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´╗┐Title: A Bit of Old China
Author: Stoddard, Charles Warren, 1843-1909
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Bit of Old China" ***


By Charles Warren Stoddard

China is not more Chinese than this section of our Christian city, nor
the heart of Tartary less American.

Here little China flaunts her scarlet streamers overhead, and flanks
her doors with legends in saffron and gold; even its window panes have a
foreign look, and within is a glimmering of tinsel, a subdued light, and
china lamps flickering before graven images of barbaric hideousness.

This description Of Old San Francisco's Chinatown has been taken from
Charles Warren Stoddard's book, entitled, "In the Footprints of the
Padres," which contains his memories of early days in California.


"It is but a step from Confucius to confusion," said I, in a brief
discussion of the Chinese question. "Then let us take it by all means,"
replied the artist, who had been an indulgent listener for at least ten

We were strolling upon the verge of the Chinese Quarter in San
Francisco, and, turning aside from one of the chief thoroughfares of
the city, we plunged into the busiest portion of Chinatown. From our
standpoint--the corner of Kearny and Sacramento Streets--we got the most
favorable view of our Mongolian neighbors. Here is a goodly number of
merchant gentlemen of wealth and station, comfortably, if not elegantly,
housed on two sides of a street that climbs a low hill quite in the
manner of a tea-box landscape.

A few of these gentlemen lodge on the upper floors of their business
houses, with Chinese wives, and quaint, old-fashioned children gaudily
dressed, looking like little idols, chatting glibly with one another,
and gracefully gesticulating with hands of exquisite slenderness.
Confucius, in his infancy, may have been like one of the least of these.
There are white draymen and porters in the employ of these shrewd and
civil merchants, and the outward appearance of traffic, as conducted in
the immediate vicinity, is rather American than otherwise.

Farther up the hill, on Dupont Street, from California to Pacific
Streets, the five blocks are almost monopolized by the Chinese. There
is, at first, a sprinkling of small shops in the hands of Jews and
Gentiles, and a mingling of Chinese bazaars of the half-caste type,
where American and English goods are exposed in the show-windows; but
as we pass on the Asiatic element increases, and finally every trace of
alien produce is withdrawn from the shelves and counters.

Here little China flaunts her scarlet streamers overhead, and flanks
her doors with legends in saffron and gold; even its window-panes have a
foreign look, and within is a glimmering of tinsel, a subdued light, and
china lamps flickering before graven images of barbaric hideousness. The
air is laden with the fumes of smoking sandalwood and strange odors
of the East; and the streets, swarming with coolies, resound with the
echoes of an unknown tongue. There is hardly room for us to pass; we
pick our way, and are sometimes curiously regarded by slant-eyed pagans,
who bear us no good-will, if that shadow of scorn in the face has been
rightly interpreted. China is not more Chinese than this section of our
Christian city, nor the heart of Tartary less American.

Turn which way we choose, within two blocks, on either hand we find
nothing but the infinitely small and astonishingly numerous forms of
traffic on which the hordes around us thrive. No corner is too cramped
for the squatting street cobbler; and as for the pipe-cleaners, the
cigarette-rollers, the venders of sweetmeats and conserves, they gather
on the curb or crouch under overhanging windows, and await custom with
the philosophical resignation of the Oriental.

On Dupont Street, between Clay and Sacramento Streets--a single
block,--there are no less than five basement apartments devoted
exclusively to barbers. There are hosts of this profession in the
quarter. Look down the steep steps leading into the basement and see,
at any hour of the day, with what deft fingers the tonsorial operators
manipulate the devoted pagan head.

There is no waste space in the quarter. In apartments not more than
fifteen feet square three or four different professions are often
represented, and these afford employment to ten or a dozen men. Here
is a druggist and herb-seller, with huge spectacles on his nose, at the
left of the main entrance; a butcher displays his meats in a show-window
on the right, serving his customers over the sill; a clothier is in the
rear of the shop, while a balcony filled with tailors or cigar-makers
hangs half way to the ceiling.

