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The American West through British Eyes, 1865 - 1900: Part 3

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

The Chinese

British travellers' accounts of San Francisco's Chinatown provide a vivid illustration not only of this area of the city, but also of the mixture of incredulity and condescension with which they regarded the Chinese. Amongst Americans, Chinese workers were often accused of lowering wages, but in working as they did they acted no differently from any other immigrant groups determined to make their way in American society. The Chinese were unusual, however, in the extent to which they refused to take on Anglo-American cultural forms.

Chinese Theatre

The Chinese theatre performance witnessed by the Reverend Samuel Manning in San Francisco differed greatly from any performance he had ever seen in London. It was '…filled with men smoking and looking on with silent interest as the play, performed by actors from China, runs through its interminable course; it was begun a week or ten days ago, and will last for a week or ten days more; the orchestra seated on the stage make the most discordant uproar I ever heard; the performance is grotesquely absurd, the dresses are magnificent.'

Chinese Theatre
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Rev. Samuel Manning, American Pictures.
London. [1876]. (10410.f.2)
Copyright © The British Library

 

'Coaling on the Road at Wannewacker by Chinese Laborers'

Despite initial reservations by some railroad managers about their size and strength, thousands of Chinese labourers were employed in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. They soon proved themselves to be as industrious, and frequently more reliable, than their white counterparts. Indeed, when the railroad was completed at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869, an eight-man Chinese crew was selected to place the last section of rail in order to honour their dedication and hard work. This sketch, made seven years after that momentous occasion, shows the process of 'coaling' being performed entirely by Chinese labourers on the Central Pacific Railroad.

'Coaling on the Road at Wannewacker by Chinese Laborers'
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The Illustrated London News
, 15 July 1876. (P.P.7611)
Copyright © The British Library

 

'…They must be of different clay'

In 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson travelled to California via an emigrant train on which passengers were separated into three groups: men travelling alone, women and children, and Chinese. He was deeply shocked at the prejudice against the Chinese and explained: 'Of all stupid ill-feelings, the sentiment of my fellow-Caucasians towards our companions in the Chinese car was the most stupid and the worst. They seemed never to have looked at them, listened to them, or thought of them, but hated them a priori…For my own part, I could not look but with wonder and respect on the Chinese. Their forefathers watched the stars before mine had begun to keep pigs. Gunpowder and printing, which the other day we imitated, and a school of manners which we never had the delicacy so much as to desire to imitate, were theirs in the long-past antiquity. They walk the earth with us, but it seems they must be of different clay.'

They must be of different clay
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Robert Louis Stevenson, Across the Plains. London, 1895. (W.83/0975)
Copyright © The British Library

 

The Opium Den

W.G. Marshall visited San Francisco's Chinatown in 1878. After a visit to the theatre, he and his companions decided to take 'a peep into the opium dens, where, had the authorities caught us, we should have been liable to be fined a sum of fifty dollars apiece'. They were accompanied by a Chinese guide who, for a small fee, escorted them 'along narrow, dark smelling passages, and down rickety flights of stairs 'to a quarter known as the Ragpickers' Alley, the haunt of 'some of the most desperate characters in Chinatown.' Arriving at the first den, the 'incomprehensible odour' took Marshall's breath away, yet on taking the pipe himself, he noted, 'At first it was rather unpleasant, but in time it became savoury and agreeable.' However, reflecting on the filthy room packed with 'Celestials' who had smoked themselves to sleep, the author describes the adventures of this night as 'a very hideous and disturbed dream - quite a nightmare in fact.'

The Opium Den
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W.G. Marshall, Through America; or, nine months in the United States…. London, 1881. (10410.s.3)
Copyright © The British Library

 

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Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7


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