San Francisco History

San Francisco's Foreign Colonies:
No. 1 Chinatown

By Robert H. Willson

Queues Shorn, Tong Wars Obsolete and City's 8,000 Chinese Are Studying Democratic Government.

As far around the world as San Francisco is known, its "Chinatown" is as familiar in picture and story as any feature characteristic of the world's metropolis. It is probably the most conspicuous incident in history of the complete removal of the traditions, customs and life of one remote country, transplanted with hardly a modification, to another the extremely opposite. At least, that was the old Chinatown.

San Francisco now has a population of about eight thousand Chinese. At one time there were more than twenty thousand. But today the first request of the casual visitor is "I want to see Chinatown."

From the outside Chinatown is a long avenue of Oriental shops, restaurants, and big stores designed especially to attact the tourist and American trade. You have to get inside to see it.

Tong Sai is one of the merchants and importers, as nearly all in the Chinese colony are. It is the laborers who have disappeared. Tong Sai is keeping his books in the evening when you drop in to pay a call, a rather laborious process by the Chinese method. Many strange characters have to be painted in up and down rows with a brush held vertically and a counting frame in the hands of an assistant, slicking away merrily, to do the sums and multiplication and percentages of discount.

Tong Sai lays away his brush and smiles. The Chinese still have plenty of time, they have not yielded to the rush and bustle of business that surrounds them.

"You come upstairs and sit down littee while," suggests Tong Sai.

Up Narrow Stairs.

The Chinese homes are mostly up narrow, winding stairs, above or in the rear of the stores and shops. Customers and curious sight seers come and go all day long in the places of business, but only now and then is one of them taken into the circle of the Chinese home life. For so many years were the Chinese treated as funny or curious that they were always on the defensive with strangers or those of another race. The Chinese began to change quite rapidly when they cut off their queues, and so did their relations with Americans. It was not the mere fact that a long braid of hair made so much difference between friends, as that the change was a symbol of dis-allegiance to the old Emporer, and an adoption of republican ideals.

Up stairs in Tong Sai's house we are seated around a big table on teakwood stools. He brings out a brown stone bottle. The Chinese have a great reverence for the law, and are not by intention law-breakers, but for many centuries they have regarded ng kah py, wai sang, and saam chin as medicines, and they are somewhat lost between the eighteenth amendment and the ancient laws of hospitality.

"You likee know how good business for Chinatown," says Tong Sai, getting at the question. "I think this year pretty good. Maybe bring some goods from China for $1,000,000. But don't make so much money for Chinese merchants. One store must pay every year to customs maybe $50,000."

The Chinese have always found it a mystery that customs duties and taxes are so high in the United States. They find it hard to realize that goods bought very cheaply in China must be sold for double the price here in order to take care of duties and transportation.

"Chinese business man now very happy," continued Tong Sai, "He likee very much police squad. Sometime before have Tong war and kill somebody in street. Chinese merchant no likes that war. Now I tell you how Chinatown sergeant make different."

Tong Men Moving.

"One man standing on street corner have no business, don't live that place. Policeman say to him 'what you do here?' Maybe he say 'I come visit my cousin.' or maybe he say, 'my friend get married.' Policeman tell to him 'all light.' 'How many days you stay here?' 'Oh,' he say, 'three days.' 'All light,' policeman tell him, 'three days you come back here, than I go with you to train.' That way Tong man always going with policeman to take train go somewhere else. Don't use to have so much trouble."

It is not alone the police who have been instrumental in ending the Tong war. The Six Companies, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and other associations have taken a hand. You may have wondered what the long red bulletins, printed in black letters, appearing on the various street corners of Chinatown are designed to convey to those who read them. At least one of them is a message to the Chinese Tong men and undesirables, advising them that they are no longer welcome in Chinatown, and had best be on their way.

"All Chinese here likee very much Doctor Sun Yet Sen," says Tong Sai, coming down to the question of politics. "Chinese school boy, merchant, farmer, all want one republic. In San Francisco many Chinese come from Canton, not many from Pekin. Here all the time we study American government, want to do that way for China. Now all Chinese change government and religion. He don't want Confucius. Confucius tell him he must believe Emperor. Old government want to get Emperor again for China, but he cannot do that. Whole world change, and want republic."

