THE CHINESE IN SAN FRANCISCO
Harper’s Weekly, March 20, 1880, page 182 (Illustrated Article)
The Chinese emigrates, but he does not assimilate. So far as is possible, he preserves in his new home all the manners and customs of the old. Having been born in the "Celestial Empire," whose arrangements he regards as perfect, the strange civilization of the West has no attraction for him, and he will have none of it. Such a scene, therefore, as the one in our engraving on page 188 has about it nearly all the elements of a holiday celebration in Canton or Pekin. The Chinese quarter of San Francisco, lit up and adorned for a festival, might be a strip of a most populous Asiatic city inserted in the midst of a characteristically American town.


At Frisco
March 20, 1880, page 183


A Holiday In Chinatown,
 San Francisco
March 20, 1880, page 188

The street peculiarities of the "quarter" are most typical of its Mongolian character. The predominating colors which greet the eye are red and gilt, most of the insignia of business consisting of bright red letters. The signs, which read vertically, instead of horizontally like our own, frequently extend from the lintel to the threshold of the door. The sidewalks on either side are crowded with stalls for the sale of fruit, sweetmeats, and a thousand articles familiar only to the Mongolian appetite and taste. In a space not two feet wide and three feet long, a cobbler finds room on the sidewalk to carry on his trade. Every nook and irregularity between doors and entrances to basements is occupied by cobblers, tinkers, razor-sharpeners, fruit-sellers, and other "curb-stone merchants." Some of these pay a small rental for the privileges they enjoy, but many are free tenants. During the evening the leading streets of the quarter are more thronged and crowded by pedestrians than any other quarter of the city. The theatres, the restaurants, the joss-houses, and some of the other buildings are fancifully decorated and illuminated on their balconies and other stories during the evening, while Chinese lanterns of all sizes and shapes flutter and flicker in front of all public places.
Like other Californians, many of the Chinese board at restaurants. The merchants usually keep a cook and small kitchen in the rear of their establishments, and use the principal room for a dining-room; but they all go to restaurants for great dinners, and the common people live constantly in them. The cheap cellar eating-places are exceedingly filthy, but the more reputable restaurants are quite respectable in their appointments and general appearance. Chinese cooking is more like the French than the English. They are fond of cutting everything up fine, and mixing different things together. Their meats are usually well cooked. The principal drawbacks to the enjoyment of a Chinese dinner are the inability of the Americans to use chopsticks, and the fact that many of the dishes taste of oil or rancid butter. Then each one drives his own chopsticks into the common dish; this requires considerable skill and practice, and is not generally agreeable to the American taste. The more important restaurants, however, keep knives, forks, plates, table-cloths, and napkins, and can on due notice get up quite a respectable American dinner.
Newspaper writers have sometimes told their readers that only Christian Chinamen leave off the queue and adopt the American style of dress. This is a mistake. A few Chinese Christians have adopted the American dress and discarded the queue, but most of them have not done so. A number, who are very far from being Christians, have also changed their dress and discarded the queue. It has been said that one-half the Chinese in America would be glad to adopt our fashions in dress if a general move could be made in that direction. But if they should do this, on returning to China, custom would compel them to resume the queue and the Chinese dress. Probably the queue stands more in the way of the Chinese becoming Americanized than any other one thing. So long as the queue is retained, the Chinese fashion of dress will be retained, and the two things will forever make them a distinct and peculiar people. If they would adopt our customs in these things, they would not be much more unlike us than the Japanese, Italians, or Portuguese and the way would be opened for further and more rapid assimilation.
The presence of these Mongolians on our shores, with their singular costumes, small appetites, and placid ways of performing work, has given rise to a vast amount of discussion and sore prejudice. In the early days of California the antagonisms between the whites and Chinese were developed mostly in the mining regions, and have continued with more or less bitterness until now, the hostility being always most active during the canvass for State and general elections. These unfortunate Asiatics are accused of being an injury to the best interests of our country and our people because they cheapen labor, and because they are an inferior race. It is charged that the most of them come here as slaves; that they do not pay taxes; that they do not consume our products, but send their money home, thus draining our country of its wealth; that they are the careless authors of destructive fires; that they displace white laborers, driving them to pursue lives of beggary, prostitution, and crime.
A great many writers have dealt with the "Chinese problem," as it is called, but few have discussed it as exhaustively as the Rev. O. Gibson, from whose valuable little work, entitled The Chinese in America, a portion of the material for this article has been drawn. According to this reverend gentleman’s opinion, instead of driving laborers or professional men from the field, the presence and labor of the Chinese have opened up industries which have stimulated the demand for such white laborers and professional men. As to the charge that the Chinese have taken employment from our women and girls, there may be single instances of the kind, but as a general charge it is not true. House-servants, sewing-women, and laundry-workers are as well paid in San Francisco as in New York.
