An Oriental Hell within an American City — Foreign in its Stores, Gambling Dens and Inhabitants — The Mecca of all San Francisco Sight Seers — Secret Passages, Opium Joints and Slave Trade its Chief Features.
Chinese Refugees in Washington Square Park.
It was estimated that as many as 10,000 Chinese were in this park at the time this photograph was taken.
To a visitor unacquainted with oriental customs and manners the most picturesque and mysterious spot in the region of the Golden Gate was Chinatown, now blotted out, which laid in the heart of San Francisco, halfway up the hillside from the bay and was two blocks wide by two blocks long. In this circumscribed area an Oriental city within an American city, more than 24,000 Chinese lived, one-half of whom ate and slept below the level of the streets. The buildings they occupied were among the finest that were built in the early days of the gold fever. What was at one time the leading hotel of the city was as full of Chinese as a hive is full of bees, for they crowd in together in much the same way. As the gold fever attracted the Chinese to the Pacific coast, San Francisco was made a headquarters and the Orientals soon established themselves in a building on the side hill. As they continued to swarm over, gradually the American tenants were crowded out until a certain section was set apart for the Chinese residents and Chinatown became as distinct a section of the city as the Bowery in New York used to be, "where they do such things and say such things." The time to see Chinatown was after dark, from ten at night to four in the morning, and a day and a night spent in the district would give you a very fair idea of Chinatown as it was.
p247 The streets were narrow and steep, paved with rough cobblestone. The fronts of the buildings had been changed to conform with the Chinese idea of architecture. Wide balconies and gratings and fretwork of iron painted in gaudy colors gave an Oriental touch. The fronts were a riot of color. The fronts of the joss houses and the restaurants were brightened with many colored lanterns, quaint carved gilded woodwork, potted plants and dwarf trees. Up and down these narrow streets every hour in the twenty-four you could hear the gentle tattoo, for he seemed never to sleep, never to be in a hurry and always moving. Stop on any corner five minutes and the sight was like a moving picture show. It was hard to make yourself believe that you were not in China, for as near as is possible Chinatown had been converted into a typical Chinese community. You heard no other language spoken on the streets or in the stores except by tourists, "seeing the sights." Chinese characters adorned the windows and store fronts, the merchants in the stores were reading Chinese newspapers, the children playing on the streets jabbered in an unknown tongue, and every man you met had a pigtail hanging down his back. The streets were full of people, but there were no crowds and neither in the day nor night could you see a drunken Chinaman.
The first floor of nearly every building in Chinatown was occupied by a store or market. Most of the goods sold were imported from China. In every store there was but one clerk who could talk fair English but the bookkeeping was done in Chinese and money was counted in Chinese fashion. In the botanic stores dried snakes and toads were sold for use in compounding potions to drive away evil spirits and baskets of ginseng roots were displayed in the windows. The clothing stores handled Chinese goods exclusively and in the shoe stores beautifully embroidered sandals with felt soles an inch thick were sold for a dollar a pair. Occasionally in one of the jewelry stores a workman welded a solid gold bracelet to the arm of a Chinaman, p248 who, afraid of being robbed of his gold, had it made into a bracelet and welded to his wrist. In the markets you found an endless display of fish, poultry and vegetables. The chickens were sold alive. The dried fish came from China. All the vegetables sold in Chinatown were raised in gardens on the outskirts of the city from seed sent over from China and some of the specimens were odd looking enough. The Chinese vegetables thrive better in the soil of California than in China and Chinese vegetables raised in the San Francisco district were sent to all the mining camps in the Rockies and as far away as Denver. Some of the Chinese squashes are •four feet long. Everything that can be imported from China at a profit was shipped over and the rule among the Chinese was to trade as little as possible with foreigners.
The Chinaman is thrifty and if it were not for gambling and one or two other vices they would all be rich, for they are industrious.
The Chinaman does not go much on strong drink and in many ways is a good citizen, but he does love to smoke opium and to gamble. It was easy to gain access to an opium den if you had a guide with you. The guides, many of whom are Chinese, speak English, and the English guides speak Chinese. The guides got a dollar apiece from the party of visitors they piloted about and a percentage from all moneys spent by the party in the stores, saloons, restaurants, theaters and the dives. In return they paid for the opium that was smoked in the dens for the edification of the visitors and dropped a tip here and there as they went from place to place. Most of the opium dens were underground.
