New York City And Chinatown
( Originally Published 1924 )
From Russia, if you were going up through Siberia and Manchuria, the road to China is not a very long one. If you are retracing your steps through Canal Street, going westward, have another look at the Manhattan Bridge to the left, tear yourself loose from the pullers-in of the clothing stores, and turn left again to Chatham Square, which had once been a suburb of New York. The dilapidated building of the old Thalia Theater, once the pride of the city and now a colonnaded shambles of stone and brick, housing cheap Italian vaudeville, stares you in the face. Don't let curiosity tempt you into Baxter Street, where is the open-air market of old clothing. Go straight to Mott Street.
In the morning little Chinese children play in front of the gilded pagoda-like house-fronts; children with faces like cameos cut in amber, as unreal to the immediate surroundings as if they were little dolls that had been stuck in for bizarre effect. There is an air of utter abandon and freedom about these tots—so very much unlike the pre-occupied mien of children one meets anywhere else, the unreality is still more heightened. Unafraid and undaunted, they look every one square in the face with their almond-shaped, downward, well-set-apart brown eyes, certain that no one would molest them. For nowhere in the world are children brought up as freely as among the Chinese. A passing man in blue silk cassock and felt slippers, with drawn face and a long cue hanging on his back, looking the very personification of evil, stops in front of them and watches their little game on the stoop. He raises his hands within the long sleeves, crossing them over his breast, and remains long to gaze at them, smiling and encouraging them. Then he reaches into his pocket and throws them coin more liberally than any other children ever get from parents or uncles. The manner these children receive the gifts, as if they were due grace, is another indication of the relation between children and the older ones among the Chinese. It is not only because there are so very few children in the Chinese quarter, the immigration laws having long forbidden Chinese to come with their wives here; it is characteristic of the attitude of the Chinese to children everywhere under all conditions. In the few Chinese households I have visited, most of them very poor, where there are children, it is safe to say that seven tenths of all the family's earnings are spent in luxuries for the little ones. The garb of a six-year-old little girl costs fully five times as much as the whole expense of dress and clothes of the father and the mother. Silks and satins in profusion, and the best of everything at all times.
Mott Street is a narrow, curving street, on which the lower floor of every building houses a business of some sort. Numerous novelty shops, with all sorts of Chinese and Japanese embroidered wares, kimonos, robes, fake jades, chop-sticks, dishes, tea-sets, dolls, knives, and a lot of other similar things the "rubberneck" coming to visit Chinatown in one of the sight-seeing cars is bound to buy as souvenirs. Between those large stores, right and left, are other stores catering to the Chinese of the neighbor-hood. In the windows are nondescript things of which no white man knows the use, but which under the expert handling of the Chinese become excellent savory dishes. Even the fresh vegetables in the windows are strange things to the average visitor.
Farther down is Doyer Street, where the Doyer Mid-night Mission is. It was up to not long ago the Chinese Theater. The inside of the theater was left much as it had been, with the broad wooden benches disposed in geometrical figures on a slight incline toward the blind stage. Instead of the actors we now have the droning of the preachers. Next to the Doyer Mission is the Baptist Mission House and the kindergarten, with carved teak-wood tables and paper lanterns hung on the low ceiling, and the walls decorated with dragons and serpents in bas-relief with green eyes and mysterious golden manes. I wonder whether the good these missions do will ever offset the value of what has been! I wonder whether Kindergarten No. 30 has anything it can teach Chinese children except the tyranny of the older over the younger . . . and a few English words. But—it was pointed out to me that they are becoming civilized. A door from the Doyer Mission House is a real-estate agency, conducted chiefly by Chinese brought up in the American way. The paper posters on Pell and Mott Streets used to be announcements of plays and concerts; today they are real estate ads.
There are numerous places especially conducted for the benefit of a sight-seer. For a consideration, one is shown, in a room of a rear house, rows upon rows of beds on which lie the stupefied opium-smokers. But most of these men, and sometimes women, are hired by the hour to simulate conditions Mr. Poodle and Mrs. Grundy are going to denounce in their home town on their return from wicked New York. They are created specially for their benefit. Opium-smoking goes on of course, but not where it is shown to sight-seers.