It is perhaps unfair to quote Tong Sai so literally in his dialect, because he is a student of history, government, philosophy and religion, and thinks more profoundly than his simple command of the English language would indicate. There is, however, a sincerity about his words as they are spoken which tempts one to quote him as exactly as possible. There are only a few English speaking sages probably who would attempt to do as well in the Chinese tongue. If you should prefer polished and academic English, that can be found without any difficulty among the younger Chinese of Chinatown.

Attend Two Schools.

"I think now about 600 children go school here," continues Tong Sai, getting back to the question. "Chinese school boy, school girl must study very hard. Day time he go American school, night time go Chinese school. Four schools now teachee him Chinese. Six Companies make one big school where children must pay. Morning Bell school teach many children if his father cannot pay. Chinese merchants must all the time give something for schools. He got also Nam Kow school and Catholic schools."

The Chinese theater, too, flourishes in San Francisco. The theatrical enterprise is no small undertaking. Sometimes it requires three or four nights for the produciton of a single play, and the hours are from 7 p.m. until midnight. It might bother an Occidental manager to fill a house every night under these conditions, but the present Chinese theater on Broadway is usually crowded. A new theater will be completed this year on Grant avenue between Jackson and Pacific streets.

"You come for dinner 9 o'clock," suggests Tong Sai, as we go down the winding stairs.

There is a treat which the epicure cannot pass by. A real Chinese dinner is a revelation to those who regard chop suey as the national dish. After a hundred dinners ordered by a Chinese host, each one of a different menu, you are unlikely to encounter even once the much advertised dish of chop suey. If the American hash houses were all to hang out an illuminated sign with the one word "hash," it would create something of the impression given by the numerous chop suey signs.

Chinatown has some excellent restaurants, where almost every delicacy is at command, but it is necessary to find a Chinese who will act as host to give the order. It is extremely difficult to explain to a waiter that you want a melon, not less than two years old, boiled and filled with a sort of stew, including smoked dried duck, mushrooms, bamboo sprouts and whatever else should go in it. It is even difficult for the casual diner to remember whether he wants "Ee Foo Min" or "Chow Min." Cooking is a fine art with the Chinese. With all the varieties and quantity of food you may be tempted to consume at a big Chinese dinner party, you need have no fear of indigestion. Experience has taught the Chinese what others are now trying to get from science.

Thrifty Spenders.

The Chinese are in many respects very thrifty and economical, yet they are liberal spenders for the things they consider worth while.

Imitations of jade and gold jewelry are imported for the American trade, but the Chinese woman wears genuine, and has plenty of it. Most of the Chinese here contribute regularly to parents or relatives in China. They are liberal in their gifts to their charities and public welfare subscriptions. Celebrating the Chinese New Year means giving presents to many friends.

You find among the Chinese many things which the modern world regards as its own recent discovery. The principle of profit sharing, for instance, is regarded by them as the normal and essential factor in all business relations. The employees of a store are partners, and are generally referred to as such, rather than clerks. The proprietor estimates his profits at the end of the year and anything that is over a logical return on his investment is divided among the employees according to their services. Among themselves the Chinese have no use for credit men. Their credit is always good with one another, and they have no bad collection amounts. They say they have practically no losses from American customers who get credit and attribute it to the fact that every one who deals with them accepts their point of view. A debt is a moral obligation, and if a man evades it or denies it, he is a social outcast.

Dens Are Gone.

If you want to know about underground Chinatown, it will be necessary to turn to fiction. Before opium was outlawed, and when men gambled openly, there were a few strange dens in Chinatown. When the Tongs flourished and men were found dead from hatchet wounds, there were barred doors and mysterious places. They are practically gone with the coming of the new and properous Chinese business district, which is San Francisco's Chinatown of today.

The great Chinese wall of modern times is the Chinese alphabet. If they had fifty or a hundred characters which could be worked into words and sentences there might be some hope for an Occidental mind. Americans and Chinese must read the same books and newspapers. Now it is a tedious task for the scholars.

