An Unsung Hero Championed Delta Chinese Right to Attend White School

A previous post on this blog described the legal proceedings in the1920s case in which two daughters of a Mississippi Delta Chinese grocer, Jue Gong and his wife, Katherine, were removed from attending a white school in Rosedale in 1924 because Chinese were not considered caucasian. The school board was sued with a writ of mandamus to reinstate the two daughters in school on grounds of the 14th Amendment calling for equal protection. The school board reversed its decision but it was promptly overruled by the Mississippi Supreme Court.  The parents obtained legal assistance and appealed the decision all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court in 1927, but to no avail, as it upheld the lower court.

Most accounts of this case of school segregation of Chinese in Mississippi have dealt only with the legal issues and proceedings, but a new book, Water Tossing Boulders, by journalist Adrienne Berard provides a richly detailed description of the social and cultural context of the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s. This well-researched study brings the people and the community to life as Berard researched the background to set the stage and analyze the complex interplay between racial discrimination against blacks, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the forced labor of black convicts to build levees, the floods that destroyed the cotton crop that was a mainstay of the Delta economy, how Chinese came to settle in the Delta as early as the 1870s, the intermediary status of Chinese grocery families placing them between blacks and whites, and the mass exodus of blacks from the Delta to the north to escape racism and find employment. Her book, which reads like a novel at times, makes you feel as if you were right there observing events as they unfolded from 1924-1927.

Given the economic disaster in the Delta, everyone suffered.  Chinese grocers, dependent on black cotton plantation workers, lost customers in the downturn who could not afford to pay for food. One wonders, then, how Jeu Gong and Katherine were able to pay a lawyer to file a lawsuit.  In fact, they  could not afford to pay, but they found an unsung hero, Earl Brewer, who rose from a hard scrabble life to become the governor of Mississippi before being soundly defeated later in a bid to become a Senator. Brewer was a progressive who believed the Chinese were unfairly treated and decided to represent them pro bono.  
Although the appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court in 1927 failed, probably because Brewer turned the case over to an inexperienced attorney, Berard's book provides us with a better understanding of the many interacting factors affecting race relations in the Delta. Without Brewer's advocacy on the behalf of the Gong Lum family, the case would probably never have been filed.


How To Rid Your Town of Chinamen: Tacoma and Truckee Methods

      Chinese immigrants arrived in Tacoma, Washington in the 1870s.  Many had worked on the Transcontinental Railroad and when it was completed in 1869, they were unemployed but moved to the Pacific Northwest to help build the North Pacific Railroad.  Others worked on farms, in fishing, and in saw mills. From their arrival, migrants faced discrimination in a land that was considered by many at the time to be "white only." Anti-Chinese sentiment further increased during the economic depression of the decade of the 1870s.

In Tacoma, anti-Chinese whites adopted an extreme way in 1885 to deal with Chinese.  They simply expelled them from the city overnight.  Chinese were ordered to leave the city of Tacoma by November 1, 1885 or face being removed by force. About 400 Chinese complied and left their homes and their livelihood out of fear and intimidation.

On November 3, 1885 several hundred men, led by Mayor Weisbach and other city officials forced the remaining 200 Chinese onto a train bound for Portland. They then burned the Chinese settlements to the ground. Chinese buildings, houses and communities were destroyed in the following days.

This "solution" to the Chinese presence became known as the "Tacoma Method" and was employed in other western communities such as Eureka, California, to forcibly remove their Chinese populations.

The "Truckee Method"

         When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, about 1,400 now out-of-work Chinese laborers went to Truckee to seek new jobs building railroads through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Within a period of a few months, one third of Truckee's population was Chinese which led  to some white men forming a vigilante committee called the Caucasian League.  In June, 1876, a small group of white men attacked several Chinese woodcutters outside of town. They set fire to the woodcutters' cabins, and when the Chinese ran out the attackers shot and wounded several of them. One of the Chinese men died the next day. Seven men were arrested and stood trial, but in spite of direct testimony by two of the defendants against the other five all were acquitted after the jury deliberated for just nine minutes.

A Second Truckee Chinatown Across the River
    Little more than a year after moving fire once again raged through the new Chinatown, destroying half of the newly built homes and stores. There is no record of any loss of life due to the fire, but again the Chinese were forced to rebuild their community.
    Frustrated by the resilience and perseverance of the Chinese, in 1885 Charles McGlashan formed the Truckee Anti-Chinese Boycotting Committee which adopted the following resolution: "We recognize the Chinese as an unmitigated curse to the Pacific Coast and a direct threat to the bread and butter of the working class."
    They further resolved that all merchants in town should boycott any Chinese who comes to them either for employment or for goods, in hopes of literally starving the Chinese out of Truckee.  
      Over the first two months of 1886, McGlashan and other town leaders succeeded in getting every business in town to refuse to sell anything to the Chinese. As food and other supplies dwindled in their community, many Chinese had no other recourse than to leave town.         By the end of February the "Truckee Method" of forcing the Chinese away was declared a success by its leaders.  However, records indicate that although the boycott leaders claimed to have rid the town of Chinese, a small group remained.





