Far Western Chinese

From an 1869 issue of Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round, London, England. The correspondent is unidentified.

    Travelling over the mountain trails almost anywhere in California, no matter how remote and solitary may be your route, you can scarcely fail to meet a curious figure--sloping-eyed, yellow complexioned, with a shaved head, and pigtail carefully secured in a twisted knot behind; clad in a loose cloth or calico garment, half shirt, half jacket; trousers equally wide; a long bamboo pole over his shoulder, on either end of which, carefully balanced, are a sack of rice, a piece of pork, and a heterogeneous mass of mining tools; and, over all, the head of this strange individual is covered with a hat made of slips of bamboo, the brim of which equals in breadth a moderately sized umbrella. This is John Chinaman from home, finding his fortune. He always answers to the name of "John." He follows many ways of making his modicum of rice; and the representative of Chinese industry in this case is "Mining John." The white miners only allow him to labour at the poorer diggings, or at others which have been so well wrought over, as no longer to yield returns enough to satisfy their ideas as to wages. Accordingly, we find John at work in some remote locality which the stronger race has deserted, or which is too poor to tempt them to drive out the Chinese. In former times, this was frequently done; and in the old California newspapers reports of such outrages, or of meetings at which resolutions to do so were passed, are quite common. Some years ago I had occasion to pass a few days with some Chinese miners in the mountains. They numbered some twenty men, and occupied the deserted cabins of the miners who had formerly wrought in the locality. Every morning they would go down to the riverside, and labour, steadily washing the gravel for gold until mid-day, when their slight meal of rice and vegetables was partaken of. At six o'clock, or thereabout, they stopped work for the day; and after carefully washing themselves in the river, they prepared supper. I was the only white there, and had made an arrangement with them about my meals. Accordingly my supper was first prepared: an office which I generally superintended, as they had, according to my observation, a nasty habit of incorporating rattlesnakes, frogs, slugs, and "such small deer," in their stews. After supper they would look to their little patches of watermelons, cabbages, &c.; and their head man would talk to me about his daily life, or the province he had come from, and to which he hoped before long to return. The greater portion of them, however, after they had weighed out the proceeds of the day's labour and allotted each man his share by the aid of a suanpan (a sort of miniature Babbage's calculating machine) would place themselves on their sleeping benches, put a little tray before them on which were all the materials for smoking, and soon drug themselves into a dreaming stupidity with the fumes of opium. Their huts were situated amid the most beautiful scenery, by the banks of a fine river, over which cataracts from the snow-capped mountains in the distance fell gurgling or roaring into the waters below. But for all this, on which I never tired of gazing, my hosts seemed to care little. They had no visitors, save an Indian on horseback now and then, who treated them very cavalierly and rarely dismounted. On Sundays they generally laid over from work, not from any religious motive, as they were Buddhists, but merely as a day of rest; and sometimes, if they had been more than ordinarily successful, one of them would go to the town or trading port, distant some ten miles, and buy some provisions and a bottle of a beverage called (I quote the label) "fine Old Tom," over which they made very merry for a few hours, playing a rude description of musical instrument sounding like a paralytic drum. They made, however, poor pay, generally not more than three or four shillings per diem each; though now and then they would come on a lucky pocket, and return in the evening grinning from ear to ear. The ground was, however, getting exhausted, and they were then talking of putting their household goods on the bamboo pole, and of removing to some more favoured locality which they had heard of. Go down into almost any town or village, and you will find John moving about with that same silent air of his. Here he generally follows the business of a laundryman. All through the bystreets and suburbs you can see his little cabin with a signboard informing that here lives--"Whang Ho. Washing and Ironing. Buttons sewed on"; and, peeping through the window, you see the proprietor busily at work clear starching, or ironing out the frills on the shirt bosom of probably the governor himself. He has a large pan full of lighted charcoal, which he uses as a "flat iron," and his mouth is full of water, which he most adroitly sprinkles over the linen in a fine shower. If you have any foul clothes, he will follow you home, take them away, and return them again in a day or two, charging about sixpence apiece for his trouble--bargaining, however, that he has not to find linen collars for paper ones which may have been dropped in. From the frequent warnings of washing John on this subject, I suspect that it is a custom of the colonial gentlemen, by which our friend has suffered in time past.