There used to be one place where the murder of one of the guests was staged nightly. It was done with such realism the guests would fly after having paid for dinners they had only ordered but not eaten, afraid lest the police on coming would arrest them. Some white woman would get up from a table and begin to execute an Oriental dance. Dancing, turning, she would reach the pianist and put her arms languorously about his neck and draw him to her lips. One of the Chinese, somber-eyed, supposedly her lover, acting as if he were half stupefied with dope, would rise from another table to tear her away from the pianist. There would be a scuffle between the white woman and the white man and the Chinese; a knife would flash in the wicked hand of the yellow man; there would be a loud scream, and the woman would fall to the floor. The attendants of the place would drag her away into a back room. A few other Chinese would spirit away their compatriot while the hubbub created by the screaming visitors and guests would be at its loudest. The pianist would continue to bang away on his instrument as though nothing had happened. And the visitors, thrilled, scared, horrified, would run to the doors, not without leaving their watches and pocketbooks in experter hands than theirs. It is no longer staged as frequently, but occasionally it still takes place to satisfy those who come for thrills in that district.
When the tongs—those secret societies of the Chinese, the difference between one and another unknown and non-understandable to anybody else—when the tongs are fighting a few bullets are whistling past the narrow streets, and a man or two may be found lifeless in a hallway, but the Chinese quarter remains outwardly the quietest in the city, A hundred Chinese, walking back and forth silently along the walls in their felt slippers, so thoroughly merge with the surroundings you neither see nor hear their movement. The quiet color of their clothing so well fits in with the grayness of the sidewalk and the dull-brown reddish color of the outer walls they seem not to move from one place to the other. Their mincing, effeminate gait, while the upper body remains stiff, makes one think they are automatons, not human beings. At a joss-house, while a hundred men are conversing with one another passionately, or praying, it is so quiet one could hear the buzz of a fly in the middle of the heavily scented, teak-wood-walled room.
The upper floors, above the business places in the district, when they are not occupied by soul-saving stations and mission-houses, are mostly club-rooms of the Chinese. A man can go in any time he chooses and sit all by himself in a little corner and doze off the little poppy that he has put into his pipe, or seek that inner quiet, that dumb quiet within himself, so precious to the children of China.
The few households with families and children are usually on a floor above, or in one of the rear houses on Pell Street, Mott or Doyer Street. There is my friend Me Tom, who has married a white woman who for years tried to convert the heathen Chinese to Christianity. She has more than become converted herself to her heathen religion. Me Tom had given in to her ways at first, and eaten her corned beef and cabbage, and permitted her to furnish the apartment as she chose, with ugly mahogany sideboards and brass beds and French mirrors and cretonne hangings. She had even put in a davenport in the dining-room. It looked for a while as though Me Tom was becoming reconciled to the taste of his American wife. He never protested, and let her do what she wanted. Little did Mrs. Me Tom know, having come from Boston to New York to do uplift work, that her husband was maintaining a separate bachelor apartment just across the street, which was furnished in his own Chinese way, with low-burning lights and round, teak-wood tables and backless round taborets incrusted with mother-of-pearl. For three years Me Tom. kept on furnishing that apartment with the beautiful things from his own country he could lay his hands on. And when it was all finished he asked his wife to come and see it. And even she, antagonistic as she was to every-thing that was not Anglo-Saxon, had to admit her heathen husband had furnished his apartment much more beautifully and much more comfortably than the one she had arranged. And they moved over into Me Tom's establishment, abandoning the other one to another mixed couple.
For such things happen only too frequently. Those who come to convert become converted themselves. There are three little Me Tom children now. The oldest is nine years, a little girl, blond and slender, looking very much like her mother except for the somewhat slanted eyes and over-sensitive hands. The other two children, Chris and George, look exactly like their father. So far the only disagreements in the family have been because of the children, the mother not being inclined to let them have as much their own way as the father intends them to have. The other day Me Tom told me, "Little children in Amelica vely unhappy." And pointing to a Chinese woman walking on her heels because of the stump-like feet that have been compressed in bandages since birth, he added, "Feet of Amelican woman not nice."