Close about us there are over one hundred and fifty mercantile
establishments and numerous mechanical industries. The seventy-five
cigar factories employ eight thousand coolies, and these are huddled
into the closest quarters. In a single room, measuring twenty feet
by thirty feet, sixty men and boys have been discovered industriously
rolling real Havanas.

The traffic which itinerant fish and vegetable venders drive in every
part of the city must be great, being as it is an extreme convenience
for lazy or thrifty housewives. A few of these basket men cultivate
gardens in the suburbs, but the majority seek their supplies in the city
markets. Wash-houses have been established in every part of the city,
and are supplied with two sets of laborers, who spend watch and watch on
duty, so that the establishment is never closed.

One frequently meets a traveling bazaar--a coolie with his bundle
of fans and bric-a-brac, wandering from house to house, even in the
suburbs; and the old fellows, with a handful of sliced bamboos and
chairs swinging from the poles over their shoulders, are becoming quite
numerous; chair mending and reseating must be profitable. These little
rivulets, growing larger and more varied day by day, all spring from
that great fountain of Asiatic vitality--the Chinese Quarter. This
surface-skimming beguiles for an hour or two; but the stranger who
strolls through the streets of Chinatown, and retires dazed with the
thousand eccentricities of an unfamiliar people, knows little of the
mysterious life that surrounds him.

Let us descend. We are piloted by a special policeman, one who is well
acquainted with the geography of the quarter. Provided with tapers, we
plunge into one of the several dark recesses at hand. Back of the highly
respectable brick buildings in Sacramento Street--the dwellings and
business places of the first-class Chinese merchants--there are pits and
deadfalls innumerable, and over all is the blackness of darkness; for
these human moles can work in the earth faster than the shade of the
murdered Dane. Here, from the noisome vats three stories underground to
the hanging gardens of the fish-dryers on the roofs, there is neither
nook nor corner but is populous with Mongolians of the lowest caste. The
better class have their reserved quarters; with them there is at least
room to stretch one's legs without barking the shins of one's neighbor;
but from this comparative comfort to the condensed discomfort of the
impoverished coolie, how sudden and great the change!

Between brick walls we thread our way, and begin descending into the
abysmal darkness; the tapers, without which it were impossible to
proceed with safety, burn feebly in the double night of the subterranean
tenements. Most of the habitable quarters under the ground are like so
many pigeon-houses indiscriminately heaped together. If there were only
sunshine enough to drink up the slime that glosses every plank, and
fresh air enough to sweeten the mildewed kennels, this highly eccentric
style of architecture might charm for a time, by reason of its novelty;
there is, moreover, a suspicion of the picturesque lurking about the
place--but, heaven save us, how it smells!

We pass from one black hole to another. In the first there is a kind of
bin for ashes and coals, and there are pots and grills lying about--it
is the kitchen. A heap of fire kindling-wood in one corner, a bench or
stool as black as soot can paint it, a few bowls, a few bits of rags, a
few fragments of food, and a coolie squatting over a struggling fire, a
coolie who rises out of the dim smoke like the evil genii in the Arabian
tale. There is no chimney, there is no window, there is no drainage. We
are in a cubic sink, where we can scarcely stand erect. From the small
door pours a dense volume of smoke, some of it stale smoke, which our
entry has forced out of the corners; the kitchen will only hold so much
smoke, and we have made havoc among the cubic inches. Underfoot, the
thin planks sag into standing pools, and there is a glimmer of poisonous
blue just along the base of the blackened walls; thousands feed daily in
troughs like these!

The next apartment, smaller yet, and blacker and bluer, and more
slippery and slimy, is an uncovered cesspool, from which a sickening
stench exhales continually. All about it are chambers--very small
ones,--state-rooms let me call them, opening upon narrow galleries that
run in various directions, sometimes bridging one another in a marvelous
and exceedingly ingenious economy of space. The majority of these
state-rooms are just long enough to lie down in, and just broad enough
to allow a narrow door to swing inward between two single beds, with two
sleepers in each bed. The doors are closed and bolted; there is often no
window, and always no ventilation.

