Color lines

by Herb Caen

I spent some years in San Francisco, where Herb Caen (1916-1997) was an almost eternal columnist for the Chronicle. He was widely read and even more widely beloved, a damned good writer, with a solid feel for the city's past and present. Any day you missed reading his column was a day when you knew a little less about whatever was going on.

This ancient piece by Caen stumbled across me a few days ago, and it's a bold piece of writing for its time. I don't know what its exact time was, but 'Negroes' was still the polite term, so I'm guessing it's no newer than the mid-1960s.

Mr Caen is someone I've long admired, so why not steal from the best? —DH

There is a certain kind of San Franciscan — not a bad fellow, really — who is forever sighing helplessly, "Why can't the blacks be more like our Chinese?" I think he is the sort of person who says during Opera season, "If they just did La Boheme and Butterfly I'd go every night," and who thinks the 1929 Seals could have licked the present-day Giants, and who says, "I don't know what the younger generation is coming to," and, "Some of my best friends are—

"I respect the Chinese, I really do," this nice fellow continues, "and I think they respect me. They have dignity and a strong family sense and they mind their own business." He always stops short of saying, "They know their place," but he doesn't have to verbalize it. "What I mean is," he finishes," why can't the Negroes learn something from them?"

The most obvious answer is that the Black is not Chinese, and please observe the "No Smirking" sign. I quote a Chinatown scholar: "In the first place, the Negro was brought to this country as a slave. Even those Chinese who were imported 100 years ago to work on the railroads were free men who were paid wages. The Chinese have thousands of years of culture behind them, and a homeland of great history. The Negro — degraded by the white man, torn from his native land, denied a family role for generations -- is just beginning to find an identity, something the Chinese have always had."

But getting back to my friend, the earnest San Franciscan, with his illusions and delusions. I wonder if he knows how an earlier breed of San Franciscan acted toward the Chinese he professes to respect so much. (I assume he knows that even today certain residential areas are off limits to all Orientals, not to mention Blacks, and that the so-called "Chinaman's room" — for the servant — still exists in the nether regions of some of our finest houses, and that the good American who orders "flied lice" in a Chinese restaurant still considers himself a wit.)

The other night, I was browsing through historian Oscar Lewis's book, ‘San Francisco: Mission to Metropolis,’ and he supplies some salty and painful reminders. In the High Sierra, during the Gold Rush days, mobs of whites attacked Chinese settlements and burned their cabins. Lynchings and shootings were common and went unpunished.

In enlightened San Francisco, a few years later, things weren't much better. Because the Chinese constituted "cheap" labor, workingmen raised the infamous cry of "Chinese must go!" The state legislature passed an Exclusion Act — literally to exclude them — that was later declared unconstitutional, but that didn't change anything. As the Chinese grew more prosperous, especially in the garment and cigar making industries, white businessmen got nervous too.

In 1873, the Workingmen's party, founded on a straight anti-Chinese platform, won the city elections and installed a mayor, Andrew Bryant, who decreed all manner of restrictions on the Chinese: higher taxes, stiffer jail sentences, and even a curfew. (They had to be off the streets at 2 AM). Thus encouraged, a firebrand orator named James D'Arcy organized a mob of 5,000 on market Street that set out, howling, for Chinatown. All night they raided, looted, set fires, and severed the firemen's hoses with axes.

Even Mayor Bryant was taken aback. He called for federal aid and two warships, the Pensacola and Lancaster, tied up at the waterfront with Marines and sailors armed and ready to land. The mob dispersed — for a time — but this was a violent city. In comparison, the riots of late September 1966 at Hunter's Point where a tea party.

Soon, another "Chinese must go!" orator, Dennis Kearney, was working up the mobs on the issue of "coolie labor." No punch puller he: "the monopolists who make their money by employing cheap labor have built themselves five mansions on Nob Hill and erected flagpoles on their roofs. Let them take care they have not erected their own gallows!" At one point, he led a mob of 3,000 to the steps of Charles Crocker's mansion on California Street which must have frightened the old gentleman out of his wits. "If I give an order to hang Crocker," he bellowed at the front door, "it will be done!" Fortunately, he didn't give the order.

One of the ugliest scenes took place along the Bay when white workmen, hired to fill in the tidelands at $1.25 per day, were replaced by Chinese (then known as "Crocker's pets") who would work for half that. A mob of whites attacked them as they worked, killed one, injured 15, and burned their shacks to the ground. This scene of violence was — Hunters Point, to this day the most racially troubled area in the city.

It's worth mentioning that the monstrous long ago-Mayor Andrew Bryant — AOK with everything short of bloody warfare against the city's Chinese residents — became the namesake of Bryant Street, where the county's Hall of Justice now stands. —DH

← PREVIOUS          NEXT →


  1. One of my first memories of Pathetic Life, from before I moved to SF, was you mentioning Herb Caen, who I had never heard of before, and describing him a "SF's resident old fart."

    1. The old fart grew on me, I guess.


🚨🚨 If you have problems posting a comment, please click here for help. 🚨🚨