There are of course other couples in the district not as happily mated. Those of the Chinese who cannot live alone and were unable to get women of their own kind have married colored women, particularly from the West Indies. The offspring of such couples have inherited the worst there is in both of them, with the cunning of the one and the cruelty of the other, with the rapacity of the one and the shiftlessness of the other. The Chinese have no confidence in the result of such mixtures and keep away from them. But there have been other mixtures, particularly with the Italians, which have proved more successful; and there is one Chinese man, Chon Loci, who, claiming he was a Chinese Jew, had married. a Russian Jewess. They also have two children, boys both of them, named by the mother Israel and Moie. And although they look very much like their father, with only a little of the mother in their noses, they speak the most perfect Yiddish I have ever heard children speak, and even sing Yiddish songs. Their mother has lately become a very active Zionist. It is side-splitting to see these two children among the other children, and hear their noisy singsong talk, so different from the speech of the others. The mother sends them both regularly every day to a Hebrew teacher in Henry Street . . . that they may become men of Israel.
As you come out from Mott Street and go into Doyer Street you will see the walls plastered with yellow papers upon which are printed a hieroglyphic script running down-ward. These are the announcements of tong meetings and other meetings that are being called. It is part of the social life of the district, a small world in itself, with its own problems and troubles, leaders, statesmen, and gossips. The forward young Americanized Chinese use these bill-boards for free real-estate advertisements.
Most of the houses of the Chinese district are owned by Chinese themselves. Through whatever hands these houses have once passed, 'hey are now Chinese. The architecture, the material used, the laced iron of the balconies and fire-escapes, the projecting garret-hoods from the wooden shanties, the painted brick, the narrow crooked stairs, the dark hallways, and the flagstone yards, it is all Chinese; transformed, rebuilt to suit the general taste. No other people have changed their environment as much to suit them as the Chinese. The Catholic Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street is architecturally out of place and looks like an intrusion. How much more in taste with the surroundings is the balconied building housing the joss-house, the house of public worship, facing it! Below the joss-house is the home of the Chinese Free masons. There seems to be no contradiction between the two institutions. The efforts at Americanization are evident in the large signs over the American Citizens' Alliance, but they are nullified by the Chinese National League. Wherever one Chinese lives is China. He carries the country, its traditions and customs and laws, with him.
If you are lucky enough to see Rose, otherwise known as the Angel of Chinatown, and she can usually be met in one of the soul-saving stations, she will conduct you into places where many of her friends live, where you will see more of the intimate life of Chinatown than can be seen on passing the street—except for such sights as are especially prepared for the sight-seer. It is true that on Doyer Street and on Baxter Street there are several opium-joints. I have visited one several times myself, and counted eight white people out of eleven in the place ; people whose names are very frequently blazoned in the papers as principals of this and that. There they looked more like disemboweled. creatures from whom everything that had a semblance of real life had been taken out. Their brains seemed to have been scooped out from within their skulls. Their eyes were bleary and partly closed. The twitching lips, and the arms hanging over the edges of the narrow cots on which they lay down, made them a picture of contemptible distress portrayed to horrify. The Chinese lay in a trance without in any way giving the impression of disgust and horror given by the others.
When I asked one who knew what caused the difference of appearance between the opium-smokers, I was answered: "Because the Chinese know and the white man doesn't.
You cannot fail, from whatever side you enter China-town, to see the missions of the neighborhood. I do not know how many souls they have saved to justify their existence or the cost of maintenance. But it were interesting for them to know that the Chinaman. sees no objection to worshiping at six different shrines at the same time. There are such who are Confucianists, believers in Laotsze, Mohammedans, and Christians at one and the same time. How they can be all that together is clear only in their own minds, and cannot be made clear to ours; no more than a Chinese puzzle is as readily understood by a white man as it is by a yellow one.
Chinatown in New York is also the central traffic-station of the underworld commerce of narcotics that goes on throughout the continent. No matter where it is carried on, in California, in Canada, in Florida, or in Mexico, the trails forever lead back to the gates of Chinatown, where they are lost never to be found. For the one who would divulge a single thing is through some peculiar method of the Chinese immediately found out and silenced forever.