Our "special," by the authority vested in him, tries one door and
demands admittance. There is no response from within. A group of
coolies, who live in the vicinity and have followed close upon our heels
even since our descent into the underworld, assure us in soothing
tones that the place is vacant. We are suspicious and persist in
our investigation; still no response. The door is then forced by the
"special," and behold four of the "seven sleepers" packed into this
air-tight compartment, and insensible even to the hearty greeting we
offer them!

The air is absolutely overpowering. We hasten from the spot, but are
arrested in our flight by the "special," who leads us to the gate of the
catacombs, and bids us follow him. I know not to what extent the earth
has been riddled under the Chinese Quarter; probably no man knows save
he who has burrowed, like a gopher, from one living grave to another,
fleeing from taxation or the detective. I know that we thread dark
passages, so narrow that two of us may not cross tracks, so low that
we often crouch at the doorways that intercept pursuit at unexpected
intervals. Here the thief and the assassin seek sanctuary; it is a city
of refuge for lost souls.

The numerous gambling-houses are so cautiously guarded that only the
private police can ferret them out. Door upon door is shut against
you; or some ingenious panel is slid across your path, and you are
unconsciously spirited away through other avenues. The secret signals
that gave warning of your approach caused a sudden transformation in the
ground-plan of the establishment.

Gambling and opium-smoking are here the ruling passions. A coolie will
pawn anything and everything to obtain the means with which to indulge
these fascinations. There are many games played publicly at restaurants
and in the retiring-rooms of mercantile establishments. Not only are
cards, dice and dominoes common, but sticks, straws, brass rings, etc.,
are thrown in heaps upon the table, and the fate of the gamester hangs
literally upon a breath.

These haunts are seldom visited by the officers of justice, for it is
almost impossible to storm the barriers in season to catch the criminals
in the very act. Today you approach a gambling-hell by this door,
tomorrow the inner passages of the house are mysteriously changed,
and it is impossible to track them without being frequently misled;
meanwhile the alarm is sounded throughout the building, and very
speedily every trace of guilt has disappeared. The lottery is another
popular temptation in the quarter. Most of the very numerous wash-houses
are said to be private agencies for the sale of lottery tickets. Put
your money, no matter how little it is, on certain of the characters
that cover a small sheet of paper, and your fate is soon decided; for
there is a drawing twice a day.

Enter any one of the pawn-shops licensed by the city authorities, and
cast your eye over the motley collection of unredeemed articles. There
are pistols of every pattern and almost of every age, the majority
of them loaded. There are daggers in infinite variety, including the
ingenious fan stiletto, which, when sheathed, may be carried in the
hand without arousing suspicion, for the sheath and handle bear an exact
resemblance to a closed fan. There are entire suits of clothes, beds and
bedding, tea, sugar, clocks--multitudes of them, a clock being one of
the Chinese hobbies, and no room is completely furnished without at
least a pair of them,--ornaments in profusion; everything, in fact, save
only the precious queue, without which no Chinaman may hope for honor in
this life or salvation in the next.

The throngs of customers that keep the pawnshops crowded with pledges
are probably most of them victims of the gambling-table or the
opium-den. They come from every house that employs them; your domestic
is impatient of delay, and hastens through his daily task in order that
he may nightly indulge his darling sin.

The opium habit prevails to an alarming extent throughout the country,
but no race is so dependent on this seductive and fatal stimulant as the
Chinese. There are several hundred dens in San Francisco where, for a
very moderate sum, the coolie may repair, and revel in dreams that end
in a death-like sleep.

Let us pause at the entrance of one of these pleasure-houses. Through
devious ways we follow the leader, and come at last to a cavernous
retreat. The odors that salute us are offensive; on every hand there is
an accumulation of filth that should naturally, if it does not, breed
fever and death. Forms press about us in the darkness,--forms that
hasten like shadows toward that den of shades. We enter by a small door
that is open for a moment only, and find ourselves in an apartment about
fifteen feet square. We can touch the ceiling on tiptoe, yet there are
three tiers of bunks placed with headboards to the wall, and each bunk
just broad enough for two occupants. It is like the steerage in an
emigrant vessel, eminently shipshape. Every bunk is filled; some of the
smokers have had their dream and lie in grotesque attitudes, insensible,
ashen-pale, having the look of plague-stricken corpses.

