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Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson


It is situated in Kearny, Dupont, Jackson, and Sacramento Streets, in the City of San Francisco. We traversed it one afternoon, and went to its chief theatre in the evening. Those who are unable to visit it in person, as we did, can learn just about as much by a careful and imaginative study of Chinese fans and the outsides of tea-chests. Never did an indefatigable nation so perpetuate faithful fac-simile of itself, its people, customs, and fashions as the Chinese do in the grotesque, high-colored, historical paper with which they line, cover, and wrap every article of their merchandise. When I first saw the living Chow Chong walking before me on Montgomery Street, in San Francisco, the sight had nothing novel in it. It was amusing to see him in motion; but as for his face, figure, and gait, I had known them since my infancy. In my seventh year, I possessed his portrait. It was done on rice-paper, and set in the lid of a box. Afterward, I had him on the outside of a paper of crackers, and fired him off to celebrate our superiority as a nation. I did not feel so sure of our superiority when I came to walk behind him. In the matter of shoes, he excels us. That the shoes look like junks rather than shoes, and that their navigation must be a difficult science, is very true; but the breadth of the sole is a secret of dignity and equilibrium, and has, I make no doubt, a great deal to do with Chow Chong’s philosophical serenity of bearing. The general neatness and cleanliness of his attire, too, impressed me; also his Christian patience under the insulting and curious gaze of many strangers, who, like myself, had never before seen the embodied Chinese nation on foot of a morning. I followed him at a respectful distance; and he led me into the heart of his country. It lay, it seemed, within ten minutes’ walk from my own hotel. As I looked up, and saw that the street was suddenly becoming like a street of Pekin, and that the trades of Hong Kong, Canton, and their suburbs were buzzing on either hand of me, a rather late caution led me to pause, and ask whether it might not be unsafe for me to go further.

“Not at all, madam; not at all,” said the short policeman to whom I spoke. “At this hour of the day, you can go with perfect safety through all these streets.” “But I would not advise you to let them see you taking notes, however,” he added, glancing at my notebook. “They are suspicious.” “They have been so hardly treated, it is no wonder,” replied I.

“That’s so, ma’am,” answered the policeman, as he walked on.. He was a very short policeman. I observed it, because I intended to mention him; and I regretted that he was not tall. I have been impressed with the fact that good writers, in giving accounts of city experiences, invariably meet a tall policeman.

In spite of my policeman, however, or perhaps because he was so short, I did take notes; and no harm came of it. The men of China looked at me, observantly; now and then, they exchanged significant glances with each other. One or two tried to peep over my shoulder; but, seeing that I was not drawing pictures of them, they took no more interest in my proceedings. I looked up into their faces and smiled, and said: “I never saw Chinese shops before. Very good, very good.” And they laughed. and moved on,—no doubt inwardly moved with compassion for my ignorance.

Now and then, a woman would brush by me, turn half round, and give me a quick look of such contempt that I winced a little. Judged by her standard, I must sink very low, indeed. She herself did not venture to walk thus, in open daylight among her countrymen, until she had lost all sense of decency, as her race hold it. What must I be, then,—a white woman, who had not come to buy, but simply to look at, to lift, to taste, or to smell the extraordinary commodities offered for sale in the empire? No wonder she despised me! I avenge myself by describing her hair. It was all drawn hack from her forehead, twisted tight from the nape of the neck to the crown of the head, stiffened with glue, glistening with oil, and made into four huge double wings, which stood out beyond her ears on either side. It looked a little like two gigantic black satin bats, pinned to the back of her head, or still more like a windmill gone into mourning. Never, no never! not even on the heads of peasant women in the German provinces, was there seen any thing so hideous, so grotesque. A huge silver or gilt dart is pinned across these shining black flaps, which look no more like hair than they do like sheet-iron,—nor so much, for that matter. Then comes a straight, narrow band of shining black cambric, an inch wide, tight around her yellow neck; and from that falls a loose, shapeless garment of black cambric,—a sort of cross between a domino and a night-shirt; then straight, bagging, flapping sleeves down to her knuckles; then straight, bagging, flapping blue trowsers, down to her ankles; then queer black, junk-like shoes, turned up at the toes, and slipping off at the heel at every step,—there she is, the Chinese woman of Dupont or Kearny Street to-day? Could she be uglier? And her children are like unto her, only a few inches shorter,—that is all; and, when they go by, hand-in-hand, there is something pathetic in the monstrosity of them. But pass on, sister! In the sunless recesses of Quong Tuck Lane, I trust thou hast had many a laugh with thy comrades over the gown and hat I wore on Dupont Street that day.

