Edith Maude Eaton, known alternatively by her pen-name Sui Sin Far or Sui Seen Far, was an author, journalist, and activist in the late nineteenth century. Born in England in 1865, Eaton was one of two daughters to English silk merchant Edward Eaton and his wife, Grace “Lotus Blossom” Trefusis. Edward met his wife, Grace, a Chinese woman adopted by American missionaries, while conducting business in China (White-Parks 10). In 1873, the Eaton family relocated to Canada for her father’s work. As a young woman, Edith Eaton began her literary career in Montreal, but eventually left Canada to pursue her writing career in the United States. She lived in Seattle and Boston, self-identifying as Chinese-Anglo “Sui Sin Far” while writing short sketches of the Chinese experience in North America for a number of nineteenth-century magazines, including the Overland Monthly, the Land of Sunshine, and Out West (White-Parks 9). Her pen name, Sui Sin Far, translates to “Narcissus Flower” in Cantonese, which is a favored flower in China.
Eaton achieved a substantial readership during her lifetime. She faced discrimination in the late-nineteenth-century publishing industry as a mixed-race woman writing about the minority experience, but she successfully published more than a dozen short stories and articles between 1890 and 1915. In 1909, for example, she published Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of anEurasian, which is a short autobiographical essay detailing her childhood and life experiences with racism. She also wrote a number of stories for children, such as “Pat and Pan” and “A Chinese Boy-Girl,” which explore the childhood experience of being brought up in “two worlds:” Chinese and American cultures.
Edith Eaton compiled her life’s work in her one and only short story collection, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, which was reviewed by the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Independent, and the Montreal Weekly, among others (White-Parks 200-2). Published in June 1912, Mrs. Spring Fragrance is a motley collection of comic, tragic, and satirical stories illustrating the tensions of Chinese Americans in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Her book is divided into two sections: “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” and “Tales of Chinese Children.” The first section focuses on adult fictions, named after the protagonist of the namesake tale, Mrs. Spring Fragrance. The second section focuses on a mix of stories about children and stories for children. The title story, “Mrs. Spring Fragrance,” depicts the misadventures of first-generation Chinese American, Jade Spring Fragrance, who plays matchmaker to her second-generation Chinese American friends, Laura Chin Yuen (or Mai Gwi Far) and Kai Tzu. Laura’s more conservative first generation Chinese American parents have already arranged Laura’s marriage to the Chinese government schoolmaster’s son, Man You, and they are displeased with Kai Tzu’s American upbringing. Jade, unhappy with this tragic situation, travels to San Francisco (under the guise she is visiting her cousin) and unites the lovers.
The organization of Eaton’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance (from adult fiction to children’s fiction), as well as the short story names (“The Dreams that Failed, “The Wisdom of the New,” and “The Americanizing of Pau Tsu”) reflects the collection’s major themes: the assimilation experiences of first and second-generation Chinese Americans. At the time, the United States Congress maintained the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration to the United States. Eaton’s American audience, due to these contemporaneous racial attitudes, were primarily interested in the exotic and Orientalist spectacle (White-Parks 7). Considering Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s diverse characters and portrayal of class relations, Eaton intends to revise for her readers the early twentieth-century stereotypes of Asians in culture that portray Asians peoples as a sinister yellow peril threatening American ways of life. In her sketch, “The Chinese in America,” Eaton claims that, “[F]iction writers seem to be so imbued with [these] ideas that you scarcely ever read about a Chinese person who is not a wooden peg” (234).
Eaton never married and died April 7, 1914. She is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Montreal. The local Chinese community, in recognition of her activism and stories of the Chinese community, crafted a special headstone inscribed with the characters “Yi bu wang hua” (“The righteous one does not forget China”).
Tchen, John Kuo Wei, and Dylan Yeats, eds. Yellow peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. Verso, 2014.
White Parks, Annette. Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
LEAVES FROM THE MENTAL PORTFOLIO OF AN EURASIAN
When I look back over the years I see myself, a little child of scarcely four years of age, walking in front of my nurse, in a green English lane, and listening to her tell another of her kind that my mother is Chinese. “Oh Lord!” exclaims the informed. She turns around and scans me curiously from head to foot. Then the two women whisper together. Tho the word “Chinese” conveys very little meaning to my mind, I feel that they are talking about my father and mother and my heart swells with indignation. When we reach home I rush to my mother and try to tell her what I have heard. I am a young child. I fail to make myself intelligible. My mother does not understand, and when the nurse declares to her, “Little Miss Sui is a story-teller,” my mother slaps me.
Many a long year has past over my head since that day—the day on which I first learned I was something different and apart from other children, but tho my mother has forgotten it, I have not.
I see myself again, a few years older. I am playing with another child in a garden. A girl passes by outside the gate. “Mamie,” she cries to my companion. “I wouldn’t speak to Sui if I were you. Her mamma is Chinese.”
“I don’t care,” answers the little one beside me. And then to me, “Even if your mamma is Chinese, I like you better than I like Annie.”
“But I don’t like you,” I answer, turning my back on her. It is my first conscious lie.
I am at a children’s party, given by the wife of an Indian officer whose children were schoolfellows of mine. I am only six years of age, but have attended a private school for over a year, and have already learned that China is a heathen country, being civilized by England. However, for the time being, I am a merry romping child. There are quite a number of grown people present. One, a white haired old man, has his attention called to me by the hostess. He adjusts his eyeglasses and surveys me critically. “Ah, indeed!” he exclaims. “Who would have thought it at first glance? Yet now I see the difference between her and other children. What a peculiar coloring! Her mother’s eyes and hair and her father’s features, I presume. Very interesting little creature!”
I had been called from play for the purpose of inspection. I do not return to it. For the rest of the evening I hide myself behind a hall door and refuse to show myself until it is time to go home.
My parents have come to America. We are in Hudson City, N.Y., and we are very poor. I am out with my brother, who is ten months older than myself. We pass a Chinese store, the door of which is open. “Look!” says Charlie. “Those men in there are Chinese!” Eagerly I gaze into the long low room. With the exception of my mother, who is English bred with English ways and manner of dress, I have never seen a Chinese person. The two men within the store are uncouth specimens of their race, drest in working blouses and pantaloons with queues hanging down their backs. I recoil with a sense of shock.
