West Coast CPE, 19th c.

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(Image credit: “California Life Illustrated“, frontispiece)

One of the topics that keeps intersecting with my unifying theme of Chinook Jargon is the use of multiple pidgin languages here in the West. 

In previous articles of mine, we’ve seen Native people’s pidgin English, sometimes blended with some pidgin Spanish and/or Chinuk Wawa — and also we keep finding Chinese Pidgin English mentioned by early documentors.

What I’ve discovered is that the CPE used on the West Coast of North America consistently differs from what I’ll call the “classic” CPE as documented in Australasia. I won’t go into great detail about those differences today; instead, I’d like to just exhibit some samples of Chinese immigrants’ distinctive pidgin English.

I’ll focus on how some were invented for literary effect, while others are fairly accurate documentation. I think you’ll start to see some differences in grammar and words between them.

Here’s a memoirist who gives us both imagined and remembered Californian CPE from fairly early times on the frontier. First, a hypothetical scene:

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The next idea which seems to strike him, is that perhaps he may, having such models to work by, become somebody after all, “be same as von [one] Melican man;” and the next time you see him you discover that he has shed off his native costume as clean as a snake in spring-time, and has come out in full American rig — hat, coat, pants, and the biggest boots in town. The self-conceited, prejudiced, haughty Chinaman has been converted into “von Melican man,” with a full desire and purpose to learn, and talk, and be “just same as any other Melican man.” 

— William Taylor – “California Life Illustrated” (New York: no publisher, 1858), page 317

And here is recognizably authentic witnessed speech:

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Among them there was a tall intelligent-looking fellow whom they called “Chippee.” I was told that he had been in the country only about six months. Chippe not only appeared to listen attentively, but took out his pencil and went to noting down such thoughts as he could gather from the discourse, on a piece of wrapping-paper which lay on the counter, as gravely as a New-York reporter. The next morning the clerk of the store observed him transferring his notes from the wrapping-paper into a book or journal, and asked him to translate them into English.

Then said Chippee: “What you call him talk las night?

“That was Mr. Taylor, from San Francisco,” replied the clerk. 

He noted the name in his book, and then said, looking and pointing upward: “What you call him, