San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco



APRIL.—The immigration of Chinese into California has greatly increased of late. By this month it was supposed that upwards of ten thousand of that people had arrived at San Francisco, while as many more were estimated to be on the way. Considerable public discussion existed at this period on the desirableness of such a vast immigration of the race; and we take occasion to make some general remarks on the subject, as well as upon the present (1854) condition of Chinamen in the city.

Chinese Merchants and Coolie.The manners and habits of the Chinese are very repugnant to Americans in California. Of different language, blood, religion and character, inferior in most mental and bodily qualities, the Chinaman is looked upon by some as only a little superior to the negro, and by others as somewhat inferior. It is needless to reason upon such a matter. Those who have mingled familiarly with “celestials” have commonly felt before long an uncontrollable sort of loathing against them. “John’s” person does not smell very sweetly; his color and the features of his face are unusual; his penuriousness is extreme; his lying, knavery and natural cowardice are proverbial; he dwells apart from white persons, herding only with countrymen, unable to communicate his ideas to such as are not of his nation, or to show the better part of his nature. He is poor and mean, somewhat slavish and crouching, and is despised by the whites, who would only laugh in derision if even a divine were to pretend to place the two races on an equality. In short, there is a strong feeling,—prejudice it may be,—existing in California against all Chinamen, and they are nicknamed, cuffed about and treated very unceremoniously by every other class. Yet they are generally quiet and industrious members of society, charitable among themselves, not given to intemperance and the rude vices which drink induces, and are reputed to be remarkably attached to their parents, revering indeed in all persons advanced years, which are supposed to bring wisdom. The Chinese, or certain large tribes of their nation, are of a migratory disposition. They have long since wandered over the many great and rich islands and countries lying around their own land, and have contrived to secure to themselves a large portion of the most valuable trade and commerce of these places. From Canton to Calcutta and Callao, to Melbourne and Manilla, they swarm in all the ports of the Pacific, and more especially in those of the great Malay archipelago. There seems a vast pressure upon the interior multitudes of China, which forces many thousands annually to leave that densely peopled country, for the sake of a bare subsistence, and to save starvation at home. Little food, and that of the coarsest and cheapest kind, suffices to support the life of Chinamen; and to procure that, they will drudge long and patiently at the most painful task. When in a foreign country they have contrived to amass a small sum, which may be considered a fortune by themselves, they generally seek to return to spend it, and enjoy the remainder of their days among kinsmen. This class of people will perhaps form a large portion of the future population of California, especially if any State encouragement should be given them, and a short notice of their character is not out of place in this work. At present they make one of the most striking peculiarities of San Francisco.

From the date of the discovery of gold Chinamen had occasionally appeared in the country; but it was only in 1851 and 1852 that their rapidly increasing numbers began to attract much notice. Considerable apprehension began then to be entertained of the supposed bad effect which their presence would have on the white population. Large bands of Chinese were working at the mines upon conditions which were supposed to be closely allied to a state of slavery. Much misunderstanding arose on the subject. It was believed that the gangs were receiving only subsistence and nominal wages,—some four or five dollars per month for each man,—and that speculators, both yellow and white, were setting them to work on various undertakings which free white laborers conceived should only be executed by themselves. If these vast inroads of Chinese were to continue, the white miner considered that he might as well leave the country at once, since he could not pretend to compete with the poverty-stricken, meek and cheap “coolie,” as so John Chinaman was now called by many. It was true that the latter never sought to interfere with the rich claims which the American miner wrought, while he submitted very patiently to be violently driven away from whatever neglected spot he might have occupied, but which the white man suddenly chose to fancy. It was true also that the Chinaman regularly paid, as a foreigner,—and was almost the only foreigner that did so,—his mining license to the State; and was a peaceable and hard-working subject. These things did not matter. Right or wrong, he should be driven from competition with free white men, or his labor should be confined to certain inferior kinds of work, to which the dominant lords of the soil never meant to apply themselves. Angry words, much strife and perhaps some bloodshed, were generated in the mining regions, and the hapless Chinese were driven backwards and forwards, and their lives made miserable.