“Oh, Charlie,” I cry. “Are we like that?”
“Well, we’re Chinese, and they’re Chinese, too, so we must be!” returns my seven year old brother.
“Of course you are,” puts in a boy who has followed us down the street, and who lives near us and has seen my mother: “Chinky, Chinky, Chinaman, yellow-face, pig-tail, rat-eater.” A number of other boys and several little girls join in with him.
“Better than you,” shouts my brother, facing the crowd. He is younger and smaller than any there, and I am even more insignificant than he; but my spirit revives.
“I’d rather be Chinese than anything else in the world,” I scream.
They pull my hair, they tear my clothes, they scratch my face, and all but lame my brother; but the white blood in our veins fights valiantly for the Chinese half of us. When it is all over, exhausted and bedraggled, we crawl home, and report to our mother that we have “won the battle”.
“Are you sure?” asks my mother doubtfully.
“Of course. They ran from us. They were frightened,” returns my brother.
My mother smiles with satisfaction.
“Do you hear?” she asks my father.
“Umm,” he observes, raisin his eyes from his paper for an instant. My childish instinct, however, tells me that he is more interested than he appears to be.
It is tea time, but I cannot eat. Unobserved, I crawl away. I do not sleep that night. I am too excited and I ache all over. Our opponents has been so very much stronger and bigger than we. Toward morning, however, I fall into a doze from which I awake myself, shouting:
“Sound the battle cry;
See the foe is nigh.”
My mother believes in sending us to Sunday school. She has been brought up in a Presbyterian college.
The scene of my life shifts to Eastern Canada. The sleigh which has carried us from the station stops in front of a little French Canadian hotel. Immediately we are surrounded by a number of villagers, who stare curiously at my mother as my father assists her to alight from the sleigh. Their curiosity, however, is tempered with kindess, as they watch, one after another, the little black heads of my brothers and sisters and myself emerge out of the buffalo robe, which is part of the sleigh’s outfit. There are six of us; four girls and two boys; the eldest, my brother, being only seven years of age. My father and mother are still in their twenties. “Les pauvres enfants,” the inhabitants murmur, as they help to carry us into the hotel. Then in lower tones: “Chinoise, Chinoise.”
For some time after our arrival, whenever children are sent for a walk, our footsteps are dogged by a number of young French and English Canadians, who amuse themselves with speculations as to whether, we being Chinese, are susceptible to pinches and hair pulling, while older persons pause and gaze upon us, very much in the same way that I have seen people gaze upon strange animals in a menagerie. Now and then we are stopt and plied with questions as to what we eat and drink, how we go to sleep, if my mother understands what my father says to her, if we sit on chairs or squat on floors, etc., etc., etc.
There are many pitched battles, of course, and we seldom leave the house without being armed for conflict My mother takes a great interest in our battles, and usually cheers us on, tho I doubt whether she understands the depth of the troubled waters thru which her little children wade. As to my father, peace is his motto, and he deems it wisest to be blind and deaf to many things.
School days are short, but memorable. I am in the same class with my brother, my sister next to me in the class below. The little girl whose desk my sister shares shrinks close to the wall as my sister takes her place. In a little while she raises her hand.
“May I change my seat?”
“No, you may not!”
The little girl sobs. “Why should I have to sit beside a————“
Happily, my sister does not seem to hear, and before long the two little girls become great friends. I have many such experiences.
My brother is remarkably bright; my sister next to me has a wonderful head for figures, and when only eight years of age helps my father with his night work accounts. My parents compare her with me. She is of sturdier build than I, and, as my father says, “Always has her wits about her.” He thinks her more like my mother, who is very bright and interested in every little detail of practical life. My father tells me that I will never make half the woman that my mother is or that my sister will be. I am not as strong as my sisters, which makes me feel somewhat ashamed, for I am the eldest little girl, and more is expected of me. I have no organic disease, but the strength of my feelings seems to take from me the strength of my body. I am prostrated at times with attacks of nervous sickness. The doctor says that my heart is unusually large; but in the light of the present I know that the cross of the Eurasian bore too heavily upon my childish shoulders. I usually hide my weakness from the family until I cannot stand. I do not understand myself, and I have an idea that the others will despise me for not being as strong as they. Therefore, I like to wander away alone, either by the river or in the bush. The green fields and flowing water have a charm for me. At the age of seven, as it is today, a bird on the wing is my emblem of happiness.
I have come from a race on my mother’s side which is said to be the most stolid and insensible to feeling of all races, yet I look back over the years and see myself so keenly alive to every shade of sorrow and suffering that it is almost a pain to live.
If there is any trouble in the house in the way of a difference between my father and mother, or if any child is punished, how I suffer! And when harmony is restored, heaven seems to be around me. I can be sad, but I can also be glad. My mother’s screams of agony when a baby is born almost drive me wild, and long after her pangs have subsided I feel them in my own body. Sometimes it is a week before I can get to sleep after such an experience.
A debt owing by my father fills me with shame. I feel like a criminal when I pass by the creditor’s door. I am only ten years old. And all the while the question of nationality perplexes my little brain. Why are we what we are? I and my brothers and sisters. Why did God make us to be hooted and stared at? Papa is English, mamma is Chinese. Why couldn’t we have been either one thing or the other? Why is my mother’s race despised? I look into the faces of my father and mother. Is she not every bit as dear and good as he? Why? Why? She sings us the song she learned at her English school. She tells us tales of China. Tho a child when she left her native land she remembers it well, and I am never tired of listening to the story of how she was stolen from her home. She tells us over and over again of her meeting with my father in Shanghai and the romance of their marriage. Why? Why?
