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Chapter 21: the Chinese legend.

The Chinese legend current in San Francisco is a little wild; making the Chinese in America a mere gang of bondsmen, owned by the Six Companies, and governed by an Asiatic Vehm Gericht, Grand Lodge or Council of Ten, who wield a secret and mysterious power, which neither male nor female can escape.

Feeling some doubt as to the truth of this Chinese legend, taken as a whole, we seek for light among persons who are likely to have ferretted out the facts-officers of police and ministers of religion; but for several weeks we search in vain. The Chinese legend is in books and magazines, and no one cares to ask his neighbour whether that current legend be true or false.

At length, by help of Consul Booker, we approach the only people who have sure and perfect [218] knowledge of the facts — the upper class of resident Chinese.

Among the small group of rich and educated Chinese living in San Francisco, Lee Wong, a merchant of high standing and approved integrity, seems to be a man more likely than any other to give true answers to plain questions. Lee Wong happens to lie under obligation to our excellent Consul, for certain good offices in connection with his business. He is willing to pay some portion of his debt, by giving us any information we may seek. We therefore ask him to a conference at the Consulate. He comes at the appointed hour, and after formal compliments we seat him in a chair, so that the majesty of Queen Victoria's face may beam into his Asiatic eyes.

“ Will you be kind enough to tell us, Lee Wong, about the Six Companies? ”

“Six Companies! Your people make mistakes about these Companies. We have, in fact, Five Companies, not six. The body called by you the Sixth Company is a committee of management and arbitration, a local body, living in America, and charged with looking after business on the Pacific [219] coast. The Five Companies have their seats in China, and are known by the localities in which their members live. These Five Companies are-1. Ning Yung; 2. Kwong Chaw; 3. Hop Wo; 4. Sam Yep; 5. Yung Wo. These Five Companies collect the emigrants, carry them to Canton and Hong-Kong, make all arrangements for their transport, and see them put on board the mails. The Sixth Company (or Committee) sits in San Francisco, where its functions are to receive the emigrants on their arrival, and to see that all their contracts and obligations are carried out.”

“Will you explain to us these contracts and obligations?”

“ Yes; but will you put yourselves in our place, and see the truth in a good light? The Melicans call us heathen, but we have our own religion; and our religion is not, like the Melican religion, only for those who like and only when they like. Our religion is for while we live and after we die. So, when the Five Companies agree to bring a man over to California, that is one thing; when they agree to take his ashes back to China, that is another thing. You see? The agreement to bring him over is a [220] contract; the agreement to carry his ashes back is an obligation.”

“Are all your passengers placed under the same kind of bond?”

“Not all. We have two classes on our lists: first-such as come over in our debt, and under bond to us; second, such as pay their own fares in Hong Kong and land in San Francisco free. We have a contract with the first class only; but we have our obligations towards the second class also, since we are bound to carry them back in case of death.”

“Tell us how you begin your labour. Where do you find the people to come over?”

“ The Five Companies send their agents up and down the provinces, both near the sea. and far in land, to tell poor people, who are pinched for rice and tea, of the great markets which are opening for their labour in California, Oregon, and Nevada. Of course they talk big. Melican talk big; Chinaman talk bigger than Melican. These agents say the hills are made of silver, and the rivers run with gold. They offer help, giving passes to such persons as care to move. They find all means of transport; [221] here by road, there by river; doing things so well --having plenty of rich men to help — that they bring a man to the coast in carts and boats for less money than he could get along on foot. For five dollars they pick him up in his village, and carry him down to Hong-Kong. If he is poor they take his bond for those five dollars, supplying his needs in meat and drink, for which they take a second bond. When he arrives in Hong-Kong, they get his licence and secure his berth. The fare is forty-five dollars, which money they pay, also a landing-fee of five dollars, which is repaid by the Steam Company to our Committee in San Francisco. These five dollars paid by the Committee, go into the Dead Fund.”

“Then, as a rule, each man who sails from Hong Kong to San Francisco is not merely a pauper, but a pledged debtor and bondman?”

“Hum! Chinaman is used to all that he no care; he work hard and save much money. Then he go free.”

“ How much, on an average, is the amount of his debt when he lands?”

“From first to last a common passenger may owe [222] his Company ninety or a hundred dollars. All this money he will have to work out.”

“ Before he becomes his own master-before he can do as he likes?”

“ Of course, before he does as he likes, he must redeem his bond.”

“Do the Five Companies in China take his personal bond, trusting to the Sixth Company in San Francisco to get their money back?”

“They take a family bond as well. In China, every man has some one-father, uncle, brother--who is ready to give pledges. We are not like Melicans. Our family system makes it easy to obtain such bonds, for every member of a family has his place in a sacred line, ascending and descending in a series from the first man to the last. If there be house and land, we take a lien on house and land, the family giving us a mortgage and allowing us interest at the rate of twenty-four or thirty-six per cent.”

“ Good interest!”

