From Across the Continent:
A Summer's Journey to the Rocky Mountains, the Mormons and the Pacific States
By Samuel Bowles [Editor of the Springfield (Mass.) Republican]
New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1866

From Letter 23: THE CHINESE


I HAVE been waiting before writing of the Chinese in these Pacific States, till my experience of them had culminated in the long-promised grand dinner with their leaders and aristocrats. This came last night, and while I am full of the subject,--shark's fins and resurrected fungus digest slowly,--let me write of this unique and important element in the population and civilization of this region. There are no fewer than sixty to eighty thousand Chinamen here. They are scattered all over the States and Territories of the Coast, and number from one-eighth to one-sixth of the entire population. We began to see them at Austin, in Nevada, and have found them everywhere since, in country and city, in the woods, among the mines, north in the British dominions, on the Coast, in the mountains,everywhere that work is to be done, and money gained by patient, plodding industry. They have been coming over from home since 1852, when was the largest emigration, (twenty thousand.) A hundred thousand in all have come, but thirty thousand to forty thousand have gone back. None come really to stay; they do not identify themselves with the country; but to get work, to make money, and go back. They never, or very rarely, bring their wives. The Chinese women here are prostitutes, imported as such by those who make a business of satisfying the lust of men. Nor are their customers altogether Chinese; base white men patronize their wares as well, Some of these women are taken as "secondary" wives by the Chinese residents, and a sort of family life established; but, as a general rule, there are no families among them, and few children.

The occupations of these people are various. There is hardly anything that they cannot turn their hands to,--the work of women as well as men. They do the washing and ironing for the whole population; and sprinkle the clothes as they iron them, by squirting water over them in a fine spray from their mouths. Everywhere, in village and town, you see rude signs, informing you that See Hop or Ah Thing or Sam Sing or Wee Lung or Cum Sing wash and iron. How Tie is a doctor, and Hop Chang and Chi Lung keep stores. They are good house servants; cooks, table-waiters, and nurses; better, on the whole, than Irish girls, and as cheap,--fifteen to twenty-five dollars a month and board. One element of their usefulness as cooks is their genius for imitation; show them once how to do a thing, and their education is perfected; no repetition of the lesson is needed. But they seem to be more in use as house servants in the country than the city; they do not share the passion of the Irish girls for herding together, and appear to be content to be alone in a house, in a neighborhood, or a town.

Many are vegetable gardeners, too. In this even climate and with this productive soil, their painstaking culture, much hoeing and constant watering makes little ground very fruitful, and they gather in three, four and five crops a year. Their garden patches, in the neighborhood of cities and village, are always distinguishable from the rougher and more carelessly cultured grounds of. their Saxon rivals. The Pacific Railroad is being built by Chinese labor; several thousand Chinamen are now rapidly grading the track through the rocks and sands of the Sierra Nevadas,--without them, indeed, this great work would have to wait for years, or move on with slow, hesitating steps. They can, by their steady industry, do nearly as much in a day, even in this rough labor, as the average of white men, and they cost only about half as much, say thirty dollars a month against fifty dollars. Besides, white labor is not to be had in the quantities necessary for such a great job as this. Good farm hands are the Chinese, also; and in the simpler and routine mechanic arts they have proven adepts;--there is hardly any branch of labor in which, under proper tuition, they do not or cannot succeed most admirably. The great success of the woolen manufacture here is due to the admirable adaptation and comparative cheapness of Chinese labor for the details. They are quick to learn, quiet, cleanly and faithful, and have no "off days," no sprees to get over. As factory operatives they receive twenty and twenty-five dollars a month, and board themselves, though quarters are provided for them on the mill grounds. Fish, vegetables, rice and pork are the main food, which is prepared and eaten with such economy that they live for about one-third what Yankee laborers can.