Sing. Wo, & Co. keep one of the most picturesque shops on Jackson Street. It is neither grocer’s, nor butcher’s, nor fishmonger’s, nor druggist’s; but a little of all four. It is, like most of the shops on Jackson Street, part cellar, part cellar-stairs, part sidewalk, and part back bedroom. On the sidewalk are platters of innumerable sorts of little fishes,—little silvery fishes; little yellow fishes, with whiskers; little snaky fishes; round, flat fishes, little slices of big fishes,—never too much or too many of any kind. Sparing and thrifty dealers, as well as sparing and thrifty consumers, are the Celestials. Round tubs of sprouted beans; platters of square cakes of something whose consistency was like Dutch cheese, whose color was vivid yellow, like bakers’ gingerbread, and whose tops were stamped with mysterious letters; long roots, as long as the longest parsnips, but glistening white, like polished turnips; cherries, tied up in stingy little bunches of ten or twelve, and swung in all the nooks; small bunches of all conceivable green things, from celery down to timothy grass, tied tight and wedged into corners, or swung over head; dried herbs, in dim recesses; pressed chickens, on shelves (these were the most remarkable things. They were semi-transparent, thin, skinny, and yellow, and looked almost more like huge, flattened grasshoppers than like chickens; but chickens they were, and no mistake).—all these were on the trays, on the sidewalk, and on the cellar-stairs. In the back bedroom were Mrs. Sing and Mrs. Wo, with several little Sings or Woes. It was too dark to see what they were doing; for the only light came from the open front of the shop, which seemed to run back like a cave in a hill. On shelves on the sides were tea-cups and tea-pots, and plates of fantastic shapes and gay colors. Sing and Wo were most courteous: but their interest centred entirely on sales; and I could learn but one fact from them, in regard to any of their goods. It was either “Muchee good. Englis man muchee like; “or else, “China man like; Englis man no like.” Why should I wish to know any thing further than that some articles would be agreeable to “Englis man’s” palate, and others would not? This must be enough to regulate my purchases. But I shall always wish I knew how those chickens were fattened, and what the vivid yellow cakes were made of.

But I stop too long with Sing, Wo, & Co. The street is lined on either hand with shops just as fantastic and commodities just as unheard of,—“Ty, Wing, & Co.,” for instance, who have mysterious, tight-shut doors and red and yellow printed labels on their window-panes, but not an article of merchandise anywhere to be seen. Inside, only darkness and dust and cobwebs, and two Chinese women eating something out of a bowl with chopsticks,—one bowl, resting on all four of their knees, pressed tight together, and the four chopsticks flying like shuttle-cocks, back and forth between their mouths and the bowl. This was all that two eager eyes, peering into the windows, could see. Then comes “Miss Flynn, milliner.” Adventurous Irishwoman, to set up her shop in the heart of this Chinese Empire,—the only foreigner on the street. Then comes a druggist, “Chick Kee” by name. Over his door is stretched a scarlet banner, with long tassels at the corners. Peacocks’ feathers and great, plume-like bunches of fringed blue and yellow and green papers are nodding above the banner. Up and down on each side, in long, narrow stripes, is printed his sign. It is marvellously gay, having all the colors of the banner and the feathers and the papers in it; but the only thing in his window is a flat and shallow basket, with some dusty bits of old dried roots in it. They look as old as forgotten flag-root from Cotton Mather’s meeting-house. Chick Kee sits on his empty counter, smoking as tranquilly as if everybody had died or got well, and he had left off buying drugs. Tuck Wo keeps a restaurant, near by. It is in a cellar; and I dare not go down. But I see from above four iron pots, boiling on little three-legged furnaces; tea-cups and saucers, on shelves in corners; and great plates of rolls of the fatal nut, ready to be chewed; also a square cake, of the vivid yellow. I despise myself for being afraid to taste that cake; but I am. It looks so like bar-soap, half saleratus, or saleratus-gingerbread, half soap.

