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Chapter 23: Chinese labour.

More serious are the questions raised in San Francisco by the Chinese knack of learning trades. The Mongol's advent in America has brought into the front the great struggle for existence between eaters of beef and eaters of rice.

Living on rice, asking no luxuries beyond a whiff of opium and a pinch of tea, John Chinaman can toil for less money than a beef-eating fellow who requires a solid dinner, after which he likes to smoke his cuddy, drain his pot of beer, and top his surfeit with a whisky-smash. John will live and save where Pat must shrink and fall. The first Chinese who came over were labourers, and their first rivals were Irish navvies and hodmen. John drove these rivals off the field, doing more work at less cost, and pleasing his employers by his steady doings and his silent ways. John builds the [237] chapels, banks, hotels, and schools. No room is left in San Francisco for the unskilled Irish peasant, and the movement of Irish labourers towards this Slope has ceased. In one or two hotels Pat is retained in the dining-room; but even in these hotels the laundries and kitchens are occupied by Hop Ki and Lee Sing.

“Tell me, Pat, have you any rows with these Chinese?” I ask the servant in my room at the Grand Hotel.

“No, Captain,” says Pat; “would you have me demane meeself by jumping on a dirty thing in a pig-tail? ”

“ But he lowers the rate of wages in the docks and yards?”

“Bad luck to him — the skunk! Before he showed his dirty face in Market-street, a man could earn his six dollars a day. Now, he gets no more nor two. That's four dollars a day gone; all along of the pig-tails! Some of the masters are no better nor the skunks; they say they wont pay a White man more than double what they give a Yellow chap. Holy Mary! as if a Christian could live on [238] two dabs of rice, because a heathen Chinee can starve on one! ”

“You think this fall in wages owing to the Chinaman?”

“What else, Captain? Why, before the brute came in, my ould woman got her bit of washing and ironing, enough anyhow to buy a drop of drink; but now the squinting villain robs the women as well as he robs the men. If it were not for soiling one's hands, I'd like to squash them head and heels into the bay-just there, by Hunter's Point.”

“You don't say, live and let live, eh, Pat?”

“Live! Why, Captain, he's a heathen Chinee; a real heathen Chinee! What business has the loikes of him over here? Is not Chinay big enough for him?”

“Come, Pat, haven't you come over from County Cork?”

“ That's thrue, Captain; but then the country's ours. We conquered it from the Injuns and the Mexicans. Let the Chinese try to conquer it from us! Bedad, won't I loike to see the day when they come out and fight-och, the heathen Chinee!” [239]

No sort of labour comes amiss to John. He cooks your food and digs your quarry; rocks your cradle and feeds your cow; mends your shed and smelts your ore. When he has choice of work, he settles down most readily to household tasks, but he can turn his hand to any work; and after once seeing things done by others he can do them pretty well himself.

Ho Ling came by train to San Jose; the first moon-face ever seen in that old Free Town. Hiring a small shed, Ho Ling put out his sign: “Washing and Ironing done by Ho Ling.” Much linen may have been lying by unwashed in San Jose; anyhow, Ho Ling was soon busy day and night. He sent for Chou Ping; but the two moon-faces, scrubbing and squinting in their narrow room, could hardly overtake their work. Ho Ling saved money. When he had lived three months in San Jose, he called a carpenter, and asked his price for setting up ten frame shanties on a piece of ground in rear of Main Street, Ho Ling supplying him with poles and planks.

“ For ten houses, one hundred dollars.” [240] “Muchee dollar, Muchee dollar!” objected Ho Ling.

“No,” replied the carpenter, “very cheap.”

“Ten house-ten dollar-one hundred dollar?” asked Ho Ling.

“Yes,” returned the carpenter, not thinking of his words.

“Then you makey, makey.”

When the carpenter set to work, seven fresh moon-faces came down by train, and, after calling on Ho Ling, slouched towards the back street, in which the new Mongolian town was starting into shape. Squatting on the ground, each moon-face twiddled his bit of bamboo cane, chewed his morsel of betel nut, and watched the carpenter stake his poles and nail his planks.

“ Goodee buildee-ten dollars,” smirked Ho Ling when the first shed was roofed.

