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by Charles Nordoff


WARNING!  These two book excerpts about the Chinese in California and the Chinese as Railroad Builders reflect the attitudes and prejudices typical of the 19th century.



"HE is patient, docile, persevering, quick to learn, faithful, no eye-servant, the best cook or waiter you ever saw"—

"Last week he stole $600 out of my drawer, and is now in State Prison"—

"He is sober"—

"Last night you saw him smoking opium in the most horrible of dens"—

"He saves his money"—

"And takes it out of the State to spend in China"—.

"He is indispensable"—

"But he is a curse to the community"—

"He will make a useful citizen"—

"His whole race are vicious and degraded."

Thus two voices run on about the Chinese in California. Nor do I wonder that there are differences of opinion.

John stands behind you at dinner, arrayed like an angel, in the most spotless and gracefully hanging white, the image—not the image, the very presence—of the best-trained and quickest-witted servant in the world; and naturally you wish your own life might be comforted by such a John; or by such another as his mate in the kitchen, who is delighting you with dish after dish cooked to perfection.

You ask his mistress, and she tells you that she has no disputes; no troubles, no worry; that John has made housekeeping a pleasure to her; if he is cook, he does not object to help with the washing and ironing—in fact, does it better and quicker than any Bridget in the world. And John's master chimes in with an assertion that, since John has reigned below, the kitchen has been the delight of his eyes, so clean and sweet is it. Moreover, John markets for his mistress-; he is economical; and he does not make a fuss.

Of course, you say, every body has Johns. Well, no; people have prejudices and fears. You have two or three Johns in the house, and when you go out—if you are the lady of the house—you take the children along. There have been unpleasant occurrences.

From your friend's well-served and admirably-cooked dinner you go to Jackson Street and find Policeman Woodruff. He will take you through what is called "China-town." No doubt John is clean. There is too much evidence to doubt or dispute it. But Mr. Woodruff takes you into and through places so dismal, so wretched, so horrible, that while you are edging your way from a gambling hell into an opium hell, and from an opium hell into a worse place, nobody in the world could persuade you otherwise than that John and all his kindred are the devil's own. I can not say that, even in the worst holes I saw, John looked dirty. The thieves and jail-birds who were leaning over the gambling tables were not dirty, so far as I could see. The thieves, loafers, and other poor wretches who were lying under and on top of shelves, three deep, smoking a "bit's worth" of twice-laid opium, were many of them decently dressed; and certainly, though their surroundings were nasty, they did not look as correspondingly nasty as a similar Five Points population of whites.

Moreover, all that John does, be it virtuous or vicious, he seems to do with a certain amount of sluggish decorum. He swarms in Jackson Street and Dupont Street after night; but he makes no noise. If you accidentally elbow him, he moves gently out of the way. I passed out of the Chinese theatre in Jackson Street at eleven o'clock at night, with a lady and two children; we had to walk through a crowd of Johns, who were just then going up the long alleyway which leads to the door; and it did not even occur to my children, who walked ahead, to be afraid; and not a rude or disrespectful word or gesture was seen in the whole crowd. Now this theatre is, like the lowest of our own, the place of recreation for the vilest class. I can't say that I would have ventured into a place of the same kind, or out of it, in New York, without anxiety.

The street was crowded but quiet; The only loud voice I heard was that of a Chinaman selling soup and making himself known to his customers. John gambles, but it is with the same quiet, blase air—just as a crowd of black snakes might gamble on a rather cold day in May. In the game I saw played, the "bank" had before it a lot of "cash," the Chinese money. A handful of these was put out on the table; a brass dish covered most of them. The croupier, with a hooked stick, drew toward him four at a time of these coins. The players bet, as they chose, that at the last hand, one, two, three, or four, would remain. The policeman told me he had seen twelve hundred dollars lost at a single turn of this absurd game; and I saw poorly-dressed thieves—so I was told they were—put up ten dollars in silver and gold, and lose it; and without a wink drag out other coin from their multifarious pockets, in that painfully uncertain way in which vagabonds all over the world fish out money from their clothes, even when they have determined to spend it.