    In the suburbs of every town agricultural John is busy at work, clearing the most unlikely pieces of ground, for the purpose of raising vegetables for the town market. These farmers, or rather market gardeners, are generally in companies of three or four; and if you pass that way, you can generally find one or other of the bucolic partnership driving the old cart and still older horse either from or to market; if the latter is the case, it is usually filled with several casks of garbage, &c., which the industrious proprietor has bought or begged from the hotel keepers for feeding his pigs with.
    Shopkeeping John is of a rather more aristocratic type. He still wears his country's dress, but it is of a fine material, and his shoes are of the best description, with the thickest of felt soles. He is also more particular about his person, and shaves his head with greater regularity than any of the labouring classes, much to the advantage of his personal appearance; for, however smart a Chinaman may look with his sprucely shaven head and neat pigtail, he looks a most atrocious scoundrel when the hair is beginning to grow down on his forehead. These little shops are chiefly patronised by their own nation, or by the pedlars who at all seasons--but more especially in the winter, when the outlying settlers find it inconvenient to come into the town for trifling purchases--perambulate the country with two huge hampers swung, as usual, on either end of a bamboo pole over the dealer's shoulder. Most obliging are these Chinese pedlars, and they always make a point, every Christmas, of making some little present to their chief customers and to the children. Most of the large storekeepers and wholesale dealers are men of education and refinement, standing well with the commercial community, but, except on rare occasions, never mingling in any society but that of their own people. A few of them keep cheap eating-houses or restaurants, frequented by sailors and others who have no objection to a dinner composed of very dubious materials, so long as its cost does not exceed a shilling or eighteenpence. Many of them are general servants, and in almost every house in North-West America the cook is a Chinaman. Female servants are rare, expensive, and most independent; so that our Asiatic friends have almost a monopoly of the kitchen. They get for such services from fifteen to twenty dollars per week, with board and lodging; while the young ladies who condescend to do "house helping" will demand from thirty to forty dollars, coupled with the bargain that they are not to brush boots, and are to have two nights a week, and the whole of Sunday, to themselves! They are not strong enough for labourers, but what they lack in muscle, they make up in industry. Accordingly, working for moderate wages, a large number of them are employed in public works, like the Pacific Railroad. Indeed it is principally owing to the assistance rendered by them that the rapid formation of the portion of the line already completed on the west side of the Rocky Mountains is due. They were also employed in considerable numbers on the Panama Railroad, but had to be discontinued, as they had a disagreeable habit, when the day was very warm, of fastening themselves by their pigtails to the "dumpcart," used to empty the earth into the Chagres river. They also employ themselves to some extent in catching and drying fish for the Chinese market. Every year they preserve several tons of the albicore, or ear-shell, for exportation to Canton, where it is used in a variety of manufactures. Even their signboards are painted by themselves, as it is dangerous to employ a jocular American, especially when under the influence of Mongehala [sic] whisky. Near San Francisco is a Chinese washing-house, surmounted by a signboard informing the passersby that "ALL'S WELL--WE MAY BE HAPPY YET! YOU BET!" which no doubt the innocent proprietor supposes to be an eloquent announcement anent "washing and ironing." Most of their large firms' designations do not express the names of the owner or owners, but are symbolic. For instance, they mean "The wide-spreading firm," "The firm of the Flowery Land," and so on. All of their food, clothing, &c., with the exception of pork, boots, or mining tools, are imported from China. Some years ago they were detected carrying on a most lucrative business in importing a liquid called Chinese wine, which was discovered to be a very strong brandy, and, accordingly, notwithstanding its name, exciseable in the highest duties. If a Chinese dies in a foreign country, Mongol theologians seem to be agreed that it will go hard with him in the afterworld unless his bones repose in the Flowery Land. Accordingly, the companies which bring the Chinese emigrants over to California are under contract to take them back again after a certain period, dead or alive. A Chinese funeral is a curious scene in San