San Francisco History

San Francisco and Thereabout
 by Charles Keeler
The California Promotion Committee of San Francisco, Publisher, 1902


        A few blocks up Kearny Street from the corner of Market is a stretch of green popularly known as the Plaza, but officially designated Portmouth Square.  It lies upon the hill-slope to the west of Kearny, between Clay and Washington Streets, and its benches, scattered about under the greenery, are the receptacle for as motley an assembly of weather-beaten hulks of humanity as one is apt to chance upon in all San Francisco.  The spot is teeming with memories of the early days.  Here the American flag was first raised by Captain Montgomery of the sloop-of-war Portsmouth.  Here the Vigilance Committee first took the law into its own hands.  The Parker House, and afterward the Jenny Lind Theatre, stood on the site now occupied by the Hall of Justice, a fine new building with a clock tower, situated on Kearny Street just opposite the Plaza.  In the days of '49 the town life centered upon this square, and many public meetings of importance were held here during those intensely dramatic days.

        Today Portsmouth Square is the lungs of Chinatown--the one breathing space in that strange Oriental city which crowds down upon the greenery of the little park.  The graceful drinking fountain in its center, a memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson, reminds us that the genial story-teller was wont to linger here during some of his least happy days, and the little sermon upon the stone tablet is a perpetual inspiration for all outcasts of humanity who tarry before the quaint bronze symbol of a ship.

        Oh, that strange mysterious horde in the center of San Francisco, which is in the heart of the city and yet not of it, that packed mass of busy humanity, living in a civilization as ancient as the pyramids!  I look upon the silent procession of dark inscrutable faces with a feeling of awe.  The settled content, the plodding self-reliance, the sense of antiquity over-shadows every countenance.  Here is a fragment of one of the oldest and most conservative civilizations, grafted upon the newest and most radical.  Certain innovations of up-to-date Americnism the Chinese have adopted.  They have a telephone central station with native operators, and many of their buildings are illuminated with incandescent lamps, but these things are external and superficial.  Two thousand years of arrested development is not conducive to a pliable mind.  The Chinaman who uses the telephone, eats with chopsticks and goes before his joss with presents of food to porpitiate the god and make his business prosper.  His queue is as sacred to him as it was to his forefathers.  He will run a sewing machine and drive a broken down plug hitched to a dilapidated laundry wagon, but when it comes to delivering vegetables he swings two immense baskets from a pole across his shoulder, and runs mechanically along with a wieght that would appall a white man.

        The lover of the curious and the beautiful delights in the conservatism of the Chinese.  Although their art as expressed in the handicrafts is not so graceful and spontaneous as that of the Japanese, it has a mideival quality, a frankness and simplicity combined with much dexterous handling and barbaric splendor, that makes it a vital expression, besides which our machine-made articles seem cheap and commonplace.

        The buildings of Chinatown are abandoned stores and dwellings of the white population, more or less made over by the addition of balconies and such other changes as the requirements or fancies of their present owners may suggest.  The restaurants and joss houses are particularly striking on account of their deep balconies, ornamented with carved woodwork brightly colored or gilded, and set off with immense lanterns and with big plants in china pots.  About whatever these strange people do there is an elusive, indefinable touch, which is dintinctively racial and picturesque.  It may be nothing more than the bright splashes of long narrow strips of paper pasted upon buildings with inscriptions in the curious perpendicular lettering of the people, but it serves at once to create an atmosphere.

        Along Dupont Street, a block west of Kearny, the bazaars center, and many of them have marvelous displays of beautiful bric-a-brac.  Silks, embroideries, carved ivories, antique lanterns and bronzes, ornamented lacquer ware, hammered brasses, carved teakwood chairs and tables, camphor-wood chests, sandalwood boxes and fans, and chinaware of exquisite workmanship--cloisonné, Satsuma, Canton ware, and a bewildering variety of other gorgeous things make up the stock of these places.  Spectacled merchants figure with the aid of the abacus and keep accounts by writing in brown paper books with pointed brushes.