Of the many crimes that have been committed in that district, very few of the guilty ones have ever been found out. The justice of the Chinese is meted out by themselves as swiftly if not swifter than any other justice. Most of these crimes are committed for commercial reasons. The honesty of the Chinaman in his direct dealings with people is too proverbial to need any repetition here. Any China-man can get any reasonable amount of money from any other one, by paying usury, without giving any other guarantee for the payment than his word, which is also his life. Failure to pay is not aired in the courts of justice. There are swifter means than that, and the example is a much more efficient one.
I once ducked several revolver-shots while walking with Chuck Connors through Mott Street. They were aimed at a man passing along the street. Connors looked at me, and, with his knowledge of the people more intimate than that of any one, he told me,. "That man will never reach the corner of the street."
And he didn't. For before Connors had finished his phrase the lifeless body of the man was dragged into ore of the hallways. There was no outcry. There were no screams. Several Chinese passers-by, or lookers-out of windows, or whatever they may have been at that particular moment, turned their backs immediately and entered their homes. The street became deserted for a few minutes. By the time the vigilant policeman from the corner had rushed upon the scene with his menacing club and drawn revolver, there was nothing to be seen.
Connors turned around and told me : "You won't say a word. I vouched for you."
A little later I asked my companion why and how he had vouched for me, since it had been a chance meeting between us two! Connors answered, "I gave them the sign."
Still later he explained to me that he had made several signs with his raised arm after the shots had been fired. The dead body was never discovered. I t was disposed of Chinese fashion.
There are fewer Chinese wearing their cues down their backs than there were a few years ago. This was due to the change of the government in China, permitting them to do so. At first only the youngsters fell in with the new order of things. But slow as the Chinese are to accept any new thing, this particular reform they hastened to adopt as rapidly as our young ladies accepted the knee-length skirts a few years ago. The fights, the revolutions in China have their echoes here, echoes and partizans.
But Chinatown never looks as much like China as at New Year's or at some other Chinese fete, or when a new treaty of peace has been signed between the different war-ring tongs. Then the colored paper lanterns are hung across the sidewalk from every floor of the houses, bits of quaint paper masks appear in the windows, silks are hung from here and there, blank cartridges are being exploded, and the fireworks for which the Chinese are justly famous the world over are being let loose everywhere, changing the narrow, crooked streets into a fairy world. From the windows of the joss-houses, club-houses, and restaurants float curious, plaintive, screeching melodies from the zither-like instruments which carry the melody, while the people sitting around it sing harmonies to the song.
Now that peace has been established, members of the different tongs play fan-tan together; fan-tan and not mah-jong, which, although widely known as the Chinese national game, has been denounced to me as a game foreign to the Chinese people. Playing fan-tan a man may lose his laundry establishment, for which he had worked twenty years, in a few hours, and depart outwardly as peacefully from the table as if the game had been one in which a toothpick was involved; for he has the hope of winning another laundry back very soon. As a matter of fact, Me Tom explained to me that the Chinese laundries over the city are never sold by one Chinaman to another, but only lost at fan-tan.
Here, too, the same as in the other districts of foreign population, the Chinese known to us under one name, live in groupings of people of different cantons. Because of the numerous Chinese dialects, totally different from one another, very frequently Chinese do not understand one another as well as they are commonly supposed to. I was having dinner one night with my friend Me Tom and remarked that he was trying to speak English to the Chinese restaurateur, which the other man understood with great difficulty. I thought at first Me Toni did it for show, or because he wanted the other to learn the language of this country, but Me Tom explained to me: "He comes flom a fal-away canton in China. I do not understand his language."
Me Tom is a very emotional and temperamental gentle-man. More than once he had refused to serve me tea or even admit me to his sanctum when I was accompanied by people he did not fancy at first or second glance. He simply barred the door of his little place, which is a tremble every time the elevated train stops at Chatham Square, and said:
"No, no, no have tea, no have nothing, no, no. Come other day."
Or he folded his arms, standing near the counter, if we had succeeded in getting by him at the door, looked askance, and intrenched himself behind that Oriental impassiveness which is refractory to all appeals. And when Me Tom does not want to do or answer something, he does not know a single word of the English language. He is deaf and dumb then. The best and the only thing to do is to leave the tea-house as graciously as possible. For it is known that Me Tom's place is not altogether a public place. He serves only such people as he likes.
