Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889


By Albert Deane Richardson (1833–1869)

[Born in Franklin, Mass., 1833. Died in New York, N. Y., 1869. Garnered Sheaves, from the Writings of Albert D. Richardson. Collected and Arranged by his Wife. 1871.]

JOHN presides over several large establishments filled with knickknacks from Japan and China, which visitors from the East purchase to take home as curiosities. Most of these articles illustrate his ingenuity and marvellous patience. There are tables and work-boxes, each composed of thousands of bits of highly-polished, many-colored woods; glove-boxes of lacquered ware, resembling papier maché, which sell for two dollars and a half and three dollars, gold; handkerchiefs of grass-cloth embroidered by hand with infinite pains; countless varieties of children’s toys, including many curious and intricate puzzles; sleeve-buttons and breast-pins; card-racks of various materia!; wooden and metallic counterfeits of insects and reptiles, so perfect that one half fears to handle them lest they should bite his fingers; gay Chinese lanterns covered with painted paper and as large as market-baskets; fire-crackers; torpedoes which explode with a report like that of a twelve-pounder; chop-sticks; writing-desks; and a thousand other things to please the fancy. In waiting upon American customers, Johnny shows himself the model merchant. He is an adept in the simple art of not too much. He proffers a Chinese cigar (execrable in flavor), and is grieved if his visitor does not take at least a few whiffs from it. If the purchases are liberal in amount, he makes a judicious discount in the prices, and perhaps throws in some trifling gifts. He is attentive, but not over-pressing; cordial, but never impertinent; and he speeds the parting guest with a good-by so polite and friendly that it leaves a pleasant flavor in the memory.

His advance into the highly-skilled industries is sharply contested, but his sure progress demonstrates that all things are his who has patience. Thus far, in the anomalous life of California, labor has been stronger than capital, and has had things much in its own way. In hand- or placer-mining John has been graciously allowed the gleanings; but quartz-mining has been closed to him. Not only has he been kept from digging ore in the shafts and reducing it under the stamps, but even when owners have employed him to cut and haul wood for the mills he has been driven away with riot and bloodshed. California working-men are in many respects the most intelligent in the world; but they sometimes show a narrowness and ignorance worthy of the dark ages. More than once they have presented the astonishing spectacle of skilled laborers, in a country of free schools and cheap newspapers, resisting with violence the introduction of a new invention, on the ground that it diminished the necessity for hand-labor….

His path has been smoother toward the raising of silk-worms and of olives, the culture of the tea-plant, the making of wine, and the other new and peculiar industries of the coast, which seem capable of boundless expansion, and are well adapted to his training and capacity. He has pushed his way into many paths which are not noted here. He begins to buy land, instead of leasing it, for the production of fruits and vegetables. Negro minstrelsy, which, like so many other things, grows more luxuriantly in California than in the East, and is more an abstract and brief chronicle of the time, already makes him the central figure in its broadest burlesques, the putative father of its most atrocious jokes. He has become a part of the warp and woof of life on the Pacific coast.

What manner of man is he? Very black of hair, very low of stature, and not a thing of beauty. In laughter he shows his gums horribly. But he is seldom The Man Who Laughs, except among his own mates. With Americans, when he is not addressed, he is immovably serene, silent, and serious.

He is a born gambler. Whatever his age or condition, games of chance—with ludicrously trifling stakes—possess a wild fascination for him. Every California town has its Chinese quarter; every Chinese quarter abounds in gambling-houses. On the subject of opium, too, the variance between his theory and his practice reveals the human nature strong within him. Opium-smoking, he invariably avers, is bad, very bad; and yet, six out of every seven idlers whom one meets on an evening walk through the Chinese quarter, bear indelible evidence of the habit written on their jaded, ghastly faces.

He is gregarious. He must have, not one, but several friends, to whom to whisper, “Solitude is sweet.” No practicable pecuniary temptation will induce him to come to the Eastern States, unless half a dozen or a dozen of his comrades are to accompany him and to live with him. He loves to dwell in towns. Even as a house-servant, he does not sleep under his master’s roof, if he can possibly avoid it, but goes to the Chinese quarter to spend every night with his comrades. He will work as late as he is wanted, however, without complaint, and he will be on hand at any required hour in the morning. He is a great night-bird, and his turn is convivial. He and his mates join in frequent little suppers, which they keep up until nearly daylight. The materials for these nocturnal banquets are believed to be contributed, unwittingly, by John’s employer, and brought away surreptitiously in John’s basket. His mistress often keeps her most valuable stores locked up, and issues only a week’s supply to him at a time; but he is frugality embodied, and can make gleanings enough for the midnight suppers, and sometimes, perhaps, for supplying himself with pocket-money besides.

Ask him why he will not lodge in his employer’s house, and he replies that he and his friends like to meet at night, and tell each other what they have learned during the day. It is doubtless their custom to instruct newly arrived servants in household matters. Just as he is going away at night, John will often question his mistress as to how she compounds a particular kind of cake, or accomplishes some other triumph of cookery, and, in answer to her inquiring look, will explain that he wishes to tell a friend who has not been here long.