        The crowd which passes along the street is probably the most unusual to the average American of any within the confines of the United States.  How the throng scuffles along in its thick-soled felted shoes, dark-visaged and blue cloaked!  At first the almond-eyed, sallow-faced multitude looks like an undifferentiated mass of humanity, and the stranger despairs of finding any points in which one man varies from his neighbor.  But as the type grows familiar the individual characteristics become more marked.  A quaint little roly-poly woman passes, her black shiny hair brushed back over the tops of her ears and neatley rolled up in a knot on the back of her head, richly ornamented with a hammered gold clasp.  Great pendant earrings of jade sway as she steps along on her high rocker shoes.  Her loose black pantaloons show below the shiny black gown that comes to her knees or a trifle below.  With her is a little boy who seems as if he belonged in a colored picture book of the days of Aladdin.  His mild face looks like a full moon with eyes turned askew.  He is clad in a georgeous yellow silk jacket fastened across the breast with a silk loop, and his lavendar pantaloons are tightly bound around the ankles.  His queue is peiced out to the regulation lenghth with braided red silk, and yet withal he is a picture of unconcious contentment as he toddles beside his mother.  In the passing horde I distinguish an old man, bent, and wearing immense specacles, his gray queue dangling sedately as he walks.  A man picks his way through the crowd with a big wooden tray balanced on his head, and a little girl with broad flat nose and narrow eyes wears silver bracelets on her ankles.  Yonder walks a withered little man with smiling face, slits of eyes, thin lips, sharp cheek bones and prominent ears.  His head is covered with a stiff black skull cap surmounted by a red knotted ball, his slender hands are half concealed beneath the loose sleeves of his dark blue coat lined with light purple silk.  His white stockings show above the low shoes.  There are bare-footed coolies in straw sandals, wearing coarse clothes, and with dull besotted expressions on their saturnine faces, contrasting sharply with the refined features and graceful carriage of the well-to-do merchants.  All these and many more are to be seen upon the streets of San Francisco.

        The time to get the full effect of Chinatown is at night when the streets are crowded with the toilers of the day and the lights of many lanterns add their touch of color to the scene.  From a sequestered balcony comes the strange monotonous squeaking of a Chinese violin.  The high sing-song voices of children sound from a distance.  On following their call I find a group of funny little imps about a bon-fire in the gutter.  Their queues dangle and flop about as they play.  They wear off black caps and thick-soled, heavily embroidered slippers.  Their bright jackets are fastened with cord loops and their trousers are bound about the ankles.  A row of red Chinese candles and some punks are burning on the curb and these quaint little elves seem to be in high glee over their illumination.

        Across the way a restaurant is resplendent with big colored lanterns on its balconies and the sound of music from within tells of a dinner party in progress.  The restaurant is entered through the kitchen, where strange bright yellow cakes and other mysterious delicacies are being prepared.  The second floor is reserved for the common people and here are many men shoveling streams of rice from bowls to their mouths with the aid of chop-sticks.  The aristocratic top floor is elegantly furnished with black teak-wood tables and carved chairs, inlaid with mother-of-pearl.  Decorations in the form of carved open-work screens adorn the partitions between rooms, and there are couches along the wall covered with straw mats, where, after eating, one can recline to smoke the pipe of peace.

               A Chinese dinner party is a brilliant affair,--the black circular tables loaded down with confections in little dishes, the gorgeous silk robes of the men about the festive board, and the women, even more brilliantly attired, who are present but may not sit at table while the men are dining!  I choose a retired corner in an adjacent room and order a cup of tea with roasted almonds, dried lichis, preserved cumquats and ginger, and some curious Chinese cakes, listening the while to the high-pitched sing-song voices of the revelers, the rapping of drums, clanging of cymbals and squaking of fiddles, and imagining myself a disciple of Confucius in the heart of the Flowery Kingdom.

            Returning again to the street, the bazaars are left behind with all their splendid art work, and plebian food shops take their place.  Pork is the meat of the people.  Little strings of meat which for want of a better name I may call bunches of slender sausages, hang temptingly in view.  Dried fish dangle on strings.  Eggs are suspended in open wire baskets.  There are many strange vegetables which are unfamiliar to Caucasian eyes--melons, tubers and fruits which belong exclusively to the Orient.  Down in basements barbers are at work tonsuring patient victims.  A drug-store dispenses dried lizards, pulverized sharks' eggs and sliced deer horns, together with numerous herbs for the curing of disease and the driving out of evil spirits.  Dr. Lum Yook TEEN of Canton, China, advertises pills to cure the opium habit, and, be it noted, finds it profitable to have his sign printed in English as well as Chinese.  On a corner, a Chinese fruit vender has his stand and offers candied cocoanut shreds, and lichi nuts with brown shells as soft as paper which crush in at a touch and reveal the sticky sweetish dried pulp clinging to a pit in the center.  He also has plates of dried abablones for sale--the meat of the beautiful ear-shells.  There are lenghts of green sugar-cane which the Chinese boys love to suck, and many other delicacies exposed to view.