Francisco. A special burying ground, called the Yerba Buena Cemetery, is set apart for Celestial repose. When carrying the body to the grave, a solemn individual scatters little slips of paper, with wise aphorisms from Confucius written on them, on either side; and on the lintels of their doorways are strips of red paper, on which are inscribed similar wise saws. On the grave is placed a roast fowl, some rice, and a bottle of "Chinese wine"; after which the mourners depart, never looking behind them. There is, however, another class of gentlemen who assist at the departed funeral, who are not so backward. A number of the rowdies of San Francisco, who are concealed near at hand, no sooner see the last of the mourners than they make a rush for the edibles and drinkables left for the benefit of Joss, and very soon make short work of them--Joss, no doubt, getting the credit. After lying some months in the grave, the bones are dug up, and carefully cleaned and polished with brushes, tied up, and put into little bundles, which are nicely labelled and stowed away, in a small tin coffin, in the particular hong, or commercial house, which is responsible for them.* [*I notice an advertisement in a California paper about a new earthenware coffin, combining the advantages of durability, cleanliness, and cheapness; which latter virtue will no doubt commend it to the Chinese undertakers. The editor, in a paragraphic puff, remarks "that any one having once used this coffin, would use no other!"] When a sufficient number of these interesting mementos have accumulated, a ship is chartered, and the coffins despatched with their contents back to Shanghae, Canton, or Hong-Kong. I saw a vessel in San Francisco harbour laden with four hundred dead Chinese. On some of the silent mountain trails I have come across some of these lonely graves, only marked with a cleft stick, in which was stuck a slip of red paper, with the name of the deceased, followed by one of the sage maxims of Kungfutzce (Confucius), about the vanity of things earthly, which the subject of the cousin of the moon who lay below had already experienced in his own person.
    Every year thousands of Chinese are entering to supply the place of those who leave, so that instead of decreasing, their numbers are increasing with the country. Nobody likes John overmuch, and some of the baser sort have the most determined enmity to him. The storekeepers don't like him, because he deals with his own people, though they forget that he takes nothing from them, and sometimes does put something in their pockets for mining tools. Beside, all John's dealings are for ready money, for though he may haggle long enough about the price yet he gets no credit, though worse men may. The labourer doesn't like him, for he works for lower wages than he. This is a favourite subject of growling with these lazy loafers, as they doze away in bar-rooms with their feet on the top of the stove. Yet there is room for all of them, and the Chinese are only taken because white men can't be got. Politicians don't take him up, because he doesn't vote, and therefore is of no account in municipal or state elections, and is not to be conciliated, while the newspaper editor, who ought to put in a good word for him, is very lukewarm on the subject, for John does not advertise, while his detractors do. Accordingly, poor John is kicked and abused with very little chance of redress. He is hunted out of every good mining locality, and he may think himself well off if he is not robbed and has his pigtail cut off as a lesson to him, when of course the local paper will be sure to repeat the time-honoured joke about a "long tale being cut short." Formerly rowdies thought it good fun to catch a Chinaman and cut his tail off, though, as every one who knows that people is aware, he would as soon you took his life, as he is an outcast among his co-religionists until his "hair grows." Some of them are Christians, and have given up this method of hairdressing, but these are rare exceptions. I am glad, however, to say that of late years the California legislature have made it a penal offence to cut off a Chinaman's pigtail; at the same time I never heard of anybody being punished, though there are plenty of pigtails lopped off. In the streets he is openly insulted. In Christian California I have seen a poor harmless Chinese stoned by boys until he was bleeding, hardly one being manly enough to take his part. I have heard of others after whom ruffians would hound their dogs, while the poor persecuted man was torn and bleeding, and the law touched his assailants not. The law passes acts against him, taxes him heavily as he enters, taxes him for making his living, and taxes him at every turn. It is quite a perquisite of the local official, this Chinese taxation, and he is either a very just, or, by no means, a "smart" man, who cannot make a revenue out of the unfortunate Celestial.