Thousands of the Chinese are gleaners in the gold fields. They follow in crowds after the white miners, working and washing over their deserted or neglected sands, and thriving on results that their predecessors would despise. A Chinese gold washer is content with one to two dollars a day; while the white man starves or moves on disgusted with twice that. A very considerable portion of the present gold production of California must now be the work of Chinese painstaking and moderate ambition. The traveler meets these Chinese miners everywhere on his road through the State; at work in the deserted ditches, or moving from one to another, on foot with their packs, or often in the stage. sharing the seats and paying the price of their aristocratic Saxon rivals.

Labor, cheap labor, being the one great palpable need of the Pacific States,--far more indeed than capital the want and necessity of their prosperity,--we should all say that these Chinese would be welcomed on every hand, their emigration encouraged, and themselves protected by law. Instead of which, we see them the victims of all sorts of prejudice and injustice. Ever since they began to come here, even now, it is a disputed question with the public, whether they should not be forbidden our shores. They do not ask or wish for citizenship; they have no ambition to become voters; but they are even denied protection in persons and property by the law. Their testimony is inadmissible against the white man; and, as miners, they are subject to a tax of four dollars a month, or nearly fifty dollars a year, each, for the benefit of the County and State treasuries. Thus ostracized and burdened by the State, they, of course, have been the victims of much meanness and cruelty from individuals. To abuse and cheat a Chinaman; to rob him; to kick and cuff him; even to kill him, have been things not only done with impunity by mean and wicked men, but even with vain glory. Terrible are some of the cases of robbery and wanton maiming and murder reported from the mining districts. Had "John,"--here and in China alike the English and Americans nickname every Chinaman "John,"--a good claim, original or improved, he was ordered to "move on,"--it belonged to somebody else. Had he hoarded a pile, he was ordered to disgorge; and, if he resisted, he was killed. Worse crimes even are known against them; they have been wantonly assaulted and shot down or stabbed by bad men, as sportsmen would surprise and shoot their game in the woods. There was no risk in such barbarity; if "John" survived to tell the tale, the law would not hear him or believe him. Nobody was so low, so miserable, that he did not despise the Chinaman and could not outrage him. Ross Browne has an illustration of the status of poor "John," that is quite to the point. A vagabond Indian comes upon a solitary Chinaman, working over the sands of a, deserted gulch for gold. "Dish is my land,"-- says he,--"you pay me fifty dollar." The poor celestial turns, deprecatingly, saying: "Melican man (American) been here, and took all,--no bit left." Indian, irate and fierce,--"D----- Melican man, you pay me fifty dollar, or I killee you."

Through a growing elevation of public opinion, and a reactionary experience towards depression, that calls for study of the future, the Californians are beginning to have a better appreciation of their Chinese immigrants. The demand for them is increasing. The new State, to be built upon manufactures and agriculture, is seen to need their cheap and reliable labor; and more pains will be taken to attract them to the country. But even now, a man who aspires to be a political leader, till lately a possible United States Senator, and the most-widely circulated daily paper of this city, pronounce against the Chinese, and would drive them home. Their opposition is based upon the prejudices and jealousy of ignorant white laborers,--the Irish particularly,--who regard the Chinese as rivals in their field, and clothes itself in that cheap talk, so common among the bogus democracy of the East, about this being a "white man's country," and no place for Africans or Asiatics. But our national democratic principle, of welcoming hither the people of every country and clime, aside, the white man needs the negro and the Chinaman more than they him; the pocket appeal will override the prejudices of his soul,--and we shall do a sort of rough justice to both classes, because it will pay. The political questions involved in the negro's presence, and pressing so earnestly for solution, do not yet arise with regard to the Chinese,--perhaps will never be presented. As I have said, the Chinese are ambitious of no political rights, no citizenship,--it is only as our merchants go to China that they come here. Their great care, indeed, is to be buried at home; they stipulate with anxiety for that; and the great bulk of all who die on these shores are carried back for final interment.

