Sunday Diversions 2

To reach the quayside meant a walk of not more than five minutes up the main street, the Rue Catenat. It was five o’clock, and by this hour possible to risk the sun and walk out in the open, along the water’s edge, where the dockers were loading and unloading cargoes. A quarter of a mile away, across the river, was no-man’s-land. One could go there during the daytime, but at night the Viet-Minh sometimes appeared and fired mortar-shells into the centre of the town. Previously, the further bank had been clustered with huts, but the French had cleared them away, thus aggravating the refugee problem. At about this time the dockers had their evening meal and the owners of the eating booths had accordingly set a long line of tables. On each table stood three bottles, one of Tiger beer flanked on each side by brilliantly coloured mineral waters. Awaiting the customers, in bowls of attractive designs, were semi- hatched eggs with small apertures cut in their sides to allow of choice in the degree of incubation.
I walked on to the waterfront cafe at the Point des Blageurs and sat down to enjoy the scene in comfort. The animation with which I was surrounded was, in its way, different from and more intense than any¬thing I had experienced before. One has been accustomed to crowds, to the spectacle of vast gatherings of people in the streets, in places of entertainment, in railway stations or restaurants. But such crowds have all been, more or less, engaged in a similar kind of activity. Here it was the diversity of occupation that was so remarkable. There must have been many hundreds of people in sight, all busily living their own lives and most of them independently of the actions of others in their immediate neighbourhood.
There were several junks moored just offshore. They had gardens on their decks, with domestic pets, a few cocks and hens, a canary in the cage, and flowers growing in packing cases. Somebody was constantly pottering round these deck-gardens, watering the flowers or looking to see if the hen had laid an egg. Through openings in the junks’ sides one could observe incidents from the domestic routine. Occasionally a naked child came flying through in an attempt to land on top of another child, splashing about in the water beneath. There were people sprawled about under the canopies of fifty sampans, playing cards, dicing, chatting, sleeping. People came ashore and exercised pigs on leads along the waterfront. A score of anglers drooped motionless over their lines, the most singular of these being one who tried his luck through a manhole cover in the street. Professional fishermen worked from sampans, lower¬ing into the water large triangular nets at the end of levers. One would have expected this process occasionally to produce a spectacular fish; but not so. I never saw anything longer than three inches come out of the water. The prawn fishers seemed to have better luck. They worked up to their knees in black slime, groping about with their wicker baskets in the mud. It was filthy work, but they at least caught prawns. Women, if they were not cooking, were washing themselves, leaving no part of their persons unvisited, but completing the process in such a way that not an unwonted inch of their form was displayed. For no particular reason that one could see, people fidgeted continually with junks and sampans, shifting them here and there, and then replacing them in exactly the same position as before. In doing so they narrowly avoided collisions with lightermen who were ferrying passengers to and from the ships in the port. Hawkers passed incessantly, drawing attention to their wares with melodious cries or the beating of appropriate gongs. They were ignored by innumerable loafers who hung about, giving advice on a dozen gambling games that were in progress. In the background musical- comedy river-boats thrashed slowly past. They had triple decks and tall narrow funnels, their balustrades were as ornate as the balconies of New Orleans, and they were smothered in red Chinese characters.

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