    Even the Digger Indian, taking example from his superiors (?), persecutes and robs John also, if he finds him in the mountains; and as our poor friend will do anything rather than fight, he comes off very poorly indeed. John, it must be acknowledged, has an insuperable objection to paying taxes, notwithstanding his being in early life accustomed to be "squeezed" by a mandarin in his own country, and he will often take to the mountains when he hears of the sheriff coming his way. In Southern Oregon, where nearly all the diggings are occupied by Chinese, the sheriff, in order to take them by strategy, has to send a few deputies in the guise of miners, with packs of blankets on their backs, who surprise John before he has time to escape, and if he shows any symptoms of resistance, with a revolver at his head, force him to "pungle down the dust." I remember hearing a few years ago of some Chinese who, expecting the tax-gatherer, went and took refuge in a cave which they had bribed a Digger Indian to show them. After their guide had taken their money, he went off to the sheriff, and receiving another bribe, informed him where they were hiding. A fire was kindled at the mouth of the cave, and the poor fellows, fairly trapped, had to crawl out one by one, and to pay their money without loss of time; they never think of the wretched economy of all this, and of the loss of time being more than all the tax amounts to, but only of the sum which has to be squeezed out of their hoard.
    Yet John is not such a bad fellow--even when from home. Though rarely mingling in general society, yet on high occasions he is most hospitable. Once a year in Southern Oregon the Chinese give a grand dinner, to which they invite the neighbouring storekeepers and other friends. These storekeepers almost live by the Chinese, as there are no native dealers there. It is amusing to see the stock in trade of one of these 'cute Yankees, who is possibly a pillar of the church--Chinese gods, papers to burn in the temple of Joss, Chinese suanpans, almanacks, novels, medicines, pickled cabbage, slugs, &c., possibly the whole superintended by a Chinese clerk. These entertainments were, however, greatly eclipsed by the grand dinner they gave to Mr. Burlinghame, at present chief ambassador to the treaty powers, on his way out to China as United States' ambassador, and some time previously to Mr. Colfax, the Speaker of Congress, on the occasion of his visit to San Francisco in 1865. It was given by the five great hongs, or mercantile companies, of San Francisco, and was quite unique in its way, Chinese dishes and European being both presented. Of the former I counted some one hundred and sixty-five, but there must have been many more. They included every possible delicacy--sharks' fins, bird-nest soup, young bamboo, scorpions' eggs, &c. &c. &c., eaten with chopsticks, with dessert about the beginning of the feast, including tea, which is said to have cost fifty dollars per pound. Between the courses the hosts and guests left the table, and were entertained by a Chinese opera, consisting of a one-stringed fiddle, a sort of gong, and something looking like a mud turtle, on the back of which they beat. They are exceedingly industrious, and if a Chinaman makes only half a dollar a day, he will save half of it. If he is well off he lives well, but still saves. At their new year (in February) all accounts must be settled up, otherwise good reason must be shown why he should continue in business, or hold further commercial dealings. Most of them speak a sort of broken English--known in Canton as "Pigeon [sic] English," and all are exceedingly anxious to learn. Still, notwithstanding all their industry, they will occasionally come to grief, and land within the interior of the Californian Whitecross Prison. A Chinese, named Ah Sam, who kept the "Lord Nelson Restaurant," in Victoria, Vancouver Island, became bankrupt, and was ordered to file a schedule of his assets. Not knowing the names of his customers, he had entered short descriptions of them in his ledger, and when he entered court, he had nothing more than the following to show. It was given me by his solicitor as a legal curiosity:
                              dols. cents.
A butcher owes . . . 18
Captain of a schooner . . . 60
Cook in a ship-galley . . . 8
Bed shirt man . . . 27
Man comes late (a Printer?) . . . 10
Cap man . . . 8 50
Lean man, white man . . . 20
Fat Frenchman . . . 30 62½
Captain, tall man . . . 20
French old man . . . 8
Whiskers man . . . 18 37½
Blacksmith . . . 49
Barkeeper . . . 5
Workman . . . 5
Whiskers man's friend . . . 6 25
Double blanket man . . . 6 50
Little short man . . . 10
Double blanket man's friend . . . 15
Lame leg man . . . 40
Fat man . . . 9 25
Old workman . . . 8
Bed whiskers . . . 7 60
Steamboat man . . . 18
Indian Yap . . . 4 62½
Dick make coal shoveller . . . 28
Tea Yap Earrings . . . 25
Flower pantaloon man . . . 16
Shoemaker gone to California . . . 15 62½
A man--butcher's friend . . . 39
Stable man . . . 16
Get tight* [*Drunk.] man . . . 7
    The last entry the Commissioner decided was of much too general a character to allow of the slightest hope of fixing the debt upon any one in particular.
