In Search of Scrimshaw

Many of you old salts reading this have heard the term and are aware of what “scrimshaw” is. For those of you who are of the uninitiated, let me briefly explain.

The Art of Scrimshaw was made possible most likely by the length and spare time that the Yankee whalemen of the 1700’s and 1800’s experienced during their long voyages in search of whales. The Yankee Sailor would carve intricate designs in the teeth and whalebone of the spermwhale and also the walrus. Most of their leisure time would be spent in the foc’sle of the old sailing ships carving beautiful designs of their adventures on the high seas.

The exact origin of the word is unknown. Several dictionaries say the word is derived from the surname Scrimshaw. However, this is probably not the case since Scrimshaw is only the most recent form of the of the word. James Templeton Brown, author, wrote in 1887 that he had traced the word to Nantucket, and believes it to be of Indian origin. This is merely speculation and unverified. In truth we really don’t know the exact origin of the term Scrimshaw.

Scrimshawing has also been referred to as Scrimshonting and Skimshandering, in fact Herman Melville, in 1851 uses the word Skimshandering in his novel “Moby Dick”. Melville wrote, “Some of the men have little boxes of dentistical-looking implements, especially intended for the skimshandering business, but in general they toil with jack-knives alone.”

Realizing that I am probably boring you to death with this bit of  trivia, more explanation as to the origin of this lost art can be found in a book entitled “the Yankee Whaler” by Clifford W. Ashley, (ch. XI)

So…continuing on with my search for some Scrimshaw, this story takes us to the once wonderful and magnificent port of Hong Kong. I am unsure of what Hong Kong is like now what with the takeover by Mainland China in July 1997. This ended one-hundred and fifty-six years of Colonial Rule by the British Empire. In addition one only needs to read the news of the political plight that Hong Kong is reeling from. I feel certain the Wanchai, as I knew it is gone. I don’t think this bluejacket would be a welcomed visitor in those parts any longer.

Being the nautical sailor that I am, I was hoping to find some authentic Scrimshaw Art. My Shipmate told me of his collection and my curiosity was engaged. Of course a true Bluejacket has his priorities as well…those being, and not necessarily in this order, booze, beautiful women, and food. I therefore knew that the first night of Liberty would not be a night in search of my Scrimshaw Art.

First stop was of course The China Fleet Club for a couple of cold one’s to start the evening off right. As I am throwing down the third beer, I am of course thinking of the other priority…no, I wasn’t hungry for food yet! As I am sober, I remember my little black book. It wasn’t actually a “little black book” but a small address book that I kept in my wallet. I am wondering if Shirley is still here. I pull out my address book and locate her number. I look around for a pay phone and sure enough spy one close to the bar. I dial Shirleys’ number, thinking “this is a fruitless exercise”. However, a sweet voice picks up and answers on the other end…I am surprised. Believe it or not, I recognize her voice. It had been several years since my last visit. I ask her if she is free to see me and she replies, “where you at now”. I tell her that I am at the China Fleet Club…to my surprise she excitedly says “I am on my way, is that okay for you”? I am speechless…”of course it is okay”.

I wander back to my table where a couple of Shipmates are sitting. They are understandably surprised. I can read it in their expression…”who the hell does the Boatswain’s Mate know here in Hong Kong”. I don’t bother to tell them someone is coming to meet me as I want to see their faces when she arrives. Fifteen or twenty minutes later in walks my long lost girl friend. A truly beautiful Chinese girl who is dressed to kill in the latest of elegant fashion.

After another round of drinks, Shirley and I make our exit…those reading this can only guess what the rest of the evening was like. Before returning to the ship in the morning I tell her about my search for Scrimshaw Art…she has no idea what the hell I am talking about. We agree on where to meet and the time.

Back on the ship I talk to my shipmate who has a collection of Scrimshaw and ask him where I might find a good deal. My good buddy, the Chief Engineer and I spend an hour or so talking about my quest. Cheng tells me that it is available here Hong Kong and to the best of his knowledge it is authentic. He looks at me rather slyly, changing the subject and says, “heard that you ran into an old friend last night”. Nothing is secret on a ship, you all know that. I say, “I couldn’t believe it Cheng…I hadn’t seen her in several years. But, it was like old times” Cheng explains, “good for you Boats, now you have an escort to take you over to Kowloon. That’s where you’ll have to go to find the Scrimshaw”. He admits that he doesn’t remember exactly where the place is at but he is able to give me the general area and where it is near. He hands me an old tattered and worn business card.

Shirley and I meet at the prescribed time and place. We head for the Star Ferry to travel from Wanchai to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon. The Ferry ride takes about 10 minutes. Leaving the Star Ferry we catch one of the numerous red taxis available near the ferry landing. Shirley asks me, “do you know where this place is”. My reply is “well, kind of…sort of. It is near the Bar Red Lips”. She exclaims, “oh my gawd, that is a dive…dirty and with only old ladies inside. I hear they wash the drink glasses near the toilet”. “Yes, I know, but we are not stopping there” I say. She just says good, I don’t want to go that kind place…I only smile! The taxi delivers us to the area of Bar Red Lips, I pay the fare which is only about $10 HK. I take a business card out of my wallet that Cheng had provided to me back on the ship. I show it to Shirley and she reads it. “Okay, follow me…are you sure this is where we need to go” asks Shirley. “Yes I am sure, why”, I ask. At this point I am thinking Chinese Triads, opium dens, and the seamy underbelly of Hong Kong crime! Yes, I know, you’re thinking…”too many Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies for this guy”. She shrugs…we go down a couple of alley ways, past a few garbage dumpsters and enter an old concrete building that appears to have been built just after WW II. We have to go up a narrow barely lit stairwell to the third floor. She knocks on the door. A nice Chinese man answers the door and ushers us into his shop. Luckily he speaks a little English, but not much. This is where Shirley saved the night. I explained what I was looking for and did he have any for sale. He seemed surprised that a US Navy Sailor would have an interest in these items. Anyway, I looked at the pieces that he had for sale. As luck would have it the inside of his shop was brightly lit, you sure couldn’t tell by the outside of the building. I decided on the pieces that I wanted to purchase. We haggled for a bit and came to what I thought was a fair price. I still have the pieces and am very pleased to this day.

It is still early in the evening and I don’t have to return to the ship for another forty-eight hours. I tell Shirley this and she then decides that she wants to go over to the Casino in Macau. I am thinking, “how much is this going to cost me”?

I’ll leave all of you faithful readers in suspense and save the Casino story for another day!

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