The majority of the people of Chinatown lived in what were little better than rat holes, dark, poorly ventilated little cells on the side of narrow passages in basements. The rich merchants and importers lived well, but the middle and poorer classes lived in the basements where rent was cheap. Of the 24,000 Chinese population only about 900 were women so Chinatown was a bachelor's town by a large majority, though some of the residents had p249 wives in China to whom they expected to return some day. The rule in the basements was for ten men to sleep in a room •six by ten feet and do their cooking over a little charcoal fire in one corner of the room. The beds they slept in were simply bunks. The population of Chinatown had somewhat decreased since the •Exclusion act was passed. Few Chinamen came over and many, having saved up a little fortune, had gone back to China to stay. Of the entire population of Chinatown there were about 1,000 who voted; they constituted the native born element. The men and women dress much alike.
One of the sights which the inquisitive traveller to the Pacific coast rarely missed was the Chinese theater. Entrance was gained through the rear from an alley by the payment of 50 cents for a ticket. After walking down a narrow passageway, climbing up two flights of stairs and down three ladders one reached the green room in the rear of the stage where one saw the actors in all the glory of Oriental costume. No foreigners, as Americans were regarded, were allowed in any part of the theater except on the stage where half a dozen chairs were reserved on one side for visitors who came in the back way. There was no drop curtain in front of the stage and the orchestra was located in the rear of the stage. The orchestra would attract attention anywhere. The music was a cross between the noise made by a boiler shop during working hours and a horse fiddle at a country serenade.
As one walked along the streets of Chinatown he noticed on many doorways a sign which read something like this: "Merchants' Social Club. None But Members Admitted." There would be a little iron wicket on one side of the door through which the password goes and some Chinese characters on the walls. There were dozens of these clubs in Chinatown, all incorporated and protected by law. But they were simply gambling joints into which men of other nationalities were not admitted, and where members could gamble without fear of interruption p250 by the police. Chinamen are born gamblers and will wager their last dollar on the turn of a card. Perhaps if 25,000 Americans or Englishmen or Russians were located in the heart of a Chinese city without any of the restraining influences of home life, they would seek to while away their idle hours at draw poker or as many other forms of gambling as John Chinaman indulges in. The Chinamen have little faith in one another so far as honesty goes. In many of the clubs the funds of the club are kept in a big safe which in addition to having a time lock, has four padlocks, one for each of the principal officers, and the safe can only be opened when all four are present. Often when the police raided a den that was not incorporated they found that the chips and cards had disappeared as if by magic and the players were sitting about as unconcerned as if though a poker game had never been thought of. An advance tip had been sent in by a confederate on the private Chinese grapevine telegraph.
The troubles that arise between members of a Chinese secret society are settled within the society, but when trouble arises between the members of rival secret societies then it means death to somebody. For instance, a Chinaman caught cheating at cards is killed. The society to which the dead man belongs makes a demand on the society to which the man who killed him belongs for a heavy indemnity in cash. If it is not paid on a certain date, a certain number of members of the society, usually the Highbinder or hoodlum element, is detailed to kill a member of the other society. A price is fixed for the killing and is paid as soon as the job is done. The favorite weapon of the Highbinder is a long knife made of a file, with a brass knob and heavy handle. The other weapon in common use is a 45‑calibre Colt's revolver. The first one of the detail that meets the victim selected slips up behind him and shoots or stabs him in the back. It may be in a dark alley at midnight, in an opium den, at the entrance to a theater, or in the victim's bed. If the assassin is arrested the society furnishes witness to prove an alibi and money p251 to retain a lawyer. Another favorite pastime of the Highbinder who is usually a loafer, is to levy blackmail on a wealthy Chinaman. If the sum demanded is not paid the victim's life is not worth 30 cents. One of the famous victims of the Highbinders in recent years in San Francisco was "Little Pete," a Chinaman who was worth $150,000 and owned a gambling palace. He refused to be held by blackmailers and lost his life in consequence.
The police of San Francisco took no stock in a Chinaman's oath as administered in American courts. A Chinaman don'tº believe in the Bible and therefore does not regard an oath as binding. In one instance it is asserted the chief had been approached by a member of one of the strongest secret societies and asked what attorney was to prosecute a certain Highbinder under arrest. Asked why he wished to know, he stated frankly that another man was about to be assassinated and he desired to retain a certain lawyer in advance to defend him if he was not already employed by the commonwealth. It is no easy matter for the police to secure the conviction of a Chinaman charged with any crime, let along that of murder. There is only one place where a policeman will believe a Chinaman. That is in a cemetery, while a chicken's head is being cut off. If asked any questions at that time, after certain Chinese words have been repeated, a Chinaman will tell the truth, so the police believe. Although all Chinaman are smooth faced and have their heads shaved they do not "look alike" to the policemen, who have no trouble in telling them apart. This, of course, applied only to the policemen detailed to look after Chinatown. If it were not that the Chinamen kill only men of their own race and let alone all other men, the citizens of San Francisco would have sacked and burned Chinatown. Once the Highbinders were rooted out of the city, and before the catastrophe they were going to do so again.