Some are dreaming; you see it in the vacant eye, the listless face, the
expression that betrays hopeless intoxication. Some are preparing
the enchanting pipe,--a laborious process, that reminds one of an
incantation. See those two votaries lying face to face, chatting in low
voices, each loading his pipe with a look of delicious expectation in
every feature. They recline at full length; their heads rest upon blocks
of wood or some improvised pillow; a small oil-lamp flickers between
them. Their pipes resemble flutes, with an inverted ink-bottle on the
side near the lower end. They are most of them of bamboo, and very often
are beautifully colored with the mellowest and richest tints of a wisely
smoked meerschaum. A small jar of prepared opium--a thick black paste
resembling tar--stands near the lamp.

The smoker leisurely dips a wire into the paste; a few drops adhere to
it, and he twirls the wire in the flame of the lamp, where they fry and
bubble; he then draws them upon the rim of the clay pipe-bowl, and at
once inhales three or four mouthfuls of whitish smoke. This empties the
pipe, and the slow process of feeding the bowl is lazily repeated. It is
a labor of love; the eyes gloat upon the bubbling drug which shall anon
witch the soul of those emaciated toilers. They renew the pipe again
and again; their talk grows less frequent and dwindles to a whispered

We address them, and are smiled at by delirious eyes; but the ravenous
lips are sealed to that magic tube, from which they draw the breath of
a life we know not of. Their fingers relax; their heads sink upon the
pillows; they no longer respond, even by a glance, when we now appeal
to them. Here is the famous Malay, the fearful enemy of De Quincey, who
nightly drugged his master into Asiatic seas, and now himself is basking
in the tropical heats and vertical sunlight of Hindustan. Egypt and her
gods are his; for him the secret chambers of Cheops are unlocked; he
also is transfixed at the summit of pagodas; he is the idol, the priest,
the worshiped, the sacrificed. The wrath of Brahma pursues him through
the forests of Asia; he is the hated of Vishnu; Siva lies in wait for
him; Isis and Osiris confront him.

What is this key which seems for a time to unlock the gates of heaven
and of hell? It is the most complicated drug in the pharmacopoeia.
Though apparently nothing more than a simple black, slimy paste,
analysis reveals the fact that it contains no less than five-and-twenty
elements, each one of them a compound by itself, and many of them among
the most complex compounds known to modern chemistry. This "dread agent
of unimaginable pleasure and pain," this author of an "Iliad of woes,"
lies within reach of every creature in the commonwealth. As the most
enlightened and communicative of the opium-eaters has observed:
"Happiness may be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat
pocket; portable ecstasy may be had corked up in a pint bottle; peace of
mind may be set down in gallons by the mail-coach."

This is the chief, the inevitable dissipation of our coolie tribes; this
is one of the evils with which we have to battle, and in comparison with
which the excessive indulgence in intoxicating liquors is no more than
what a bad dream is to hopeless insanity. See the hundred forms on opium
pillows already under the Circean spell; swarms are without the chambers
awaiting their turn to enter and enjoy the fictitious delights of this

While the opium habit is one that should be treated at once with wisdom
and severity, there is another point which seriously involves the
Chinese question, and, unhappily, it must be handled with gloves.
Nineteen-twentieths of the Chinese women in San Francisco are depraved!

Not far from one of the pleasure-houses we intruded upon a domestic
hearth smelling of punk and pestilence. A child fled with a shrill
scream at our approach. This was the hospital of the quarter. Nine cases
of smallpox were once found within its narrow walls, and with no one to
care for them. As we explored its cramped wards our path was obstructed
by a body stretched upon a bench. The face was of that peculiar smoke
color which we are obliged to accept as Chinese pallor; the trunk was
swathed like a mummy in folds of filthy rags; it was motionless as
stone, apparently insensible. Thus did an opium victim await his

