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Chin Fan, the Canton Boat Boy

by Thomas W. Knox


How many are aware that in China, on the other side of the world, there are thousands and thousands of boys and girls that live in boats? There is a great city in China called Canton, and at this city there is a river which is so crowded with boats that it is not easy to get around among them. They are not large boats like the great steamers on American rivers, and they do not have comfortable rooms where you can sleep as well as in a bed on shore. Some of them are so small that they can only hold three or four persons, and there is no space for walking around; but these three or four must live there from day to day and from week to week, and if they ever go on shore at all, it is only for a few minutes at a time. A whole family will often be found living on a boat which we would hardly think large enough to cross in from one side of the Hudson River to the other. They cook and eat and sleep on the boat, and they manage to earn a little money by carrying passengers over the river, or doing other work. The kitchen where they do their cooking is only a little heap of coals that a man might put in his hat, and it rests on a box of sand about a foot square. When there are any passengers on board, they sit under an awning in the front part of the boat, and the children are kept in a sort of well, like a dry-goods box, near the stern, but at other times they can run or creep about the deck. The smaller children are secured by means of cords tied around their waists, so as to save them in case they fall overboard. Sometimes the cord that holds a baby is fastened to the side of the boat, and sometimes it is tied to a stick of wood that serves as a float to keep him from sinking. The latter mode is generally preferred, as the baby has more freedom, and can drag himself along the deck where he likes. It is very common to see infants crawling around in this way, and it is surprising how soon they learn to keep out of danger. A Chinese child has only to fall overboard once or twice to make up his mind to keep away from the side of the boat as much as possible.

One day a baby was creeping around the deck of one of these Canton boats, and wondering how he should amuse himself. He looked over the side, and as the sun was shining, and reflecting his face in the water, he thought he discovered a new baby that would be a nice playmate for him. His mother was in the forward part of the boat, and busy at the oars, and his father was working on a ship that lay in the harbor. So this baby, whose name was Chin-Fan, was quite alone, and could do as he pleased. He felt lonesome, and when he saw the strange child in the water, he smiled at him, and wanted to make his acquaintance. The strange baby smiled in reply; and then Chin-Fan held out his chubby little hand to lift him out of the water. Of course the other one held up a hand to meet him, but he could not reach far enough. Then Chin-Fan reached down, while the stranger reached up, and pretty soon Chin-Fan lost his balance, and tumbled into the water.

Wasn't he in a dangerous place? His mother did not know what had happened, and she kept on rowing the boat right away from where the poor little fellow was struggling and trying to keep from being drowned. An American baby would have screamed and sunk, but Chin-Fan was not American, and so he did nothing of the sort. He dropped all thoughts of the strange baby, and considered nobody but himself; he managed to get hold of the billet of wood to which his cord was fastened, and by holding on firmly he kept his head out of water. The current of the river carried him along, and very luckily it carried him to where a ship was anchored, with her great cable sloping down the stream. He struck against this cable, and as he did so, he let go of the billet, so that it went one side of the cable, while Chin-Fan went the other. Then he took hold of the cable with both his chubby hands, and next he screamed as loud as his little lungs would let him.

A sailor on the bow of the ship heard the scream, and was not long in finding that it came from the cable. Chin-Fan kept it up until he was rescued, and just about the time he was taken on board the ship he was missed by his mother. She came paddling down the river in search of him, and shouted to everybody she met that her baby was missing. The sailor held little Chin-Fan up so that she could see him, and in a very short time he was back in his place on the deck of the boat.

For a good while after that incident Chin-Fan kept at a respectful distance from the side of the boat, and he did not show any desire to make the acquaintance of strange babies in the water. His mother taught him how to swim, and he became a boatman at Canton, and afterward he was a sailor on one of the great steamers that run between San Francisco and China. He did a great many brave things in and on the water, and his mother was very proud of him; she said she always knew he would be a famous sailor, when he showed so much good sense and coolness at the time of his first plunge.