“To travel in China is easy,” wrote British journalist Edwin Dingle, in Across China on Foot (1911). He dismissed the Huangpu River at Shanghai as “looking like the Thames” and compared the Bund to London’s Embankment. Modern steamers up the Yangtze River to Yichang were “as comfortable as any river steamers in the world”, he wrote disparagingly. He was opposed to familiarity, and in search of China proper. It was the tidy little foreign enclaves in China’s treaty ports, where the Qing dynasty unwillingly suffered foreigners to reside and trade, that made travel as easy as Dingle suggested. And even he accepted the hospitality offered to him in Hankou, Yichang and Chongqing as he made his way up the Yangtze on ever smaller boats. Forced on the Qing by successive military and diplomatic defeats from 1842, these foreign communities sprang up in cities along the coast, then up the great trading artery of the Yangtze River, and eventually in remote border locations where it was imagined, usually wrongly, that there was potential for profitable trade. In larger settlements, foreign residents by their own choice and sometimes for their own safety kept to little concessions that contained the only two-storey buildings, paved roads and proper sanitation in the cities onto which they were grafted. In lesser locations, the foreign population might consist of little more than a mutually suspicious consul or two, the staff of the foreign-run customs service, post office and salt gabelle (a tax-collection office), the representatives of Hong Kong trading houses or British American Tobacco, and a handful of missionaries. Even then tiffin was served, people dressed for dinner and each enclave, however tiny, might appear as an oasis to a Westerner emerging from what he viewed as the surrounding desert of the alien. Joys of small-town life: in praise of China’s less visited places In all but the largest treaty ports there was a hunger for new faces, for news of home and details of the latest shows in London’s West End. Visitors might hop along the coast by steamer, bearing introductions from newly made acquaintances at the last port to friends of friends at the next, all eager for the novelty of new acquaintance. The “easy” travel Dingle despised was described in volumes such as Scottish watercolourist Constance Gordon-Cumming’s Wanderings in China (1886), which shows that couch-surfing was not an invention of the internet age. An introduction from the British minister in Beijing to the archdeacon in Guangzhou brought Gordon-Cumming the use of a guide. Contacts introduced by expatriate friends in Japan waited with chairs and bearers in Xiamen to offer breakfast and a day tour before the steamer continued to other entertainments in Fuzhou. “What with pleasant visits by day, and dinner-parties and private theatricals in the evenings, I think I must already have made acquaintance with a very large portion of the community, mercantile, diplomatic, and missionary,” she wrote. Gordon-Cumming went on to take a scenic tour up the Min River in a borrowed houseboat with the wife of the American consul, along with 16 Chinese servants to manage the boat and to be “human ponies, ready to carry us anywhere at any hour of the day or night”. This game of pass the human parcel continued with a long stay with the bishop of Ningbo, while another contact arranged boat transport from Tianjin to Beijing. Gordon-Cumming, whose written style was the literary equivalent of chintz, found everything as delightful, charming and beautiful as it would turn out to be tiresome and malodorous to Dingle, precisely because she largely stayed within the expatriate cocoon. “To walk across China, over roads acknowledgedly worse than are met with in any civilised country in the two hemispheres, and having accommodation unequalled for crudeness and insanitation, is not easy,” wrote Dingle, who described one night’s lodgings as somewhere “I would not put a horse into”. Gordon-Cumming, on the other hand, might be woken by a servant with warmed water for washing and descend to discuss the excursion of the day over a hearty English breakfast, and never a Chinese one. In the style of the worst travel writers and almost all “influencers” today, she put a shiny surface on everything, and retailed as authoritative uncredited hearsay from treaty port residents, many of whom had also rarely, if ever, set foot outside the foreign concessions. In the rocky land outside his garden he had marked out a golf course, round which on Sunday mornings he was wont to bash a ball, or a series of balls, with two French friends from Fort Bayard Richard P. Dobson on a China-based Scottish customs officer in his book, China Cycle (1945) But some other visitors were less unctuous, and indeed for all the comforts and considerations supplied to them, sometimes left portraits of their foreign hosts that were less than flattering. British novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham, who published an account of his own hopping from enclave to enclave in On a Chinese Screen (1922), was certainly in a position to repay his hosts with descriptions of the latest London theatricals. He had three plays of his own running simultaneously in the West End at the time. But accepting their hospitality did not otherwise necessitate treating them kindly. “They talked of racing and golf and shooting,” he wrote. “They would have thought it bad form to touch upon the abstract and there were no politics for them to discuss. China bored them all, they did not want to speak of that; they only knew just so much about it as was necessary to their business, and they looked with distrust upon any man who studied the Chinese language.” “It was well known,” he added, “that all those fellows who went in for Chinese grew queer in the head.” At least Maugham understood the ignorance of his hosts, and did not pretend to explain China to his readers by passing on their views, instead confining himself to often acid vignettes of the foreigners he met. American travel writer Harry A. Franck also specialised in being sardonic, and while accepting the hospitality of Catholic missionaries, customs commissioners and consuls alike, spent much of Roving Through Southern China (1925) mocking the quirks of the class-ridden communities that nevertheless welcomed “an unpigeonholable passer-by like myself”. He particularly ridiculed the rivalries between nations, often expressed through hospitality, such as at Yunnanfu, now Kunming: “Every one with anything to wear – except of course the missionaries – and the price of the sedan-chair required not only by high social etiquette but out of wholesome respect for the streets of Yünnanfu on a dark rainy night, went to the fancy-dress ball at the cercle [French club] on the king’s birthday [presumably England’s George V], and obviously the following Fourth of July [America’s Independence Day] could not be passed over in silence, particularly with the fourteenth of the same month [France’s Bastille Day] treading so closely on its heels.” But those who travelled for trade, rather than simply in search of good copy, also availed themselves of the welcome made to fresh faces. Richard P. Dobson, who worked for British American Tobacco in China in the late 1930s, left an account of treaty port travel in China Cycle (1945). At Guangdong’s Fort Bayard (Guangzhouwan, today’s Zhanjiang), territory leased by the French in anticipation of expanding their influence north from Indochina, he found the same insularity and determination to preserve national characteristics as displayed in British-dominated ports. “It was a strange experience to pass out of China abruptly into this little plot of Europe,” he wrote. And this was not least because at a time when China still drove on the left, driving the seven miles from the border to the main settlement required switching to the right. City-hopping Europe by rail as fun now as in the ’70s – and faster too “I saw something of the French, and was amazed at the completeness with which they brought their atmosphere to their little colony,” wrote Dobson. But he found it unimpressive, and the French club dull, and so he went back into Chinese territory and stayed with the customs commissioner, who was a Scot, although no less determined to preserve national characteristics. “In the rocky land outside his garden he had marked out a golf course, round which on Sunday mornings he was wont to bash a ball, or a series of balls, with two French friends from Fort Bayard.” Larger foreign enclaves could offer visitors horse racing, but the Scot went further. “In the winter he had organized a private hunt. He possessed a foxhound bitch, and there was one fox in the neighbourhood, so at seven o’clock on Sunday mornings and customs holidays throughout the season the fox, hound, and huntsman – on foot – met together and took their constitutional.” Dobson might mock, but like many another traveller, he made the best of the comforts offered in this corner of a foreign field that had become temporarily Scotland. He stayed for a week before moving on.