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Silk

Chapter Seven—A Night in San Francisco

Among the Japan-born Wakamatsu colonists, Makoto and Kuni were the strongest English speakers. As a result, when the colony’s founder, John Henry Schnell, announced that he would be taking a trip to San Francisco to meet with some Japanese envoys, as well as do research into future agricultural exhibitions, he asked these two men to accompany him.

Makoto was elated. He had a visible scar in the middle of his face, a remnant from a failed battle to save their beloved castle in Japan, but one of his roommates, Kintaro, suffered from more psychic wounds. Kintaro had tried to commit suicide more than once in their manmade lake and Makoto was exhausted from keeping a constant eye on him. He felt guilty leaving his fellow colonist alone for a few days, but they had been strangers before they made the voyage to California from Japan several months ago. He asked Shinshi-san, a middle-aged woman, to watch over Kintaro while he was gone.

“I’ll try my best,” she told him, while tending to a dying mulberry tree. Shinshi-san was the last person to even attempt to sustain their silkworm operation. A great number of the colonists had left for who knows where.

The three men took a wagon to Sacramento and from there, a train car to San Francisco. This was Makoto’s first trip not as a common laborer, but as an official representative. He wore a jacket and a button-down shirt. Kuni wore the same and groomed his mustache more carefully than usual.

Arriving in San Francisco took Makoto’s breath away. Again, he had been there before—when he debarked there from the SS China and also attended an agricultural exhibition in the city. But he never had an opportunity to truly take it in. It was overwhelming for him to see the hakujin men and women with their grand outfits and hats, the majestic buildings, and horse-drawn street cars.

They were staying at the Lick House, a fine three-story establishment on the corner of Montgomery and Sutter streets. Schnell couldn’t afford a room for each of them, so he slept in the bed while Kuni took a spot on the floor and Makoto, being younger, was relegated to the bath tub. He didn’t mind. The accommodations were much finer than his shack that he shared with Kintaro and he rested better because he wasn’t subjected to Kintaro’s middle-of-the-night ravings.

The next evening Schnell was to have dinner with a Japanese official and his son, who had come to America to study on the East Coast. Before the formal dinner, all five of them met for drinks in the grand lobby. Both Makoto and Kuni were nervous. Kuni tried to cover up his dirty fingernails with the edge of the tablecloth. Makoto kept quiet during most of the conversation but listened carefully to everything.

The envoy was talking about the approximately 150 Japanese who had been sent as migrant workers to Hawaii in 1868. They were gannenmono, the first ones to do so after the Tokugawa Shogunate had surrendered to Emperor Meiji in Edo. These men had crossed the Pacific before the Wakamatsu colonists did and both Makoto and Kuni were spellbound to hear of their exploits. Apparently, the transition had not gone smoothly and the Japanese found themselves mistreated on the sugar plantations. Forty of them wanted to return back to Japan. The envoy was here from Japan to negotiate those details.

A hotel employee then informed Schnell that their table in the dining room had opened up.

“I guess you two can now go have some fun,” Schnell said, pressing some coins into their palms.

Kuni’s face immediately brightened and Makoto knew that his fellow traveler, a gambler, would be heading for some poker tables. They separated in front of the Lick House. Makoto was more interested in exploring the hills of San Francisco.

Around the corner from the hotel was the Mechanic’s Institute, a grand three-story building on 130 Post Street. Makoto sought it out because he knew the fall agricultural fair was slated to be there. Schnell had told him that the Mechanic’s Institute had been constructed to help prospectors to be retrained in other trades after the gold rush.

Lights flickered on the bottom floor of the Mechanic’s Institute. It looked like a large gathering was being held there. As Makoto stepped in the main hall, many men were standing in the doorway. The hall, which looked like it could hold at least 500 people, was standing room only.

Some were holding pamphlets that read “Anti-Coolie Association.”

“Coolie. What is a coolie?” he asked a man smoking a pipe.

The man took the pipe out of his mouth and glared at Makoto, as if he had said something insulting.

Others took a few steps back from Makoto. He didn’t understand the cold reception.

On stage he saw a giant poster of an Asian man drawn as a locust applying for a job from Uncle Sam and then flying away with bags of gold and corn, leaving a skeleton of the symbol of America. This locust donned a long braid, the valued hair style of Chinese male immigrants. Was this why the attendees were being so cold to him? Did they think he was Chinese, too? Makoto knew that he wasn’t welcome, and before the program started, he left the building.

When Makoto was making his way back to the hotel, he felt something hit his back and roll to the ground. He looked down. It was a rotting lettuce head. He then turned around to check his clothing under the light emanating from a saloon. A red brown stain now marred his jacket.

“No-good Chinaman.” The thin voice of a young man called out from a tight knot of teenage hoodlums.

Makoto grabbed a broomstick that had been left outside the saloon and then held it handle out. Although he was a peasant, he had taken kendo and during the Boshin War, all of them had learned to fight.

“We’ll sweep you up, Chinaman,” the same boy threatened.

“Look at him, his queue has already been chopped off.”

The moonlight reflected on Makoto’s scar and one of them stepped back.

“Maybe we should go.”

“You scare?” Makoto asked.

The original speaker raised his fists towards his nose, taking the traditional boxing stance.

Makoto almost laughed. The teenager’s stomach was completely vulnerable. Makoto rammed the handle into the boy’s abdomen and as his victim doubled over, he struck his back, causing him to fall down onto the ground.

The two other teens crowded around Makoto, who whirled the broom in front of him. None of them seemed to want to challenge him and ran into the street.

Makoto had heard of the anti-Chinese sentiments in California, but did not realize that it was so virulent. Here in America, it didn’t matter if you were from China or Japan. The hakujin seemed to think that they were all the same.

When Makoto returned to the hotel room, Kuni was already lying on the floor, his head on a pillow. He looked completely dejected. Makoto figured that he probably had already lost his money at the blackjack table. That certainly had not taken long.

Kuni noticed the stain on Makoto’s jacket. “What happened to you?” he said.

“Nothing,” Makoto said. “I don’t think the big city is for me.”

That night he dreamt of eucalyptus trees and tea plants shimmering in the sun of Gold Hill. When he woke up, he was surprised that he looked forward to going back home.

Chapter Eight >>


*Author's note: This fictional installment was inspired by an article in the
San Franciso Chronicle, Wednesday, January 12, 1870, “The Coolie Canker.”

 

© 2020 Naomi Hirahara

california fiction issei naomi hirahara Wakamatsu Colony

Sobre esta série

Not much is known about the women of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, including Jou Schnell, the Japanese wife of the colony’s founder John Henry Schnell. Silk is a fictional account which imagines what life may have been for these women and men in 1869–1871.

Author’s Note: The nonfiction sources used for this fictional creation included Daniel A. Métraux’s The Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm and the Creation of Japanese America, Discover Nikkei articles, and Gary Noy’s Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots, and Rogues.

Read Chapter One >>