    In San Francisco there are five great hongs, or merchant companies, called the Yung-wo, the Sze-yap, the Sam-yap, the Yan-wo, and Wing-yeung companies. These companies have large wooden buildings in the town, where they not only carry on business, but lodge and board all the people attached to their companies when in the city. There are also benevolent associations to take care of the sick of their own people. There are no Chinese beggars in San Francisco, and that nation alone has no representatives in the public hospital. Most of the Chinese on the Pacific coast come to California under contract to one or other of these companies, engaged at a low rate of wages (generally about eight dollars per month), and these companies again let out their labour in various ways. This is essentially the coolie system, and I think there need be little doubt but that this prevails in California. The labourers are said to be very faithful to their contracts. They have never yet learned to use the food of the people among whom they live. Rice is still the great staple, with sometimes a little pork; and on high occasions, ducks and other fowls. He is not, however, at all particular in his commissariat. Rats, mice, and even their mortal enemy the cat, is not safe from John's omnivorous stomach. I have often heard the miners venting curses both loud and deep on the prowling Chinese, who had cleared the "creek" of cats. Their houses have a peculiar faint, sickening odour, perfectly indescribable. A friend of mine used to declare that they smell of nothing but effete civilisation!
    I have said so much about John's honesty that it may not be out of place to close this article with a few remarks upon the disreputable side of the Chinese character on the Pacific, albeit some have been of opinion that there is only one side, and that the shady one. It cannot but be expected, where thousands of men are continually arriving, but that some rogues will slip in, more especially when the labourers are recruited from the notoriously scoundrelly coolie population of Chinese cities. Some of them are most adroit fowl thieves, and will clear a fowl-yard between sunset and sunrise. They rarely attempt burglary, and chiefly lay themselves out for the "sneaking line." As they pass in single file along the street, with a basket on either end of a bamboo pole, loose inconsidered trifles are speedily transferred from shop-doors to these receptacles, the thief marching on as innocently as possible. Some few years ago they put a considerable amount of base coin into circulation. They were also accused of "sweating" the coin--shaking it up in a bag for some hours, and then burning the bag to obtain the few grains which clung to the fibres of the cloth. They had a still more ingenious method of swindling, and that was to split open the twenty-dollar gold pieces, adroitly extract the inside, and then filling it with some metal of equal weight, close the two sides again. So neatly was this done that the union was not detected until some time after the trick had been in successful operation, and then only in the Mint at Philadelphia. They are notorious gamblers, and expend a large proportion of their earnings in this manner. In San Francisco and all the large towns there are regular gambling-houses; and in the mining camps they spend a great portion of their leisure in playing generally for "pice," [sic] or other low stakes. The keepers of these houses must be wealthy, as they invariably pay the large fines which are sometimes inflicted on them when detected infringing the act passed against gambling-houses. They seem to have no idea of the binding nature of a legal oath, and accordingly their evidence is always received most cautiously. In the courts of law they are usually sworn by breaking a plate, cutting the neck off a fowl, or by burning a piece of paper before them. They do not intermarry with the whites, and few of the labourers bring wives with them. There are upwards of fifteen hundred of their women on the Pacific coast, one thousand of whom are in San Francisco, and nearly all of them are of the vilest class. The children are tolerably numerous in San Francisco, and are pretty little creatures, with their sparkling black eyes and queer little queues behind, eked out with green or scarlet silk. Suicides are very common among them, the Chinese seeming to care nothing for life. They are mostly Buddhists of a very corrupted type, though a few Christians are found among them. The former have a fine temple in San Francisco, and in every house is a little family temple, or Joss house, before which papers are burnt and offerings made at stated times. With the exception of gambling and opium smoking, they have few amusements. In San Francisco they support a curious little theatre, where the music is a demoniacal band of gongs; and the same play seemed to have been going on for several years when I last visited it, and is not yet finished. Kite-flying is a favourite out-of-doors amusement. Chinese kites, made in the form of butterflies and birds, which give out a singing noise, are in great demand among the youth of the Pacific coast. Occasionally, on a Sunday, a few of them will have an "out" on horseback, or in a waggon. On these occasions some of them dress in European clothes, and the horsemanship and general display is a sight for gods and men! Except on the great festival of their new year, you see very little dissipation among them. These holidays generally last three or four days, when all business is suspended, and you must wear foul linen until John your washerman has finished his jollification. The morning of the first day of the holidays is ushered in by a loud display of crackers and other fireworks, and before nine o'clock the streets are covered with red papers. Sometimes, to the great delight of young California, a whole caskful is let off at once. A Chinese merchant told me that it generally costs about one thousand pounds each new year for fireworks alone; and some houses in the city will expend from sixty to eighty pounds for this item alone.
