Harper’s Weekly, December 1, 1888, page 918 (Article)
A very large majority of the Chinamen in the neighborhood of New York live in boarding-houses at a cost which to an American would seem insignificant. Their economy is proverbial, and in nothing is this shown more conspicuously than in the arrangement of the boarding-house. It is, however, intelligent thrift; and although their mode of life would be intolerable to an American of average habits, yet they enjoy a fair share of the comforts of life for an average price of about $2.50 per week. There are places, however, where the boarders pay as little as $1 a week, and some, of the most expensive kind, where the expense is $3 a head.
In location everything is sacrificed to economy. The cheapest floor in the cheapest house that can be found is selected. Usually it is the basement or one of the upper lofts of an old house originally a private dwelling, in some locality now hopelessly degenerated. The rents of the ground-floors even in these houses are too high. The proprietor, or, as is usually the case, the firm of two or three members who run the boarding-house, fence off a little room with boards for a private apartment for themselves, and often two or three other small rooms will be made in the same way for boarders who are willing to pay a little extra for privacy, but the rest of the floor is one large room, which serves for sleeping, cooking, and eating, and is used for a general sitting-room as well.
These rooms are furnished scantily. There are rows of bunks along the walls, a large table in the middle of the room, a cooking stove at one end, and a number of stools. For ornament there is commonly a bouquet of gold and silver tinsel flowers attached to the wall, and in the bouquet there are usually two or three tiny images of a man and a woman, and sometime a child. For devotion there is a sand bowl either under the table or on the mantel-piece, in which the inmates put their joss-sticks to burn whenever the occasion calls for prayer. On the stove there is always a kettle filled with boiling water, and on the table are two teapots, kept always replenished, one with cold tea, the other with hot. The latter is kept hot by being enclosed in a sort of basket lined with felt or cotton an inch or two inches thick. This entirely surrounds the teapot, so that only the spout protrudes, and keeps the tea hot for hours. The Chinese very seldom use water as a beverage, and drink only black tea. They consider the green only fit to sell to outside barbarians.
The bunks resemble those on shipboard. Sometime they are single, but are often made broad to accommodate two or even three sleepers at once. In one place in Park Street there are twelve bunks in one room, accommodating twenty-four men. In another place in Mott Street there are twenty bunks for thirty men. The bunks are generally built in tiers, sometimes three, but generally only two. Little knees of wood on the upright posts form a sort of ladder for climbing to the upper rows. Instead of mattresses, each bunk is provided with a carpeting of Canton matting, and the pillows are of wood, either log-shaped or made of board like a foot-stool. The bedclothing is sometimes of blankets, but the Chinese who have not grown accustomed to American ways prefer a coverlet stuffed with cotton. They also take advantage of the fact, so well known and so seldom utilized by Americans, that paper is an excellent non-conductor of heat, and they frequently line their bedclothes with it. Over each bunk is a small shelf, on which the boarder is expected to place his bed-clothes on arising. There the clothing remains during the day in a neat cylindrical roll. Some person of the household washes the matting and wood-work daily, for the Chinese are, as a rule, exceedingly cleanly. They use javelle water or chloride of lime in this washing, to keep away vermin and to destroy odors and possible germs of disease.
On the stove three daily meals are prepared. The Chinese are very moderate eaters, but are fastidious about the quality of their food, as well as the manner of its preparation. They use hickory or oak wood almost altogether for fuel; seldom or never coal. For breakfast, their favorite dishes are rice, tripe, fish, and meat balls, but they may be said to live principally on rice. A Chinaman will eat, on an average, probably half a pound of this a day. They cook it so that it is very dry, and each kernel is distinct and separate instead of being part of a pasty mass, as rice is apt to be on an American table. The tripe is chopped up and stewed. The fish is prepared in a dish that is half soup and half chowder. The meat balls are steamed, and are generally made of chopped pork. They eat no bread at any meal.
The mid-day meal is the dinner. It consists of rice, pork, fish, and usually some Chinese vegetable stewed with meat or poultry, and soup, which is served last. The pork is seasoned by being soaked or pickled in strong sauces like Worcestershire, and the fish is commonly dried. All food is cut into convenient morsels to be picked up on chop-sticks, for the Chinaman will not do at table the work of carving, which, he insists, belongs to the kitchen. The supper is very light, consisting of the inevitable rice and one or two small portions of meat.
There is little or no drunkenness among the Chinese; that is, from drinking. They use alcohol, but it is as a food, not as a beverage. Gin is their favorite of all drinks known to us. This they use in cooking their soups and stews, in order to bring out the full flavor of the meats. It is also served at their meals, as is nomadhaio. This is a strong liquor of a handsome brown color; it is made from rice and different fruits, and is sweet and fruity to the taste, being a true liqueur. This and gin are served commonly at table, to be taken with solid foods, but in almost infinitesimal quantities.
It is a common thing for Chinese merchants to keep boarding-houses for their employees in the same buildings with their stores, for the purpose of having them always at hand. They find more than a double profit in this, for the Chinese know no eight-hour law, as may easily be noted at any of their laundries, where work never ceases as long as there is anything to be done.
They are clannish, and members of different families or tribes are not apt to occupy the same boarding-house, but there are no distinctions drawn on account of differing occupations. They are sociable and exceedingly hospitable, always inviting their friends to meals if they are around at meal-times, and are fond of social visiting outside of business hours. Their hospitality, indeed, is often lavish. It is a frequent occurrence for one of the boarders to provide for the whole houseful a special dish to supplement or take the place of the regular fare at some meal.
They devote their evenings generally to social pleasures, visiting, and playing games of dominoes or cards for trifling stakes. They are nearly all smokers, and while many of them smoke tobacco, there are a very few who do not smoke opium. Hasheesh smoking, too, is somewhat common among them. This they smoke in the leaf in pipes, or in the gum like opium, or in the nargile. As a rule they keep good hours, but the most of them will read or write an hour or two before going to sleep, for the humblest laundry-man is likely to be a man of literary pretensions. In reading they usually lie on their sides, with their backs to the light, so that it shall fall over their shoulders, and their knees drawn up nearly to their chins. This habit, though it does not meet with the approval of American oculist, seems to have no bad effects among the Chinese. They nearly all have excellent eyesight, and the use of spectacles or eye-glasses is very rare among them, though they have understood and used them for thirty-five centuries. They do not pursue these evening studies intemperately, however, and by ten o’clock in the evening the Chinese boarding-house is usually still, and the boarders are all asleep.
Harper’s Weekly, December 1, 1888, page 918 (Article)

This site is brought to you by…
Website and all Content © 1998-1999 HarpWeek, LLC
Please report problems to