“Moo, On, & Co.” come next. Their shop is full, crowded full,—bags, bundles, casks, shelves, piles, bunches of utterly nondescript articles. It sounds like an absurd exaggeration, but it is literally true, that the only articles in his shop which I ever saw before are bottles. There are a few of those; but the purpose, use, or meaning of every other article is utterly unknown to me. There are things that look like games, like toys, like lamps, like idols, like utensils of lost trades, like relics of lost tribes, like—well, like a pawnbroker’s stock, just brought from some other world! That comes nearest to it. “Moo, On, & Co.” have apparently gone back for more. Nobody is in the shop; the door is wide open. I wait and wait, hoping that some one will come along who can speak English, and of whom I may ask what this extraordinary show means. Timidly I touch a fluttering bit, which hangs outside. It is not paper; it is not cloth; it is not woollen, silk, nor straw; it is not leather; it is not cobweb; it is not alive; it is not dead: it crisps and curls at my touch; it waves backward, though no air blows it. A sort of horror seizes me. It may be a piece of an ancestor of Moo’s, doing ghostly duty at his shop-door. I hasten on, and half fancy that it is behind me, as I halt before Dr. Li Po Tai’s door. His promises to cure, diplomas, and so forth, are printed in gay-colored strips of labels on each side. Six bright balloons swing overhead; and peacocks’ feathers are stuck into the balloons. I have heard that Dr. Li Po Tai is a learned man, and works cures. His balloons are certainly very brilliant. Then comes a tailor, name unknown, sitting on the sidewalk, at work. Then an aristocratic boot-black, with a fantastic, gay-colored awning set up over the insignia of his calling. Then, drollest of all, an old, old woman, mending a Chinese toga. I call it a toga, because I do not know the Chinese name for it; and it is no more unlike a toga than it is unlike a coat. The old lady sits on a low stool, with half a dozen boxes of patches around her, all scrupulously sorted, according to color and fabric; an old, battered box of buttons, too, and thread at her feet,—the very ideal of a housewife at large; mender to a race! Every now and then, she chants a few words, in a low voice, to which nobody seems to listen. I suppose it is Chinese for “Here’s your warm patches,” “Trowsers sewed up here;” or, if there is such a thing in the Chinese Empire as a constitution, and if they have a Woman’s Rights party, perhaps some wag has taught her to call. “Here’s your Sixteenth Amendment.” That is what first came into my head, as I looked at the poor, wrinkled, forlorn old creature, sewing away on the hopelessly ragged garment.

Then comes a corner stand, with glass cases of candles. Almond candy, with grains of rice thick on the top; little bowls of pickles, pears, and peppers; platters of odd-shaped nuts; and beans baked black as coffee. As I stand looking curiously at these, a well-dressed Chinaman pauses before me, and, making a gesture with his hand toward the stand, says: “All muchee good. Buy eat. Muchee good.” Hung Wung, the proprietor, is kindled to hospitality by this, and repeats the words: “Yaas, muchee good. Take, eat,” offering me, with the word, the bowl of peppers.

