Merced County Genealogical Society
THE CHINESE IN MERCED
by Robert J. Steele
December 5, 1885
On Tuesday last we went on a tour of inspection through the Merced Chinatown, with Officers Griffith and Manning as escorts, our object being to see how these peculiar people live; note the different kinds of business pursued by them, and their domestic customs and home life. We reached there about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a time when we expected to find all in business pursuits and laborers busily engaged at work in their several occupations, but in this we were disappointed, as we found many of the houses closed, the occupants being asleep or smoking opium in their rooms. There being comparatively few, except cooks, laborers, idlers, and teamsters who take goods to the camps in the country, or freight to the mountain towns, visible on the streets. We went up the main street of their village and noted eight houses where we found Chinamen smoking opium, in all of which we were told were “tan lay-outs.” The other buildings were mercantile, hotel, restaurant or other business establishments, all appearing to be crowded to their utmost capacity; that is, some of the houses being occupied by human beings, horses, dogs, chickens, ducks and pigs, and where the domestic animals were not kept in the house, the stables, pig-pens, duck-ponds and other back buildings were crowded near the back door, flanked by cesspools in close proximity to the wells that supply the inhabitants with pure water for drinking, cooking and other purposes. Returning down on the northerly side of the street we found a number of gambling houses, in one of which a game of “tan” was in progress when we entered, with a crowd of thirty or forty participants and spectators surrounding the table. The buildings upon this side of the street, with the exception of two or three stores and a like number of lodging gambling and hotel establishments combined, are houses of prostitution, the occupants not being visible at that hour. On arriving at the corner we found a stable, wood-shed, and sleeping room in the back end, and butchering establishment where hogs are slaughtered, dressed, and the meat cut and sold, the lard dried out, the pork packed and bacon manufactured; besides which the house, though small, afforded sleeping accommodations for a dozen or more people; the waste and refuse matter from the house being run in to a pool, covered with boards, at the back end of the cabin-like building.
In so far as we could judge from what we saw in our tour of inspection, gambling and prostitution and opium smoking are the principal pursuits, though merchandising, banking, hotel, restaurant, and other kinds of business are carried on. We asked a very intelligent Chinaman, who speaks English quite well, the number of population in the town, and he replied that there were between three and five hundred, exclusive of visitors from the country. The atmosphere of the place was filled with the fumes of opium and other foul odors, such as would be supposed to emanate from pools of sewer water and accumulated filth from pig-styes, stables, chicken-coops and duck-pens, rendering the place, in a sanitary point of view, exceedingly objectionable, while morally it is a plague spot and nuisance, the least desirable as an adjunct to a civilized community of all the evils that American civilization has to bear with.
Chinese labor may have been a necessity on this Coast in past times, as the Chinamen performed menial labor at prices that made them a necessity in early times, and we believe that with the labor of these people the completion of the several lines of railroad connecting the Pacific Coast with the Atlantic was hastened by several years; but now the days of their usefulness to the American people on the Pacific Slope have passed, and people express a desire to rid the country of their presence in the shortest possible time and upon the most favorable terms possible, and in many localities intimidation and even violent means have been adopted, when other and milder measures have failed, to induce them to leave. We do not counsel harsh usage of the Chinese now here to abate the nuisance of their existence among us upon American soil; but we do believe that Congress should provide a law to close our ports and vigilantly guard our frontiers at all points against them, to the end that their importation hither shall be stopped, and that potent inducements shall be held out to those now abiding in the country to emigrate to other countries, where their presence may be desirable, or return to the “Flowery Kingdom.”