Ching Ching Chinaman And Ching Chong Chinaman

Ching Chong Chinaman 

  "Ching Chong Chinaman" is a well-known offensive slur often used to taunt Chinese, and sometimes other Asians, for many decades in countries with many Chinese immigrants and their descendants. The slur occurs in countless limericks, some directed for children but others were of a bawdy nature.  Several examples are:

Ching Chong, Chinaman,
Sitting on a wall.
Along came a white man,
And chopped his tail off

Ching Chong Chinaman sitting on the grass,
Along came a bumblebee and stung him on his..
Ask no questions, tell no lies,
I saw a policeman doing up his...
flies are a nuisance, bugs are even worse,
And this is the end of my silly little verse.

Ching chong chinaman went to milk a cow.
Ching chong chinaman didn't know how.
Ching chong chinaman pulled the wrong tit.
Ching chong china man got covered in shit.

Chin chin chinaman bought a little shop
And all he sold was peppermint rock
He wee'd in a bottle and called it pop
Chin chin chinaman bought a little shop

Ching-chong Chinaman, he's got a curlicue,
And he'll get my job some day,
'Cause he works like the devil owned his soul
And settles for half the pay.

In 1917, Victor Records issued  a record "CHING CHONG" by Lee S. Roberts and J. Will Callahan " for dancing the one-step.

The lyrics of song can be heard on You Tube performed by Char-Lee Chann, but I don't think the 1917 recording had lyrics performed.

                    (Verse 1)
   'Way out in old "San-Fran" there is a Chi-na-man,
     who's known for miles a-round;
   Won-der-ful place he keeps, down where he eats and sleeps,
     way un-der-neath the ground!
   Each night the fes-tive chinks, come there to wink and blink,
     and dream a-way the hours.
   They sing this fun-ny song while they are borne a-long
     on beds of pop-py flow'rs,

   "Ching Chong, Oh Mis-ter Ching Chong,
     you're the king of Chi-na-town,
   Ching Chong, I love your sing-song
     when you have turned the lights all down;
   Ching Chong, just let me swing 'long
     thru the realms of drow-sy land;
   dream-ing while stars are beam-ing,
     Oh! Mis-ter Ching Chong, sing-song man."

 (Piano Interlude)

 (Verse 2)
   When you're in "Fris-co town" don't fail to drop a-round
     and see this Ching Chong man.
   Wonderful things you'll learn down where the torch-es burn,
     he'll show you all he can.
   Then, when the time is ripe he'll fill your lit-tle pipe
     and then a light he'll bring.
   Gent-ly you'll float a-way far out on slum-ber bay ,
    and soft-ly you will sing:



Ching CHING Chinaman (a noble Chinaman)

    Ching Chong Chinaman can easily be confused with the very similar "Ching Ching Chinaman,"  which was the title of a short story written in1917 by a leading short story writer of the early 20th century, Wilbur Daniel Steele.  Even though Yet Sin, his Chinese laundryman character is depicted in stereotypical ways, it is one of the first somewhat sympathetic depiction of a Chinese, as he is a hero of sorts in exposing a blackmailer before   returning to China at the end of the story.

    The short story was made into a silent film in 1923, Shadows, which was promoted as "The Greatest Story Ever Told in Motion Pictures."  Lon Chaney, the great silent film era actor (The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), played the role of the Chinese laundryman.  

     Chaney's "yellowface" performance was highly acclaimed by two critics in the early 1920s.

Now and then a picture is produced that stands out above the others, just as the Woolworth building stands out above all the buildings that surround it. It is such pictures as these that prove beyond any doubt that picture-making is an art. Such a one is "Shadows" - a picture that stands out above all others. With a worth-while theme as it foundation, masterfully directed and artistically acted, with its setting and general atmosphere realistic, the story creates in the mind an impression that lasts many days and weeks after one has seen the picture. Through tragedy, the sad fate of the principal characters does not leave an unpleasant feeling. On the contrary, their fate so arouses the compassion of the spectator that he feels regret for not being able to help relieve their sufferings. The acting of Mr. Chaney, who assumes the role of a Chinaman, is remarkable. Better acting he has never done in his life. 

Wilbur Daniel Steele's prize story, "Ching, Ching, Chinaman," makes a picture which is certain to be accepted as one of the better things under its new title of "Shadows" - principally because of Lon Chaney's eloquent pantomime as a Chink, and the spiritual value of the theme. The locale? A fishing village. The central figures? A young clergyman and his bride, whose first husband made her a widow when he was lost in the angry sea. The motif? The Chinaman's devotion in returning a kind deed. He watches and waits to unmask the villainy of the disappointed suitor - the pillar of the church who has compelled the youthful domine to pay hush money under the threat that he will be exposed as a bigamist. The Chink accepts Christianity when he sees the lesson of faith and humility. Some compelling scenes. But mostly a character study for Chaney who demonstrates his uncanny talent for characterization. Worth seeing. Don't be ashamed of your tears.

          Ching Ching Ching Chinaman, a racist song composed in 1923  by Eve Unsell with music by Lous F. Gottschalk promoted the Lon Chaney movie, although it was not included in the movie.