Next comes a very gay restaurant, the best in the Empire. “Hang Fee, Low & Co.” keep it, and foreigners go there to drink tea. There is a green railed balcony across the front, swinging full of high-colored lanterns, round and square; tablets with Chinese letters on bright grounds are set in panels on the walls; a huge rhinoceros stands in the centre of the railing; a tree grows out of the rhinoceros’s back, and an India-rubber man sits at foot of the tree. China figures and green bushes in flower-pots are ranged all along the railing. Nowhere except in the Chinese Empire can there be seen such another gaudy, grotesque house-front. We make an appointment on the spot to take some of Hang Fee’s tea, on our way to the Chinese Theatre, the next evening; and then we hurry home, past dozens more of just such grotesque shops as these, past finer and more showy shops, filled with just such Japanese and Chinese goods as we can buy on Broadway in New York; past dark lanes, so narrow that two might shake hands from opposite windows; so black that one fancies the walls are made of charcoal; so alive with shiny black Chinese heads and shiny yellow Chinese faces that one thinks involuntarily of a swarm of Spanish flies; then round a corner, and presto! there we are in America again, —on Montgomery street, which might be Broadway, for all that there is distinctive in its shops or its crowd of people. We turn back in bewilderment, and retrace our steps a little way into the Empire again, to make sure that it was not a dream! No. There are the lanterns, the peacock feathers, the rhinoceros; and there is Dr. Li Po Tai himself, in a damask dressing-gown, embossed with birds of paradise and palm-trees, bowing out a well-dressed Caucasian of our own species from his door. To complete the confusion, the Caucasian steps nimbly into a yellow horse-car, which at that instant chances to be passing Dr. Li Po Tai’s door; and we float back again, side by side in the crowd with a Chinese man-washerwoman, round the corner, into Montgomery street.

After all, we did not take tea at Hang Fee’s, on our way to the theatre. There was not time. As it was, we were late; and when we entered the orchestra had begun to play. Orchestra! It is necessary to use that name, I suppose, in speaking of a body of men with instruments, who are seated on a stage, furnishing what is called music for a theatrical performance. But it is a term calculated to mislead in this instance. Fancy one frog-pond, one Sunday school with pumpkin whistles, one militia training, and two gongs for supper, on a Fall River boat, all at once, and you will have some faint idea of the indescribable noise which saluted our ears on entering that theatre. To say that we were deafened is nothing. The hideous hubbub of din seemed to overleap and transcend all laws and spheres of sound. It was so loud we could not see; it was so loud we could not breathe; it was so loud there didn’t seem to be any room to sit down! The theatre was small and low and dark. The pit and greater part of the gallery were filled with Chinamen, all smoking. One corner of the gallery was set apart for women. That was full, also, with Chinese women. Every woman’s hair was dressed in the manner I have described. The bat-like flaps projected so far on each side of each head that each woman seemed almost to be joined to her neighbors by a cartilaginous band; and, as they sat almost motionless, this effect was heightened. The stage had no pretence of scenery. It was hung with gay banners and mysterious labels. Tall plumes of peacock’s feathers in the corners and some irregularly placed chairs were all the furniture. The orchestra sat in chairs, at the back of the stage. Some of them smoked in the intervals, some drank tea. A little boy who drummed went out when he felt like it; and the fellow with the biggest gong had evidently no plan of operations at all, except to gong as long as his arms could bear it, then rest a minute, and then gong again. “Oh! well,” said we, as we wedged and squeezed through the narrow passage-way which led to our box, “it will only last a few minutes. We shall not entirely lose our hearing.” Fatal delusion! It never stopped. The actors came out; the play began; the play went on; still the hideous hubbub of din continued, and was made unspeakably more hideous by the voices of the actors, which were raised to the shrillest falsetto to surmount the noise, and which sounded like nothing in Nature except the voices of frantic cats.