Governor Bigler, influenced by the American miners’ feelings, issued a message in which he stigmatized the Chinese as “coolies,” (an appellation which they professed to abhor,) and advised the Legislature to pass a law prohibiting the farther immigration of that people. The terms of this message were considered offensive and uncalled for by most of the intelligent and liberal-minded Americans. The Chinese in San Francisco, who now formed a large class of the community, took the matter much to heart, and, on the 29th April of this year, published a long letter or manifesto in answer to the governor’s message. This letter was written temperately, and was an exceedingly able document. Subsequent communications of a like nature passed between the governor and the Chinese. The Legislature meanwhile had appointed a committee to consider and report upon the whole subject, and sundry passionate, and some other amusing speeches were occasionally delivered in the State chambers. In the end, the illiberal action suggested by the governor was not adopted, and soon the matter fell asleep. Farther immigration of this people took place in the course of 1852, and towards the close of that year, there were probably sixteen or twenty thousand of them in the country. Considerable numbers have since left, but as many others have come in their stead, it may be supposed that in 1854 there is still nearly the number mentioned.

In San Francisco, the Chinese were, in 1852, as they have always since continued to be, very numerous—perhaps numbering from three to four thousand. The following description of their present condition is also applicable to the year named. Though individuals of the race reside and carry on business in every quarter of the city, the chief district in which they are located is the upper part of Sacramento street, the whole length of Dupont street, and portions of various other streets adjoining these named. In such places the Chinese are almost the only inhabitants, and the quarter is often called “Little China.” There is a considerable number of respectable and wealthy Chinese merchants and shopkeepers in San Francisco, who have extensive business premises in Sacramento street and in various other parts of the city. Their merchandise, as might be expected, is chiefly the goods of their own country. These are of the “upper ten” order, the Corinthian capital of the “celestial” pillar, and would be a credit to any community. They are polite, shrewd, and learned gentlemen; and are sometimes generous. They can either talk the English language pretty fluently themselves, or by means of an interpreter can conduct any business transaction or private conversation. But the great mass of their countrymen is of a very inferior description. Most of this class, who do really work, engage in the washing and dressing of clothes, for which they receive such wages as must appear to them noble remuneration. The washing and drying are conducted at the different lagoons and wells in the vicinity of the city, while in the smallest, meanest habitation in every street, the Chinaman may be seen diligently ironing and finishing the cleansed garment with his smooth-bottomed chafing-dish of burning coals. They are also employed as porters in warehouses and stores, and in various other kinds of inferior labor.

Chinese Gambling-house.It appears, however, to most residents in San Francisco, a most curious thing how the great number of that people support themselves. The majority certainly seem to be quite idle, or only busy in gambling, which cannot be a very lucrative pursuit. A portion of the upper end of Sacramento street, and nearly all the eastern side of Dupont street, are occupied with Chinese gambling-houses, which night and day are filled with crowds of that people. The rooms, or “saloons,” are generally small, each containing from three to half a dozen tables, or “banks.” At the innermost end of some of the principal gambling places, there is an orchestra of five or six native musicians, who produce such extraordinary sounds from their curiously shaped instruments as severely torture the white man to listen to. Occasionally a songster adds his howl or shriek to the excruciating harmony. The wailings of a thousand love-lorn cats, the screams, gobblings, brayings, and barkings of as many peacocks, turkeys, donkeys, and dogs,—the “ear-piercing” noises of hundreds of botching cork-cutters, knife-grinders, file-makers, and the like,—would not make a more discordant and agonizing concert than these Chinese musical performers in their gambling-houses. Heaven has ordered it, no doubt, for wise purposes, that the windy chaos is pleasant to the auricular nerves of the natives. Occasionally a few white men will venture into these places, and gaze with mingled contempt and wonder upon the grave, melancholy, strange faces of the gamblers, and their curious mode of playing. There seems to be only one game in vogue. A heap of brass counters is displayed on the plain mat-covered table, and the banker, with a long, slender stick, picks and counts them out one by one, while the stakers gaze with intense interest on the process. The game seems of the simplest nature, though white people scorn to know any thing about it. A few low guttural, gobbling sounds, are occasionally interchanged between the rapt players. A rank smell pervades the place, but that is submitted to for a while by the casual visitor. At last the diabolical music reaches some fortissimo passage of intense meaning, while the wild howls and screams of the singer swell even above the dreadful instrumental din, and then the “outside barbarian” is fain to fly.

While one large portion of the Chinese population of San Francisco seems to be constantly engaged in gambling, another, almost equally large,—the females of the race,—follow prostitution as a trade. In 1851, there were only a few Chinese women in the city, among whom was the notorious Miss or Mrs. Atoy. Every body knew that famous or infamous character, who was alternately the laughing-stock and the plague of the place. Her advices home seem to have encouraged the sex to visit so delightful a spot as San Francisco, and by and by, notwithstanding all the efforts of the male Chinese to keep back their countrywomen, great numbers of the latter flocked to the city. It is perhaps only necessary to say that they are the most indecent and shameless part of the population, without dwelling more particularly upon their manners and customs. Dupont street, and portions of Pacific, and other cross streets, are thickly peopled with these vile creatures.