        Shops are crowded together with displays of embroidered shoes and sandals, of long slender tobacco pipes, and opium pipes which look something like flutes, of dry-goods done up in neat little rolls and packages, and brass pots for the kitchen.  In one window sits a spectacled jeweler, working way in the dim light at a hand-wrought ring.  He has bits of carved jade and silver bracelets about him as evidences of his hanidwork.

        Off from the main business street of Chinatown extend many side lanes and dark alleys, packed with sallow-visaged Celestials.  There are narrow passages and long dark stairways that one hesitates to venture upon.  Other alleys are brilliantly illuminated but have barred doors and windows with little peep-holes where lowering men with intense black eyes scan every one who approaches.  These are the gambling dens.  The nervous banging of doors sounds constantly as men pass in and out and the heavy bolts are turned to exclude the police.  A fat dowager in a shiny black dress stands in the shadow of an alley and peers out with a sinister look on her face.  At a street corner a crowd is reading a red bulletin pasted upon the wall.

        During one of my nocturnal rambles through Chinatown I was fortunate enough to witness the annual ceremony of feeding the poor dead.  It was held in Sullivan Alley, so named, no doubt because it is inhabited exclussively by the Chinese, and Irishmen, as well as all other people of pale complexions, are expressly warned off by sign and guard.  A crowd of Celestials pushed in and out through the doorway in the high fence that made the alley private.  Now and then a man would come with a covered pewter dish of food which he was bearing from the restaurant to some one within, or a waiter would pass, balancing a tray on his head with a whole meal in pewter pots.  The narrow street was aglow with solid rows of lanterns suspended from both the lower and the upper balconies.  At the end of the alley stood a gaudy booth decorated with flowers, inscriptions and banners.  A bank of musicians, lavishly dressed in colored silks, dispensed wild music;  banging drums and clashing cymbals broke in upon the strange cadences of shrill pipes and squaky fiddles.  Around the corner of the alley was a great screen painted with three immense figures of josses, firecely grotesque.  Before them a table spread with rare altar cloths richly embroidered was loaded with confections and flowers.  Candles and incense burned before the shrine.  Four priests in vivid scarlet robes with gold embroidered squares on their backs, and elaborately embroidered trimmings of white and silver in front, their heads covered with stiff black caps surmounted by large gold knots, faced the tables and bowed in stately fashion to the tune of the strenuous music.  Ladies dressed in gorgeous costumes with their black hair plastered back, leaned over balconies in the glow of lanterns, and watched the scene.  Stolid crowds of men with expressionless faces packed the alley, coming and going in a never-ending stream.  The odor of sandal-wood incense, the rythmic whine and clash of the music, the Oriental horde in the softened light of lanterns, made a picture which seemed more appropriate to a court of Cathay in the long forgotten centuries that to a scene in an American metropolis of this late day of steam and electricity.

        So much for the street scenes!  On entering those dark portals which lead up or down by crooked ways into the labyrinths of rooms, a new phase of Chinatown is disclosed.  Here in garrets and cellars human beings are stowed away, stacks of bunks holding the packed mass of humanity.  In stifling subterranean chambers opium fiends lie in bestial filth and dream of bliss.

        Even the theatre is honey-combed with such dark and devious tunnels where the actors live.  The white visitor gropes his way to the stage through crooked lanes bordered by dingy closets of rooms whence floats the dried-apple odor of burning pellets of opium, and those other undefinable but eminently distinctive smells which only Chinatown can generate.

        Once upon the stage, attention is divided between the great sea of faces that grin and gaze as the action changes, but make no sound--and the action of the play.  In the boxes sit women, apart from the crowd.  Seats are placed at the side of the stage for our accomodation and the play goes inconcernedly on.  The musicians, at the back of the stage, keep up an infernal bang and clatter, mingled with shrill twangings, pipings and squeakings in monotonous iteration.  Men impersonating women step mincingly about in their high, awkward shoes, singing in falsetto voices, daintily swinging fans, and pursing up their painted lips to simulate the charms of the gentler sex.  The emperor is almost certain to appear, sooner or later, and the officer who gets astride a chair or broomstick for a hobby-horse.  After he is beheaded he stands up and gravely walks off the audience looks more seroiusly than ever at his exit.  Stage scenery is severely simple.  A table will serve for a mountain and a sign for a forest.  The play continues for days and weeks, like the Arabian Nights tales, and since our capacity is limited for appreciating all its subtelties of wit, and the depths of its tempestuous tragedy, we betake ourselves from the noise of crashing cymbals which sound as if all the pots and pans of a big hotel kitchen were being hurled simultaneously at the head of some luckless curr, and, after elbowing through the group of actors, and groping along dark lanes, finally emerge upon the street, well satisfied with a cursory view of the dramatic art of this wonderful people.