This appears preposterous. Almost I fear I shall not be believed. But I will leave it to any jury of twelve who have been to the Chinese Theatre if it be possible for language even to approach a true description of the horribleness of the noises heard on its stage. What may be the sounds of the Chinese language, as spoken in ordinary life, I cannot judge. But, as intoned in the theatrical screech, with the constant undertone and overtone of the gongs and drums, it is incredibly like caterwauling. Throw in a few “ch”s and “ts”s into the common caterwaul of the midnight cat, and you have the highest art of the Chinese stage, so far as it can be judged of simply by sound. We have amused ourselves by practising it, by writing it; and each experiment has but confirmed our impression of the wonderful similarity. At first, in spite of the deafening loudness of the din, it is ludicrous beyond conception. To see these superbly dressed Chinese creatures,—every one of them as perfectly and exquisitely dressed as the finest figures on their satin fans or rice-paper pictures, and looking exactly like them,—to see these creatures strutting and sailing and sweeping and bowing and bending, beating their breasts and tearing their beards, gesticulating and rushing about in an utterly incomprehensible play, with cater-wauling screams issuing from their mouths, is for a few minutes so droll that you laugh till the tears run, and think you will go to the Chinese Theatre every night as long as you stay in San Francisco. I said so to the friend who had politely gone with me. He had been to the performance before. He smiled pityingly, and yawned behind his hand. At the end of half an hour, I whispered: “Twice a week will do.” In fifteen minutes more, I said: “I think we will go out now. I can’t endure this racket another minute. But, nevertheless, I shall come once more, with an interpreter. I must and will know what all this mummery means.”

The friend smiled again incredulously. But we did go again, with an interpreter; and the drollest thing of all was to find out how very little all the caterwauling and rushing and bending and bowling and sweeping and strutting really meant. The difficulty of getting an interpreter, was another interesting feature in the occasion. A lady, who had formerly been a missionary in China, had promised to go with us; and, as even she was not sure of being able to understand Chinese caterwauled, she proposed to take one of the boys from the missionary school, to interpret to her before she interpreted to us. So we drove to the school. Mrs. —— went in. The time seemed very long that we waited. At last she came back, looking both amused and vexed, to report that not one of those intelligent Christian Chinees would leave his studies that evening to go to the theatre.

“I suppose it is an old story to them,” said I. “Not at all,” said she. “On the contrary, hardly a boy there has been inside the theatre. But they cannot bear to lose a minute from their lessons. Mr. Loomis really urged some of them; but it was of no use.”

In a grocery shop on Kearny street, however, we found a clever young man, less absorbed in learning; and he went with us as interpreter. Again the same hideous din; the same clouds of smoke; the same hubbub of caterwauling. But the dramatis personae were few. Luckily for us, our first lesson in the Chinese drama was to be a simple one. And here I pause, considering whether my account of this play will be believed. This is the traveller’s great perplexity. The incredible things are always the only things worth telling; but is it best to tell them?

The actors in this play were three,—a lady of rank, her son, and her man cook. The play opened with a soliloquy by the lady. She is sitting alone, sewing. Her husband has gone to America; he did not bid her farewell. Her only son is at school. She is sad and lonely. She weeps.

Enter boy. He asks if dinner is ready.

Enter cook. Cook says it is not time. Boy says he wants dinner. Cook says he shall not have it. This takes fifteen minutes.

Mother examines boy on his lessons. Boy does not know them; tries to peep. Mother reproves; makes boy kneel; prepares to whip; whips. Mother weeps. Boy catches flies on the floor; bites her finger.

Enter cook to see what the noise means. Cook takes boy to task. Boy stops his ears. Cook bawls. Cook kneels to lady; reproves her also; tells her she must keep her own temper, if she would train her boy.

Lady sulks, naturally. Boy slips behind and cuts her work out of her embroidery frame. Cook attacks boy. Cook sings a lament, and goes out to attend to dinner; but returns in frantic distress. During his absence every thing has boiled over; every thing has been burned to a crisp. Dinner is ruined. Cook now reconciles mother and son; drags son to his knees; makes him repeat words of supplication. While he does this, cook turns his back to the audience, takes off his beard carefully, lays it on the floor, while he drinks a cup full of tea. Exit all, happy and smiling.

This is all, literally all! It took an hour and a half. The audience listened with intensest interest. The gesticulations, the expressions of face, the tones of the actors all conveyed the idea of the deepest tragedy. Except for our interpreter, I should have taken the cook for a soothsayer, priest, a highwayman and murderer, alternately. I should have supposed that all the dangers, hopes, fears, delights possible in the lives of three human beings were going on on that stage. Now we saw how very far-fetched and preposterous had probably been our theories of the play we had seen before, we having constructed a most brilliant plot from our interpretation of the pantomine.

