“A Young Englishman in Victorian Hong Kong: The Diaries of Chaloner Alabaster, 1855-1856”, by Benjamin Penny

Hong Kong, ca 1860 (Wikimedia Commons) Hong Kong, ca 1860 (Wikimedia Commons)

You never know what’ll show up in the archives. In 2015, Benjamin Penny stumbled across the 19th-century diaries of one Chaloner Alabaster in the Special Collections room of London’s SOAS. Alabaster left England in August 1855 to take up a position as “student interpreter” in the China Consular Service. He ended up making a career of it, but the diaries reproduced here end in 1856 when Alabaster was still a teenager.

Not only was Alabaster just 16 when sent to Hong Kong, he had already studied Chinese at King’s College. His superiors in Hong Kong were apparently not very impressed with the results when he and his cohort arrived, but it still amazes that a mid-19th-century secondary school in England was teaching Chinese. He also came in with passable Latin and French and even some Greek. On arrival in Hong Kong, he was given the task of getting his Chinese up to snuff.

The diaries have been painstakingly annotated by Penny, who has also included a lengthy and detailed 60-page introduction. Nevertheless, unedited diaries—it must be said—can be rather dull, meandering or banal; these are anything but. Alabaster, while laconic, had a way with words, even when writing only for himself. The voice that emerges is unique and engaging. An early entry is from Egypt on the way over:

 

Suez a beastly, dirty, hot, choleraic place. Beastly rooms. Beastly dinner and worse soda water but some very good bathing. Dusty. Sandy.

 

A Young Englishman in Victorian Hong Kong: The Diaries of Chaloner Alabaster, 1855–1856, Benjamin Penny (ANU Press, October 2023)
A Young Englishman in Victorian Hong Kong: The Diaries of Chaloner Alabaster, 1855–1856, Benjamin Penny (ANU Press, October 2023)

Alabaster doesn’t always seem to apply himself and makes up for it by taking himself to task; typical entries include:

 

Got up horribly late.
Played whist & wasted my time.
Botheration. The 3 weeks are near an end & I have done nothing today.
Bitterly cold. I am getting slovenly & lazy.
Another week is gone like blazes & little or no work done in it.
Went to office. No work, so back we came.
The week seems drawing to a close fearfully fast & I seem to have done nothing in it.

 

He can also be quite witty in an offhand way:

 

I could not tell the tone of a single character perhaps & I believe we have the tones just as much in English but are sensible & don’t bother about them…

 

and

 

The sepoys have all left and so now we have lots of outhouses which is a great comfort tho’ this is counterbalanced by the loss of their protection.

 

This afternoon read Alison History about the Murder of Louis XVI. What a beast égalité was. A brutal beast.

 

It can be hard to remember that he’s just a kid. He talks about the Crimean War (and comes across Russian prisoners in Hong Kong), European politics, wishes he had a copy of Plutarch, and drops Latin and (somewhat imperfect) French into his entries and make such thoughtful comments as

 

The opium trade is truly a gigantic evil and one which will, if not stopped in time, ruin 1st China then India and damage England much…

 

or

 

How strange it is here. Everyone goes armed in England, no one here.

 

He doesn’t like Americans much:

 

Great News. General Keenan the American Consul is arrested and it is likely to give rise to great events…

 

and

 

Finis. The Declaration of Independence.96 Not only did the San Jacinto salute but the merchant ships must needs pop away too & so there was a considerable waste of powder & a prolonged popping, every pop of which made me feel the more savage. To think that treason and rebellion should be commemorated.

 

But then, he’ll come out with

 

Oh, I wish I were home. I am sick of Hong Kong… I’ve a good mind to run away for Hong Kong is beastly…

 

and

 

My birthday. The second I have spent out of England the first in China. Now I have been nearly a year in China. What have I gained? I am afraid I must say nothing or next door to nothing. A little experience. A little knowledge. What have I lost? My temper. My energy. My virtue. My memory. Truly I must make an effort, for if I go back like this what shall I come to?

 

Every once in while, something will catch his imagination; one can almost feel his pen flying across the paper as in this description of a major fire:

 

I was sitting up doing Chinese till 1 & Adkins & Payne were getting to bed when we hear the bugle at the barracks & Payne rushes in crying fire & we rush to the window. All the sky is lighted up. Flames are seen & it is evident there is a fire, so we quickly arm & put on great coats & off we go, Hughes refusing to get up. As we near the town we see it is a tremendous fire & as we get farther in there is immense confusion. All the Chinamen armed with swords & rushing to & fro, some with their property yelling and shouting at everyone & thieves trying to take it away & regular row & fearful smoke and flames. In Gough Street we find a policeman with musket & bayonet vainly endeavouring to stop a fellow bolting with a bag of rice & we help him & pass on. No troops here yet. No sailors & the flames bursting out on all sides. Only 5 or 6 houses alight yet, but those blazing fearfully. Other houses blazing now. Here is a police engine. Work it!

 

Or in this synopsis of a local opera:

 

Well, when we got in a young lady was talking to an old buffer [sketch] like this in a neat becoming dress. Well, after an immense lot of singing of a peculiar sort between these two, the old buffer apparently assents, when on rushes her lover to whom she is handed over, she & he throwing their legs about in a most extraordinary fashion. Well, Miss Chao takes such an awful time saying goodbye to Papa Chao that Mr Wang comes as they are kissing & helps them to a couple of backhanders which send them down as flat as herrings & the scene ends by Papa Chao cursing & Miss Chao kneeling & praying in quite a tragic manner.

 

This continues in this vein for six of seven more scenes.

Alabaster is hardly without fault: he seems to caught gonorrhea, or at least thought he had, got into arguments, could be a bit supercilious and was far from immune to the prejudices of the age. But then again, he was just 16 or 17.

 

Penny does his best to identify everyone mentioned, and to provide newspaper corroboration for events that Alabaster mentions. It is slightly distressing that he finds it necessary to footnote terms like “brown study” and “bumfodder”, an indication that I am perhaps rather closer in time to the period Penny is studying than he is himself. I could only identify one quibble: Penny mentions that a venue was “likely in the Club Lusitano, one of the two Portuguese clubs in Hong Kong at the time”, but the Lusitano was not, I believe, founded until 1866.

Those—historians, novelists, scriptwriters—for whom historical first-person accounts are the raw materials of books and drama, will no doubt be grateful to Penny for bringing these diaries into the light; for the rest of us, whether knowledgeable of Hong Kong or not, it’s a chance to hear a voice, an open and often entertaining one, from the colony’s earliest days.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.