“ I'll put 'em all up for you in no time,” said the carpenter, pocketing his coin.

“ No wantee more house,” replied Ho Ling; “ me makee all, me makee all.”

In his new home in America, moon-face has to deal with new materials. In his native land bamboo is everything: here cedar is everything. At home [241] he builds his house-floor, wall, and roof-of bamboo. Of bamboo he makes a bridge and a fan, a scroll and a cart, a pipe and a plough. Here he must work in cedar, on other principles, and with other tools. But he is quick to learn. Watching the carpenter at San Jose with sleepy eyes, moon-face catches up the knack of staking poles and planking wall and roof. The carpenter swears, but he has no redress. Ho Ling has not only built his street, but moon-face has become an expert in the builder's craft, and underworks his rival in every builder's yard at San Jose. In fact, the building trade is passing into Chinese hands.

It is the same in many other trades. The business of cigar making is the largest separate craft in San Francisco; thousands of persons are employed in smoothing, rolling, twisting the tobacco leaves; and this great business has passed entirely into Chinese hands. The boot-trade, the woollen manufactures, and the fruit-preserving business are also mainly carried on by Chinese labour.

“You want a pair of boots?” asks a friend at the Pacific Club; “ then try Yin Yung of Jackson Street, the best bootmaker in California.” [242]

“Cheapest, you mean,” sneers a gentleman in our circle.

“Best, as well as cheapest, I assert,” replies the first speaker.

Going up Jackson Street we look into Yin Yung's shop, surprised to see so good a show of work; the boots and shoes appearing to be as neat and strong as any you will find in rival stores, yet marked at figures much below the ordinary price elsewhere.

Until the other day Yin Yung had never seen an English boot. A mandarin wears slippers, a merchant clatters down the street in clogs. An English high-low was as strange a mystery to Yin Yung as a Chinese puzzle would be to Giles Hodge. But Yin Yung wanted rice to eat, and reading a notice in Kearney Street that ‘good hands’ were wanted by one Aaron Isaacs, bootmaker, he applied for work; and, as he asked for next to nothing in the way of wages, the worthy Israelite gave him a stool, a mallet, and a ball of wax. A Jew has no objections to cheap labour on the score of race and creed. He knows, indeed, that John will learn his art and steal his trade; but he imagines he can make his [243] game and bank his dollars long before that evil day arrives. That certain crafts should pass from White men to Yellow men is nothing to him — a Jew-a citizen of the world. He likes a docile Mongol, whom, if need be, he can cuff and cheat, with no great risk of a returning blow. The Hebrew shops are, therefore, full of Yellow-men. It is from this connection with the Jews of San Francisco, that John has got his droll idea that the Melicans crucified Christ — a crime for which John Chinaman mildly suspects and hates all Melican men!

Yin Yung drew his brethren to Isaacs's shop, and for a year or so Isaacs drove a rattling trade in English boots and shoes; being able to run down prices in Montgomery Street, and force the other makers to employ Chinese hands. What cared the Jew? He lowered his rate of wages. One by one his White men left him. Isaacs took on more Chinese, Yin Yung being now expert enough to instruct them in their trade. Then Yin Yung left him also; left him to engage in business on his own account. To-day Yin Yung is a big man, keeping a large shop, and having a good repute. While he was Isaacs's thrall, he took the Hebrew's cuffs and [244] curses with a patient face, and now he pays his debt by under-selling the Jew to his old customers in the clubs.

Isaacs is very angry and very spiteful; but he has not yet been able to destroy Yin Yung.

In vain he gets more and more Chinese into his shops. He has to teach them, and as soon as they are taught they start as rivals in his trade. By every effort to suppress Yin Yung he helps to make five more Yin Yungs.

Paul Cornell's fight is raging in the watch trade, just as Isaacs's fight is raging in the shoe-trade. Seventy hands have come from Chicago as his staff; twenty-five married men with their wives and children, and a few single men. They are engaged for fixed periods, ranging from six months to two years. Not a word was slid to them before they left Illinois about the company employing Chinese hands in San Francisco. They were only told of the lovely scenery, the temperate climate, the abundant fruits. Money was advanced to pay their railway fares — a heavy sum for artizans with wives and children to procure. These fares are still owing to the Cornell Company, so that the White men from [245] Chicago are bound to Cornell and Ralston very much as the Yellow men from Canton are bound to the Wing Yung and the Fook Ting Tong.