        The joss houses or temples of Chinatown have no external beauty save in the carved panels of their balconies.  They are on the upper floors of buildings and are approached by long straight flights of steps.  The interiors are characterized by a wealth of grotesque and conventional carving.  The altars are marvels of intricate relief, generally overlaid with gold leaf.  There are big brass bowls upon them, in which sticks of incense burn, and before the images of the josses are offerings of food and lighted lamps.  Poles and emblems borne in processions on festive occasions adorn the walls, and there are various fortune-teling appliances about the place.  If a man is to undertake a business venture he consults the joss.  Two pieces of wood shaped like a mammoth split bean are much in vogue for reading fates.  These are thrown violently upon the ground, and according as they fall with the flat or rounded side up is determined the man's fortune.  There is also a plan for drawing straws to tell luck.  When a man is well advised by the joss, and succeeds in business accordingly, he is apt to remember his spiritual counsellor with a handsome present, and thus the temple thrives.  Thus it becomes possessed of its splendid embroidered altar cloths, its rare old carvings and furniture, and other papaphernalia which makes it a place of wonder.

        A Chinese funeral is an event that forces itself upon the attention of every wayfarer.  The beating of tom-toms, scattering of imitation paper money to the devil, the express-wagon full of baked hogs and other food, are all matters of note.  And then there are the antiquated hacks drawn by raw-boned horses that eminently suit them, the professional mourners, the sallow-visaged friends of the deceased.  The train proceeds to the cemetery keeping up its infernal din the while.  When the body is interred, a portion of the baked meats and confections are placed over it together with some lighted punks.  The remaining viands are then taken back to Chinatown where the whole party unite in a feast in honor of the dead.  At a later period the body is exhumed, the bones are scraped, and all that remains of the departed is shipped to his beloved resting place--the Flowery Kingdom.

        Chinese New Year is celebrated a month and more after ours.  At this time the whole district is bent on merrymaking and hospitality.  Every door is open to guests.  There is a display of gorgeous costuming that would rival a prize exhibition of cockatoos.  Everybody makes presents;  nuts and sweetmeats are in every hand.  Houses and stores are decked with lanterns;  heavy-scented China lilies are stood about in pots and vases;  punks burn, firecrackers pop, and the revel lasts for days.  The procession in which a hundred-legged dragon a block long writhes through the streets accompanies by priests, soldiers and attendants in gorgeous livery, is the crowning event of the celebration.

        The Chinese question was for many years one of the live issues in California politics.  So large an invasion of the little brown men was occasioned by the discovery of gold that their presense soon grew to be a menace to white labor.  Thrifty, industrious, imitative, bringing nothing with them and carrying away all they made, it was soon evident that the tide of immigration must be checked.  The watchword, "The Chinese must go," was a stock phrase of the stump politicians.  After much sand-lot agitation and some rioting, Congress was prevailed upon to enact legislation prohibiting the entrance of Chinese laborers into the United States.  Similar legislation was re-enacted at the last session of Congress, the time limit of the old law having been reached.  The Chinese population of San Francisco numbers a little under twenty-five thousand at the present time, having declined somewhat since the passing of the restriction laws.

        California faces a land with a population of probably five hundred million people.  We have demanded free access to that land for all our citizens, but we deny them the same right in return.  To permit an unrestricted immigration of these people would be to court disaster.  They huddle together without families, nourished on rice and tea.  The readiness with which they learn our arts, coupled with their mode of life, makes competition with them an impossibility.  Their women are mainly slaves held for traffic.  The police have made little headway against their gambling dens;  fan-tan is played openly behind barred doors;  opium is the curse of the race.  Highbinders, professional murderers of rival tongs, are hired to assassinate enemies and generally manage to elude pursuit in the mazes of Chinatown.

               Despite all this, the Chinese are in many ways useful and perhaps essential factors in the development of California.  In the fruit picking and packing industry they are more reliable, more mobile and in every way more dependable than white labor.  As market gardeners they have no equal.  A good Chinaman is an ideal household servant, neat, thorough, industrious and far better trained than the average white woman servant.  In the country districts he will go to places where women are practically unobtainable.

        The solution of the Chinese problem is to be found in a conservative and unimpassioned handling of the question on all sides.  Neither the wide open door nor the total exclusion will ultimately prevail, in all probability.  But however the question may be decided, Chinatown is today a place of strange and absorbing interest, where much that is both curious and beautiful may be found, and where the oldest of the world's civilizations is religiously treasured in the heart of a big modern American city.



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