I do not confide in my father and mother. They would not understand. How could they? He is English, she is Chinese. I am different to both of them—a stranger, tho their own child. “What are we?” I ask my brother. “It doesn’t matter, sissy,” he responds. But it does. I love poetry, particularly heroic pieces. I also love fairy tales. Stories of everyday life do not appeal to me. I dream dreams of being great and noble; my sisters and brothers also. I glory in the idea of dying at the stake and a great genie arising from the flames and declaring to those who have scorned us: “Behold, how great and glorious and noble are the Chinese people!”
My sisters are apprenticed to a dressmaker; my brother is entered in an office. I tramp around and sell my father’s pictures, also some lace which I make myself. My nationality, if I had only know it at that time, helps to make sales. The ladies who are my customers call me “The Little Chinese Lace Girl.” But it is a dangerous life for a very young girl. I come near to “mysteriously disappearing” many a time. The greatest temptation was in the thought of getting far away from where I was known, to where no mocking cries of “Chinese!” “Chinese!” could reach.
Whenever I have the opportunity I steal away to the library and read every book I can find on China and the Chinese. I learn that China is the oldest civilized nation on the face of the earth and a few other things, At eighteen years of age what troubles me is not that I am what I am, but that others are ignorant of my superiority. I am small, but my feelings are big—and great is my vanity.
My sisters attend dancing classes, for which they pay their own frees. In spite of covert smiles and sneers, they are glad to meet and mingle with other young folk. They are not sensitive in the sense that I am. And yet they understand. One of them tells me that she overheard a young man say to another that he would rather marry a pig than a girl with Chinese blood in her veins.
In course of time I too learn shorthand and take a position in an office. The local papers patronize me and give me a number of assignments, including most of the local Chinese reporting. I meet many Chinese persons, and when they get into trouble am often called upon to fight their battles in the papers. This I enjoy. My heart leaps for joy when I read one day an article by a New York Chinese in which he declares, “The Chinese in America owe an everlasting debt of gratitude to Sui Sin Far for the bold stand she has taken in their defense.”
The Chinaman who wrote the article seeks me out and calls upon me. He is a clever and witty man, a graduate of one of the American colleges and as well a Chinese scholar. I learn that he has an American wife and several children. I am very much interested in these children, and when I meet them my heart throbs in sympathetic tune with the tales they relate of their experiences as Eurasians. “Why did paper and mamma born us?” asks one. Why?
I also meet other Chinese men who compare favorably with the white men of my acquaintance in mind and heart qualities. Some of them are quite handsome. They have not as finely cut noses and as well developed chins as the white men, but they have smoother skins and their expression is more serene; their hands are better shaped and their voices softer.
Some little Chinese women whom I interview are very anxious to know whether I would marry a Chinaman. I do not answer No. They clap their hands delightedly, and assure me that the Chinese are much the finest and best of all men. They are, however, a little doubtful as to whether one could be persuaded to care for me, full-blooded Chinese people having a prejudice against the half white.
Fundamentally, I muse, people are all the same. My mother’s race is as prejudiced as my father’s. Only when the whole world becomes as one family with human beings be able to see clearly and hear distinctly. I believe that some day a great part of the world will be Eurasian. I cheer myself with the thought that I am but a pioneer. A pioneer should glory in suffering.
“You were walking with a Chinaman yesterday,” accuses an acquaintance.
“Yes, what of it?”
“You ought not to. It isn’t right.”
“Not right to walk with one of my mother’s people? Oh, indeed!”
I cannot reconcile his notion of righteousness with my own.
I am living in a little town away off on the north shore of a big lake. Next to me at the dinner table is the man for whom I work as a stenographer. There are also a couple of business men, a young girl and her mother.
Some one makes a remark about the cars full of Chinamen that past that morning. A transcontinental railway runs thru the town.
My employer shakes his rugged head. “Somehow or other,” says he, “I cannot reconcile myself to the thought hat the Chinese are humans like ourselves. They may have immortal souls, but their faces seem to be so utterly devoid of expression that I cannot help but doubt.”
“Souls,” echoes the town clerk. “Their bodies are enough for me. A Chinaman is, in my eyes, more repulsive than a nigger.”
“They always give me such a creepy feeling,” puts in the young girl with a laugh.
“I wouldn’t have one in my house,” declares my landlady.
“Now, the Japanese are different altogether. There is something bright and likeable about those men,” continues Mr. K.
A miserable, cowardly feeling keeps me silent. I am in a Middle West town. If I declare what I am, every person in the place will hear about it the next day. The population is in the main made up of working folks with strong prejudices against my mother’s countrymen. The prospect before me is not an enviable one—if I speak. I have no longer an ambition to die at the stake for the sake of demonstrating the greatness and nobleness of the Chinese people.
Mr. K turns to me with a kindly smile.
“What makes Miss Far so quiet?” he asks.
“I don’t supposed she finds the ‘washee washee men’ particularly interesting subjects of conversation,” volunteers the young manager of the local bank.
With a great effort I raise my eyes from my plate. “Mr. K.,” I say, addressing my employer, “the Chinese people may have no souls, no expression on their faces, be altogether beyond the pale of civilization, but whatever they are, I want you to understand that I am—I am a Chinese.”
There is silence in the room for a few minutes. Then Mr. K. pushes back his plate and standing up beside me, says:
“I should have not spoken as I did. I know nothing whatever about the Chinese. It was pure prejudice. Forgive me!”
I admire Mr. K.’s moral courage in apologizing to me; he is a conscientious Christian man, but I do not remain much longer in the little town.
I am under a tropic ski, meeting frequently and conversing with persons who are almost as high up in the world as birth, education, and money can set them. They environment is peculiar, for I am also surrounded by a race of people, the reputed descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, whose offspring, it was prophesied, should be the servants of the songs of Shem and Japheth. As I am a descendant, according to the Bible, of both Shem and Japeth, I have a perfect right to set my heel upon the Ham people; but tho I see others around me following out the Bible suggestion, it is not in my nature to be arrogant to any but those who seek to impress me with their superiority, which the poor black maid who has been assigned to me by the hotel certainly does not. My employer’s wife takes me to task for this. “It is unnecessary,” she says, “to thank a black person for service.”
