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China People


I was just trying to catch up on this week’s DemocracyNow! episodes and had a ‘Hey, I never knew this!’ moment about China. It brought back to the forefront a blog post on Maxine Hong Kingston‘s China Men and David Montgomery‘s The Fall of the House of Labor that’s been kicking around in my brain for weeks. I started to get curious about what a B-Fest in China might have looked like, if anyone started drawing parallels betweend ‘Tiananmen Square’(Uprising and Beijing Massacre) and the ‘Greek Uprising‘.

And, you know, we always talk about how it ended. We always talk about June 4th. But one of the reasons why I wrote the book is because May in Beijing, 1989, was one of the most amazing, beautiful, uplifting, fantastic months in the life of China, in the life of people who were there

It was just tremendous. It was beautiful. And it was a million people, not a single casualty. I mean, the accomplishment of May 1989 sometimes gets eclipsed by what happened afterward. So it did end badly, but I don’t think that should take away from the example that was set and, indeed, the example that went on to influence people in eastern Europe, in Russia, around the world. May 1989 is part of the story, and I wrote a book to remind people that it’s a very—the positive message of Tiananmen is a very important part of the story. 

David Montgomery writes of the forgotten, indomitable Chinese workers of the West in the United States in Fall of The House of Labor. The part about how ‘these strangers…staged.. one of the largest-scale strikes of the century" is available on google books. Montgomery’s  historical treatment is great to read along with Maxine Hong Kingston’s earthy personal treatment. That exciting section is just after the paragraph in the endnots of Stanford M. Lyman’s The "Chinese Question" and American Labor Historians available online.

David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 67-68: "No other railroad builders ever accomplished feats of labor as spectacular as those of the Chinese. After the Central Pacific began hiring them by the thousands in 1865, Chinese workers drove a railbed from San Francisco to Promontory Point in Utah. They carved a path out of the perpendicular cliffs above the American River by lowering one another in wicker baskets to drill holes, set powder, and fire it off. Because the size of the Central pacific’s subsidies from the federal government depended on the track mileage laid before it encountered the westward moving Union Pacific, President Charles Crocker kept his Chinese laborers at work in the dead of winter even drilling a tunnel through the Donner Summit while their camps were buried in snow. Many of those who were killed in snowslides were not found until the following summer . . . [T]he very existence of the Chinese who had built the railroad was soon obliterated from the American consciousness. When the famous photograph of the joining of the lines from east and west was taken at Promontory Point, all Chinese workers were ushered out of the camera’s range."

There was a review about how Thomas Pynchon seems to know everything in his books. I’ve never been able to read his stuff but Maxine Hong Kingston, in China Men(pp 125-151, reviewed here.)makes you feel like she was there, knowing everything in 1865 when her grandfather was working a cliff face. He was working a cliff face, with gunpowder explosives, from inside a a basket suspended from a rope. There’s a giddiness and even a sexual excitement in the dangerous and beautiful work. Kingston even brings to detailed life the sentence "Union Pacific… President Charles Crocker kept his Chinese laborers at work in the dead of winter – even drilling a tunnel through the Donner Summit while their camps were buried in snow. Many of those killed in snowslides were not found until the following summer.(26)"(p 67) It’s too bad I cant find these pages on google books or somewhere. Someone else did type in Kingston’s portrayal of the dangers of working with dynamite while standing in a basket on the end of a rope.(pdf)

