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31 December 1856 Wednesday Morning
ANDREW ADAMS banged open the front door of the Bee Hive Tavern by employing the drunk and disorderly French sailor as a battering ram, and, planting a foot firmly on the seat of his duck trousers, sent the man sailing out into the street. By stretching out his legs and flapping his arms, the Frenchman just managed to keep his balance, but the motion made him appear ridiculous. Sailors, whores, ship chandlers and boarding house owners spilled out into the street, hoping to be entertained by yet another Hong Kong street brawl. Passing Chinese policemen in conical hats and filthy uniforms laughed and pointed, infuriating the sailor still further.
As the man reached for his sheath knife, he spun around to see Adams withdrawing his own knife from his boot. Adams spoke in the calm, steady manner he used on all drunks who began fights inside the tavern; a tone of voice perfectly balanced between threat and empathy. "You're addled with ale, mate, but there's no need for trouble; go back to your ship and sleep it off." Adams pointed the tip of his razor-sharp blade to the nearby White Swan Tavern. "Or try your luck there."
The sailor hesitated. He looked at Adams for several seconds, sizing him up as an opponent. Something he saw made him move his hand away from the hilt of his knife. He gave Adams a mock salute and spat out something in French which Adams didn't understand. Ignoring the taunts of the disappointed crowd, the man disappeared down a lane in the direction of Thieves Hamlet.
As the crowd dispersed, Adams replaced his knife and turned back toward the tavern. He stared for a moment at the large wooden sign above the door. He read the lines just below the colorful bee hive swarming with bees.
Within this hive, we're all alive
And pleasant is our honey;
If you are dry, step in and try
We sell for ready money
The week before, drunken soldiers from the 59th Regiment had used the sign for target practice and, as Anne had reminded him more than once, the several bullet holes dotting the tavern's motto would have to be patched.
Adams pulled his monkey jacket tighter against the morning cold and walked down the lane to the harbor. He balanced himself upon a large stone and shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun. Amid the Western frigates and brigs and sloops-of-war and clipper ships, the huge Chinese junk was still there. Adams estimated its length at over two-hundred-and-twenty feet and its beam at nearly forty-five feet. A Chinese admiral had commanded her at the head of a fleet of over two hundred imperial war junks. It was far more majestic than any junk Adams had ever seen and was the special prize of Rear-Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, K.C.B., highly decorated Commander of British Naval Forces in the China Seas, who had just recently returned from having given the defiant city of Canton a useless and inconsequential shelling. Not having enough troops to attack by land, Seymour had withdrawn his squadron and returned to Hong Kong to await reinforcements; but his "retreat" had been reported to the Dragon Throne in Peking as a great victory against the "long-nosed barbarians" occupying Hong Kong Island.
The junk was a five-masted, black-and-red vessel with square stern and square bow. The battened sails had been lowered and they clung to the lower reaches of the masts like spiked insects fluttering helplessly in the breeze. Colorful flags still draped the foremast and a pennant with an angry, five-clawed dragon against a background of imperial yellow clung to the mainmast. Adams squinted to examine the deck cannon. If his plan succeeded, before the day was over, he and Captain Weslien would put those cannon to good use.
Adams glanced at his cheap mosaic pocket watch. It was just before noon. He looked across the harbor at Kowloon, then glanced to the west, where, several hours from now, Weslien would be sailing the mail steamer into the harbor. Weslien was a friend and a courageous man but, in his stubborn way, even more foolhardy than Adams. The Chinese were seeking revenge on "foreign-devils" any way they could get it, and, to Adam's way of thinking, sailing a mail steamer from Canton's port of Whampoa to Hong Kong wasn't worth risking one's head.
On the maindeck of the nearest clipper, wealthy men in top hats and frock coats strode about with a proprietary air, and as Adams observed them, he reflected on the irony of his position. He was one of the few people living in Hong Kong who actually liked Hong Kong. Yet he disliked most of the people in it. The snobbish merchants and traders and their equally snobbish wives treated the place like a kind of whore, a variety of low-class prostitute, which was to be exploited but never respected; a convenient place in which to revel in a life cushioned by punkah-pullers and servants and stables and carriages; while grabbing as much money in any way they could. After which they would scamper off to England or to some other foreign shore with their ill-gotten profits to live the lives of cultured ladies and gentlemen. Despite his lack of financial success, Adams was staying; there was an excitement in Hong Kong, a bustling atmosphere and a feeling in the air that almost anything was possible, a mood he had found in no other place in Asia. Since the first day he'd arrived, he'd felt as if an unspoken promise of success had been made to anyone willing to remain in good times and bad. Thus far, the fulfillment of the promise had been well out of his reach, but as long as he could live in Hong Kong on his own terms, this often endangered and always peevish, petulant, gossipy little island community was exactly where he wanted to be.
But that didn't mean an obnoxious Yank couldn't have some fun at the expense of a pompous lymie admiral and haughty British merchants. And, tonight, on board the most magnificent Chinese war junk Adams had ever seen, he and Weslien would provide the town of Victoria with a bit of excitement. Right in the middle of Hong Kong Harbor and at the center of the most powerful naval fleet ever assembled in the East.
Hangman's Point - A Novel of Hong Kong
by Dean Barrett
Published by Village East Books
Available on all web booksites at a discount
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