The novelty of life in the West Indian island is not without its charm. The surroundings, people, manner of living, are so entirely different from what I have been accustomed to up North that I feel as if I were “born again”. Mixing with people of fashion, and yet not of them, I am not of sufficient important to create comment or curiosity. I am busy nearly all day and often well into the night. It is not monotonous work, but it is certainly strenuous. The planters and business men of the island take me as a matter of course and treat me with kindly courtesy. Occasionally an Englishman will warn me against the “brown boys” of the island, little dreaming that I too am of the “brown people” of the earth.
When it begins to be whispered about the place that I am not all white, some of the “sporty” people seek my acquaintance. I am small and look much younger than my years. When, however, they discover that I am a very serious and sober-minded spinster indeed, they retire quite gracefully, leaving me a few amusing reflections.
One evening a card is brought to my room. It bears the name of some naval officer. I go down to my visitor, thinking he is probably some one who, having been told that I am a reporter for the local paper, has brought me an item of news. I find him lounging in an easy chair on the veranda of the hotel—a big, blond, handsome fellow, several years younger than I.
“You are Lieutenant———?” I inquire.
He bows and laughs a little. The laugh doesn’t suit him somehow—and it doesn’t suit me, either.
“If you have anything to tell me, please tell it quickly, because I’m very busy.”
“Oh, you don’t really mean that,” he answers, with another silly and offensive laugh. “There’s always plenty of time for good times. That’s what I am here for. I saw you at the races the other day and twice at King’s House. My ship will be here for——weeks.”
“Do you wish that noted?” I ask.
“Oh, no! Why—I came just because I had an idea that you might like to know me. I would like to know you. You look such a nice little body. Say, wouldn’t you like to go for a sail this lovely night? I will tell you all about the sweet little Chinese girls I met when we were at Hong Kong. They’re not so shy!”
I leave Eastern Canada for the Far West, so reduced by another attack of rheumatic fever that I only weigh eighty-four pounds. I travel on an advertising contract. It is presumed by the railway company that in some way or other I will give them full value for their transportation across the continent. I have been ordered beyond the Rockies by the doctor, who declares that I will never regain my strength in the East. Nevertheless, I am but two days in San Francisco when I start out in search of work. It is the first time that I have sought work as a stranger in a strange town. Both of the other positions away from home were secured for me by home influence. I am quite surprised to find that there is no demand for my services in San Francisco and that no one is particularly interested in me. The best I can do is accept an offer from a railway agency to typewrite their correspondence for $5 a month. I stipulate, however, that I shall have the privilege of taking in outside work and that my hours shall be light. I am hopeful that the sale of a story or newspaper article may add to my income, and I console myself with the reflection that, considering that I still limp and bear traces of sickness, I am fortunate to secure any work at all.
The proprietor or one of the San Francisco papers, to whom I have a letter of introduction, suggests that I obtain some subscriptions from the people of China town, that district of the city having never been canvassed. This suggestion I carry out with enthusiasm, tho I find that the Chinese merchants and people generally are inclined to regard me with suspicion. They have been imposed upon so many times by unscrupulous white people. Another drawback—save for a few phrase, I am unacquainted with my mother tongue. How, then, can I expect these people to accept me as their own countrywoman? The Americanized Chinamen actually laugh in my face when I tell them that I am of their race. However, they are not all “doubting Thomases.” Some little women discover that I have Chinese hair, color of eyes and complexion, also that I love rice and tea. This settles the matter for them—and for their husbands.
I meet a half Chinese, half white girl. Her face is plastered with a thick white coat of paint and her eyelids and eyebrows are blackened so that the shape of her eyes and the whole expression of her face is changed. She was born in the East, and at the age of eighteen came West to answer an advertisement. Living for many years among the working class, she had heard little but abuse of the Chinese. It is not difficult, in a land like California, for a half Chinese, half white girl to pass as one of Spanish or Mexican origin, This poor child does, tho she lives in nervous dread of being “discovered.” She becomes engaged to a young man, but fears to tell him what she is, and only does so when compelled by a fearless American girl friend. This girl, who knows her origin, realizing that the truth sooner or later must be told, and better soon than late, advises the Eurasian to confide in the young man, assuring her that he loves her well enough to not allow her nationality to stand, a bar sinister, between them. But the Eurasian prefers to keep her secret, and only reveals it to the man who is to be her husband when driven to bay by the American girl, who declares that if the halfbreed will not tell the truth, she will. When the young man hears that the girl he is engaged to has Chinese blood in her veins, he exclaims: “Oh, what will my folks say?” But that is all. Love is stronger than prejudice with him, and neither he nor she deems it necessary to inform his “folks.”
The Americans, having for many years manifested a much higher regard for the Japanese than for the Chinese, several half Chinese young men and women, thinking to advance themselves, both in a social and business sense, pass as Japanese. They continue to be known as Eurasians; but a Japanese Eurasian does not appear in the same light as a Chinese Eurasian. The unfortunate Chinese Eurasians! Are not those who compel them to thus cringe more to be blamed than they?
People, however, are not all alike. I meet white men, and women, too, who are proud to mate with those who have Chinese blood in their veins, and think it a great honor to be distinguished by the friendship of such. There are also Eurasians and Eurasians. I know of one who allowed herself to become engaged to a white man after refusing him nine times. She had discouraged him in every way possible, had warned him that she was half Chinese; that her people were poor, that every week or month she sent home a certain amount of her earnings, and that she man she married would have to do as much, if not more; also, most uncompromising truth of all, that she did not love him and never would. But the resolute and undaunted lover swore that it was a matter of indifference to him whether she was a Chinese or a Hottentot, that it would be his pleasure and privilege to allow her relations double what it was in her power to bestow, and as to not loving him—that did not matter at all. He loved her. So, because the young woman had a married mother and married sisters, who were always picking at her and gossiping over her independent manner of living, she finally consented to marry him, recording the agreement in her diary thus:
“I have promised to become the wife of——-——- on——-, 189-, because the world is so cruel and sneering to a single woman—and for no other reason”
Everything went smoothly until one day. The young man was driving a pair of beautiful horses and she was seated by his side, trying very hard to imagine herself in love with him, when a Chinese vegetable gardener’s cart came rumbling along. The Chinaman was a jolly-looking individual in blue cotton blouse and pantaloons, his rakish looking hat being kept in place by a long queue which was pulled upward from his neck and wound around it. The young woman was suddenly possest with the spirit of mischief. “Look!” she cried, indicating the Chinaman, “there’s my brother. Why don’t you salute him?”