In addition to "push factors" causing people to leave China, there were several "pull factors" that drew these people to the U.S. One of these factors was the need for labor. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific Rail Roads hired thousands of Chinese immigrants to work in many different capacities, most of which were very dangerous and labor intensive.(3) As the rail road moved West through the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. In some parts, the rock formations were too thick to tunnel through so the track was built along side it anchored into the face of the cliffs. Some dynamiting of the cliffs had to be done and this was the most dangerous of work, done almost exclusively by the Chinese. Baskets were made to lower the men down hundreds of feet where the blasting was done, and due to their slight body structure the Chinese men were perfect to do the job. Occasionally accidents happened and the men hanging in the baskets were hurt or killed. After awhile the men became used to that fact and it was just another element to endure. "This time two men were blown up. One knocked out or killed by the explosion fell silently, the other screaming, his arms and legs struggling. A desire shot out of A Goong for an arm long enough to reach out and catch them. It can’t happen twice in a row. Our chances are very good. The trip after an accident is probably the safest one. They raced to their favorite basket, checked, and double checked the four ropes, yanked the strands. Tested the pullies, oiled them, reminded the pullymen about the signals, and entered the sky again." (4)

I copied and pasted the above quote from Pittsburg Public Schools supplement to eleventh grade history from the html version available from google. This section don’t get to the exuberance of China Men though.

Ah Goong got to be a basketman because he was thin and light. Some basketmen were fifteen-year-old boys. He rode the basket barefoot, so his boots, the kind to stomp snakes with, would not break through the bottom. The basket swung adn twirled, and he saw the world sweep underneath him; it was fun in a way, a cold new feeling of doing what had never been done before. Suspended in the quiet sky, he thought all kinds of crazy thoughts, that if a man didn’t want to live he could just cut the ropes or, easier, tilt the basket, dip and never have to worry again. He could spread his arms, and the air would momentarily hold him before he fell past the buzzards, hawks, and eagles, and landed impaled on the tip of a sequioa. This high and he didn’t see any gods, no Cowboy, no Spinner. He knelt in the basket though he was not bumping his head against the sky. Through the wickerwork, sliver of depths darted like needles, nothing between him and air but thin rattan. Gusts of wind spun the light basket. "Aiya," said Ah Goong. Winds came up under the basket, bouncing it. Neighboring baskets swung together and parted. He and the man next to him looked at each other’s faces. They laughed. They might as well have gone to Malaysia to collect bird nests. Those who had done high work there said it had been worse; the birds screamed adn scratched at them. Swinging near the cliff, Ah Goong stood up and grabbed it by a twig. He dug holes, then inserted gunpowder and fuses. He worked neither too fast nor too slow, keeping even with the others. The basketmen signaled one another to light the fuses. He struck match after match and dropped the burnt matches over the sides. At last his fuse caught; he waved, and the men above pulled hand over hand hauling him up, pulleys creaking. The scaffolds stood like a row of gibbets. Gallows trees along a ridge. "Hurry, hurry," he said. Some impatient men clambered up their ropes. Ah Goong ran up the ledge road they’d cleared adn watched the explosions which banged almost synchronously, echoes booming like war. He moved his scaffold to the next section of cliff and went down in the basket again, with bags of dirt, and set the next charge."(p. 131)

Ah Goong’s fellow workers are blown up in the next paragraph, its the part quoted for the Pittsburgh Public schools above. His reaction is believably contradictory and there were other ‘accidents.’

The shreds of baskets and a cowboy hat skimmed and tacked. The winds that pushed birds off course and against mountains did not carry men. Ah Goong wished the conscious man would fall faster and get it over with. His hands gripped the ropes, and it was difficult to let go and get on with the work…..

Another time, Ah Goong had been lowered to the bottom of a ravine, which had to be cleared for the base of a trestle when a man fell, and he saw his face. He had not died of the shock before hitting bottom. His hands were grabbing at air. His stomach and groin must have felt the fall all the way down. At night Ah Goong woke up falling, though he slept on the ground, and heard other men call out in their sleep. No warm women tweaked their ears and hugged them. "It was only a falling dream," he reassured himself.

Across the valley, a chain of men working on the next mountain, men like ants changing the face of the world, fell, but it was very far away. Godlike, he watched men whose faces he could not see and whose screams he could not hear roll and bounce and slide like a handful of sprinkled gravel.

After a fall, the buzzards circled the spot and reminded the workers for days that a man was dead down there. The men threw piles of rocks and branches to cover the bodies from sight.