In the next room a rough deal burial-case stood upon two stools; tapers
were flickering upon the floor; the fumes of burning punk freighted
the air and clouded the vision; the place was clean enough, for it was
perfectly bare, but it was eminently uninteresting. Close at hand stood
a second burial-case, an empty one, with the cover standing against the
wall; a few hours more and it would find a tenant--he who was dying in
rags and filth in the room adjoining. This was the native hospital
of the quarter, and the mother of the child was the matron of the

I will cast but one more shadow on the coolie quarter, and then we will
search for sunshine. It is folly to attempt to ignore the fact that the
seeds of leprosy are sown among the Chinese. If you would have Proof,
follow me. It is a dreary drive over the hills to the pest-house.
Imagine that we have dropped in upon the health officer at his city
office. Our proposed visitation has been telephoned to the resident
physician, who is a kind of prisoner with his leprous patients on the
lonesome slope of a suburban hill. As we get into the rugged edge of the
city, among half-graded streets, strips of marshland, and a semi-rustic
population, we ask our way to the pest-house. Yonder it lies, surrounded
by that high white fence on the hill-top, above a marsh once clouded
with clamorous water-fowl, but now all, all under the spell of the
quarantine, and desolate beyond description. Our road winds up the
hill-slope, sown thick with stones, and stops short at the great solid
gate in the high rabbit fence that walls in the devil's acre, if I may
so call it. We ring the dreadful bell--the passing-bell, that is seldom
rung save to announce the arrival of another fateful body clothed in
living death.

The doctor welcomes us to an enclosure that is utterly whitewashed; the
detached houses within it are kept sweet and clean. Everything connected
with the lazaret is of the cheapest description; there is a primitive
simplicity, a modest nakedness, an insulated air about the place that
reminds one of a chill December in a desert island. Cheap as it is and
unhandsome, the hospital is sufficient to meet all the requirements of
the plague in its present stage of development. The doctor has weeded
out the enclosure, planted it, hedged it about with the fever-dispelling
eucalyptus, and has already a little plot of flowers by the office
window,--but this is not what we have come to see. One ward in the
pest-house is set apart for the exclusive use of the Chinese lepers, who
have but recently been isolated. We are introduced to the poor creatures
one after another, and then we take them all in at a glance, or group
them according to their various stages of decomposition, or the peculiar
character of their physical hideousness.

They are not all alike; with some the flesh has begun to wither and to
slough off, yet they are comparatively cheerful; as fatalists, it makes
very little difference to them how soon or in what fashion they are
translated to the other life. There is one youth who doubtless suffers
some inconveniences from the clumsy development of his case. This lad,
about eighteen years of age, has a face that is swollen like a sponge
saturated with corruption; he cannot raise his bloated eyelids, but,
with his head thrown back, looks downward over his cheeks. Two of these
lepers are as astonishing specimens as any that have ever come under my
observation, yet I have morbidly sought them from Palestine to Molokai.
In these cases the muscles are knotted, the blood curdled; masses of
unwholesome flesh cover them, lying fold upon fold; the lobes of their
ears hang almost to the shoulder; the eyes when visible have an inhuman
glance that transfixes you with horror. Their hands are shapeless stumps
that have lost all natural form or expression.

Of old there was a law for the leprosy of a garment and of a house;
yet, in spite of the stringency of that Mosaic law, the isolation, the
purging with hyssop, and the cleansing by fire, St. Luke records: "There
met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off; and they lifted
up their voices and cried, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" And today,
more than eighteen hundred years later, lepers gather on the slopes
of Mount Zion, and hover at the gates of Jerusalem, and crouch in the
shadow of the tomb of David, crying for the bread of mercy. Leprosy once
thoroughly engrafted on our nation, and nor cedar-wood, nor scarlet,
nor hyssop, nor clean birds, nor ewes of the first year, nor measures of
fine flour, nor offerings of any sort, shall cleanse us for evermore.