The man’s face fell a little. He sank into a pensive mood. The wicked one by his side read him like an open book.
“When we are married,” said she, “I intend to give a Chinese part every month.”
“As there are very few aristocratic Chinese in this city, I shall fill up with the laundrymen and the vegetable farmers. I don’t believe in being exclusive in democratic America, do you?”
He hadn’t a grain of humor in his composition, but a sickly smile contorted his features as he replied:
“You shall do just as you please, my darling. But—but—consider a moment. Wouldn’t it just be a little pleasanter for us if, after we are married, we allowed it to be presumed that you were—er—Japanese? So many of my friends have inquired of me if that is not your nationality. They would be so charmed to meet a little Japanese lady.”
“Hadn’t you better oblige them by finding one?”
“Why—er—what do you mean?”
“Nothing much in particular. Only—I am getting a little tired of this,” taking off the ring.
“You don’t mean what you say! Oh, put it back, dearest! You know I would not hurt your feelings for the world!”
“You haven’t. I’m more than pleased. But I do mean what I say.”
That evening, the “ungrateful” Chinese Eurasian diaried, among other things, the following:
“Joy, oh, joy! I’m free once more. Never again shall I be untrue to my own heart. Never again will I allow any one to ‘hound’ or ‘sneer’ me into matrimony.”
I secure transportation to many California points. I meet some literary people, chief among whom is the editor of the magazine who took my first Chinese stories. He and his wife give me a warm welcome to their ranch. They are broadminded people, whose interest in me is sincere and intelligent, not affected and vulgar. I also meet some funny people who advise me to “trade” upon my nationality. They tell me that if I wish to succeed in literature in America I should dress in Chinese costume, carry a fan in my hand, wear a pair of scarlet beaded slippers, live in New York, and come of high birth. Instead of making myself familiar with the Chinese Americans around me, I should discourse on my spirit acquaintance with Chinese ancestors and quote in between the “Good mornings” and “How d’ye dos” of editors.
“Confucius, Confucius, how great is Confucius, Before Confucius, there never was Confucius. After Confucius, there never came Confucius,” etc., etc., etc.,
or something like that, both illuminating and obscuring, don’t you know. They forget, or perhaps they are not aware that the old Chinese sage taught “The way of sincerity is the way of heaven.”
My experiences as a Eurasian never cease; but people are not now as prejudiced as they have been. In the West, too, my friends are more advanced in all lines of thought than those whom I knew in Eastern Canada—more genuine, more sincere, with less of the form of religion, but more of its spirit.
So I roam backward and forward across the continent. When I am East, my heart is West. When I am West, my heart is East. Before long I hope to be in China. As my life began in my father’s country it may end in my mother’s.
After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality. “You are you and I am I,” says Confucius. I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant “connecting link.” And that’s all.
Independent, 21 January 1890
“Mrs. Spring Fragrance”
When Mrs. Spring Fragrance first arrived in Seattle, she was unacquainted with even one word of the American language. Five years later her husband, speaking of her, said: “There are no more American words for her learning.” And everyone who knew Mrs. Spring Fragrance agreed with Mr. Spring Fragrance.
Mr. Spring Fragrance, whose business name was Sing Yook, was a young curio merchant. Though conservatively Chinese in many respects, he was at the same time what is called by the Westerners, “Americanized.” Mrs. Spring Fragrance was even more “Americanized.”
Next door to the Spring Fragrances lived the Chin Yuens. Mrs. Chin Yuen was much older than Mrs. Spring Fragance; but she had a daughter of eighteen with whom Mrs. Spring Fragrance was on terms of great friendship. The daughter was a pretty girl whose Chinese name was Mai Gwi Far (a rose) and whose American name was Laura. Nearly everybody called her Laura, even her parents and Chinese friends. Laura had a sweetheart, a youth named Kai Tzu. Kai Tzu, who was American-born, and as ruddy and stalwart as any young Westerner, was noted amongst baseball players as one of the finest pitchers on the Coast. He could also sing, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” to Laura’s piano accompaniment.
Now the only person who knew that Kai Tzu loved Laura and that Laura loved Kai Tzu, was Mrs. Spring Fragrance. The reason for this was that, although the Chin Yuen parents lived in a house furnished in American style, and wore American clothes, yet they religiously observed many Chinese customs, and their ideals of life were the ideals of their Chinese forefathers. Therefore, they had betrothed their daughter, Laura, at the age of fifteen, to the eldest son of the Chinese Government school-teacher in San Francisco. The time for the consummation of the betrothal was approaching.
Laura was with Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Mrs. Spring Fragrance was trying to cheer her.
“I had such a pretty walk today,” said she. “I crossed the banks above the
beach and came back by the long road. In the green grass the daffodils were blowing, in the cottage gardens the currant bushes were flowering, and in the air was the perfume of the wallflower. I wished, Laura, that you were with me.”
Laura burst into tears. “That is the walk,” she sobbed, “Kai Tzu and I so love; but never, ah, never, can we take it together again.”
“Now, Little Sister,” comforted Mrs. Spring Fragrance, “you really must not grieve like that. Is there not a beautiful American poem written by a noble American named Tennyson, which says:
’Tis better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all?”
Mrs. Spring Fragrance was unaware that Mr. Spring Fragrance, having returned from the city, tired with the day’s business, had thrown himself down on the bamboo settee on the veranda, and that although his eyes were engaged in scanning the pages of the Chinese World, his ears could not help receiving the words which were borne to him through the open window.