There never was a more interested or a more decorous audience in a theatre than that which watched the interminable play in the "China Theatre," as it is labeled, on Jackson Street. What the play meant I can not tell you, of course, but it was evidently well done; for it was easy to see that the audience enjoyed it. Once in a great while the clown extorted a laugh; once in a while the women, in the place set apart for them, wiped their eyes; meantime, the person who answers to the pea-nut man in our Bowery went his slow round, with a big basket of oranges and sweetmeats on his head; the audience lit its cigars and smoked; men passed silently in and out; but not a cat-call, not a noise of any kind disturbed the harmony; not a curious look even toward our private box, where sat ladies and children, who must have been objects of curiosity to them.

I am not sure but the "China Theatre" in Jackson Street is the strangest sight San Francisco has to show. The auditorium is built like that of any common theatre. It has a large pit, and above that a gallery, at one end of which are two private boxes, while at the other end is a space closed off for the Chinese women, who do not sit with the men. The whole is without ornament, and has a squalid look, as though it had been poorly done and was now poorly kept. Yet our box was clean. The chairs were very ordinary; but the place had been swept, and was not greasy.

As for the stage—attend, and I will try to describe it. In the first place, the orchestra sit at the back of the stage: they play vigorously and continuously, now on stringed instruments, which give out an ear-piercing sound like a multitude of insane bagpipes, now on cymbals, small gongs, and various other atrocious devices to make a worse and less endurable noise than the fiddles. I never heard such an outrageous collocation of sounds in my life; and how the musicians themselves endure it I don't know.

Before these gentlemen, playing in their shirt-sleeves, taking tea occasionally, and smoking when they chose—one absurd creature sawed away in his shirt-sleeves at his fiddle for dear life, sucking meanwhile the end of a very long pipe, which he had to hold out in the air by stretching his head back—before this wonderful orchestra, which kept better time than many orchestras I have heard in opera houses—the play went on. There are no curtains nor scenes. At the left side is an entrance, and at the other an exit way, each draped with a flap of cloth, through which the players dash at a trot. The properties to be used in the play stand at the sides of the stage, and the men who are to bring on or carry off these pieces of furniture lounge about among them, or pass back and forth from behind the screen which conceals the greenroom. They are very dexterous in placing or removing their properties, and manage to keep out of the way of the players. At one side, in the screen, is a square hole, at which you see the nose and eyes of the stage manager occasionally, directing.

Every thing is cheap, squalid, and, to our eyes, disreputable. But the players, who came on in the cheap magnificence of players everywhere, were in earnest apparently, and shrieked, and gesticulated, and sang, with what seemed to me the careful and studied precision of men doing their best.

By-the-way, the Chinaman, who has naturally a deep and pleasant voice, no sooner appears on the stage than every utterance is in a shrill falsetto, which is more like vehement caterwauling than any other sound I remember to have heard. When we got home from the theatre one of my children made a door to creak in the room, and we all burst out laughing as we recognized the most impassioned tones of the chief actor in the play—or part of a play—we had just heard.

There is something dry and overstrained in their attitudes, gestures, and tones. It is as though they had been refining and refining for centuries, until at last they had got every natural tone and movement off their stage, and made it just what Hamlet did not want it to be. The mincing way which he counseled his players to avoid, these have made the object of their lives. Not one of the players—not even the clown—was even for an instant betrayed into a movement or tone of voice proper and natural to him or any other human being; and after we had sat for an hour, listening and looking, we could not help but admire the atrocious perfection of their unnaturalness.

The first part of the play we saw was what we should call an opera. That is to say, the dialogue was sung to the accompaniment of music. The "music" was ear-piercing, shrill, loud, and to our ears only a horrible discord. But there was evidently a method in it; the leader, whose instrument consisted of two ivory sticks, with which he beat very audible time on a block of iron, had his shirt-sleeved orchestra under full control; and the singers and the players all kept admirable time. The singing was, of course, as unnatural as the playing; and when the chief personage of the piece, a high mandarin, dressed gorgeously, and with peacock feathers a yard long sticking out of his crown, attempted a quaver or trill, we all in our box burst into uncontrollable laughter.