There is no ready assimilation of the Chinese with our habits and modes of thought and action. Their simple, narrow though not dull minds have run too long in the old grooves to be easily turned off. They look down even with contempt upon our newer and rougher civilization, regarding us barbaric in fact, and calling us in their hearts, if not in speech, "the foreign devils." And our conduct towards them has inevitably intensified these feelings,--it has driven them back upon their naturally self-contained natures and habits. So they bring here and retain all their home ways of living and dressing, their old associations and religion. Their streets and quarters in town and city are China reproduced, unalleviated. Christian missionaries make small inroads among them. There is an intelligent and faithful one here (Rev. Mr. Loomis,) who has an attractive chapel and school, but his followers are few, and not rapidly increasing. But he and his predecessors and assistants have been and are doing a good work in teaching the two diverse races to better understand each other and in showing them how they can be of value to one another. They have been the constant and urgent advocates of the personal rights of the Chinese.

The religion of these people is a cheap, showy idolatry, with apparently nothing like fanaticism in it, and not a very deep hold in itself on their natures. "Josh" is their god or idol, and the "Josh" houses are small affairs, fitted up with images and altars a good deal after the style of cheap Catholic churches in Europe. Their whole civilization impresses me as a low, disciplined, perfected, sensuous sensualism. Everything in their life and their habits seems cut and dried like their food. There is no sign of that abandonment to an emotion, to a passion, good or bad, that marks the western races. Their great vice is gambling; that is going on constantly in their houses and shops; and commercial women and barbaric music minister to its indulgence. Cheap lotteries are a common form of this passion. Opium-smoking ranks next; and this is believed to be indulged in more extensively among them here than at home, since there is less restraint from relatives and authorities, and the means of procuring the article are greater. The wildly brilliant eye, the thin, haggard face, and the broken nervous system betray the victim to opium-smoking; and all tense, all excited, staring in eye and expression, he was almost a frightful object, as we peered in through the smoke of his half-lighted little room, and saw him lying on his mat in the midst of his fatal enjoyment.

But as laborers in our manufactories and as servants in our houses, beside their constant contact with our life and industry otherwise, these emigrants from the East cannot fail to get enlargement of ideas, freedom and novelty of action, and familiarity with and then preference for our higher civilization. Slowly and hardly but still surely this work must go on; and their constant going back and forth between here and China must also transplant new elements of thought and action into the home circles. Thus it is that we may hope and expect to reach this great people with the influences of our better and higher life. It is through modification and revolution in materialities, in mariner of living, in manner of doing, that we shall pave the way for our thought and our religion. Our missionaries to the Five Points have learned to attack first with soap and water and clean clothes. The Chinese that come here are unconsciously besieged at first with better food and more of it than they have at home. The bath-house and the restaurant are the avant couriers of the Christian civilization.

The Chinese that come to these States are among the best of the peasantry from the country about Canton and Hong Kong. None of them are the miserable coolies that have been imported by the English to their Indian colonies as farm laborers. They associate themselves here into companies, based upon the village or neighborhood from which they come at home. These companies have headquarters in San Francisco; their presidents are men of high intelligence and character; and their office is to afford a temporary refuge for all who belong to their bodies, to assist them to work, to protect them against wrong, and send the dead back to their kindred at home. Beside these organizations, there are guilds or trade associations among the Chinese engaged in different occupations. Thus the laundry-men and the cigarmakers have organizations, with heavy fees from the members, power over the common interests of the business, and an occasional festivity.

The impressions these people make upon the American mind, after close observation of their habits, are very mixed and contradictory. They unite to many of the attainments and knowledge of the highest civilization, in some of which they are models for ourselves, many of the incidents and most of the ignorance of a simple barbarism. It may yet prove that we have as much to learn from them as they from us. Certainly here in this great field, this western half of our continental Nation, their diversified labor is a blessing and a necessity. It is all, perhaps more even, than the Irish and the Africans have been and are to our eastern wealth and progress. At the first, at least, they have greater adaptability and perfection than either of these classes of laborers, to whom we are so intimately and sometimes painfully accustomed.

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