Notwithstanding all the reputed industry of the Chinese, and which has somehow become a “household word” over the world, it must be confessed that prostitution and gambling seem, in fact, the steady business of the majority of that nation in San Francisco. The truly industrious, well behaved, and worthy part of the people are scattered over the city and its environs, and are seldom seen, while the gamblers, the frail nymphs, and the yellow loafer class are continually loitering about the streets, or in their own proper, open dens, and are every where visible.

Chinese Females.In 1852, a regular Chinese dramatic company appeared and performed pieces in their native language. These performances were largely patronized by their countrymen, as well as by many of the white inhabitants, who were curious to witness a real play done by such actors. In 1853, another Chinese theatre was opened. Besides these exhibitions, these people have occasionally other ceremonies and amusements peculiar to themselves. At two periods of the year, in spring and autumn, they form grand processions, and march to Yerba Buena Cemetery with roasted pigs and goats, the smell of which seems grateful to the spirits of their dead lying there. After firing a multitude of crackers, burning mystic papers, and performing a variety of droll capers, they lift again the dainty meats, and march back in procession to town to feed heartily on them. Huge, gaudy standards, gilded dragons, with long tails, and a national orchestra, astonish and disgust the bystanders, but extravagantly delight the saffron-colored Johns. We have noticed above the nature of their instrumental and vocal music. Most of their national customs and doings are as little agreeable to white people as those horrible sounds which make the “celestial” harmony.

There seems to be some secret societies among this people, by means of which a few of their number have occasionally been found to grossly oppress their poorer brethren. The police have attempted to interfere and protect the injured, though seldom with much effect. The terror of these, lest vengeance should somehow befall them from their persecutors, have generally prevented full disclosures of the unlawful practices of the secret societies. So proverbial is falsehood among all classes of the Chinese here, that one is quite at a loss to know any thing of their peculiar private associations and customs. One strange idea among them seems to be, that it is a matter of honor for a debtor who cannot pay his obligations to kill himself. Death cancels all debt, and clears scores with hard-hearted creditors. Even Chinese women, at different times, have poisoned themselves here with opium, to satisfy this curious code of honor. Some of the Chinese merchants are reputed to be pretty wealthy. They are now (in 1854) erecting a handsome building as a sort of Merchants’ Exchange, specially for their own people. There is a Chinese mission in the city, and some of the race profess themselves Christians.

Chinese Merchants.The Chinese in San Francisco make an extraordinary feature of the city, and appeal very strongly to most organs of the stranger—to his eye, ear, and nose. They are seen in every street quietly passing along. The white immigrant, who may never before have met with specimens of the race, involuntarily stops, and gazes curiously upon this peculiar people, whose features are so remarkable, and whose raiment is so strange, yet unpretending, plain and useful. They are generally peaceable and contented among themselves, and seldom trouble the authorities except in case of mere ignorance of the municipal ordinances. As we have said, there are many most respectable merchants of their race. These are active and keen men in bargaining. They dress in a characteristic and sumptuous manner, and in their own exclusive circles, where no low-caste countryman is allowed to intrude, will no doubt have much refined and intellectual enjoyment. Such flowery grandees as luxuriate in wives are proud to let the white man know that their charmers have the little feet of ladies, not the great hoofs of the trolloping damsels who haunt the streets and lie in wait for the foolish stranger. Nearly the whole race, from the “upper ten” to the lower thousands, wear the time-hallowed tail; while their every-day garb is the immemorial clothing of Chinamen. Some, indeed, sport one or more articles of the white man’s dress—his boots, trousers, coat, or hat but these are comparatively few. On occasions of public rejoicing, the Chinese muster in numerous bodies, while their banners, cars, and they themselves, in their most superb array, form striking and interesting features in procession, and the like. They are very fond of such shows, and among themselves appear to observe many national, or private holidays, at which an abundance of their famous crackers are discharged. Their dwellings, some of which are brought in frames direct from China, and erected by themselves, are small and incommodious, though extraordinary numbers somehow contrive to creep into them, and live very comfortably. Over the fronts of many of these houses are nightly displayed the common colored paper lanterns of China.