After this domestic drama came a fierce spectacular play, too absurd to be described, in which nations went to war because a king’s monkey had been killed. And the kings and their armies marched in at one door and out at the other, sat on gilt thrones, fought with gilt swords, tumbled each other head over heels with as much vigor and just about as much art as small boys play the battle of Bunker Hill with the nursery chairs on a rainy day. But the dresses of these warlike monarchs were gorgeous and fantastic beyond description. Long, gay-colored robes, blazoned and blazing with gold and silver embroidery; small flags, two on each side, stuck in at their shoulders, and projecting behind; helmets, square breastplates of shining stones, and such decorations with feathers as pass belief. Several of them had behind each ear a long, slender bird of Paradise feather. These feathers reached out at least three feet behind, and curved and swayed with each step the man took. When three or four of these were on the stage together, marching and countermarching, wrestling, fighting, and tumbling, why these tail-feathers did not break, did not become entangled with each other, no mortal can divine. Others had huge wings of silver filagree work behind their ears. These also swayed and flapped at each step.

Sometimes there would be forty or fifty of these nondescript creatures on the stage at once, running, gesticulating, attacking, retreating, howling, bowing, bending, tripping each other up, stalking, strutting, and all the while caterwauling, and all the while the drums beating, the gongs ringing, and the stringed instruments and the castanets and the fifes playing. It was dazzling as a gigantic kaleidoscope and deafening as a cotton-mill. After the plays came wonderful tumbling and somersaulting. To see such gymnastic feats performed by men in long damask night-gowns and with wide trousers is uncommonly droll. This is really the best thing at the Chinese Theatre,—the only thing, in fact, which is not incomprehensibly childish.

My last glimpse of the Chinese Empire was in Mr. Loomis’s Sunday school. I had curiosity to see the faces of the boys who had refused our invitation to the theatre. As soon as I entered the room, I was asked to take charge of a class. In vain I demurred and refused.

“You surely can hear them read a chapter in the New Testament.”

It seemed inhuman as well as unchristian to refuse, for there were several classes without teachers,—many good San Franciscans having gone into the country. There were the eager yellow faces watching for my reply. So I sat down in a pew with three Chinese young men on my right hand, two on my left, and four in the pew in front, all with English and Chinese Testaments in their hands. The lesson for the day was the fifteenth chapter of Matthew. They read slowly, but with greater accuracy of emphasis and pronunciation than I expected. Their patience and eagerness in trying to correct a mispronunciation were touching. At last came the end of the chapter.

“Now do you go on to the next chapter?” said I.

“No. Arx-play-in,” said the brightest of the boys. “You arx-play-in what we rade to you.”

I wished the floor of that Sunday-school chapel would open and swallow me up. To expound the fifteenth of Matthew at all, above all to expound it in English which those poor souls could understand! In despair I glanced at the clock,—it lacked thirty minutes of the end of school; at the other teachers,—they were all glibly expounding. Guiltily, I said: “Very well. Begin and read the chapter over again, very slowly; and when you come to any word you do not understand tell me, and I will try to explain it to you.”

Their countenances fell. This was not the way they usually had been taught. But, with the meekness of a down-trodden people, they obeyed. It worked even better than I had hoped. Poor souls! they probably did not understand enough to select the words which perplexed them. They trudged patiently through their verses again, without question. But my Charybdis was near. The sixth verse came to the brightest boy. As he read, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition,” he paused after the word tradition. I trembled.

“Arx-play-in trardition!” he said.

“What?” said I, feebly, to gain a second’s more of time. “What word did you say?”

“Trardition!” he persisted. “What are trardition? Arx-play-in!”

What I said I do not know. Probably I should not tell if I did. But I am very sure that never in all my life have I found myself and never in all the rest of my life shall I find myself in so utterly desperate a dilemma as I was then, with those patient, earnest, oblique eyes fixed on me, and the gentle Chinese voice reiterating, “What are trardition?”

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