A long sculling oar, wielded with a skill and power we were too ignorant to recognize, sliced back and forth through the thick, dirty water behind our sampan, propelling it steadily towards a little island in the river. The old man at the oar--barefooted and dressed in a broad-brimmed hat and what we thought of as black pajamas--was silent. But the creaking of the oar against its fitting, the gurgle of water against the boat's hull, and our chattering broke the silence.
We couldn't identify the odor that penetrated our nostrils as we approached the uninhabited island. We hardly even noticed it. Unusual and often unpleasant smells seemed to flood almost every part of South China in the late 1940s. We had long since learned to ignore them just as we had learned to ignore much else that threatened to assault our senses of sight and hearing and feeling. Then, as we disembarked from the large sampan, we spotted a disarticulated leg-bone protruding from underneath a bush along the shore. We excitedly discussed our find. It was only the first of many. For the smell that hung about the island was the dusty odor of the long dead--unburied.
Finding a good picnic spot for the children of the Lingnam School was not easy. Most of us were Americans or Europeans. We had light hair, light skin, light eyes and big noses. Like bright lights in a swarm of moths we drew crowds everywhere we went. Beggars and pickpockets, peasants and slum-dwellers, adults and children, the well-fed, the under-fed, and the starving, all gathered to stare at the strange looking foreign devils whenever we ventured out into the streets or alleys of Canton or into the byways of the surrounding countryside. "Fan kwai chai! Fan kwai mui!" was the chorus announcing our passage through the city. "Foreign devil [or "ghost"] boy! Foreign devil girl!" echoed from lip to lip and brought the sound of running feet as people rushed to position themselves for a good look.
I hated it when my parents stopped to talk with people on the street. More than a hundred might gather around to stare impassively at us. I tried glaring back at my tormentors. But that only provided them extra entertainment. A few times, when I was on the street without my parents, I tried a verbal attack. "Foreign devil boys are good looking!" I yelled in my best Cantonese. "Chinese devil boys are no good to look at!" My disdainful commentary did not inhibit the hear-ers. They grinned or giggled and mobbed around me in ever larger numbers. So I tried that strategy only a couple of times. Nothing worked except to stay inside. I hated the Chinese.
And why not? I was only nine or ten years old. The world
was simple. There were Christians--people who had accepted Christ
as their personal savior and who didn't believe they had descended
from monkeys. They were all going to heaven. All the rest were
going to hell. The Russians were communists and they were bad.
Americans were Christian and democratic and free and they would
smash the Russians. Chiang Kai Shek was a Christian and had a
lot of American friends and he was fighting to keep the reds from
ruining China so he was OK. But most Chinese were poor, dirty
and noisy, and if they would only quit staring at me I didn't
care what happened to them as long as their country didn't loose
its freedom to the communists.
My parents cared. They were missionaries who had come to save the souls and improve the lives of the Chinese people. What an impediment to the work of the Lord and to the promotion of democracy, capitalism and the American way of life many of us missionary kids must have been. We learned to swear in the graphic local idiom (in which suggestions concerning sexual activity with a variety of partners, in a variety of ways, and with a variety of consequences were common) almost as soon as we learned to say, "Have you eaten yet?" or "How much?" or "What is this?" We threw mud-balls and rocks at the Chinese kids on the other side of the broken-glass-topped walls that kept them out of our compounds. While riding our open-windowed school bus down crowded streets we reached out to knock the wide-brimmed hats from the heads of laborers and city-visiting peasants. We got back at the staring masses in any way we could.
Although I sometimes talked to one or another of them, I never knew any of the people around me. They were all faceless, sexless, anonymous. Sometimes they were close-pressed around me but usually they were at some distance and at times they hadn't even seen me yet--though in that case I knew they soon would. I never understood what had happened to my clothes. They were just gone. I was--or soon would be--exposed to everyone and I didn't like it. But there was rarely anything I could do. I hardly ever found any clothing or scraps of cloth to hide my nakedness. Sometimes I tried to act as cool as possible, hoping thereby not to attract much attention to myself.
I was never naked when I flew under the telephone wires and then up and over the trees and houses, leaving other people far below. I much preferred flying to running around naked, but it wasn't always possible.
Someone, probably one of our teachers, had heard about the island in the river just outside of Canton. Several hundred years ago the Portuguese controlled the island (this is what I remember hearing about the island--is it true?). At that time they were establishing their foothold on another piece of Chinese territory--a piece that became Macau. And they weren't the only Westerners to have invaded the area: there were the Brits. The British were relative latecomers. It had only been a century since they took Hong Kong--a few dozen miles across the water from Macau and ninety miles downriver from Canton--as one of the spoils of the war they fought to impose the benefits of free trade (in this case, of opium) on the Chinese. With this long-time presence of the West in the Canton area why were we treated in the streets like escapees from a freak show? I wasn't aware enough of this history at the time to be puzzled. At any rate, the Portuguese had built a small fort on the island. It had been abandoned for many years and was now crumbling and overgrown with bushes. There we could have our school outing--away from the living, staring multitudes we surely would have encountered anywhere else.
And so, on the decaying ruins of Western imperialism, we found bones scattered all about: skulls in the falling parapets of the fort; fibulas under bushes; pelvises by the old gun-emplacements; vertebrae and ribs and femurs in the grass and on the muddy shore and under fallen blocks of the fort. We found the bones of infants, children and adults. Some of the bones still had bits of dried flesh and skin attached. Scraps of worn, faded clothing clung to others.
We found the bones because we looked for them. That day on the island we didn't fly kites or play ball or rover-red-rover or hide-and-seek. All of us--first graders to fifth graders, boys and girls, Europeans and Americans (and even a few select Chinese)--laughed and shrieked and chattered as we chased each other along the shore and over the walls of the fort, competing to make the most finds. We pushed through thick bushes to hunt for nearly intact skeletons; we stacked some of the bones we found into corners of the fort; we peeled the dried skins from skulls; and we poked our small fingers into empty eye-sockets.
We hardly wondered why the bones were there. Had we thought about it, we would have known that the bodies were not those gathered up early each morning from the streets of Canton and taken away in trucks for disposal. The trucks couldn't drive to the island. Besides, we had only found a few dozen bodies: the trucks would have long since taken away thousands to dump elsewhere. Perhaps people from nearby villages, too poor to afford burial, had dumped their dead relatives on the island. Maybe the bodies weren't those of relatives but of strangers found dead in village fields or along village paths and roads.
Time sped by quickly and after a few hours we had seen about all there was to see of the eyeless dead on the island. We tallied up our body counts. I don't remember who won, but I had done pretty well. Then we sat down together on a section of the fort's wall that had not yet yielded to the invasion of grasses and bushes. We said grace--thanking God for all our many blessings--and opened our wicker baskets, and pulled out our sandwiches and cookies and oranges, and ate them. It had been a good day.
Shortly after eating, we boarded the waiting sampan. We
thought we were leaving the island behind us as, with powerful
strokes, the silent old man drove his craft across the slow-moving
river to the far shore where our parents or servants waited to
pick us up.