08 June 2009

The colonial sense of humour

It wasn't up to much, if this example from a travel guide entry for Alexandra in New Zealand's South Island is anything to go by:

Today the antics might raise less than a smile, but in the mood of the times and even 30 years later they were regarded as hilarious. It was in the late 1890s that Ah Fook Hu, a Chinese storekeeper, won spectacularly at fantan, withdrew his savings from the bank and set off for his homeland, never to be heard of again. Relatives, suspecting that Ah might have been murdered for his money, posted a reward which attracted the attention of a Swedish miner, John Magnus, then working a claim about 10 kilometres downriver from Alexandra. Magnus had little sympathy for the Chinese and could not resist the opportunity to dress a sheep's carcass in the manner described in the reward, complete with pigtail woven from the hair of a black billygoat. Elaborate surgery was carried out on the sheep - its head was covered with inverted sheepskin, teeth were bared and a nose fashioned from a sheep's kidney before the whole "face" was stained with Condy's fluid. By the time they had finished the carcass was stinking, which doubtless aided the success of the scheme, for the "body" was placed by a river for another miner to find and rush to Alexandra in all innocence to claim the reward. The local constable, despatched to recover the corpse, was assisted by Magnus' friends to bring it to the town. Here a sergeant and a doctor made a hurried examination before they converted the stables at the Bendigo Hotel into a morgue for the purposes of a post mortem. Ah Fook Hu's brother denied that it was his relative, but others were more certain and positively identified the corpse as being that of the hapless Ah. The post mortem began. Slowly the body was undressed. Eventually, when the trousers were cut to reveal a sheep's leg, the shocked and sombre crowd erupted with mirth. Doctor, police and mayor all rapidly retreated in a state of embarrassed confusion, as Magnus and his friends repaired to the bar of the Bendigo to celebrate. A local resident was paid to bury the corpse but at dawn the next morning it was propped up against the hotel's front door. Those taking part were overcome by their hilarity and seemingly none spared a thought for Ah Fook Hu, who had disappeared without trace.

- Diana & Jeremy Pope, South Island (Mobil New Zealand Travel Guide), 6th ed., Auckland, 1993

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