    During this season no allusion to anything sad, such as death, sickness, losses in business, or any misfortune, is tolerated by any one. Every sentiment must be of hope, good will, and good cheer. Every true subject of the Flowery Land does his best; and the attire of some of the wealthy Chinese far exceeds in cost the dresses of the richest of the whites. A sable cape, silk trousers, and embroidered silk jacket, make a very expensive turnout. The greetings and salutations are very ceremonious, and all imaginary blessings are included in the interchange of good wishes. Upon almost all the stores, places of business, and tenements of the Chinese may be seen, during the holiday season, sundry strips of red paper pasted up, inscribed with Chinese characters. They are usually five in number, and are recognised in common parlance as "charms," but among those familiar with the usages of these people as the "five blessings." Each is inscribed with a separate blessing, such as health, wealth, friends, long life, and posterity. At this period they also visit the temple, observing certain religious rites, and making offerings of roast pigs and other dainties to their idols, which are afterwards withdrawn and eaten at their own feasts. The first four days at the beginning of each new year are appropriated for the lower classes, and thirty days for the gentry, as a time of feasting in China, but on the Pacific coast the custom is somewhat modified. Some of the wealthy Chinese keep up a round of festivities for two or three weeks, while the special holiday season may be said to expire at the end of three or four days. They have also other holidays in the course of the year. About these times, indigestion and other ills trouble John, and the doctor has to be called in. There are many of these professional gentlemen on the Pacific coast, grave-looking old fellows, but generally arrant rogues. Deer-horns when in the "velvet" are eagerly bought, being esteemed a valuable medicament by the Chinese. The gall of a bear is valued at its weight in gold, and the rare Albino deer is equally prized.
    In 1864, there was quite a furor in San Francisco about a Chinese doctor, whose consulting-rooms were besieged by the elite of the city. His success was said to consist in careful regimen, his medicines being very harmless. He used, however, to insure attention to diet and general conduct by laying down strict rules, to diverge from which, he informed his patients, would cause certain death to ensue from the medicine. He was of a fine appearance, richly dressed, and spoke through an Englishman as an interpreter. His lionisation lasted a few weeks, and after that he gradually dropped into oblivion, to make way for some other sensation. On the whole, the rapidly increasing Chinese population is an advantage to the American States and territories on the Pacific, as well as the British colonies further north. They cultivate ground which no one else will, and work gold mines disregarded by the whites. They are consumers to some extent of European and American manufactures, and whether or no, their merchants pay taxes and import duties. On the whole, though kicked and abused, simply because they are harmless, inoffensive, and weak, and do not retaliate on the ruffians who maltreat them, as would anyone else, they are an industrious people who, if they do not become citizens, yet do not interfere in any way in politics, and in proportion to their numbers, give less trouble to the law than anyone else, and are therefore deserving of every encouragement.
All the Year Round, March 20, 1869, pages 367-372

Last revised March 1, 2009