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At the time of these earlier impressions the Chinese had not yet
become the recognized factors in the domestic and business economy
of the city which they had come to be when I returned from the
mines three years later. Yet they were even then a more remarkable
and picturesque contrast to the bustling, breathless, and brand-new
life of San Francisco than the Spaniard. The latter seldom
flaunted his faded dignity in the principal thoroughfares. "John"
was to be met everywhere. It was a common thing to see a long file
of sampan coolies carrying their baskets slung between them, on
poles, jostling a modern, well-dressed crowd in Montgomery Street,
or to get a whiff of their burned punk in the side streets; while
the road leading to their temporary burial-ground at Lone Mountain
was littered with slips of colored paper scattered from their
funerals. They brought an atmosphere of the Arabian Nights into
the hard, modern civilization; their shops--not always confined at
that time to a Chinese quarter--were replicas of the bazaars of
Canton and Peking, with their quaint display of little dishes on
which tidbits of food delicacies were exposed for sale, all of the
dimensions and unreality of a doll's kitchen or a child's

They were a revelation to the Eastern immigrant, whose preconceived
ideas of them were borrowed from the ballet or pantomime; they did
not wear scalloped drawers and hats with jingling bells on their
points, nor did I ever see them dance with their forefingers
vertically extended. They were always neatly dressed, even the
commonest of coolies, and their festive dresses were marvels. As
traders they were grave and patient; as servants they were sad and
civil, and all were singularly infantine in their natural
simplicity. The living representatives of the oldest civilization
in the world, they seemed like children. Yet they kept their
beliefs and sympathies to themselves, never fraternizing with the
fanqui, or foreign devil, or losing their singular racial
qualities. They indulged in their own peculiar habits; of their
social and inner life, San Francisco knew but little and cared
less. Even at this early period, and before I came to know them
more intimately, I remember an incident of their daring fidelity to
their own customs that was accidentally revealed to me. I had
become acquainted with a Chinese youth of about my own age, as I
imagined,--although from mere outward appearance it was generally
impossible to judge of a Chinaman's age between the limits of
seventeen and forty years,--and he had, in a burst of confidence,
taken me to see some characteristic sights in a Chinese warehouse
within a stone's throw of the Plaza. I was struck by the singular
circumstance that while the warehouse was an erection of wood in
the ordinary hasty Californian style, there were certain brick and
stone divisions in its interior, like small rooms or closets,
evidently added by the Chinamen tenants. My companion stopped
before a long, very narrow entrance, a mere longitudinal slit in
the brick wall, and with a wink of infantine deviltry motioned me
to look inside. I did so, and saw a room, really a cell, of fair
height but scarcely six feet square, and barely able to contain a
rude, slanting couch of stone covered with matting, on which lay,
at a painful angle, a richly dressed Chinaman. A single glance at
his dull, staring, abstracted eyes and half-opened mouth showed me
he was in an opium trance. This was not in itself a novel sight,
and I was moving away when I was suddenly startled by the
appearance of his hands, which were stretched helplessly before him
on his body, and at first sight seemed to be in a kind of wicker

I then saw that his finger-nails were seven or eight inches long,
and were supported by bamboo splints. Indeed, they were no longer
human nails, but twisted and distorted quills, giving him the
appearance of having gigantic claws. "Velly big Chinaman,"
whispered my cheerful friend; "first-chop man--high classee--no can
washee--no can eat--no dlinke, no catchee him own glub allee same
nothee man--China boy must catchee glub for him, allee time! Oh,
him first-chop man--you bettee!"

I had heard of this singular custom of indicating caste before, and
was amazed and disgusted, but I was not prepared for what followed.
My companion, evidently thinking he had impressed me, grew more
reckless as showman, and saying to me, "Now me showee you one funny
thing--heap makee you laugh," led me hurriedly across a little
courtyard swarming with chickens and rabbits, when he stopped
before another inclosure. Suddenly brushing past an astonished
Chinaman who seemed to be standing guard, he thrust me into the
inclosure in front of a most extraordinary object. It was a
Chinaman, wearing a huge, square, wooden frame fastened around his
neck like a collar, and fitting so tightly and rigidly that the
flesh rose in puffy weals around his cheeks. He was chained to a
post, although it was as impossible for him to have escaped with
his wooden cage through the narrow doorway as it was for him to lie
down and rest in it. Yet I am bound to say that his eyes and face
expressed nothing but apathy, and there was no appeal to the
sympathy of the stranger. My companion said hurriedly,--

"Velly bad man; stealee heap from Chinamen," and then, apparently
alarmed at his own indiscreet intrusion, hustled me away as quickly
as possible amid a shrill cackling of protestation from a few of
his own countrymen who had joined the one who was keeping guard.
In another moment we were in the street again--scarce a step from
the Plaza, in the full light of Western civilization--not a stone's
throw from the courts of justice.

My companion took to his heels and left me standing there bewildered
and indignant. I could not rest until I had told my story, but
without betraying my companion, to an elder acquaintance, who laid
the facts before the police authorities. I had expected to be
closely cross-examined--to be doubted--to be disbelieved. To my
surprise, I was told that the police had already cognizance of
similar cases of illegal and barbarous punishments, but that the
victims themselves refused to testify against their countrymen--and
it was impossible to convict or even to identify them. "A white man
can't tell one Chinese from another, and there are always a dozen of
'em ready to swear that the man you've got isn't the one." I was
startled to reflect that I, too, could not have conscientiously
sworn to either jailor or the tortured prisoner--or perhaps even to
my cheerful companion. The police, on some pretext, made a raid upon
the premises a day or two afterwards, but without result. I
wondered if they had caught sight of the high-class, first-chop
individual, with the helplessly outstretched fingers, as that story
I had kept to myself.

Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
General Fiction
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