Little Details

A Fact-Checking Community for Writers

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Ocean Liner Travel in 1890 - 1900: England to China
Link: Whut?
aorin wrote in little_details

Setting: 1890 - 1900, on an ocean liner travelling from England to China. AU.
Googled: Travelling in Victorian times, passenger liner, ocean liner, steamboat, 1890 travel, SS City of Peking, RMS Empress of China, RMS Empress of Japan...

So, I have a few questions and I'm hoping that someone can provide some answers or point me to the right direction.

1. How long does it take to travel from England to China via an ocean liner in 1890s, which would be the most likely route taken and what are the ports that the ship might dock temporarily along the journey? 

Notes: From some basic readings, I'm assuming that they'll dock at Hong Kong at the end of their journey (since Hong Kong has been ceded to Britain then, though I was considering Canton and Shantou earlier). I've read that the SS City of Peking took 22 days to travel from San Francisco to Hong Kong in 1874 through a transpacific crossing, while the Empress of Japan took 52 days (1891) to travel from Liverpool to British Columbia, via the Suez and passing through Hong Kong. However, I still couldn't find the travel time from England (London, perhaps) to Hong Kong.

2. The four characters (two men and two women) are travelling first class. What kind of (daily and evening) activities will they have during their long journey? What would their daily schedule be and how would they fill up their time?

Notes: Titanic made it seem like they have formal dinners every night. Assuming that the journey to China takes roughly a month, would it be even plausible to do that? This also brings in the question 3.

3. What would they need to pack for such a long journey? (Clothes, books, essentials... maybe a gramophone or some personal items?)

Notes: The characters have accomodation in China, so all they need to pack are the items that will be used during the trip. I know this may differ from person to person, but let's say they are of the nouveau riche and has considerable wealth to match with the aristocrats, what would their basic luggage be for the trip?

4. Also, one of the characters is half-Chinese, he's highly educated, has a good understanding of social norms and etiquette, live a good deal of his life out of China and behaves like all other gentlemen. All things considered, would he actually suffer racial discrimination from fellow passengers of the same class who doesn't know him so well?

Notes: Since this takes place during the 1890s, and the Boxer Rebellion did happen during the same decade, I would like to some opinions on this. It won't be blatant discrimination or throwing him off the boat, but what about light teasing, gossips or sarcasm?

ETA: I would like to thank everyone who had commented to this entry. You have all been extremely helpful and provided me with more help that I had hoped for :) Thank you so much.


Haven't time to reply in detail - but try searching on "Peninsular and Orient" or "P&O" - they were the principal line operating between the UK and the Far East by which well to do people travelled.

Oh, I didn't realise that since I was focusing my search on notable steamships rather than the operating line. Still, thank you for your help and any input is appreciated :)

Re: #4. Twenty, thirty years after your time period, the United States banned the immigration of Asian peoples into the United States. (Immigration Act of 1924) While I realize your question isn't about the US, that ban was founded in a wealth of racist language, ideology and imagery. I can't imagine that an ocean and a gigantic colonial empire protected the British from these attitudes, especially given the growth of the eugenics movement, popular and academic theories about racial inequality and the entire "exotification" of the "East." So at least, as a reader, I'd be very surprised if your character did not face discrimination among his fellow passengers.

The exception would be if the character "passes" for white in his skin-color and general appearance. Caricature was alive and well in this era (as in any other) and if those around him were expecting a stereotypical "Chinaman," they might not "see" his mixed heritage. Nonetheless, if he's passing, he knows his social acceptance on the ship is tenuous and depends on him preserving that front, and he'll have to be careful to avoid any situation that might raise speculation.

That said, I know of at least one individual of mixed Japanese-Austrian heritage who enjoyed admirable diplomatic and political successes in Europe. But perceptions of the Japanese were different from perceptions of the Chinese, among those enough in the know to distinguish them. (Certainly not everyone, not even among his fellow travelers who would have had better access to education than most.) You'd need someone in here who was better informed about relations between China and Britain--I know more about US/Chinese.

Nonetheless, you might try researching a bit about Coudenhove-Kalergi, to see if that gives you any ideas.

True. I'm aware that racial inequality was extremely common at that time, but given that he was travelling first class and considering his background, I was a little unsure about what form of discrimination that he would face from the more well-off. If he had travelled steerage, I have no doubts that his situation would be far worse.

Based on the description of the character in the original content, I doubt he could pass of as a white. It was mentioned that while he has natural blond hair, his features were predominantly East Asian. Not to mention, his name itself would give away his identity.