“Yes; it is a trade, and as a trade we make it pay. If an emigrant has neither house nor land, we ask the personal security of his father and [223] grandfather; his ancestors being the most sacred things a Chinese man can pledge. We charge more interest when the security is only personal? Yes, we charge ten dollars a month in place of two. Yet these securities seldom fail. Of course, we run some risk. Our man may die; worse still, he may fall sick; worst of all, he may commit a crime. If sent to jail, his work is lost. Again, his bond may turn out bad. But every business has a lucky and unlucky turn.”

“ A man with such a debt as you describe is virtually a slave? ”

“In Canton, yes; in San Francisco, no. We never use such words. We are his masters and parents. We receive him on landing into our two great societies in San Francisco — the Wing Yung and the Fook Ting Tong — where he is watched over in life and death.”

“ What are these great societies of Wing Yung and Fook Ting Tong?”

“Wing Yung is our living office, near the county jail. When the ships arrive we bring our people to Wing Yung, where we lodge them, feed them, and hire them out. Fook Ting Tong is our Dead Office, [224] in Laurel Hill Cemetry, where we lay the ashes of our people till they can be sent home to China.”

“Do many of your bondmen run away?”

“They cannot run away. They have no food, no money. They speak no English words; they know no Melican magistrates. Nearly all the people in San Francisco think them bad men — paupers, convicts, and rebels. No family will engage a Chinaman unless we give him a character and guarantee his conduct. So they have to stay with us, or die in the streets. We let them out on hire, receiving their wages, and giving them so much a month to live on-till our debts are paid.”

“ About the second class — the men who pay their own fares, and come on their own account — are they on landing free from your control?”

“Free from the Sixth company?”

“Yes: are they free from all control, save that of the American courts?”

“They pay the Company five dollars each as a landing-fee. This fee they are compelled to pay, because they cannot land without our leave.”

“Then, your company have some authority over [225] every man who comes from Hong Kong, and lands in this port?”

“We have the moral obligation to restore his bones to China; so we tax him five dollars on his landing — to be safe. Unless we give him our certificate, the Pacific Mail Company will not let him come on shore. That contract is made by the Five Companies with the Mail Company. When a passenger has paid his fee, he is at liberty to leave his ship-but not till he can show that he has paid this fee, in either gold or bonds.”

“ You keep an eye on him afterwards, much as you keep an eye on your bond-servant? ”

“The same. We keep an eye on every one. Who else would care about his bones?”

“You have your own police and magistrates?”

“ We have our spies and head-men everywhere. In San Francisco we have many spies. It is thought a good thing to be a spy; a bad thing to be a ghost. A spy serves the Chinese, a ghost serves the Melicans. By means of these spies and headmen we hear of what is going on in every house. We know every man's name, and where he is, and what he is about. It is our duty to fish out [226] things. Even when a man is dead, we have to find his bones and send them home. If not, he would be buried and forgotten like a dog.”

“Your Company is said to wield such secret powers that you can reach offenders in any place, and strike them down at any moment, even under the eyes of local magistrates. For instance, I have heard that two of your people lived near Reno, in the Nevada Mountains; that one of them broke some rule of the Six Companies; that his fellow received a hint to kill him ; and that he was put away so craftily that the crime has never yet been traced. Can such a tale be true?”

“ Who knows? Some Chinamen good, some bad. Melican law make bad men worse. In Hong Kong if you kill a man, you will be hung, whether you have plenty money or not. Money makes no difference. In San Francisco, you kill a man; if you have plenty money, you get off. That is not good law. Here, too, all sorts of secret societies are allowed. In China, only bad men enter into Masonic lodges; rogues and rebels, who want to change the dynasty and destroy the faith. These secret societies are all put down by [227] mandarins. Here, the bad Chinamen start a lodge. We ask the Melicans to put them down. They answer that the law allows Masonic lodges. That bad law. The Sixth Company has to put them down.”

“You seem to exercise the power of a Vigilant Committee?”

“ No; we have no secret powers. We only have our bonds and mortgages, the sway which those who lend money have on their debtor. All beyond is moral force-and the two great societies of Wing Yung and Fook Ting Tong. Chinese ourselves, we understand our brethren; having the same religious rites, the same family sentiment, as the poorest followers of Tao and Buddha. Our chief authority lies in our control of the Dead Fund. A man who might not stop at murder, would shrink from vexing a tribunal that may cause delay in sending back his bones to Hong-Kong.”

“Is such delay frequent? ”

“Yes, for months and years. Except on our certificate no steamer will carry dead men's bones, and some of the captains will not carry them at all.” [228] “You have no vessels of your own? ”

“ Not yet. Our trade is carried on in English ships, and English sailors hate to carry bones. It is no part of their religion, as of ours, to be buried on the spot where they are born.”

“Your people all go back?”

“Yes, all good people. Here and there some Tartar rascals, having no regard for their ancestors, cut their pig-tails and put on Melican clothes. Not men, but curs. Except these dogs, all Chinese go back-when they are dead.”

“Still you are pouring in?”

“Yes; more and more; each season more than ever. Last year five thousand; this year thirteen thousand; next year twenty-five thousand-perhaps. In Melica, plenty land, not much people; in China, plenty people, not much land; so Chinamen like to live in Melica, and go back to China when they die.”

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