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- A Bit of Old China - 1/3 -


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.

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.

A Bit of Old China

"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 minutes.

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in the show-windows; but as we pass on the Asiatic element increases, and finally every trace of alien produce is withdrawn from the shelves and counters.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


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