By Vaudine England
It’s all very well having grand theories about Race and Empire and Gender and Class, but what of actual real stories, the lives that people lived, the choices they made? I recently met a woman from a conventional middle-class Australian background, who had come to Hong Kong in the late 1960s; within days of arrival she had met, fallen in love with and would soon marry the wealthy scion of a cosmopolitan Chinese family, with roots in the Republican movement of pre-war China. Ideas of taboos of race or gender fall by the wayside when such comfort levels exist, yet still this woman’s choice was impressive.
Most individual stories of cross-taboo linking are impressive. From a far different time, take the love match between Shearman Godfrey Bird, an English army officer, aged just 22, in Canton, in late 1858 or early 1859. He met 18-year old Amy Chun and would bring her to Hong Kong and, in 1867, on to England and finally, two years later, to Ontario Canada. When Shearman died in 1873 he left Amy a young widow, with eight children to raise in an alien world.
Thanks to one present-day descendant, Naomi Ridout, we now know much more about this relationship and how, in late 1850s Canton and early 1860s Hong Kong, it was to some extent accepted. (Naomi gave a talk about this in Hong Kong in August 2014, and is pursuing many aspects of related researches.)
Shearman Godfrey Bird was the fourth of 15 children of a rural vicar, with an extended family full of senior military men, architects and civil servants. Young Shearman was sent to China in 1857 as part of forces due to fight the Second ‘Opium’ or ‘Arrow’ War. Luckily, he wrote – of the mosquitoes, the prickly heat, the military actions and treaty ports. He started learning Chinese, at the same time as he was busy helping to burn down Chinese villages; he took up photography, bird hunting and sailing and then, he met Amy. No marriage certificate was ever found but the two claimed marriage on 1 June 1859. Amy was baptized as an Anglican in 1863, after two of her children had already been baptised.
Making informed guesses due to a lack of documentation, Naomi believes Shearman resigned his commission (in 1862) because the relationship had become or was about to be made formal and/or public. Informal relationships were the norm (such as the Imperial Maritime Customs boss Robert Hart’s Chinese partner who bore him several children but was later left behind in China when the soon-to-be ennobled Hart went home on leave to find a ‘proper’ wife). Shearman chose to marry his wife with formal Anglican rites — even at the cost of his military career, his prospects and his finances.
Meanwhile, Naomi has been rather cleverly delving into the history of Amy and her family, finding out that she was no ‘flower boat girl’, but of at least equal social standing to the man she married. She appeared to bring some class standing and certainly wealth to the union; perhaps her father was a compradore, indeed perhaps he was Ch’en Ya-chiu, the compradore for Augustine Heard in Yokohama, Japan.
Life for the young couple, in both Canton and Hong Kong, was not easy. His diary reveals, however, how the social life possible for a mixed race couple of those times was both rich, yet limited. There was a round of dinners, picnics and teas, almost invariably with members of the Protestant missionary world. One exception to this was the friendship between Shearman and Amy Bird and the Sharps: wealthy broker Granville and his wife Matilda, of Matilda Hospital fame. The Sharps knew Revd Fred Turner of the London Missionary Society, a noted opponent of the opium trade, and the Turners were Shearman and Amy’s neighbours in Canton. Matilda was herself an adventurous woman, a linguist in French, German, Dutch and eventually Cantonese. Granville was a stalwart of the Hong Kong Club thanks to his career as an accountant in several banks and then a bullion and bills broker. The Sharps would later help Amy the widow, when money was short.
While still in Hong Kong, the day-to-day details of a mixed-race marriage are hard to find. The children were baptized at St John’s Cathedral where Shearman acted as auditor of cathedral accounts alongside his day-job in the Surveyor General’s department. In 1865, his brother Sotheby arrived from Taiwan; it was Sotheby, not Shearman, who played a founding role in the architects’ firm Palmer & Turner. Shearman’s working life (and pay packets) were improving but not his health and by 1867 he was heading homewards with Amy, five children and an Amah. The life in Canada that began in 1869 saw a total of eight children reared almost single-handedly by Amy, all of them integrated into Canadian or English society. None returned to China. Amy had arrived in Canada when the country was less than two years old, surely one of the first Chinese women to move there.
I wonder if one can generalise to the extent that almost every Eurasian story has such elements of challenge, and survival. We don’t know what Amy really thought about her position in colonial Hong Kong and what she had to handle as a widow in Canada; perhaps the two young lovers blundered into something they had no idea would be so hard or perhaps it was perfectly manageable. Looked at from the outside, it seems another story of courage, adaptation and triumph. But until we find more personal private papers giving us the voice of these participants form another time, we won’t ever be quite sure. Let’s hope more descendants such as Naomi Ridout are out there, working on it.