The action goes on continuously; the players every two or three minutes rush off the stage, only to rush on again at the other entrance; in some parts of the play there were at least twenty characters crowded on the narrow stage; and it was very droll to see the king, when he was for a moment disengaged, turn his back on the audience and take a swig of tea out of a tea-pot which stood handy; or, when he had for some stage purpose removed his crown, turn his back on the audience and carefully replace it before a small looking-glass, held up before him by one of the "supernumeraries."

In one part of the play there was some excellent tumbling; and in another, two of the characters took the part of the lion, being assisted by a huge pasteboard lion's head, or what in China they imagine a lion's head to be like, with a lower jaw of brass, which was made to clap noisily, to the terror of the players. The body consisted of a silk cloth, in which a small boy was hidden, who represented the lion's hinder extremities, and got a contemptuous kick on one occasion from the clown. These trappings hung on a nail at the side of the stage, and were taken down in the middle of the play by a fellow who gravely climbed up on a ladder to reach it.

There was no applause, no cheering, no noisy manifestation of displeasure or delight; there is no bar-room in the theatre; the manager and lessee sat decorously on the back of a seat among the audience, smoking his cigar; and the play was to last until two o'clock A.M., being given to a numerous audience, who, I was told, paid thirty cents per head to see it—and no free list.

If you walk through China-town on Sunday you will see a curious sight, and one which, if you are a thoughtful man, will not amuse you. Jackson Street, Sacramento Street, Dupont Street, and the streets and alleys which lie between, are the Chinese quarters of San Francisco. Here they live; here is their multitude of shops; here, in cellars, they make cigars, in shops they work at sewing-machines—the men, I mean; here, in an entry-way, the Chinese cobbler cobbles a shoe, the boy waiting at his side to put it on when it is done. Here are eating-houses, where smoked ducks, pigs' heads, livers and gizzards of fowls, whole chickens cooked in oil, sodden pork, and sausages are sold. Here is their church, or temple, with queer images of wood and tinsel, before which sandal-wood is burned, or small fire-crackers are sparkling.

Well, on Sunday it is all just as it was on Saturday—only a little more so. The shops are all open, and the grave accountants are adding up figures on the abacus, or posting up their ledgers. The cellars are as full as ever of cigarmakers; the eating-houses are fuller than ever; and for every eating-house there are at least a dozen gambling-houses.

A Chinese gambling hell consists of a narrow whitewashed entry, at the end of which hangs a flap of cloth. The play-room lies at right angles with the entry, and is, of course, out of view. In the entry sits a man, apparently asleep, or dreaming. Near his head you will perhaps notice a rope belayed to a hook. This rope leads to a door. If you—a white man and not a policeman—should attempt to enter the narrow passage, the watchman would pull the rope, the rope would pull to the door; and as that closes with a spring lock, you would be shut out.

I counted a dozen of these places in a single block; forty-five of them were open on Sunday night; but the police say that it is not easy to prove that they are gambling dens, for no Chinaman will bear witness against them, and they take no money from a white man.

John pays no regard to Sunday. "It is a great convenience," said a gentleman to me,"to have servants who don't want to go to church." Perhaps— but it is not a great convenience to have in an American community a multitude of heathen who not only prosecute their own business on Sunday, but naturally lead our people to do the same. In the Chinese quarter are numerous clothing and other shops kept by white men, whose customers are Chinese. These are all open on Sunday, which one of them told me was his best day.

There are good and bad Johns, as there are good and bad of all nations. He does not yet fit into our ways. Nor do I see, just now, how he is going to be fitted in. But he is here; John is a fact. He has "come to stay ;" and it belongs to our wisest and most thoughtful men to see how he is to be made a part of us. You can not drive him out.