The Chinese language does not lend itself to typewriters or linotype machines. You go into the composing room of a Chinese newspaper and find type-setters running about all over a large room to assemble the thousands of characters needed to make a page of type.

Ng Poon Chew, editor of a Chinese daily paper, is one of the best known residents of Chinatown. He has had such education and so much experience that he can look at his own people through Western eyes.

"You must remember," he says, "that China is larger than all of Europe outside Russia and contains one-fourth of the people in the world to understand how large are the political problems with which we have to deal. In the 5,000 years of our national history we have had various political upheavals and often they have been marked by long periods of turbulence. We are going through one of those experiences now and it is made more difficult by the fact that we have international relations such as we have never had before."

Always Democratic.

"The Chinese are proverbially honest in business. They have yet to learn honesty in government. In spite of the fact that we have had a monarchy the Chinese government has always been democratic. Men were appointed to office by competitive examinations and civil service is an old story in China. But the reward for securing an office was to make it profitable and what we call graft was legitimate compensation as long as the official conducted his affairs with judgment and discrimination.

"China has not yet established a political integrity and no one can say when its government will be stabilized. Time alone will tell whether the newly elected president can succeed. He is a militarist. It may be necessary to organize an effective military government before China can establish a republic."

The Chinese of San Francisco have a strong and commendable pride of race. At the entrance to the building of the Six Companies, beautifully furnished, is a sign which reads something like this:

"Visitors accompanied by official Chinatown guides will not be admitted. The information given by these guides is unreliable. Those who come unaccompanied are welcome."

The functions of the Six Companies are many. In general, it is their aim to look after the welfare of the Chinese in America.

The Native Sons are another strong organization. They own and maintain a large building on Stockston street. Strangely enough they seem to appreciate more the value of maintaining Chinese Customs and traditions than some of the Chinese born population, who hasten upon their arrival in the United States to adopt the costumes and habits of the new country. The picturesqueness of Chinatown passes as its people turn from the gold and blue, the embroidery and silks of their native land to the gray and drabs of a conventional modern civilization.

Seldom Ask Loans.

San Francisco has one of the few Chinese banks in America. It might be interesting to get some idea of the volume of Chinese business transactions, but the manager of the bank says he has no idea how such a conclusion could be arrived at. Chinese merchants are in the habit of keeping a large balance, perhaps $8,000 or $10,000. They seldom ask for loans or credits. Their banking transactions give but a meagre idea of the business they are doing.

Chinatown has come to appreciate the fact that it is one of the show places of the city. Some of the stores are virtually free galleries of Oriental art. Of all the sight-seers who wander through, but a small percentage are possible buyers. The Chinese merchant is not afraid to invest considerable sums of money in antiques or valuable objects, knowing that the sale will be very slow. He finds some lesser commodity with which to keep his business going.

It would be interesting to take a look at San Francisco from Chinatown's point of view. For one thing the Chinese seem almost extravagant in their admiration of the mechnical speed, industrial facility and political progress of the new civilization. They have so many ideas of their own that are old and sound and need only the method of practical application. A Chinese merchant on Grant avenue suggests that one feature of the American judicial system will not work and perhaps he is right. He cannot understand that the payment of money may be considered a punishment for a misdemeanor or criminal offense. To the Chinese mind it appears very simple, that if a man wishes to gamble or beat up his neighbor, he must first ascertain what the cost will be. He then makes sure that he has the money and if the act gives him sufficient pleasure he may carry it out, pay his money and come out of the transaction quite honorably. Grafting was at one time a simple matter in Chinatown. The Chinese were perfectly willing to pay for indulgences.

A fundamental change has come over Chinatown. It is now essentially an important business section of the city. The most conspicuous features of the night life that survive are mere pantomimes maintained for the benefit of visiting tourists. The shutters in most of the shops go up at 9 o'clock and the men gather to discuss the political future of China, or retire to their rooms above to study the English language and economics.

"The lights are low in dreamy Chinatown."

But the Chinese are awake.

Source: San Francisco Examiner. 18 November 1923. K3. Pictures not included: Chinese beauty shop, Grant avenue, Marathon printers, and native children.

Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License