Also, thank you for info on Coudenhove-Kalergi. This is certainly helpful as the character in question is actually of mixed Chinese-German heritage, though most of his dealings took place in England and China. While not directly applicable, I do find his experiences relevant and it does give me better ideas on the situation.

If his ancestry's pretty apparent, perhaps the "cut direct" from those more high in the instep? He might also find himself objectified--drunken married ladies tittering and making crass remarks, groping or soliciting him as an "exotic." People may assume he speaks English poorly, that he eats certain types of food, that he understands herbal medicine, that he's a servant. If there's a hint of a romance between him and any of his traveling companions, that will draw sneers and whispers of "miscegenation" and the like, as well. It might actually be useful to take a look at some of the caricatures and misrepresentations on posters and things at the time--that will be the body of public knowledge that shapes the kinds of discrimination he'll face.

Some of his reception would also probably depend on the make-up of the first class passengers. The fact that he and his party are nouveau riche might make them pretty dang unpopular if the other travelers are old money. Classism and racism definitely aren't exclusive, and he may also get folks suggesting he stole/conned/otherwise illegitimately acquired his money.

OH! White slavery--I believe that was a common fear of the time, and proper (very silly) young women may avoid him quite hysterically in case he might threaten their virtue. And opium was another one of those things associated with the Chinese. (Though these may be a little bit out of your time period, not sure.)

Oh my, soliciting... seriously? Considering his situation, I doubt he'll be the most popular bloke on the ship. I assume that his presence might be tolered by some but as you said, others might just throw in a 'cut direct' and avoid him due to his race. My idea of the discrimination that he'll have to face is based mostly on the 'Yellow Peril'. And miscegenation. I do have a question that is somewhat related to this but I'll address it later in the post.

Oh? White slavery... might it be safe for me to assume that it would be somewhat impossible for him to dance with any proper lady present? From how you worded it, I get the impression he will be avoided like some sort dangerous walking plague even if he did nothing inappropriate. Also, I recall the Second Opium war took place about 30 years before my time period, but I have a feeling there will some lingering prejudice.

Also, I do have another question. It so happens that one of his lady travelling companions is Chinese. In the original content, her condition is even more bizarre than his. In appearance, she's a redhead with caucasian features but it was never explicitly mention what race she is (she's technically not human and she only has caucasian features because she was created that way). She had lived all her life in China and has absolutely no idea how to behave among first class passengers and while she tries to dress and act like a lady - at her friend's request - it really isn't helping much in her cause since she keeps on making blunder. As for their relationship, she's pretty much presented as his cousin.

My question would be, are Chinese ladies treated any differently, or will they suffer even more discrimination compared to the men?

Also, I'd like to thank you for your help so far. The information provided had been extremely helpful and it does help me in shaping the potential scenarios that might occur.

In 1889, Nellie Bly travelled around the world in 72 days as a publicity stunt for the New York World (yes, she was a Jules Verne fan). The relevant part of her itinerary was:

London, England to Brindisi, Italy - by train, 2 days.
Brindisi, Italy to Colombo, Ceylon - by the P&O ship Victoria, 13 days.
Colombo, Ceylon to Hong Kong - by the P&O ship Oriental, 10 days.

During the 1890s the P&O line ran a regular service every two weeks from London to China via India - the ships normally called at both Hong Kong and Shanghai. There was a large British settlement in Shanghai that was under international rule (joint British, French and American), and it was a major centre of trade.

Baggage - do a Google image search for "steamer trunk" to get some idea. :-)

The British Empire was fairly cosmopolitan in those days; class trumped race. If your half-Chinese gentleman speaks with an aristocratic English accent, dresses like an English gentleman, acts like one, and preferably went to a British public school, I doubt if many people would even acknowledge him as being Chinese. Of course, the same people who chatted to him as an equal could behave with shockingly casual racism towards Chinese servants or crew members - and they'd probably expect him to share those attitudes.

Wow, this is indeed helpful in giving me an idea of the total travel time :D So, I'm assuming that slightly under 30 days would be the acceptable total travel time in the 1890s. Also, thank you for sharing the itinerary, if not, I might end up making the big mistake of writing it off as a direct trip on one ship.

About that regular service, I was wondering where do the ships usually dock in India? Would it be nearer to Bombay or Ceylon, if you don't mind me asking. Also, I would like to think that their ship will finally call off at Hong Kong instead of Shanghai, since the characters are actually heading for Guangzhou (this is a problem with the original canon, they only mention that the character lives in China but never stated which part of China -- though Guangzhou was mentioned briefly in one episode =.=)

Steamer trunk... sure ;D From what I understand, Victorians typically travel with mountains of luggage, though it be nice if I could have a rough estimation. I mean, it is a month's journey after all...