The food, the tea, the manner of service, the price, are altogether a matter of emotion, of temperament. Even the color of the dishes is a matter of Me Tom's choice. He has more than once refused to serve tea, to a friend at my table, in a cup of the same color as the one from which I drank. Explanations? If you care to have them in Chinese you will be welcome—sometimes. In English he gives none.
So, as you see, we have to deal with a peculiar sort of a man, and the story here offered may sound as strange as the man himself is. But then you must remember that Me Tom is a Chinaman of refinement, a man of taste, a Paytone+One and an artist. Thought is Me Tom's art medium, as words to a writer, sound to a musician, color to a painter, or solid mass to a sculptor. Me Tom is an artist Paytone+One. Would there were many like him!
The day previous to the one I am telling about, Me Tom had refused to serve some friends of mine.
"I don't like them," was all he had said.
As I was sipping my tea the following day, I decided to turn the tables on Me Tom. Calling him over, I pointed to a group of gentlemen from the Flowery Kingdom sitting at another table, and said:
"Me Tom, I don't like them. Put them out."
"Why don't you do it yourself ?" he answered.
"This is not my place, Me Tom."
"Ha, no. But you may do it if you care to," was Me Tom's rejoinder.
He waited a long time and looked so searchingly into my eyes that I felt very uncomfortable. Finally the guests left of their own free will to play a little game of fan-tan elsewhere.
Me Tom first cleared the table they
had left. The work done, he closed the door so as not to be disturbed, made some tea for himself, and came to sit next me on the upholstered teak-wood bench under a Buddha, close to the wall. A flickering movement in the incense-bowl had revived the insinuating odor and submerged the scent of sandalwood which had dominated till them. It was Me Tom's way of letting-me know that he demanded absolute attention.
I gave it, and here is the story he told me.
There is a province deep down in the interior of China. It has not yet been penetrated by whites. And in that province they once had a judge who was very severe.
But one day the people rose against that severe judge and decided to kill him and choose another judge. So one man said to them:
"Choose the wisest. One who has lived with his body and mind. Not one who- has never sinned, but one who has sinned and repented and therefore knows that if he should have paid for his sin with his life he could never have repented."
Then an old man asked to be heard. Said he:
"Let us keep the same judge. But dispense with the executioner. Let the judge also execute his judgments."
And so the following day the executioner was sent away from the palace and the province, and the judge was vested with a new power.
That day he ordered a man flogged. Fifty lashes was the judgment. But having given as far as the third one, and heard the shriek of the culprit, he let the bamboo fall from his hand, and was so faint that he had to be carried home.
When he returned to his bench the next day he was a much milder man, and people heard him admonish like a father where formerly he would have ordered the most cruel tortures.
Then one day a man committed such a heinous crime that the populace of the whole province clamored that his life be taken to pay the penalty.
Tremblingly the judge pronounced the fatal sentence. The people were determined that the judgment be executed.
The judge, sword in hand, went down to the subterranean execution chamber, but returned with head bowed so low that it seemed as if he and not the other' one were the culprit.
"Let him live another day," the judge said.
The following day the judge was ill.
On the third day he first heard all the cases before him. Then again he thought of the criminal in the dungeon. But he could not act ; he could not. Not that day.
"Oh, let him live another day," he said to the people.
Another day, and another day, and another day, went by. The judge's hair turned gray, his hands became feeble, his, knees weakened, and he could think of nothing else but of the man he had to kill. And whenever he postponed the duty for another day, it was as if he were postponing his own death by that length of time.
"Oh, let it be for another clay," he now begged each morning. He pleaded with his wives and his children, and the passers-by on the streets, and the people who came to him for judgment. At last life became such a burden to the one-time severe judge that he died.
"And for all I know the man who has committed the heinous crime is still alive," added Me Tom, as he looked me straight in the eyes.
"When I object to some one's presence I put him out myself, friend. I execute my own judgments."
There was too much incense-smoke in the room; so Me Tom opened the door again, and went to wait on a high stool behind the counter. His immobile face, his heavy small eyes, and the rigidity of the pose he assumed told me plainly that my friend wished to be alone, all alone with his memories and thoughts and the Confucius statue up in his private room over the restaurant.
But at the door Me Tom called to me:
"Man should be more like to a match than to fire-stone. He should burn and consume himself when he produces fire."