Chapter 10: Racing for the Record
Thursday: Nellie made it as far as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but had to wait five days for her next ship. Before, she worried about missing her connections. Now it seems the ships don’t move fast enough!
China was not at its best in 1889, and Nellie did not much like what she saw there.
The nation had tried to keep European nations from taking over its territory and selling drugs to its people, but its old-fashioned army couldn’t win wars against the well-equipped foreigners.
Now Great Britain owned Hong Kong and other countries were insisting on controlling parts of China. The United States had not yet taken over the Philippines and joined the Europeans trading in China, but it had just passed a law to keep Chinese people from coming to America.
The Chinese people were poor and angry, and ready to rebel against their government.
Nellie was warned that they hated Westerners, but she was able to visit Hong Kong and Canton without being treated rudely. Still, it was not pleasant in the dirty, crowded neighborhoods, and she spent Christmas visiting places where people with leprosy lived and where criminals were tortured and killed.
Compared to their problems, her worries were small indeed. Still, she had received a shock when she first arrived in Hong Kong.
“You are going to be beaten,” the agent told her, as she bought her tickets to Japan and San Francisco.
“What?” Nellie was surprised. It was true, she had been delayed in Singapore.
That gave her time to tour the city, visit her taxi driver in his home and even buy a pet monkey, but it put her even farther behind in her schedule.
The ship to Hong Kong had made up all that lost time, though, including the five days in Ceylon. She was back on schedule with a good chance to beat Fogg’s record of 80 days.
But the agent wasn’t talking about time, or a fictional character. “Did you not know?” he asked. “The day you left New York, another woman started out to beat your time and she’s going to do it. She left here three days ago.”
The other reporter was Elizabeth Bisland, who had worked with Nellie at The World but then suddenly quit to take a magazine assignment: Travel the opposite direction, from west to east, spend however much money it takes, and beat Nellie Bly.
Nellie was stuck in Hong Kong for five days, and then would face storms in the Pacific that would slow her ship even more. And there were no telegrams for her from The World. Did they know about the other reporter? Did they even care?
She managed to reply to the agent, she later wrote, “forcing a smile that was on the lips but came from nowhere near the heart.”
But one of the officers of her next ship, the Oceanic, came to the agency to meet her and was more positive.
“Everybody knows the idea originated with you, and that others are merely trying to steal the work of your brain,” he told her. “So, whether you get in before or later, people will give you the credit for having originated the idea.”
Still, she was not sorry when it was time to leave Hong Kong. They celebrated New Year’s, 1890, on their way to Yokohama, where they were stopping for only 120 hours.
Nellie loved Japan and the cheerful, modern Japanese people. She found some of their fashions amusing, but they also made her think. For example, they were horrified at cloth handkerchiefs, preferring to blow their noses on rice paper and throw it away immediately.
And she also wrote, “The Japanese are the only women I ever saw who could rouge and powder and not be repulsive, but the more charming because of it.”
It was the only time in her voyage that Nellie Bly admitted that a foreign people had some better ways of doing things. She was also impressed with how the Japanese took good ideas from the West and changed them to work in their culture.
A reporter from a Tokyo newspaper interviewed her. His paper had translated the story of her visit with Jules Verne into Japanese for their readers, and was now covering the famous traveler’s visit to their country.
Suddenly, it seemed everyone was paying attention to Nellie’s race around the globe! As the Oceanic left Yokohama on January 7, other boats blew their whistles and the band on an American naval ship played music. And throughout the engine room of the ship, the chief engineer had posted his crew’s new motto: “For Nellie Bly, we’ll win or die. January 20, 1890.”
Nellie would still have to cross the United States by rail, at a time when snow might well block the mountain passes. But first things first: The ship was due in San Francisco on the 22nd, but the crew was determined to get Nellie there sooner.
Despite dreadful storms, they made good time and the ship anchored in San Francisco Bay early on the morning of January 21.
But then the purser made a horrible discovery: The ship’s bill of health, showing that everyone on board was free of disease, had been left behind.
Nobody would be allowed to get off the ship in the United States until another ship brought the document from Japan.
It would take at least two weeks.
Monday: The Collectible Nellie Bly