The mountain face reshaped, they drove supports for a bridge. Since hammering was less dangerous than the blowing up, the men played a little; the rode the baskets swooping in wide arcs; the twisted the ropes and let them unwinde like tops. "Look at me," said Ah Goong, pulled open his pants, and pissed overboard, the wind scattering the drops. "I’m a waterfall," he said. He had sent a part of himself hurtling. On rare windless days he watched his piss fall in a continuous stream from himself almost to the bottom of the valley.

One beautiful day, dangling in the sun above a new valley, not the desire to urinate but sexual desire clutched him so hard he bent over in the basket. He curled up, overcome by beauty and fear, which shot to his penis. He tried to rub himself calm. Suddenly he stood up tall and squirted into space. "I am fucking the world," he said. The world’s vagina was big, big as the sky, big as a valley. He grew a habit: whenever he was lowered in the basket, his blood rushed to his penis, and he fucked the world.(131-131)

Later he tunnels into the mountain and misses "swinging in a basket."

The tone of the labor relations is fascinating too. "The demons in boss suits came into the tunnel occasionally, measured with a yardstick, and shook their heads. "Faster," they said. "Faster. Chinamen too slow. Too slow." "Tell us we’re slow," the China Men gumbled. The ones in top tiers of scaffolding let rocks drop, a hammer drop. Ropes tangled around the demons’ heads and feet. The cave China Men muttered and flexed, glared out of the corners of their eyes. But usually there was no diversion – one day the same as the next, one hour no different from another – the beating against the same granite."(134-135)

Dynamite plays a big role. "In the third year of pounding granite by hand, a demon invented dynamite….They had stopped using gunpowder in the tunnels after avalanches, but the demons said dynamite was more precise…Dynamite was much more powerful than gunpowder.. The dynamite added more accidents and ways of dying, but if it were not used, the railroad would take fifty more years to finish. Nitroglycerine exploded when it was jounced on a horse or dropped. A man how fell with it in his pocket blew himself up into red pieces. Somtimes it combusted merely standing. Human bodies skipped through the air like puppets and made Ah Goong laugh crazily as if the arms and legs would come together again. The smell of burned flesh remained in the socks"(pp135-136)

Did he have PTSD?

And then there is the portrayal of the strike too, after the snow blizzards, the falling ears and toes and the thawing bodies revealed by the spring melts. It’s all just as fascinating as the daily work life depicted above.

At first management was sneaky and successful.

The demons invented games for working faster, gold coins for miles of track laid, for the heaviest rock, a grand prize for the first team to break through a tunnel. Day shifts agains night shifts, China Men agains Welshmen, China Men against Irishmen, China Men against Injuns and black demons. The fastest races were China Men against China Men, who bet on their own teams. China Men always won because of good teamwork, smart thinking, and the need for money. Also, they had the most workers to choose teams from. Whenever his team won anything, Ah Goong added to his gold stash. The Central Pacific or Union Pacific won the land on either side of the track they built."(139)

But then demon management got too clever.

One summer day demon officials and China Man translators went from group to group and announced, "We’re raising the pay – thirty-five dollars a month. Because of your excellent work, the Central Pacific Railroad is giving you a four-dollar raise per month." The workers who didn’t know better cheered. "What’s the catch?" said the smarter ment. "You’ll have the opportunity to put in more time," said the railroad demons. "Two more hours per shift." Ten hour shifts inside the tunnels…….

The workers discussed the ten-hour shif, swearing their China Man obscenities."Two extra hours a day – sixty hours a month for four dollars." "Pig catcher demons." "Snakes." "Turtles." "Dead demons." "A human body can’t work like that." "The demons don’t believe this is a human body. This is a chinaman’s body." To bargain they sent a delegation of English speakers, who were summarily noted as troublemakers, turned away, docked.

