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- A Bit of Old China - 2/3 -
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 soliloquy.
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 paradise.
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 dissolution.
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 establishment.
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
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