The lathes and wheels being ready, Cornell calls in seven of his overseers, and tells them, for the first time, that he means to use Chinese labour in his works. The overseers protest. “ You are discharged,” he says. Piper, one of these seven overseers, complains that this notice is a great surprise.

“Pack up your duds and go,” says Cornell. In time both parties get a little cooler, and the master enters into detail.

“The Chinese, you must understand,” says Cornell to his White overseers, “are mere animals; they cannot learn to do fine work; they are only to be used in common tasks. Now go and explain these matters to the men.”

The men are no less resolute than the overseers. “No one,” they urge in opposition to Cornell's proposal, “can draw a line between the White man and the Yellow man. A Yellow man is quick at learning things; and, as he lives on rice and fish, he can afford to take a lower wage. He has no family to [246] house and feed. To teach the Chinese how to make watches, is to rob our little ones of bread.”

Both sides seem firm. “ We have your covenants,” says Cornell. “Those covenants are broken,” shout the men on strike. Meetings are held. As all the craftsmen in the town are with the strikers, money is subscribed, and promises of support are given. Telegrams are sent to every watch factory in the United States, calling on the workmen to assist in beating down this effort of three or four great capitalists to hand over an artistic industry to Asiatics. One committee is appointed to see the various Trades Unions; a second is charged to make arrangements for carrying the whole seventy watchmakers back to Chicago. Yet Cornell, sustained by Ralston, and knowing that his workmen have no money, takes up very high ground.

“Repay your fares and go; like Piper, you can pack your duds and go.”

The workmen ask for an interview with Ralston, known to be the chief proprietor in the new company, if not the first suggestor of employing Chinese hands. Ralston consents to see them. An interview is held, of which a report is given in the daily [247] papers, painting the situation in a pleasant way — that pleasant way which tells the truth in jest.

Piper advances to the front and thus addresses the Lord of Belmont, Manager of the Bank of California:

“ Sir! We are American citizens, with families dependent on our labour for bread. We are skilled and willing workers in the business of making watches. We have been induced to come to California to aid this new industry, in which you have risked a single speck of your great wealth. If the work prospers it becomes the vocation of our lives, and the inheritance of our children as a place to labour; if it fails, you have had a little of your gold-dust blown away. We are informed that it is your intention to employ Chinese labour. This is not agreeable to us. We have a prejudice against these strangers. They do not speak our language; their religion, manners, customs, dress are not ours. They have no families to support. If we educate them in our skilled pursuit, they will soon rival us in it, and ultimately drive us from it. Instead, therefore, of employing these people, be kind enough to give the light labour to our wives and to our boys and girls. Thinking it is better to give this [248] labour to our own people, we ask you respectfully to consider our petition.”

Ralston replies:

“Individuals! I am William C. Ralston. I own thirty-five thousand dollars in the stock of this company. We intend to manage this business in our own way, to submit to no dictation from workmen. We may find it expedient to employ Chinese; if we do, we will employ as many as we see fit. If you think we are in your power you make a great mistake. We will hire whatever race of men we think best, and if you do not like it-you can leave. We can better afford to lose a hundred thousand dollars than submit to your dictation. We can send to Switzerland for watchmakers. We are in no hurry. While capital reposes, labour starves. We can wait. I am the same Mr. Ralston who made this same speech to the bricklayers and plasterers on the Palace Hotel. I once discharged a clerk. I am in earnest. However, I will be generous, and I make this proposition: if you can get me American girls and boys who will do as much work and do it as well as the Chinese, I will give them the preference [249] and the same pay. You may now apologize and retire.”

Dropping this tone of pleasantry, the writer adds, with pain, if not with shame:

“ The result is the Chinese are to be employed; a few at first, and more in time; so that the seeds are sown for the destruction of a profitable industry. Another weapon of defence is taken from the hand of free labour.”

Here, as elsewhere in California, Oregon, and Nevada, the rice-eater is pushing the beef-eater to the wall.

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