The China Men, then, decided to go on strike and demand forty-five dollars a month and the eight-hour shift. They risked going to jail and the Central Pacific keeping the pay it was banking for them. Ah Goong memorized the English, "Forty-five dollars a month – eight-hour shift." He practiced the strike slogan: "Eight hours a day good for white man, all the same good for China Man."(139-140)

The historical depth and daily routines of rebellion are sublte provocative.

The men wrapped barley and beans in ti leaves, which came from Hawai’i via San Francisco, for celebrating the fifth day of the fifth month (not May but mid-June, the summer solstice.) Usually the the way the red string is wound and knotted tells what flavors are inside- the salty barley with pickled egg, or beans and pork, or the gelatin pudding. Ag Goong folded ti leaves into a cup and packed it with food. One of the literate men slipped in a piece of paper with the strike plan, and Ah Goong tied the bundle with a special pattern of red string. The time and place for the revolution against Kublai Khan had been hidden inside autumn mooncakes. Ah Goong looked from one face to another in admiration. Of course, of course. No China Men, no railroad. The were indispensable labor. Throughout these mountains were brothers and uncles with a comon idea, free men, not coolies, calling for fair working conditions. The demons were not suspicious  as the China Men went gandying up and down the tracks delivering the bundles tied together like lines of fish. They had exchanged gifts every year.

And then the book goes on to show how important it is to know how to feed yourself and how fun and diverse a bit of leisure can be. But..

All the while the English-speaking China Men, who were being advised by the shrewdest bargainers, were at the demons’ headquarters repeating the demand; "Eight hours a day, good for white man, all the same good for China Man." They had probably negotiated the demons down to nine-hour shifts by now.

The sounds of hammering continued along the tracks and occasionally there were blasts from the tunnels. The scabby white demons had refused to join the strike. "Eight hours a day good for white man, all the same good for China Man," the China Men explained to them, "Cheap John Chinaman," said the demons, many of whom had red hair. The China Men scowled out of the corners of their eyes.

So who’s driving down whose labor standards, ‘working conditions’ in this picture? I have to find the discussion about Chinese workers and immigrants being blamed for lower wages and poorer working conditions…..

Part of the reason I tracked down Shoeki Ando, ‘the William Godwin of Japan’ was conversations with the one fellow Znetter I’d ever met. He just thought Japan was too inherently authoritarian for hope, he had to move on to Thailand where the most common work was more laid back than Japan’s ‘Ganbaru‘ make and effort and ‘OtsukareSama‘ you must be tired. Ah Goong’s musings impress upon you that for every ‘Asian despot’ there are millions of people in subterranian niches dancing and playing with the Jazz Daimyo.

The class pride Ah Goong starts to feel while realizing he and his ‘brothers and uncles’ ‘were indispensable labor’ develops. The description brings to mind George Orwell‘s of the short, tough bodied ‘Adonis’ miners in England.

On the second day, artist demons climbed the moutains to draw the China Men for the newspapers. The men posed bare-chested, their fists clenched, showing off their arms and backs. The artists sketched them as perfect young gods reclining against rocks, wise expressions on their handsome noble-nosed faces, long torsos with lean stomachs, a strong arm extended over a bent knee, long fingers holding a pipe,  rope of hair over a wide shoulder. Other artists drew faeries with antennae for eyebrows adn brownies with elvish pigtails; they danced in white socks and black slippers among mushroom rings by moonlight.

Ah Goong acquired another idea that added to his reputation for craziness; The pale, thin Chinese scholars adn the rich men fat like Buddha were less beautiful, less manly than these brown muscular railroad men, of whom he was one. One of ten thousand heroes.

The next paragraph infuriates as he seems to be conned out of a bag of gold for ‘ a parchment sealed wit gold and ribbon,’ ‘an honor’, that made him ‘a U.S. citizen’, that would allow him to ‘vote,’ ‘talk in court,’ ‘buy land,’ avoid ‘the chinaman tax’ and maybe, just maybe if he ‘hid the paper on his person… it would protect him from arrest and lynching.’

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