittering offers from different business firms in China, wonderful jobs being offered him all the time.  On account of his knowledge of Chinese, and his general capability.

Among these companies was a furrier, owned by a British man, Compton, who died with his family in the sinking of the Lusitania during the First World War.

There was also some free time and Elizabeth recalled that “we went on trips to the Western tombs, and the Ming tombs, and to the Great Wall, and that’s about all.”  At the latter, the couple stayed at an inn, sleeping on beds with charcoal heaters underneath and lots of blankets in the cold weather.  She mentioned that once, before she got there, Tom and a friend were rendered unconscious by the fumes from one of these heaters, but were found in time.

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Another conversation involved health and illnesses and it was stated earlier in the interview that no shots were required before heading to Asia.  Elizabeth recalled that “cholera always existed in Peking.  So did leprosy.  I saw several lepers.  It never occurred to me to be afraid.  I knew that we weren’t supposed to eat anything raw, like lettuce, or to drink the water. . . we had distilled water, distilled by our soldiers in the barracks.”

Elizabeth also remembered that, “the last Number One Boy that we had, who was the very best one we ever had, was named Wong.  And every once in a while he would leave us because an uncle had died, or grandfather had died, or there was some sickness in his family, somewhere in China.”  It turned out that Wong, who spoke excellent English, also worked as an interpreter for foreign tours in the country.  She added that “your boys were like family.”

We’ll continue on Monday with this series, so be sure to check back then for more!

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