Flirting with History: A Romance in Early 20th Century China, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We continue on with this set of posts on the life of Elizabeth Gowan Haskins Workman, who spent several years in post-Boxer Rebellion China in the first decade of the 20th century with her first husband, Thomas Haskins, an employee of the American legation in Peking (now Beijing.)

Haskins, a Los Angeles resident who then studied Mandarin at the University of California in Berkeley, was given a two-year appointment to further his studies in 1902 with the legation and left his fiancee Elizabeth back in the Bay Area for almost two years.  In June 1904, however, she and her mother traveled to China and Elizabeth married Tom in early August at the diplomatic compound.  They settled into their new life together and the last post discussed some of her recollections recorded in a 1969 interview conducted by her daughter, Anne Workman Janeway.

Picking up with that interview, Elizabeth was asked what she did while Tom was at work, which led him to be promoted to assistant secretary to Minister Edwin H. Conger.  The answer was not surprising: “I did some sight seeing.  Reading . . . I probably spent some time at the piano in the morning . . . I didn’t have a routine.  I didn’t follow a regular program.”  She did continue, however, that “of course, everything stops after lunch.  I mean nobody goes to see anybody until after four o’clock.  And you’d have tea different—each Legation had its own day for receiving.”  When her daughter commented that she was a “lady of leisure,”  Elizabeth merely replied, “Certainly.”

The appointment of Thomas Haskins to the American legation in China, Oakland Tribune, 9 December 1902.

In 1906, not long after the great earthquake and fire in Elizabeth’s hometown of San Francisco, she and Tom came back home for a visit, but this also included a trip to Washington, D.C.  She added, “that was when Theodore Roosevelt was President.  And we saw him three different times; once in his private office.”  She was astonished she recalled when “he remembered our names . . . at this diplomatic reception [and] he called us by name. . .  He was quite a guy.”

The trip then continued on through Europe and back to China, by spring 1907, through the eastern route, with stops in places like Gibraltar and Naples, Italy.  While en-route to Peking, Elizabeth told a story about meeting Prince Livio Borghese, whose wife “was a slut and nothing else but. But that shouldn’t go in there.”  When Anne replied “Oh, that’s exactly what’s going in there, and I want to hear more” and then added “it’s a good four-letter, anglo-saxon word,” when her mother demurred, “I know, but I don’t like that word,” Elizabeth went on to note that the wife was from the Middle East and was a model for a painter.  She added “she was something out of the gutter, really” and then observed that, when the woman gave birth to a fourth child, the Prince wrote her, “I had nothing to do with number four.”

Another story was about a Peking to Paris car race held in 1907 and how the Prince’s brother was entered in the 10,000 mile rally.  Elizabeth and Tom went to the starting line to see Prince Scipione Borghese, who was driving the most powerful car of the eleven participants, sporting all of 40 horsepower, off on 10 June.  While she recalled that only two drivers finished the race, which took two months, four vehicles made it through, with the Prince claiming the prize as the first to enter Paris on 10 August.

Discussion was also had about the Haskins’ cottage on the beach at Peitaiho, now known as Beidaihe, about four hours east of the capital.  The five-room brick structure was “semi-western” in what Elizabeth described as an “all western . . . very swanky” resort for wealthy Chinese and Japanese visitors.  With its fine weather and calm water for swimming, the resort was “like getting out of China” in Elizabeth’s words.

At the bottom of the personals column from the 11 June 1904 edition of the Oakland Tribune is a mention of “Miss Bessie Gowan” sailing to China to marry Tom.

Other conversation revolved around the area around the American legation compound, how Elizabeth provided for her clothing (stocking up for two years before leaving San Francisco in 1904 and then buying for another two years on the return home in 1906), and where furniture and objects for the house were acquired.

In discussing her husband’s salary of $2,000 per year, of which about a quarter went to pay for the servants mentioned in the first post, Anne Janeway asked her mother to go through the custom of “the squeeze,” in which twenty percent above the price of anything was considered acceptable to give to a servant, vendor or others.  The custom of haggling was also covered, though this was a job left to Tom because of his fluency in Mandarin!

The interview also returned to the eight young men who were household servants, including Number One Boy, who supervised the others, the Number Two Boy, and six “coolies.”  Elizabeth recalled that she never met their families (though Tom did before she arrived), didn’t remember that they had any time off, and that “they always had to go to the Chinese city to have their baths,” though, she said, “not as frequently as should have been.”  She then stated that the Chinese were apt to wear clean clothes “over a body that needed bathing,” while the Japanese did the reverse.

Another memory was that “the Chinese are very fond of garlic and we couldn’t allow the servants to eat garlic.  Once the boy had eaten it, and he was just unbearable.  And he was told that if he ever did it again, he would have to be fired.”  These remembrances are illustrations of the often-significant divide between the traditions and practices of different ethnic groups.

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Thomas Haskins and Elizabeth Gowan at the left with Prince Livio Borghese and others on board ship traveling from Europe to China in late winter 1907.  A caption on a copy of the image reads “All the men adored her [Elizabeth], but she had eyes only for her beloved husband Tom.”
We’ll conclude this entry with another interesting recollection of participating in audiences before the Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi (1835-1908).  These took place three times yearly at which “we entered this large hall, at one end of which was this dais where the Empress was sitting.  And there were about six steps leading up to the dais.  And we had to curtsy three times before we reached the dais.  And then we went up the steps and passed in front of her and bowed, ceremoniously.”

When asked by Anne what she thought of the empress, Elizabeth answered, “Well, I was surprised at her looks because I had heard that she was beautiful . . . [but] her mouth drooped down in one corner as if she had had a stroke.”  When asked the empress’ age, she answered about sixty, though wasn’t sure, and Tzu-Hsi was about a decade older than that.

Anne then asked “How did she seem with the ‘foreign devils’?” to which her mother replied, “she accepted us . . . she was affable enough, but . . . it was too formal.”  A banquet followed these audiences, as well, at which “all these princesses appeared.  I always had a princess on each side of me at table, and there was no conversation possible because I didn’t speak Chinese—they didn’t know any English.  They were always very interested in our clothes.  They’d feel the material to see what they were made of.  They were like children that way.”   As for the food, it alternated between European and the “marvelous Chinese food.”

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A page of the 1969 interview transcript with Elizabeth concerning her recollections of audiences with Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi.

We’ll continue on with the story of Elizabeth and Tom Haskins in early 20th century China tomorrow, so check back then!



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