Some time ago a Chinese shrimp fisherman incurred the displeasure of the members of another society and he was kidnaped in the night and taken to a lonely, uninhabited island some miles p252 from San Francisco, tied hand and foot and fastened tight to stakes driven in the ground and left to die. Two days later he was found by friends, purely by accident and released, famished and worn out, but he refused to tell who his captors were, and again become a victim of the terrible Highbinders, the curse of the Pacific coast.
Incidents of the above characters nearly always ending in murder, were so common that the wealthy and powerful Chinese Six Companies, the big merchants of the race, held years ago meetings with the purpose of bringing the societies to peace and while they often succeeded the truce between them was only temporary.
Of all the dark, secretive and lawless Chinese villages that dot the wayward Pacific slope, the one that looks down on the arm of San Francisco Bay, just this side of San Pedro Point, is the most mysterious and lawless. The village hasn't even a name to identify it, but "No Sabe" would be the most characteristic title for the settlement, because that is the only expression chance visitors and the officers of the law can get out of its sullen, stubborn, suspicious inhabitants.
They don't deride the laws of this land. They simply ignore them.
They are a law unto themselves, have their own tribunals, officers, fines and punishments and woe betide the member who doesn't submit. He might cry out for the white man's law to protect him, but long before his cry could reach the white man's ear it would be lost in that lonely, secretive village and the first officer that reached the place would be greeted by the usual stoical, "No sabe."
Police and other investigations showed that for years past the slavery of girls and women in Chinatown was at all times deplorable and something horrible. At an investigation, a few years ago, instituted at the instance of the Methodist Mission, p253 some terrible facts were elicited, the following indicating the nature of nearly all:
The first girl examined testified that her parents sold her into slavery while she was only fifteen years of age. The price paid was $1,980, of which she personally saw $300 paid down as a deposit. Before the final payment was made she escaped to the mission.
The second, an older girl, lived in a house of ill fame for several years before she made her escape. She testified that she was sold for $2,200 by her stepmother. The transaction occurred in this city. She talked at length of the conditions surrounding the girls, including the infamous rule that they must earn a certain sum each day, and the punishments that follow failure. This girl said she knew from other girls of her acquaintance that many white men were in the habit of visiting the Chinese houses.
The third girl who testified said she was sold at a time when slaves were scarcer and higher in price than they are now, and brought $2,800 at the age of fifteen. She, too, was positive that white men visited the Chinese houses of ill fame.
One of the women of the mission showed the committee three little girls, mere babies, who had been rescued by the mission. Two of them were sold by their parents while they were still in arms. The first brought $105 when three months old and another was sold at about the same age for $150. All three were taken from the keepers of the houses of ill fame and were living regularly in the houses when rescued.
But there was also a better side to Chinatown. The joss house was an interesting place. It was but a large room without seats. A profusion of very costly grill work and lanterns adorned the ceilings and walls; instruments of war were distributed around the room, and many fierce looking josses peered out from under silken canopies on the shrines. In one corner was a miniature wooden warrior, frantically riding a fiery steed toward a joss who stood in his doorway awaiting the rider's coming. A teapot of p254 unique design, filled with fresh tea every day, and a very small cup and saucer were always ready for the warrior. This represented a man killed in battle, whose noble steed, missing his master, refused to eat and so pined away and died. A welcome was assured to them in the better land if the work of man can accomplish it. The horse and rider were to them (the Chinese) what the images of saints are to Christians. In another corner was a tiny bowl of water; the gods occasionally come down and wash. At certain times of the year, direct questions were written on slips of paper and put into the hands of one of the greatest josses. These disappear and then the joss either nodded or shook his head in answer. On the altar, or altars, were several brass and copper vessels in which the worshiper left a sandalwood punk burning in such a position that the ashes would fall on the fine sand in the vessel. When one of these became full it was emptied into an immense bronze vase on the balcony, and this, in turn, was emptied into the ocean. The Chinese take good care of their living and never forget their dead. Once a year, the fourteenth day of the seventh month, they have a solemn ceremony by which they send gold and silver and cloth to the great army of the departed.
A furnace is a necessity in a joss house. It is lighted on ceremonial days and paper representing cloth, gold and silver is burned, the ashes of the materials being, in their minds, useful in spirit land. Private families send to their relatives and friends whatever they want by throwing the gold, the silver and the cloth paper, also fruits, into a fire built in the street in front of their houses. The days of worship come on the first and fifteenth of each month.
Of the deaths in Chinatown by the earthquake and fire no reliable list has been possible but in estimating the victims the construction of the district should be regarded as an inconsiderable factor.
a The photograph on this webpage was moved from Chapter 18, since it seems much more appropriate here.
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The San Francisco Horror
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Page updated: 18 Apr 06