“’Tis better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all,”
repeated Mr. Spring Fragrance. Not wishing to hear more of the secret talk of women, he arose and sauntered around the veranda to the other side of the house. Two pigeons circled around his head. He felt in his pocket, for a li-chi which he usually carried for their pecking. His fingers touched a little box. It contained a jadestone pendant, which Mrs. Spring Fragrance had particularly admired the last time she was down town. It was the fifth anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s wedding day.
Mr. Spring Fragrance pressed the little box down into the depths of his pocket.
A young man came out of the back door of the house at Mr. Spring Fragrance’s left. The Chin Yuen house was at his right.
“Good evening,” said the young man. “Good evening,” returned Mr. Spring Fragrance. He stepped down from his porch and went and leaned over the railing which separated this yard from the yard in which stood the young man.
“Will you please tell me,” said Mr. Spring Fragrance, “the meaning of two lines of an American verse which I have heard?”
“Certainly,” returned the young man with a genial smile. He was a star student at the University of Washington, and had not the slightest doubt that he could explain the meaning of all things in the universe.
“Well,” said Mr. Spring Fragrance, “it is this:
’Tis better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all.”
“Ah!” responded the young man with an air of profound wisdom. “That, Mr. Spring Fragrance, means that it is a good thing to love anyway— even if we can’t get what we love, or, as the poet tells us, lose what we love. Of course, one needs experience to feel the truth of this teaching.”
The young man smiled pensively and reminiscently. More than a dozen young maidens “loved and lost” were passing before his mind’s eye.
“The truth of the teaching!” echoed Mr. Spring Fragrance, a little testily. “There is no truth in it whatever. It is disobedient to reason. Is it not better to have what you do not love than to love what you do not have?”
“That depends,” answered the young man, “upon temperament.”
“I thank you. Good evening,” said Mr. Spring Fragrance. He turned away to muse upon the unwisdom of the American way of looking at things.
Meanwhile, inside the house, Laura was refusing to be comforted.
“Ah, no! no!” cried she. “If I had not gone to school with Kai Tzu, nor talked nor walked with him, nor played the accompaniments to his songs, then I might consider with complacency, or at least without horror, my approaching marriage with the son of Man You. But as it is— oh, as it is— !”
The girl rocked herself to and fro in heartfelt grief.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance knelt down beside her, and clasping her arms around her neck, cried in sympathy:
“Little Sister, oh, Little Sister! Dry your tears— do not despair. A moon has yet to pass before the marriage can take place. Who knows what the stars may have to say to one another during its passing? A little bird has whispered to me— ”
For a long time Mrs. Spring Fragrance talked. For a long time Laura listened. When the girl arose to go, there was a bright light in her eyes.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance, in San Francisco, on a visit to her cousin, the wife of the herb doctor of Clay Street, was having a good time. She was invited everywhere that the wife of an honorable Chinese merchant could go. There was much to see and hear, including more than a dozen babies who had been born in the families of her friends since she last visited the city of the Golden Gate. Mrs. Spring Fragrance loved babies. She had had two herself, but both had been transplanted into the spirit land before the completion of even one moon. There were also many dinners and theatre-parties given in her honor. It was at one of the theatre-parties that Mrs. Spring Fragrance met Ah Oi, a young girl who had the reputation of being the prettiest Chinese girl in San Francisco, and the naughtiest. In spite of gossip, however, Mrs. Spring Fragrance took a great fancy to Ah Oi and invited her to a tête-à-tête picnic on the following day. This invitation Ah Oi joyfully accepted. She was a sort of bird girl and never felt so happy as when out in the park or woods.
On the day after the picnic Mrs. Spring Fragrance wrote to Laura Chin Yuen thus:
MY PRECIOUS LAURA,— May the bamboo ever wave. Next week I accompany Ah Oi to the beauteous town of San José. There will we be met by the son of the Illustrious Teacher, and in a little Mission, presided over by a benevolent American priest, the little Ah Oi and the son of the Illustrious Teacher will be joined together in love and harmony— two pieces of music made to complete one another.
The Son of the Illustrious Teacher, having been through an American Hall of Learning, is well able to provide for his orphan bride and fears not the displeasure of his parents, now that he is assured that your grief at his loss will not be inconsolable. He wishes me to waft to you and to Kai Tzu— and the little Ah Oi joins with him— ten thousand rainbow wishes for your happiness.
My respects to your honorable parents, and to yourself, the heart of your loving friend,
JADE SPRING FRAGRANCE
To Mr. Spring Fragrance, Mrs. Spring Fragrance also indited a letter:
GREAT AND HONORED MAN,— Greeting from your plum blossom,* who is desirous of hiding herself from the sun of your presence for a week of seven days more. My honorable cousin is preparing for the Fifth Moon Festival, and wishes me to compound for the occasion some American “fudge,” for which delectable sweet, made by my clumsy hands, you have sometimes shown a slight prejudice. I am enjoying a most agreeable visit, and American friends, as also our own, strive benevolently for the accomplishment of my pleasure. Mrs. Samuel Smith, an American lady, known to my cousin, asked for my accompaniment to a magniloquent lecture the other evening. The subject was “America, the Protector of China!” It was most exhilarating, and the effect of so much expression of benevolence leads me to beg of you to forget to remember that the barber charges you one dollar for a shave while he humbly submits to the American man a bill of fifteen cents. And murmur no more because your honored elder brother, on a visit to this country, is detained under the roof-tree of this great Government instead of under your own humble roof. Console him with the reflection that he is protected under the wing of the Eagle, the Emblem of Liberty. What is the loss of ten hundred years or ten thousand times ten dollars compared with the happiness of knowing oneself so securely sheltered? All of this I have learned from Mrs. Samuel Smith, who is as brilliant and great of mind as one of your own superior sex.
For me it is sufficient to know that the Golden Gate Park is most enchanting, and the seals on the rock at the Cliff House extremely entertaining and amiable. There is much feasting and merry-making under the lanterns in honor of your Stupid Thorn.
I have purchased for your smoking a pipe with an amber mouth. It is said to be very sweet to the lips and to emit a cloud of smoke fit for the gods to inhale.
