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Making America: A History of the United States, Brief Second Edition
Carol Berkin, Christopher L. Miller, Robert W. Cherny, James L. Gormly, W. Thomas Mainwaring
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Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

Chinese in San Francisco
San Francisco Board of Supervisors

In 1885, the supervisors of San Francisco ordered a special committee to investigate living conditions in Chinatown. Read the document closely to fully understand the motives of the board members. Did they correctly analyze the problem? Also keep in mind the state of urban growth throughout the nation in the late nineteenth century.

Questions to Consider
  1. Describe the living conditions in Chinatown in the 1880s.

  2. Who does the San Francisco Board of Supervisors blame for these living conditions? Do you agree with their assessment? Why or why not?

  3. What solution to this situation does the San Francisco Board of Supervisors suggest? Evaluate the effectiveness of that solution.

  4. Review the "Chinese Exclusion Act" document on this CD. Considering that this legislation was already in place, what were the supervisors trying to accomplish with this investigative report?

  5. What does this document say about race relations in the late nineteenth century?

All great cities have their slums and localities where filth, disease, crime and misery abound; but in the very best aspect which "Chinatown" can be made to present, it must stand apart, conspicuous and beyond them all in the extreme degree of all these horrible attributes, the rankest outgrowth of human degradation that can be found upon this continent. Here it may truly be said that human beings exist under conditions (as regards their mode of life and the air they breathe) scarcely one degree above those under which the rats of our water-front and other vermin live, breathe and have their being. And this order of things seems inseparable from the very nature of the race. . . .

Your Committee have found, both from their own and individual observations and from the reports of their surveyors, that it is almost the universal custom among the Chinese to herd together as compactly as possible, both as regards living and sleeping-rooms and sleeping-accommodations. It is almost an invariable rule that every "bunk" in Chinatown (beds being almost unknown in that locality) is occupied by two persons. Not only is this true, but in very many instances these bunks are again occupied by "relays" in the day time, so that there is no hour, night, or day, when there are not thousands of Chinamen sleeping under the effects of opium, or otherwise, in the bunks which we have found there. . . .

Another surprising as well as disgusting feature developed in this investigation is the fact that there are numerous instances of white women living and cohabiting with Chinamen in the relation of wives and mistresses. . . .

There is hardly a phase of life in Chinatown that does not furnish a striking example of constant violation of municipal laws. It may almost be said that the whole Chinese community exists in open defiance of the law, and, as a matter susceptible of clear demonstration, they are at present, and long have been, stronger than the law, (as it is administered), to which we of other races are sternly held amenable. . . .

In the building on Jackson street, sometimes called "the Palace Hotel," and occupied by about 400 people, there are four water-closets in the center of the court on each of the floors, all running together below in one common cesspool, all open with no trap, and all in a horrible filthy condition. . . .

At 714 Jackson street, in the basement, occupied by seven Chinese prostitutes and two children, there are no water-closets, and the slops and filth generated in this underground slum are flung into the street as an extra generous contribution to the rotting garbage that daily accumulates there, or disposed of in other ways unknown to your Committee. . . .

Descend into the basement of almost any building in Chinatown at night; pick your way by the aid of the policeman's candle along the dark and narrow passageway, black and grimy with a quarter of a century's accumulation of filth; step with care lest you fall into a cesspool of sewage abominations with which these subterranean depths abound. . . . The air is thick with smoke and fetid with an indescribable odor of reeking vapors. The atmosphere is tangible . . . Tangible to the sight, tangible to the touch, tangible to the taste, and, oh, how tangible to the smell! You may even hear it as the opium-smoker sucks it through his pipe bowl into his tainted lungs, and you breathe it yourself as if it were of the substance and tenacity of tar. It is a sense of a horror you have never before experienced, revolting to the last degree, sickening and stupefying. . . .

It is from such pest-holes as these that the Chinese cooks and servants who are employed in our houses come. Cleanly though they may be, in appearance, while acting in the capacity of domestic servants, they are nevertheless born and reared in these habits of life. The facility with which they put on habits of decency when they become cooks and servants simply adds other testimony to their ability to adapt themselves to circumstances when it is their interest to do so. But the instinct of the race remains unchanged; and when the Chinese servant leaves employment in an American household he joyfully hastens back to his slum and his burrow, to the grateful luxury of his normal surroundings, vice, filth, and an atmosphere of horror. . . .

The real remedy is the eventual stoppage of Chinese immigration, by such absolute, autocratic Congressional legislation as shall make it physically impossible for the Chinamen to land upon our shores, except, perhaps, in a commercial capacity alone, or as a student seeking the advantages of our educational institutions. Such legislation, perhaps, cannot be secured until the Eastern mind is educated on the Chinese question as have been the minds of the people upon this coast. And the best way to accomplish that end is to so deal with the Chinese here by local laws, made to be enforced, so as to drive them from our midst to mingle with Eastern communities, and to educate them by contact with their presence, as they have educated us through the same process, up to a realizing sense of the frightfully disastrous results growing out of their presence among them. . . .