The labor conflict in California, Mr. Gibson insists, is, "as a general question, simply and only a much-needed competition between the Chinaman and the Irishman. The Irishman has a vote, and so some aspiring politicians are on his side; but all the industries of the State, all the capital of the State looking for investment in industrial pursuits, demand this competition of labor as an indispensable element of investment, development, and success. This competition, however, in this city is limited to a few of the lighter and lower industries. The Chinamen make overalls, and slippers, and shoes, and cigars, and shirts; but no overalls for the trade were made in this country until the Chinamen made them. The Chinamen do not labor upon the public works of the city, the grading, paving, and repaving of the streets, nor upon any of the public buildings of the State. There are no Chinese house-carpenters, nor brick-layers, nor painters, nor blacksmiths, nor foundry-men; no Chinese printers, nor book-binders, nor tailors (of American clothing), nor milliners, nor mantua-makers; no bankers nor insurance agents; no commission merchants of European goods. They offer no competition to our lawyers, doctors, school-teachers, nor to any profession whatever."
The class of labor which the Chinese have cheapened is that generally known as "unskilled." The white man in California demanded four or five dollars a day for the performance of work of this kind, and the Chinaman was willing to do it for half. This has been his sin from the beginning. High-priced labor began a war against him, maintaining that "cheap labor is a curse to any country." Thus the antagonism of races commence, and the war has gone on with this for a battle-cry. Other things have been dragged into the discussion, but the weighty charge of the opposition to Chinamen has been the cheap-labor cry. At the present moment there is a great excitement in San Francisco over the "filthy manner of living prevalent among the Chinese." The Board of Health of that city has declared Chinatown a nuisance, and ordered the authorities to remove it from the heart of the city. The report made by the committee who were appointed to investigate the matter is a lengthy document, but a few extracts will suffice to show the spirit of the whole.
The different alleys throughout the quarter are described as "of intolerable nastiness." The walls of the rooms are thick with dirt, slime, and sickening filth, the sewers in many places are choked up, and at every step slime oozes up through the cracks in the flooring, while the stench of decaying vegetables and the refuse of the tables is horrible. "In the midst of all this filth," says the report, "Chinamen may be seen manufacturing confectionery, assorting vegetables for family use in the city, cleaning tripe for our restaurants, and washing lace for our ladies. Rooms were discovered not more than six feet square, with Chinamen crowded upon shelves, with their little glass lamps by their side, making the foul air fouler still with the fumes of the opium, and some of them senseless from the use of the drug. Not a ray of sunlight or a breath of fresh air can ever penetrate here." In one alleyway, after going down stairs, an under-ground passageway several hundred feet long was encountered, flanked on either side by small rooms in which one person could scarcely be comfortable above-ground, but which are made to accommodate ten or twelve each. At intervals of eight or ten feet little streams of filthy water ran out from between the partitions, flowed into a gutter which was cut along the centre of the passage, and emptied into an open sewer at the end. In Clay Street a basement was found in which a score of wretched Chinamen suffering from loathsome diseases were huddled together. The Chinese, the report insists, have no sympathy for their friends in sickness, and, as a rule, leave them to die uncared for. In a building in Sacramento Street is what is known as the home of the Chinese scavengers. It is forty feet long by twenty feet wide, and dimly lighted, day and night, by a single camphene lamp. This room is the boarding and lodging house of 200 Chinamen, where they eat, smoke, gamble, and sleep, surrounded by the filthy spoils which they have gleaned from the gutters and ash-barrels during the day. Its inmates have a ghastly look, and are covered with a clammy perspiration. In this one building over 1000 men find lodgings.
Unfortunately there is too much reason to suspect that the Board of Health in San Francisco, like that of our own city, is not entirely unswayed by political influences. Matters look very much as if what ought to be a body of unprejudiced and conscientious medical men had ranged themselves under the banner of Mr. Kearney and his colleagues. From the beginning persons of this ilk have been found ready and willing to fan the sparks of ignorant bigotry and prejudice into flames of animosity and hatred toward this people. The result has been acts of violence, bloodshed, and murder on the one hand, and on the other certain special class legislation equally iniquitous, the object achieved being simply the repression and injury of the Chinese. And this while intelligent men and calm thinkers have been doing their best to bear testimony to the generally quiet and industrious character of the poor Chinaman, and indisputable capacity he possesses for becoming a good citizen.
Harper’s Weekly, March 20, 1880, page 182 (Illustrated Article)

This site is brought to you by…
HarpWeek.com
Website and all Content 1998-1999 HarpWeek, LLC
Please report problems to webmaster@harpweek.com