Awaiting, by the wonderful wire of the telegram message, your
*The plum blossom is the Chinese flower of virtue. It has been adopted by the Japanese, just in the same way as they have adopted the Chinese national flower, the chrysanthemum.
gracious permission to remain for the celebration of the Fifth Moon Festival and the making of American “fudge,” I continue for ten thousand times ten thousand years,
Your ever loving and obedient woman,
P.S. Forget not to care for the cat, the birds, and the flowers. Do not eat too quickly nor fan too vigorously now that the weather is warming.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance smiled as she folded this last epistle. Even if he were old-fashioned, there was never a husband so good and kind as hers. Only on one occasion since their marriage had he slighted her wishes. That was when, on the last anniversary of their wedding, she had signified a desire for a certain jadestone pendant, and he had failed to satisfy that desire.
But Mrs. Spring Fragrance, being of a happy nature, and disposed to look upon the bright side of things, did not allow her mind to dwell upon the jadestone pendant. Instead, she gazed complacently down upon her bejeweled fingers and folded in with her letter to Mr. Spring Fragrance a bright little sheaf of condensed love.
Mr. Spring Fragrance sat on his doorstep. He had been reading two letters, one from Mrs. Spring Fragrance, and the other from an elderly bachelor cousin in San Francisco. The one from the elderly bachelor cousin was a business letter, but contained the following postscript:
Tsen Hing, the son of the Government schoolmaster, seems to be much in the company of your young wife. He is a good-looking youth, and pardon me, my dear cousin;— but if women are allowed to stray at will from under their husbands’ mulberry roofs, what is to prevent them from becoming butterflies?
“Sing Foon is old and cynical,” said Mr. Spring Fragrance to himself. “Why should I pay any attention to him? This is America, where a man may speak to a woman and a woman listen, without any thought of evil.”
He destroyed his cousin’s letter and re-read his wife’s. Then he became very thoughtful. Was the making of American fudge sufficient reason for a wife to wish to remain a week longer in a city where her husband was not?
The young man who lived in the next house came out to water the lawn.
“Good evening,” said he. “Any news from Mrs. Spring Fragrance?”
“She is having a very good time,” returned Mr. Spring Fragrance.
“Glad to hear it. I think you told me she was to return the end of this week.”
“I have changed my mind about her,” said Mr. Spring Fragrance. “I am bidding her remain a week longer, as I wish to give a smoking party during her absence. I hope I may have the pleasure of your company.”
“I shall be delighted,” returned the young fellow. “But, Mr. Spring Fragrance, don’t invite any other white fellows. If you do not I shall be able to get in a scoop. You know, I’m a sort of honorary reporter for the Gleaner.”
“Very well,” absently answered Mr. Spring Fragrance.
“Of course, your friend the Consul will be present. I shall call it ‘A high-class Chinese stag party!’”
In spite of his melancholy mood, Mr. Spring Fragrance smiled.
“Everything is ‘high-class’ in America,” he observed.
“Sure!” cheerfully assented the young man. “Haven’t you ever heard that all Americans are princes and princesses, and just as soon as a foreigner puts his foot upon our shores, he also becomes of the nobility— I mean, the royal family.”
“What about my brother in the Detention Pen?” dryly inquired Mr. Spring Fragrance.
“Now, you’ve got me,” said the young man, rubbing his head. “Well, that is a shame— ‘a beastly shame,’ as the Englishman says. But understand, old fellow, we that are real Americans are up against that— even more than you. It is against our principles.”
“I offer the real Americans my consolations that they should be compelled to do that which is against their principles.”
“Oh, well, it will all come right some day. We’re not a bad sort, you know. Think of the indemnity money returned to the Dragon by Uncle Sam.”
Mr. Spring Fragrance puffed his pipe in silence for some moments. More than politics was troubling his mind.
At last he spoke. “Love,” said he, slowly and distinctly, “comes before the, wedding in this country; does it not?”
Young Carman knew Mr. Spring Fragrance well enough to receive with calmness his most astounding queries.
“Presuming,” continued Mr. Spring Fragrance— “presuming that some friend of your father’s, living— presuming— in England— has a daughter that he arranges with your father to be your wife. Presuming that you have never seen that daughter, but that you marry her, knowing her not. Presuming that she marries you, knowing you not.— After she marries you and knows you, will that woman love you?”
“Emphatically, no,” answered the young man.
“That is the way it would be in America that the woman who marries the man like that— would not love him?”
“Yes, that is the way it would be in America. Love, in this country, must be free, or it is not love at all.”
“In China, it is different!” mused Mr. Spring Fragrance.
“Oh, yes, I have no doubt that in China it is different.”
“But the love is in the heart all the same,” went on Mr. Spring Fragrance.
“Yes, all the same. Everybody falls in love sometime or another. Some”— pensively— “many times.”
Mr. Spring Fragrance arose.
“I must go down town,” said he.
As he walked down the street he recalled the remark of a business acquaintance who had met his wife and had had some conversation with her: “She is just like an American woman.”
He had felt somewhat flattered when this remark had been made. He looked upon it as a compliment to his wife’s cleverness; but it rankled in his mind as he entered the telegraph office. If his wife was becoming as an American woman, would it not be possible for her to love as an American woman— a man to whom she was not married? There also floated in is memory the verse which his wife had quoted to the daughter of Chin Yuen. When the telegraph clerk handed him a blank, he wrote this message:
“Remain as you wish, but remember that ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.’”
When Mrs. Spring Fragrance received this message, her laughter tinkled like falling water. How droll! How delightful! Here was her husband quoting American poetry in a telegram. Perhaps he had been reading her American poetry books since she had left him! She hoped so. They would lead him to understand her sympathy for her dear Laura and Kai Tzu. She need no longer keep from him their secret. How joyful! It had been such a hardship to refrain from confiding in him before. But discreetness had been most necessary, seeing that Mr. Spring Fragrance entertained as old-fashioned notions concerning marriage as did the Chin Yuen parents. Strange that that should be so, since he had fallen in love with her picture before ever he had seen her, just as she had fallen in love with his! And when the marriage veil was lifted and each beheld the other for the first time in the flesh, there had been no disillusion— no lessening of the respect and affection, which those who had brought about the marriage had inspired in each young heart.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance began to wish she could fall asleep and wake to find the week flown, and she in her own little home pouring tea for Mr. Spring Fragrance.