John now does most of the washing and ironing all over California; "Woogung," or "Ah Lee," or "Fooh Lien," "Washing and Ironing done"—with sometimes the addition "Buttons sewed on strong," is the sign you see oftenest in California towns. In the cities he collects the garbage; he is cook and waiter; he makes the cigars; he works in the woolen mills; go into any manufacturing place and you will see his face; there is a Chinaman and a half on every mile of the Central Pacific Railroad; he raises two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in the State; he makes a good shepherd; in the farming districts the commonest sight is to see John driving a wagon, or ploughing; the lonely ranch-man keeps a Chinese cook; hundreds of Chinese are going over the old mining "slum," and making money by this patient toil; he keeps his New-year's week with jollity and fire-crackers, from San Diego to Sacramento; and so far east as Denver, in Colorado, you see his sign,"Lo Wing, Washing and Ironing." Both political parties in California denounce the Chinaman on their platforms; but if you go to the houses of the men who make these platforms, you will find Chinese servants; if you visit their farms or ranches, you will find Chinese hands; and if you ask the political leader, after dinner, what he really thinks, he will tell you that he could not get on without Chinese, and that the cry against them is the most abominable demagogism; all of which is true.

Slowly, but surely as fate, he is entering one trade and calling after the other and conquering his patient way. Why? Not because he works so cheaply. A Chinese cook in a good family gets $35 per month; a waiter gets from $25 to $30. Elsewhere they work more cheaply, yet their wages keep pace with other wages, and rise from time to time.

It is not because they are cheap. Ask any one who employs them, and he will tell you it is because they do not drink, do not quarrel, are not idle or prone to change, give no eye-service, are patient, respectful, extremely quick to learn, faithful to their instructions, and make no fuss. With these qualities a workingman is cheap at almost any price; and I guess, from what I hear, that John is not slow to learn his value, and will drive his own bargain.

But with these qualities, and endurance for any labor or climate, as was proved when he worked in the snow on the Sierras and built the Central Pacific road, John will not take long to eat his way into the heart of the land. So far as he demonstrates to others, his competitors, the value—the money value —of his good qualities, so far he will he a benefit to the country. He may indeed make steady, patient, persistent toil once more fashionable among us. But in some way, not by laws, for they can do nothing, but by missionary effort, by earnest, general, conscientious training, John must be brought to a comprehension of our customs, so that, even if he does not become a Christian in name or in fact, he shall yet learn to conform his life to that of our American people, and not live among us disordering and disorganizing our own society.

The Chinese quarter of San Francisco is a blot on the city. It is worse, in some respects, than the Five Points. Yet the houses in which gambling, opium smoking, and other vile practices are carried on are the property of men who call themselves respectable, whose children attend church, and who are not ashamed to draw their living from this vice and wretchedness. It is so with us, too; but it is not pleasant to find in a young city like San Francisco the same unconcern for the poor, the same carelessness of how your neighbor lives, the same heedless, cold, godless disregard of whatever passes outside of our own respectable doors and comfortably carpeted houses, which is the curse of an overgrown and old city like New York.

If free government is to continue among us, we can not afford to have a "lower class ;" we can not afford, for our children's sakes, to suffer men, women, and children to live like beasts, for they will in time act like beasts—they will bite. If the whole Chinese quarter of San Francisco, as it is now arranged, could be blown up with gunpowder, and decent accommodations provided for the people who inhabit it, civilization and Christianity and free government on the Pacific coast would make a great gain.

John is inevitable. He has discovered America, and finds it a good country. We shall not keep him out. But it is ours, and not his, to determine whether he shall be a curse or a blessing to us. If we treat him as Christianity teaches that we ought to treat our fellow-men; if we do unto him as we would that others should do to us; if we see that he is instructed in that which we believe to be right, he may become a useful part of us. Teachable he certainly is; a far more civilized being—or, rather; a far less savage creature— than many we get from Christian Great Britain.

But if we choose to pass him by on the other side; to let him live among us as an alien from our manners, habits, customs; ignorant of what we hold as the best, highest, most sacred, and of most importance to our liberty and civilization, John may prove a more troublesome and dangerous creature than any we have yet taken on board our ship.