Let us turn to pleasanter prospects--the Joss House, for instance,
one of the several temples whither the Chinese frequently repair to
propitiate the reposeful gods. It is an unpretentious building, with
nothing external to distinguish its facade from those adjoining, save
only a Chinese legend above the door. There are many crooks and turns
within it; shrines in a perpetual state of fumigation adorn its nooks
and corners; overhead swing shelves of images rehearsing historical
tableaux; there is much carving and gilding, and red and green paint. It
is the scene of a perennial feast of lanterns, and the worshipful enter
silently with burnt-offerings and meat-offerings and drink-offerings,
which they spread before the altar under the feet of some colossal god;
then, with repeated genuflections, they retire. The thundering gong or
the screaming pipes startle us at intervals, and white-robed priests
pass in and out, droning their litanies.

At this point the artist suggests refreshments; arm in arm we pass down
the street, surfeited with sight-seeing, weary of the multitudinous
bazaars, the swarming coolies, the boom of beehive industry. Swamped in
a surging crowd, we are cast upon the catafalque of the celestial
dead. The coffin lies under a canopy, surrounded by flambeaux, grave
offerings, guards and musicians.

Chinatown has become sufficiently acclimatized to begin to put forth its
natural buds again as freely as if this were indeed the Flowery Land.
The funeral pageant moves,--a dozen carriages preceded by mourners on
foot, clad in white, their heads covered, their feet bare, their grief
insupportable, so that an attendant is at hand to sustain each mourner
howling at the wheels of the hearse. An orchestra heads the procession;
the air is flooded with paper prayers that are cast hither at you to
appease the troubled spirit. They are on their way to the cemetery
among the hills toward the sea, where the funeral rites are observed as
rigorously as they are on Asian soil.

We are still unrefreshed and sorely in need of rest. Overhead swing huge
balloon lanterns and tufts of gold-flecked scarlet streamers,--a sight
that maketh the palate of the hungry Asiatic to water, for within this
house may be had all the delicacies of the season, ranging from the
confections of the fond suckling to funeral bakemeats. Legends wrought
in tinsel decorate the walls. Here is a shrine with a vermilion-faced
god and a native lamp, and stalks of such hopelessly artificial flowers
as fortunately are unknown in nature. Saffron silks flutter their
fringes in the steams of nameless cookery--for all this is but the
kitchen, and the beginning of the end we aim at.

A spiral staircase winds like a corkscrew from floor to floor; we ascend
by easy stages, through various grades of hunger, from the economic
appetite on the first floor, where the plebeian stomach is stayed with
tea and lentils, even to the very housetop, where are administered
comforting syrups and a menu that is sweetened throughout its length
with the twang of lutes, the clash of cymbals, and the throb of the
shark-skin drum.

Servants slip to and fro in sandals, offering edible birds'-nests,
sharks'-fins, and beche de mer,--or are these unfamiliar dishes snatched
from some other kingdom? At any rate, they are native to the strange
people who have a little world of their own in our midst, and who could,
if they chose, declare their independence tomorrow.

We see everywhere the component parts of a civilization separate and
distinct from our own. They have their exists and their entrances;
their religious life and burial; their imports, exports, diversions,
tribunals, punishments. They are all under the surveillance of the six
companies, the great six-headed supreme authority. They have laws within
our laws that to us are sealed volumes.


After supper we leaned from the high balcony, among flowers and
lanterns, and looked down upon the street below; it was midnight, yet
the pavements were not deserted, and there arose to our ears a murmur as
of a myriad humming bees shut in clustering hives; close about us
were housed near twenty thousand souls; shops were open; discordant
orchestras resounded from the theaters; in a dark passage we saw the
flames playing upon the thresholds of infamy to expel the evil shades.

Away off in the Bay in the moonlight glimmered the ribbed sail of a
fishing-junk, and the air was heavy with an indefinable odor which
to this hour puzzles me; but it must be attributed either to sink or
sandalwood--perchance to both!

"It is a little bit of old China, this quarter of ours," said the
artist, rising to go. And so it is, saving only a noticeable lack of
dwarfed trees and pale pagodas and sprays of willowy bamboo; of clumsy
boats adrift on tideless streams; of toy-like tea-gardens hanging among
artificial rocks, and of troops of flat-faced but complaisant people
posing grotesquely in ridiculous perspective.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Bit of Old China" ***

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