Hmm... from what I can see in the original canon, the half-Chinese gentleman has travelled quite extensively and probably knows how to handle himself in these sort of situation. As you said, his presence will be tolerated and some may consider him equal but that will probably won't exempt him completely from some form of racial discrimination.

Also, I'm just wondering, are Chinese ladies treated any differently or do they suffer even more discrimination? One of his lady companions is actually Chinese (in the original content, her situation is even more bizarre, she's a redhead with caucasian features who had lived all her life in China. She has absolutely no idea how to behave among the first class passengers amd while she tries to dress and act like a lady - at her friend's request - it really isn't helping much in her cause since she keeps on making blunders).

writing it off as a direct trip on one ship

Well, the impression I get is that it would be possible to make the journey direct (although the ship would still stop off at intermediate ports, of course, both to let passengers on and off and to pick up more coal). However, the service would be less frequent, and Nellie Bly was trying to travel as quickly as possible to beat the fictional Phineas Fogg. The P&O line ran regular ships from Brindisi to India because they had the contract from the British government to carry the official mail. If comfort was more important than speed, it should be possible to sail in one continuous voyage. Especially if you did have a mountain of baggage!

The route would probably be from either Southampton or London in England, around into the Mediterranean (maybe stopping at Brindisi or somewhere similar to pick up people who crossed Europe by train) then via the Suez Canal, stopping off at Aden to re-coal. Bombay was the major port in India for travel from Europe, but ships heading on further East might stop at Colombo in Ceylon instead. Next stop would be Singapore, then Hong Kong, and finally Shanghai. In your case, stopping at Hong Kong then getting a local steamer to Guangzhou (or Canton, as every English-speaker on the ship would have called it back then) seems likely.

Regarding racial discrimination... my impression is that it wouldn't be as extreme as arantzain is saying. 'Eurasian' people - those with mixed European and Asian (mostly Indian) ancestry - were fairly commonplace in the British Empire and made up a large proportion of its lower-level administration. While their race would be seen as a disadvantage to them, there was no widespread utter horror at the very idea of miscegenation.

As for people in the higher social ranks - like I said in my original post, "good breeding", wealth and status were more important than race. Britain first elected an Indian immigrant as a Member of Parliament during this era, and one of the stock characters in children's stories was the "son of an Indian rajah" who'd come to England for an education. Such characters were often treated as objects of exoticism, and might be depicted with a 'funny accent' or other quirks, but weren't ostracised or treated with hostility. So for your wealthy, gentlemanly Eurasian character - there may be some whispering or inappropriate questions as arantzain suggests, but I would think that open rudeness or blatant prejudice would be treated as a social faux pas by the person making it. (Maybe if someone got drunk at a party and blurted out something unforgivable...)

His fully-Chinese cousin would, I suspect, be regarded as an exotic Oriental curiosity. Nobody would be openly rude to her - she's a lady, after all! - but they might marvel at the fact that she speaks English so well (assuming she does), and maybe avoid her socially except at formal dinners and so forth, on the assumption that "she wouldn't understand our ways".

Mind you, if she looks Caucasian and speaks English then people will assume she is English, maybe a missionary's daughter. There might be some head-shaking and tutting if she appears to have "gone native", but given Victorian views on gender, she'd probably be treated with sympathy and attempts to "help" her, with the men around her being blamed for letting this happen to her...

ETA: Also, I would like to clarify that said lady is not exactly human. She only has caucasian features because she was made that way. Her race was never explicitly mentioned though it was said that she lived almost her whole life in China, so most people would just assume that she's Chinese =.=

Honestly, while I'm trying to aim for historical accuracy, the original content makes it quite difficult for me to do so, hence it has to be considered AU.

If your character has wealth or rank, he'll be more likely to be treated as an exotic curiosity - how amazing that an Oriental man could be such a gentleman! This exceptionalism is an integral part of racism - it allows people to feel positive towards someone of a race they feel negatively about, without challenging their preconceptions at all. I would expect rudeness in the form of prurient curiosity and personal questions, rather than rudeness in the form of snubbing or open hostility. Of course, if your character does anything that could be considered inappropriate, all bets are off.

And the above poster is entirely correct that Japanese people were considered more civilised than Chinese people, because Japan was frantically modernising and Westernising, and presented itself as "the whites of Asia".

Yes, that was pretty much how I picture his situation to be. He has travelled quite extensively and has, on many occassions, dealt with the upper class, so I'm quite sure he knows how to conduct himself to his fellow passngers. Some will welcome him while others probably just try to avoid him, though he would still be subject of curiosity.

