Humanity is doomed

One chilling effect of research into the more-or-less near past is a reminder that the Bad Old Days aren’t far behind us. We like to think of our society as progressive (well, I do anyway) and, while not perfect, well removed from the vagaries of yesteryear.

Then you read stuff like this.

Little more than a hundred years ago, SF’s Chinatown harbored thousands of Chinese prostitutes, imported from the East on large ships and solid into sexual servitude. Fourteen was considered the optimal age for a prostitute, but they ranged from eight to seventeen.  And they were considered nothing more than merchandise at the local market.  Here’s a typical bill of sale received by the Salvation Army in 1898, as recounted in Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld (1933):

Loo Wong to Loo Chee
April 16 - Rice, six mats, at $2 ........ $12
April 18 - Shrimps, 50 lbs.,at 10c ...... $5
April 20 - Girl ......................... $250
April 21 - Salt fish, 60 lbs.,10 10c .....$6

Due to the high volume of sexual partners, all of the women were diseased by their twenties. When they became too wretched to charge for services, they were shipped off to a “hospital” — essentially left in a dark room until they died. Here’s an account of a visit to one such “hospital” from the San Francisco Chronicle on December 5, 1869:

“The place is loathsome in the extreme… There is not the first suggestion of furniture in the room, no table, no chairs or stools, nor any window…. When any of the unfortunate harlots is no longer useful and a Chinese physician passes his opinion that her disease is incurable, she is notified that she must die…. Led by night to this hole of a ‘hospital,’ she is forced within the door and made to lie down upon the shelf…. When the limit is reached they return to the hospital, unbar the door and enter…. Generally the woman is dead, either by starvation or her own hand; but sometimes life is not extinct… yet this makes little difference to [the ‘doctors’]. They come for a corpse, and they never go away without it.”

Grim stuff. And not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, in the heart of one of America’s greatest cities. Sometimes we need a reminder that nothing in fiction is as horrifying as reality.


One star on Trip Advisor

In researching late-1800s Barbary Coast, I frequently run across amusing descriptions of the evils of said place and time.  It would seem observers  indulged in a game of hyperbolic one-upmanship when describing the vagaries of early San Francisco.  Here are a few top contenders.

First, let’s hear from infamous Madam Sally Stanford (no relation to University founder Leland Stanford, one assumes):

They were a wonderful set of burglars, the people who were running San Francisco when I first came to town in 1923, wonderful because, if they were stealing, they were doing it with class and style.

Even Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had plenty to say when he came to town:

It is hardly fair to blame America for the state of San Francisco, for its population is cosmopolitan and its seaport attracts the floating vice of the Pacific; but be the cause what it may, there is much room for spiritual betterment.

These are but amateur sentiments, however,  when compared to the musings of Col. Albert S. Evans, from A la California. Sketch of Life in the Golden State (1871):

Speak of the deeper depth, the lower hell, the maelstrom of vice and iniquity-from whence those who once fairly enter escape no more forever-and they will point triumphantly to the Barbary Coast, strewn from end to end with the wrecks of humanity, and challenge you to match it anywhere outside of the lake of fire and brimstone.

Strong stuff!  Not to be outdone, however, is Gangs of New York author Mr. Herbert Asbury, quoted in Lights and Shades of San Francisco (1876):

The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also.

All bow down to the master of the purple passage. Well done, sir.

Hardly the stuff of travel pamphlets. But it paints a helluva setting for a tale of conflict, does it not?

Readings are fundamental

For those in the Bay Area, tomorrow night promises to be a fun evening for a good cause presented by SF in SF.  Authors, VP instructors and all-around good people Steven Gould and Laura J. Mixon will be reading and participating in a Q&A at  The Variety Preview Room Theatre (582 Market @ 2nd in SF). Books will be provided by the legendary Borderlands Books.  Catch the details here, and catch the show to benefit Variety Children’s Charity of Northern California.

I’ll be there if I can manage to get my sluggish self into the City in time.