Just now he is poor. He lives in squalor; and even if a Chinaman is not vicious, in San Francisco his circumstances and surroundings in the Chinese quarter are all degrading.

Without Christianity, free government is impossible. But Christianity means that the ignorant shall be instructed, that the poor shall be kindly treated, that the wealthy, the powerful, the influential shall raise up the poor, ignorant, and despised; and this not by laws, but by improving public opinion, by private effort, by seeking out our neighbor, and trying, each in his own way, to make him a better and worthier man. It was remarked to me that scarcely a Chinaman comes to California who does not know how to read and write in his own language. There is an English school for them already in the city, and no doubt good work has begun; but our own city missionaries have often sadly complained that you can not make men virtuous who live on the Five Points; and so it will be found in San Francisco.

As yet, unfortunately for the Chinese problem, we get only men. There are, I am told, only about five hundred Chinese women in San Francisco, and among them but a very few wives. An important point could be gained if the Chinese emigrants could be induced to bring their wives with them. But no decent man of any nation would like to bring his wife and children to the Chinese quarter in San Francisco.

CHAPTER XIX (Excerpt).


From Merced, where the railroad company is building a very large hotel to accommodate the Yosemite travel, which here branches off for the famous valley, I had the curiosity to go down to the San Joaquin River, where the railroad people are at work. I wanted to see how Chinamen do as road-builders.

There are about seven hundred Chinese employed in grading and laying track, and perhaps one hundred white men. The engineer in charge, Mr. Curtis, told me that the Chinese make, on the whole, the best road-builders in the world. The contractor, Mr. Strobridge, told me that they learn all parts of the work very quickly; and I saw them employed on every kind of work. They do not drink, fight, or strike; they do gamble, if it is not prevented; and it is always said of them that they are very cleanly in their habits. It is the custom, among them, after they have had their suppers every evening, to bathe themselves all over; not in the stream here, which is too cold, but with the help of small tubs. I doubt if the white laborers do as much.

These Chinese receive twenty-eight dollars per month of twenty-six working days, and for this they furnish all their own supplies of food, tents, cooking utensils, etc., but the contractor pays the cooks. They work in gangs of from twelve to twenty men, who form a mess; and the head-man of the gang receives the wages of all, and divides the money among them.

The Chinaman, except when he is in gala dress, is a dingy-looking creature; he is said to be parsimonious; and to an American his quarters always look shabby. One gets the idea, therefore, that he lives poorly; and I should have said that pork and rice probably made up their bill of fare here on the plains. It will perhaps surprise you, as it did me, to find that they have a greater variety of food than their white neighbors.

They buy their supplies at a store kept in several cars near the end of the track; and this shop was a great curiosity to me. Here is a list of the food kept and sold there to the Chinese workmen: Dried oysters, dried cuttle-fish, dried fish, sweet rice crackers, dried bamboo sprouts, salted cabbage, Chinese sugar (which tasted to me very much like sorghum sugar), four kinds of dried fruits, five kinds of desiccated vegetables, vermicelli, dried sea-weed, Chinese bacon cut up into salt cutlets, dried meat of the abelona shell, pea-nut oil, dried mushrooms, tea, and rice. They buy also pork of the butcher, and on holidays they eat poultry.

Compare this bill of fare with the beef, beans, bread-and-butter, and potatoes of the white laborers, and you will see that John has a much greater variety of food.

At this railroad store they sold also pipes, bowls, chop-sticks, large shallow cast-iron bowls for cooking rice, lamps, joss paper, Chinese writing-paper, pencils and India ink, Chinese shoes, and clothing imported ready-made from China. Also, scales—for the Chinaman is particular, and re-weighs every thing he buys as soon as he gets it to camp. Finally, there was Chinese tobacco.

The desiccated vegetables were of excellent quality, and dried, evidently, by a process as good as the best in use with us.

The cost of these supplies, imported from China, was surprisingly low, and the contractor told me that the Chinese laborers can save about thirteen dollars per month, and, where they do not gamble, do lay by as much as that. ...

Courtesy of Bruce C. Cooper Collection.

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