That said, while he painstakingly tries to avoid trouble, his lady travelling companion (due to her lack of knowledge of social norms and behaviour, having been brought up all her life in China) makes it very difficult for him.

Well, it seems to me your questions are for a lot more than little details, but leaving that aside, I would suggest you add steamship to your search parameters. Generally speaking, steamships cross oceans and steamboats are for more coastal and river travel.


I have apologize for that. I did some research on all four subjects but I'm still frankly quite clueless and I'm running out of resources (perhaps, I made a wrong approach). When I posted these questions, I was hoping that someone on this comm could enlighten me on these topics, or at least point me to the right direction, so I may read up on my own :)

Also, thank you for your input about steamships. Wiki placed both words side to side so I assumed that it could be used interchangeably. I didn't realise that it actually meant completely different things.

They would probably travel London to Hong Kong, or Shanghai on the Peninsular & Orient Steamship Co boats (P&O). Not sure how long the trip was, but it was just under a fortnight London to Bombay, so I think a month to Hong Kong sounds about right. The only P&O ship name from then that I know for that route is the Ravenna.

As to packing, Victorians typically traveled with mountains of baggage. Trunks, chests, portmanteaux, hand luggage. They would have had formal dinners every evening (not sure what a "fancy party" was in Titanic), and there would have been amusements like dancing, billiards (for the gentlemen) and so forth.

First, let me apologize for the bad wording, I was probably aiming for formal dinners (I mean, that's what we see in Titanic, right?). I'll fix this right away as fancy party does sound incredibly misleading.

From the other suggestions mentioned above, I think we can safely assume that the total time of the trip is approximately one month, and that would be good enough for me ;)

Mountains of baggage... that was the idea that I get from various websites and books in my research earlier. Most of them indicated that the Victorians, especially those from the upper echelons, always travelled heavily even if it is for a short trip, therefore, I can only imagine the amount of baggage they will have for a trip that will last one month. Frankly, I still have problems imagining it, I mean, would they have a different dress every evening for the formal dinner? Also, I'm assuming that certain practices such calling cards won't apply to these conditions :)

One thing that occurs to me is that the P&O ships of that era were quite small compared to something like the Titanic. Titanic would be about 10 times larger than Ravenna. I'm not sure of my numbers here, but I suspect that means that the P&O ships carried something like only 1-200 passengers total. So the passengers would have got to know each other. Some of these would have left at Suez, the bulk at Bombay, and then some at Colombo & Singapore. I doubt that many would have boarded en route. Not sure how this affects your story, but a passenger who traveled to China on the same ship as your group would be very well known by the end of the trip.

Your young Chinese passenger who looks European, and is not either would have been accepted as European, but her odd behavior would have caused a lot of gossip. Groups of young ladies from England went out on the P&O ships to India husband-hunting, so they may have been quite catty about her.

I doubt they would have had different dresses for every evening, but several to rotate surely. Of course the men would just need clean collars! Some people even then did travel light, so I think you can swing this either way.


After some quick googling, I found a few lists of P & O ships. It would seem that the average tonnage for P & O ships of that era ranges from 3000 - 6000 tonnes (Ravenna weighs at 3372, with total steel superstructure). In fact, only a few ships exceeded 10000 tonnes and those were built after the turn of the century, while Titanic itself was 46000 tonnes (a record which none of the P & O ships achieved). Another list (1864) shows that the ships usually carry 100 - 200 first class passengers and even lesser second class passengers. And in the 1890s, there were steamers heading directly for China every fortnightly at a fare of 73 pounds. I think all these answers give me a good idea of what kind of ship would they actually board (and an Olympic class ocean liner like Titanic would certainly be impossible) and now all I need is a proper deck plan of ships from that era, just to give myself a better idea.

And yes, the fact that they will be travelling with the same group of passengers for most of the journey does affect my story. While the bulk of the story centres around the four main characters, it also deals quite chiefly with their interactions with fellow passengers and how does it affect their relationship.

Also, thank you very much for your further input on the treatment of the young Chinese-European passenger. Her condition would probably draw much attention and she'll be a fuel for gossips, some harmless while others not so.

I'm sorry, this is an utterly useless comment, but I have to ask if your Link icon is in any way related to your questions. :D;

(I don't mean "is Link involved?" but are you writing about the series I'm thinking of?)

As matter of fact, yes, it's the series you were thinking of. And based the description that I've mentioned so far, you've probably guessed who are the characters that I was refering to.

And yeah, it's not Link. I highly doubt that Link would face any trouble if he were placed in the same situation. In fact, he'd probably be more comfortable than most of the characters :)