Japan As They Saw It

A fire in Yokohama

    I am not in the habit of running to fires in Philadelphia, but I have just witnessed one here, and found much entertainment in the spectacle, although when I got back to the hotel I found that an intaglio that I had worn attached to my watch chain had parted company with me whilst in the crowd.
    Shortly after luncheon I went to the Japanese suburban village of Homura, to make a small purchase. I had finished my business and was examining some painted screens which the polite shopkeeper was showing me, when a young girl rushed into the shop to inform him that there was a fire. Without another word, he left me, hurriedly exchanged his straw sandals for wooden ones, and darted down the street. Curious to see how they order these things in Japan, I followed him, and was soon one of the motley crowd that rushed over the bridge connecting Homura with Yokohama.
    The fire was in Chinatown, in the establishment of a shoemaker, opposite to Mr. Cock-Eye’s tailor shop and next door to Mr. Ah-Why’s carpenter shop. It was a sort of sailors’ quarter, and close by were quite a number of low-looking places with high sounding titles, such as Café de l'Univers, Boulangerie Provençale, A la descente des Marins, etc. Chinese shopkeepers, Japanese men, women and babies, Chinese and Japanese coolies, American sailors, and an assorted lot of Europeans, helped to make up the crowd. With the exception of the Germans and Americans who belong to the fire company, all were more or less excited. Japanese policemen, clad in white duck uniforms, were present in large numbers, and were running hither and thither as if bewildered. There were also several Japanese bearing long poles, at the top of which there was a painted cube or sphere, from which strips of paper were hanging. These devices were to represent the fire-god, whose presence is expected to put out the fire; or, that failing, to prevent its extending.
    The crowd was a docile one and was easily kept outside of the line. When I had spent some time watching the Chinamen bringing their effects out of the burning building, and was wondering how they had managed to stow away so much trash in so small a place, they were still at it. Finally, when the house was destroyed there came a party with long bamboo ladders, which they rested against the next building, and, without any apparent reason, for the danger was over, they clambered up and down like so many monkeys. Fires usually do great damage in such towns as this, and thus the excitement is easily accounted for. I would have been sorry to miss seeing the crowd, which was interesting because of the varied elements of which it was composed.

Simon Adler Stern, Jottings of Travel in China and Japan, 1888

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