March 1st, 2006

Real horror

These piquant extracts are from a book entitled The City of the Golden Gate: A Description of San Francisco in 1875: "A sketch of San Francisco would be very incomplete that omitted the Chinamen. He is ubiquitous and all-pervading. For good or for evil, he is firmly rooted to our soil. You can no more expel him than you can the rats. He came here early and evidently means to stay late. He does not mind persecution; I am not sure that it does not agree with him. His skull is reasonably thick, and can stand a vast amount of stoning. It does not seem to make him feel very badly to be called hard names...He will gamble; he will drug himself with opium; he will lie to get himself out of a scrape; he will steal on the sly. His morals are of the negative order, and his religion is anything but Christ-like. His conscience - I sometimes doubt if he have one - is elastic, and permits him to do pretty much as he pleases...The Chinese quarter is a system of alleys and passages, labyrinthian in their sinuosities, into which the sunlight never enters...Many of them seem mere slits in the flanks of the streets - dirty rivulets flowing into the great stream of life." After a number of pages describing the gambling and opium-smoking activities of "John" (apparently the common term for a Chinese person), we're treated to a description of Chinese "heathen temples", which concludes with: "There is apparently very little sentiment of reverence. To all appearances, John is sadly wanting in respect for his divinity. He walks into the Joss house in a shambling, indifferent sort of way, makes his offering, and walks out."

In Netherworld, one of my two lead characters is a young Chinese man, Leung Yi-kin, who labors first under British Imperialism in Canton, and then encounters new racism in America. I at first wondered if I'd overdone some of the racist dialogue in my book, and now I realize I was nowhere near as virulent or grotesque as the real thing. Plus, I keep thinking: So, these books I'm reading we're probably written by people who would have been considerably more enlightened than the average Joe. Indeed, the San Francisco book makes casual mention of the pastime of stoning "Chinee"; at least one British text has mentioned British soldiers in Canton employing some original methods of whipping their Chinese prisoners.

I never expected my research to turn into its own horrorshow. Sometimes I'm so proud to be an American WASP.