Samuel Bowles was the editor of the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts. In 1865 he traveled with Hon. Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, across the continent out to California. Bowles then put his observations about their travels, places they visited, speeches by Colfax, in to a book “Across the Continent: A Summer’s Journey to the Rocky Mountains, the Mormons, and the Pacific States, with Speaker Colfax.” The book, with a map of the western United States, was published in 1866.
The book is comprised of letters written by Bowles that he sent back to his newspaper. Letter 23 is his observations and opinions about Chinese emigrants to the west coast. I reprint this chapter of the book as a firsthand account of the life of Chinese sojourners in California. It is a mixture of admiration wrapped in bigoted and racist stereotypes projected upon the Chinese on the Pacific Coast. Even though Bowles argues for the Chinese – mainly because they are not interested in becoming citizens or voting – the foundation of his support rests upon the cheap labor the Chinese emigrants represent. Regardless, it is interesting to read one man’s impression of the Chinese in 1865 that was then relayed to residents on the East Coast.
The Chinese: Grand Dinner With Them
San Francisco, August 18, 1865
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 the 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 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 don, 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 customer altogether Chinese; base white men patronize their wares as well. Some of these women are taken as “secondary” wives by the Chinese resident, 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 Lg or Cum Sing wash and iron. How Tie is a doctor, and Hop Change and Chi Lung keep stores. They are good house servants; cooks, table-waiter, and nurses; better, on the whole, then 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 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 villages, are always distinguishable from the rough and more carelessly cultured ground of their Saxon rivals. The Pacific Railroad is being built by Chinese labor; several thousand Chinamen are mow 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 their 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, vegetable, 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 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 the Chinese painstaking and moderate ambition. The traveler meets these Chinese miners everywhere on this 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 the 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 person 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 burden 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 thing 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 American 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 non 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: “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 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 demands for them is increasing. The new State, to be built upon manufactures and agriculture, is seen to need to 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 the 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 ambition of no political rights, no citizenship, – it is only 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 internment.
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 way 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 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 nature. “Josh” is their god or idol, and “Josh” houses are small affairs, fitted up with images and altars a good deal after they 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 it 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 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 and the influences of our better and higher life. It is through modification and revolution in materialities, in manner 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 ad Hone 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 of neighborhood from which they come at home. These companies have head-quarters 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 occupation. Thus the laundry-men and the cigar-makers 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 the 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.
There are quite a number of heavy mercantile houses here in the hands of the Chinese. The managers are intelligent, superior men. Their business is in supplies for their countrymen and in teas and silks and curiosities for the Americans. They import by the hundreds of thousands, even millions, yearly; and their reputation for fair and honest dealing is above that of the American merchants generally. These are the men, with the presidents of the six companies, into which the whole Chinese population is organized, as I have described, with whom Mr. Colfax and his friends dines last night. There were formalities and negotiations enough in the preliminary arrangements of the entertainment to have sufficed for a pacification of Kentucky politics, or the making of a new map of Europe; but when these were finally adjusted, question of precedence among the Chinese settled, and a proper choice made among the many Americans who were eager to be bidden to the feast, all went as smooth as a town school examination that the teacher has been drilling for a month previous.
The party numbered from fifty to sixty, half Chinese, half white folks. The dinner was given in the second story of a Chinese restaurant, in a leading street of the city. Our hosts were fine-looking men, with impressive manners. While their race generally seems not more than two-thirds the size of our American men, these were nearly if not quite as tall and stout as their guests. Their eye and their faces beamed with intelligence, and they were quick to perceive everything, and alert and au fait in all courtesies and politeness. An interpreter was present for the heavy talking; but most of our Chinese entertainers spoke a little English, and we got on well enough so far as that was concerned; though handshaking and bowing and scraping and a general flexibility of countenance, bodies and limbs had a very large share of the conversation to perform. Neither here nor in China is it common for the English and Americans to learn the Chinese language. The Chinese can and do more readily acquire ours, sufficiently at least for all business intercourse. Their broken or “pigeon” English, as it is called, is often very grotesque, and always very simple. Here is a specimen – a “pigeon-English” rendering of “My name is Norval,” etc.:-
May name being Norval topside that Glampian HIllee, My father so sabee my father, make pay chow-chow he sheep, He smallo heartee man, too muchtee take care that dolla, gallo? So fashion he wantchee keep my, counta one piece chilo stope he own side, My no wantchee long that large mandolin, go knockee alla man; Littee turn Joss pay my what thing my father no like pay, That mourn last nightee get up loune, alla same my hat, No go full up, no got square; that plenty piece, That lobbie, man too muchee qui-si, alla same that tiger, Chop-chop come down that hillee, catchie that sheep long that cow, That man, custom take care, too muchie quick lun away. My one piece owne spee eye, look see that ladlone man what side he walkee, Hi-yah! No good chancie, findie he, lun catchie my flew: Too piecie loon choon lun catchie that lobbie man! He No can walkee welly quick, he pocket too much full up. So fashion knockee he large. He head man no got shutte far, My knockie he head, Hi-yah! My No. 1 strong man, Catchie he jacket, long he toousa, galo! You like look see? My no like take care that sheep, so fashion my hear you got fightee this side. My take one sesrvant, come your country, come helpie you, He heart all same cow, too muchie fear lun away. Masquie, Joss take care pay my come you house.