Mr. Spring Fragrance was walking to business with Mr. Chin Yuen. As they walked they talked.
“Yes,” said Mr. Chin Yuen, “the old order is passing away, and the new order is taking its place, even with us who are Chinese. I have finally consented to give my daughter in marriage to young Kai Tzu.”
Mr. Spring Fragrance expressed surprise. He had understood that the marriage between his neighbor’s daughter and the San Francisco school-teacher’s son was all arranged.
“So ’twas,” answered Mr. Chin Yuen; “but it seems the young renegade, without consultation or advice, has placed his affections upon some untrustworthy female, and is so under her influence that he refuses to fulfil his parents’ promise to me for him.”
“So!” said Mr. Spring Fragrance. The shadow on his brow deepened.
“But,” said Mr. Chin Yuen, with affable resignation, “it is all ordained by Heaven. Our daughter, as the wife of Kai Tzu, for whom she has long had a
loving feeling, will not now be compelled to dwell with a mother-in-law and where her own mother is not. For that, we are thankful, as she is our only one and the conditions of life in this Western country are not as in China. Moreover, Kai Tzu, though not so much of a scholar as the teacher’s son, has a keen eye for business and that, in America, is certainly much more desirable than scholarship. What do you think?”
“Eh! What!” exclaimed Mr. Spring Fragrance. The latter part of his companion’s remarks had been lost upon him.
That day the shadow which had been following Mr. Spring Fragrance ever since he had heard his wife quote, “’Tis better to have loved,” etc., became so heavy and deep that he quite lost himself within it.
At home in the evening he fed the cat, the bird, and the flowers. Then, seating himself in a carved black chair— a present from his wife on his last birthday— he took out his pipe and smoked. The cat jumped into his lap. He stroked it softly and tenderly. It had been much fondled by Mrs. Spring Fragrance, and Mr. Spring Fragrance was under the impression that it missed her. “Poor thing!” said he. “I suppose you want her back!” When he arose to go to bed he placed the animal carefully on the floor, and thus apostrophized it:
“O Wise and Silent One, your mistress returns to you, but her heart she leaves behind her, with the Tommies in San Francisco.”
The Wise and Silent One made no reply. He was not a jealous cat.
Mr. Spring Fragrance slept not that night; the next morning he ate not. Three days and three nights without sleep and food went by.
There was a springlike freshness in the air on the day that Mrs. Spring Fragrance came home. The skies overhead were as blue as Puget Sound stretching its gleaming length toward the mighty Pacific, and all the beautiful green world seemed to be throbbing with springing life.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance was never so radiant.
“Oh,” she cried light-heartedly, “is it not lovely to see the sun shining so clear, and everything so bright to welcome me?”
Mr. Spring Fragrance made no response. It was the morning after the fourth sleepless night.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance noticed his silence, also his grave face.
“Everything— everyone is glad to see me but you,” she declared, half seriously, half jestingly
Mr. Spring Fragrance set down her valise. They had just entered the house.
“If my wife is glad to see me,” he quietly replied, “I also am glad to see her!”
Summoning their servant boy, he bade him look after Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s comfort.
“I must be at the store in half an hour,” said he, looking at his watch. “There is some very important business requiring attention.”
“What is the business?” inquired Mrs. Spring Fragrance, her lip quivering with disappointment.
“I cannot just explain to you,” answered her husband.
Mrs. Spring Fragrance looked up into his face with honest and earnest eyes. There was something in his manner, in the tone of her husband’s voice, which touched her.
“Yen,” said she, “you do not look well. You are not well. What is it?”
Something arose in Mr. Spring Fragrance’s throat which prevented him from replying.
“O darling one! O sweetest one!” cried a girl’s joyous voice. Laura Chin Yuen ran into the room and threw her arms around Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s neck.
“I spied you from the window,” said Laura, “and I couldn’t rest until I told you. We are to be married next week, Kai Tzu and I. And all through you, all through you— the sweetest jade jewel in the world!”
Mr. Spring Fragrance passed out of the room.
“So the son of the Government teacher and little Happy Love are already married,” Laura went on, relieving Mrs. Spring Fragrance of her cloak, her hat, and her folding fan.
Mr. Spring Fragrance paused upon the doorstep.
“Sit down, Little Sister, and I will tell you all about it,” said Mrs. Spring Fragrance, forgetting her husband for a moment.
When Laura Chin Yuen had danced away, Mr. Spring Fragrance came in and hung up his hat.
“You got back very soon,” said Mrs. Spring Fragrance, covertly wiping away the tears which had begun to fall as soon as she thought herself alone.
“I did not go,” answered Mr. Spring Fragrance. “I have been listening to you and Laura.”
“But if the business is very important, do not you think you should attend to it?” anxiously queried Mrs. Spring Fragrance.
“It is not important to me now,” returned Mr. Spring Fragrance. “I would prefer to hear again about Ah Oi and Man You and Laura and Kai Tzu.”
“How lovely of you to say that!” exclaimed Mrs. Spring Fragrance, who was easily made happy. And she began to chat away to her husband in the friendliest and wifeliest fashion possible. When she had finished she asked him if he were not glad to hear that those who loved as did the young lovers whose scerets she had been keeping, were to be united; and he replied that indeed he was; that he would like every man to be as happy with a wife as he himself had ever been and ever would be.
“You did not always talk like that,” said Mrs. Spring Fragrance slyly. “You must have been reading my American poetry books!”
“American poetry!” ejaculated Mr. Spring Fragrance almost fiercely, “American poetry is detestable, abhorrable!”
“Why! why!” exclaimed Mrs. Spring Fragrance, more and more surprised.
But the only explanation which Mr. Spring Fragrance vouchsafed was a jadestone pendant.
- For a complete list of the various Asian stereotypes in American culture, see Jack Tchen and Dylan Yeats, eds. Yellow peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. ↵