John prizes the pennies. An offer of half a dollar more per month may take him away from a household to which he seemed warmly attached. But his people are so numerous in California that it is easy to fill his place….

John has the true Oriental tendency to mysticism, and the Oriental vein of poetry cropping out in the most prosaic places. At home he has proverbs and exhortations to virtue written on his tea-cups, fans, chairs, and the walls of his inns. In San Francisco his sign-board literature is a study. “Virtue and Felicity,” “Sincerity and Faith,” are common inscriptions over his shop-doors. A recent writer in “The Overland Monthly” introduces us to a meat-market bearing the label “Virtue abounding”; a drug-store named “Benevolence-and-Longevity-Hall,” and a restaurant styled “The Garden of the Golden Valley.”

He is quick and eager to learn. He reckons nimbly and accurately, not with the pencil and paper, but with marbles strung upon wires, as in the abacus used for teaching arithmetic to young learners. He does not readily catch our idioms or pronunciations, but soon learns to make himself intelligible in his jaw-wrenching pigeon-English,—“Me washe belly (very) muchee.” He shows the same hunger for knowledge which was such a marked and touching trait in the contrabands during the war. Wherever night- and Sunday-schools are established for teaching him English he is prompt to attend. A Sacramento lady of my acquaintance has been compelled at different times to discharge two young Chinese servants, solely because, the moment her back was turned, they would devote themselves to the spelling-book, to the neglect of the wash-tub.

How do we treat him? Outrageously. So long as he stays at home we send missionaries to convert him; but when he throws himself upon our hospitality, we meet him with cruelty and oppression. And even while doing this we have been building chapels for him, and making incoherent attempts to Christianize him. What a fascinating idea of the Christian religion our laws and practice, until very recently, must have given him! We do our best to make the witty proverb of his native country true here, at least in its application to him: “The temples are kept open, but they are always empty; the prisons are locked, but they are always full.” In California, as elsewhere, nine people out of ten mean to be just and considerate; the trouble is in leaving John at the mercy of the brutal and cowardly tenth. One hears sickening stories of this everywhere. Even boys in the streets take the cue, and kick and cuff the little yellow-faces. When a new cargo of Chinamen arrives, there is a strong disposition to mob them; and the police of San Francisco, in bad emulation of the police of New Orleans in the negro massacre of 1866, have aided and participated in the diabolical work. John’s advance into each new pursuit has been resisted, step by step, with assault, riot, arson, and murder. Not only have factories been destroyed for giving him employment, but school-houses and churches have actually been burned because they afforded him opportunity for learning to read….

What shall we do with him? This is the sphinx-riddle which we must solve if we would not be eaten. It concerns also his half-brother, the “Jap.” The old restriction against emigration has been removed in Japan as well as in China. While I was in California last June, fifty Japanese families arrived to settle in one colony, and engage in silk- and tea-culture; and a Pacific-mail steamer found two hundred and fifty Japanese at Yokohama, waiting to embark for San Francisco, but was unable to take them, as she was already loaded down with twelve hundred Chinamen.

The problem is too large and serious to dogmatize upon. The significant fact about John, after his numerical strength, is, that he never lets go. There are Yankees, it is said, so thrifty and tenacious that they would take root and grow upon a marble slab. The same is true of this strange yellow man. We may extort tribute from him, and revile him, and smite him on both cheeks; but wherever his feet are once planted, there he stays. Into every industry he slowly works his way. In persistence, thoroughness, and precision, he is more than a match for us. Put him in a factory, and he works as systematically as the looms and spindles, every day in the year. He is a one-day clock, and when the dollar has wound him up he keeps perfect time. But it is only the time of the machine. He reads literally the old saw; we render it, “Whatever man has not done, man may do.” He will stand beside the loom from childhood to old age, but his ears will never catch any whispered hint from its buzzing lips how to make it do its work quicker or better. Therein seems to lie our chief advantage over him. There are exceptional cases,—a Chinese servant in San Francisco lately assisted his mistress to perfect a great improvement in the sewing-machine, by which the needle can be threaded while running at full speed,—but in general John’s ingenuity is imitative, not inventive.

Still he is an appalling problem. He has no radical objection to menial pursuits, but it is folly to expect that he will be permanently confined to them. He will swarm in all the avenues of our industrial life. California to-day is a faint prophecy of the whole country a few years hence. One cannot descend the broad stairway of the Lick House, or walk Montgomery Street, or enter a store or a factory, or penetrate the remotest mining-camp of the mountains, or land from steamboat or railway-train, but right at one’s elbow stands like a fate this silent man, in his basket-hat, blue tunic, and cloth shoes with wooden soles,—this man of the long pigtail and bare neck, the restrained, eager eyes, and the yellow, serene, impassive face.