History of a Wandering Yankee: Chinatown

After returning from the Cliff House, Frank and Nell visited San Francisco’s celebrated Chinatown, at that time the largest in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants traveled to the United States via San Francisco’s Angel Island Immigration Station and other Pacific ports in the 19th century. Many of them came to work in mines or built railroads. Like many other migrants, Asian immigrants faced routine discrimination from their neighbors. Frank makes a few comments about the “savage” customs and activities he observes in that are typical of the era. I wonder what Frank’s New York cousins thought about Chinatown and its people…

[May 1900]

To one unaccustomed to living in a seaport the shipping would be of great interest, as here all kinds of vessels can be seen, loading and unloading, going to, or coming from Chinese, Japanese, Australian, Alaskan and European ports.

The Union Iron Works employ about 2000 men in the building of war vessels for the Government.

Loren Barton, Chinatown Market, San Francisco, ca. 1924. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

I muse not forget to speak of Chinatown, for this is one of the most interesting places to see in all Frisco. It covers an area of about 12 blocks, and the population is variously estimated at from 20- to 40,000. Here the Chinaman lives very nearly the same as in his native cities. All the stores, restaurants and theatres are run by the Chinese. We did not attend the theatre, but were told that the performance is continuous, and that their orchestral discord is nearly always fatal to the visitor, although they themselves seem to enjoy it very much. The Chinese New Year, which occurs in January and February, is the best time to visit Chinatown. We had during this their season of festivities, visited Chinatown in Los Angeles, which is the same as in Frisco, though smaller. On that occasion, early in last February, we were part of a company setting out to see the sights of a Chinese New Year. Their streets were well lighted by the characteristic Chinese lantern, some of them several feet in diameter. From the balconies, which are built in the second story mostly, we saw and heard several bands of Chinese musicians, each endeavoring to make a more discordant noise than his neighbor: some drumming on cocoanut shells:- some striking copper plates, some blowing on a poor apology for a fish horn. While listening to this soulful music we heard a heart-rending shriek and though some one had been driven mad, or had committed suicide, but it was proved to be only a new piece of music coming in on the home stretch, a sort of cocoanut shell with a violin attachment.

We did not care to stay much longer in this locality, and so when a Chinaman with a barbed pitchfork came running through the streets beating with great energy on a copper dinner plate, we all followed, and soon overtaking, found him the center of a crowd of natives who had left him a ring of about 20 feet diameter, in which to jump around and make himself look ridiculous, and as much like a lunatic as possible. Indeed we were sure he was crazy until we saw him pick up some silver pieces and nickels which were thrown to him. Then we concluded there was a method in his madness, -and I asked some questions, -learning that he was driving the Devil from Chinatown. We left him still fighting devils, and called on the Chinese interpreter who treated us very kindly and politely and insisted on our taking some Chinese candy and nuts. Then we visited the oldest inhabitant whose finger nails were from 3 to 5 inches long. This is a mark of the aristocracy of their country, as only the wealthy can afford the luxury of long nails. I presume they have to be fed by the servants.

Helen Hyde, Alley in Chinatown, 1898. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Another of their national freaks is to make their feet appear small by bending the toes underneath and binding them in that position while the victim is too young to oppose. I have read that a certain influential Chinaman when hard pressed by some Americans for the reason why his people were satisfied to cripple their feet in this way, replied,- “Chinaman pinch-e-foote alle same-e Melican lady pinche waist-e. Much-e worse-e pinch-e waist-e.”

But to return to our San Franscisco Chinatown, where we were walking towards one of the Joss Houses, in which they worship. Walking in we found several rooms in the temple, nearly all of which contained hideous images, some with their eyes burning like coals of fire, and their forked tounges protruding from their mouths, looking worse than any of the devils we had before seen. Incense is burned before these images, and every few minutes a Chinaman comes in and bows his face to the floor, goes through his religious performance, then hurries away, while another comes in and does the same. They worship at any and all times whenever they feel like it.

After coming out, and while walking along Dupont street, the shop windows bring full of curios attracted out attention, and soon the market places did likewise. Here you can see exposed for sale, meats and vegetables of all kinds, their only recommended being in the smell which certainly was very satisfying and far reaching.

The restaurants are often patronized by visitors who are glad of a chance to try the chop-sticks on boiled rice or meat pie, and to experiment on their celebrated bird’s nest, and delicious rattail soup. You can always be sure of getting the very best tea in any Chinese restaurant, or household, it being their national beverage. Even the poorest Chinaman will insist on his tea being of the best.

Arnold Genthe, The Street of Painted Balconies, Chinatown, San Francisco, c. 1900. Library of Congress.

Many queer customs have the Chinese, one of which is shown at the funeral of their wealthy citizens who can afford it. They provide a huge feast, carry it it all to the grave, and then partake of it, while what is left is placed on top of the grave of the departed. This is supposed to occupy the Devil and keep him busy eating while the spirit of the departed is getting away to some hiding place.

Another plan they sometimes resort to to cheat the Devil is, to have millions of pieces of paper, with a small hold punched through each and to scatter them along the street as they drive to the cemetery. Stan is supposed to crawl through these innumerable small pieces of paper, -and-, consequently gets to the grave too late to claim his own, and the spirit of the dead escapes again.

Visitors who wish to see the Opium Joints, and under-ground dens of iniquity of the Chinese, usually employ one of the many guides who are licensed, and who charge from one to Five dollars to show you the sights and bring you back safely. We had intended to take this trip, but unfortunately several of the Chinese developed the Bubonic Plague, and all of Chinatown was quarantined, two or three days after we had taken our walk through their streets. As that occurred in May last, several months ago, and we have none of us shown any signs of having the Plague, you need not fear contagion from this paper.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.


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