We were seated for the dinner around little round tables, six to nine at the table, and hosts and guests evenly mixed. There was a profusion of elegant China dishes on each table; each guest had two or three plates and saucers, all delicate and small. Choice sauces, pickles, sweetmeats and nuts were plentifully scattered about. Each guest had a saucer of flowers, a China spoon or bowl with a handle, and a pair of chop-sticks, little round and smooth ivory sticks about six inches long. Chi Sing-Tong, President of the San Yup Company, presided at Mr. Colfax’s table.
Now the meal began. It consisted of three different courses, or dinners rather, between which was a recess of half an hour, when we retired to an anteroom, smoked and talked, and listened to the simple, rough, barbaric music from coarse guitar, viol drum, and violin, and mean while the tables were reset and new food provided.
Each course or dinner comprised a dozen to twenty different dishes, served generally one at a time, though sometimes two were brought on at once. There were no joints, nothing to be carved. Every article of food was brought on in quart bowls, in a sort of has form. We dove into it with our chop-sticks, which, well handled, took up about a mouthful, and transferring this to our plates, worked the chop-sticks again to get it or parts of it tour mouths. No one seemed to take more than a single taste of mouthful of each dish; so that even if one relished the food, it would need something like a hundred different dishes to satisfy an ordinary appetite. Some of us took very readily to the chop-sticks; others did not, – perhaps were glad they could not; and for these a Yankee fork was provided, and our Chinese neighbors at the table were also prompt to offer their own chop-sticks to place a bit of each dish upon our plates. But as these same chop-sticks were also used to convey food into the mouth of the Chinese, the service did not always add to the relish of the food.
There were the principal dishes served for the first course, and in the order named: Fried Shark’s fins, and grated ham, stewed pigeon with bamboo soup, fish sinews with ham, stewed chicken with water-cress, sea-weed, stewed ducks and bamboo soup, sponge cake, omelet cake, flower cake and banana fritters, bird-nest soup, tea. The meats seemed all alike; they had been dried or preserved in some way; were cut up into mouthfuls, and depended for all savoriness upon their accompaniments. The sea-weed, shark’s fin and the like had a glutinous sort of taste; not repulsive, nor very seductive. The sweets were very delicate, but like everything else had a very artificial flavor; every article, indeed, seemed to have had its original and real taste and strength dried or cooked out of it, and a common Chinese flavor put into it. The bird-nest soup looked and tasted somewhat as a very delicate vermicelli soup does. The tea was delicious, – it was served without milk or sugar, did not need any such amelioration, and was very refreshing. Evidently it was made from the most delicate leaves or flowers of the tea plant, and had escaped all vulgar steeping or boiling.
During the first recess, the presidents of the companies, – the chief entertainers, – took their leave, and the merchants assumed the post of leading hosts; such being the fashion of the people. The second dinner opened with cold tea, and a white rose-scented liquor, very stong, and served in tiny cups, and went on with lichens and a fungus-like moss, more shark’s fins, stewed chestnuts and chickens, Chinese oysters, yellow and resurrected from the dried stage, more fungus stewed, a stew of flour and while nuts stewed mutton, roast ducks, rice soup, rice and ducks’ eggs and pickled cucumbers, ham and chicken soup. Between the second and the third parts, there was an exchange of complimentary speeches by the head Chinaman and Mr. Colfax, at which the interpreter had to officiate. The third and last course consisted of a great variety of fresh fruits; and the unique entertainment ended about eleven o’clock, after a sitting of full five hours. The American resident guests furnished champagne and claret, and our Chinese hosts, invariably at the entrance and departure of each dish, invited us, with a gracious bow, to sip thereof, in the which they all faithfully joined themselves.
The dinner was unquestionably a most magnificent one after the Chinese standard; the dishes were many of them rare and expensive; and everything was served in elegance and taste. It was a curious and interesting experience, and one of the rarest of the many courtesies extended to Mr. Colfax on this coast. But as to any real gastronomic satisfaction to be derived from it, I certainly “did not see it.” Governor Bross’s fidelity to the great principle of “when you are among the Romans to do as the Romans do,” led him to take the meal seriatim, and eat of everything; but my own personal experience is perhaps the best commentary to be made upon the meal as a meal. I went to the table weak and hungry; but I found the one universal odor and flavor soon destroyed all appetite; and I fell back resignedly on a constitutional incapacity to use the chop-sticks, and was sitting with a grim politeness through dinner number two, when there cam an angel in disguise to my relief. The urbane chief of police of the city appeared and touched my shoulder: “there is a gentleman at the door who wishes to see you, and would have bring your had and coat.” There were visions of violated city ordinances and “assisting” at the police court next morning. I thought, too, what a polite way this man has of arresting a stranger to the city. But, bowing my excuses to my pig-tail neighbor, I went joyfully to the unknown tribunal. A friend, a leading banker, who had sat opposite to me during the evening, and had been called out a few moments before, welcomed me at the street door with; “B—–, I knew your were suffering, and were hungry – let us go and get something to eat – a good square meal!” So we crossed to an American restaurant; the lost appetite came back; and mutton chops, squabs, fried potatoes and a bottle of champagne soon restored me. My friend insisted that the seond course of the Chinese dinner was only the first warmed over, and that was the obect of the recess. However that might be, – this is how I went to the grand Chinese dinner, and went out, when it was two-thirds over, and “got something to eat.”
By Samuel Bowles, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1866. Samuel Bowles and Company. New York: Hurd & Houghton.