MAY 1st.—Act passed by the Legislature to fund the floating debt of the State, and to issue stock to the extent of $600,000, bearing interest at the rate of seven per cent. per annum. The principal of the debt is declared payable in New York, or at the State Treasury, at the option of the parties receiving the stock bonds, on the 1st day of March, 1870. The interest to be payable either in New York or at the office of the treasurer of the State. Particular provisions are made in regard to a sinking fund, and as to the annual interest.

MAY 3d.—Of this date acts were passed by the Legislature to amend certain acts which had been passed in the previous session relating to the establishment of a “State Marine Hospital at San Francisco,” and providing for its revenue, and also concerning passengers arriving in the ports of California. This hospital received such indigent sick as were objects of State charity, as well as such invalids as were properly chargeable on the city, upon payment of certain fees by the latter. Parties in good health could secure the advantages of the hospital for one year, in the event of sickness, upon payment of the sum of five dollars. Other parties, invalids at the time, might be admitted, after obtaining the certificate of the resident physician, and upon payment of such fees as should from time to time be fixed. The funds and management of the hospital were vested in a board of trustees, to be composed of seven persons, five of whom (residents in San Francisco) were to be chosen annually by the Legislature, and the other two were to be the mayor and president of the chamber of commerce of that city for the time being. Of this board the mayor was declared president. The board was to choose a treasurer and inferior officials, while the Legislature was to appoint one resident and two visiting physicians for the term of two years, to each of whom a salary of five thousand dollars was allowed.

The revenue of the hospital was to be derived from various sources, such as—from a commutation tax upon all immigrants arriving in California by sea, being ten and five dollars upon each cabin aud steerage passenger respectively, and which tax was divisible as follows, viz.: three-fifths to the State Marine Hospital at San Francisco, one-fifth to the Sacramento State Hospital (since abolished), and one-fifth to the State Hospital at Stockton; from a tax of one dollar upon each passenger, sailor, or mariner leaving the port of San Francisco,—from the one-half of all sums received by the city of San Francisco on account of licenses to hawkers and peddlers, and on account of auction sales and for licenses for gaming,—from the effects and property of all persons dying in the hospital, which might not be legally claimed by others,—from voluntary donations, and the sums paid by parties to secure the advantages of the institution, &c. An additional one-fourth of the sums received by the city on account of licenses for gaming was also payable by it to the board of trustees, to be applied by the latter, in the first instance, towards payment of the debt of the former “State Marine Hospital;“ and after that debt was satisfied, to be set aside as a building fund.

In the following year, the Legislature passed an act materially modifying the arrangements regarding this hospital and its revenues, which will be noticed under its proper date. As the acts particularly above mentioned, and those passed in the session of 1851, form the foundation of the subsequent legislation on the subject, we have thought fit to notice them in this place at some length.

MAY 4th—Act passed by the Legislature authorizing the conversion of the floating debt of the County of San Francisco, to an amount not exceeding $400,000, into a seven per cent. stock. The interest of this funded debt is payable half yearly, and the principal is to be redeemed within ten years after the 1st day of July, 1852. Commissioners were appointed under this act to carry out its purposes, who should hold office until the first day of July, 1853, after which date the board of supervisors of the county should enter upon the farther management of the matters in question. Particular provisions are set forth in the act respecting the raising of the annual interest becoming due upon the debt, and for the formation of a sinking fund to redeem the principal.

This day was the anniversary of the second and the fifth great fires. Considerable apprehension was entertained that some attempts would be made to set the city in flames about this time. The different fire companies were therefore on the alert, and took every precaution to provide against the dreaded danger. The men remained in close attendance both day and night, and had all their engines and tackle in instant working order. About ten o’clock at night, on the 4th, the fire-bell was heard loudly booming, and with wonderful speed, “like greyhounds from the slips,” the firemen hurried to the quarter announced. This proved a false alarm; but the circumstance showed the efficiency of the fire-organization. The citizens had now some confidence in it, and a strong feeling of security that no conflagration on the scale of the former great ones would ever again happen.

The Vigilance Committee, which in the early part of this year had held several meetings, both of the executive committee and the general body of members, were again stirring at this time. A common impression existed that there was still an organized band of thieves and incendiaries within the city. So the executive committee recommended the general members to organize themselves into a “night patrol,” while they took such other measures as were adequate to meet the emergency. Although this famous association had done many confessedly illegal acts, yet the tendency of these had been so good, and they seemed so justifiable in the terrible circumstances of the time, that the people were led to trust implicitly to their unwearied vigilance and decisive action, and could now lie down to rest at nights without feeling the old constant dread of having their houses robbed or burned before morning.

Source: Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. 1855: San Francisco.

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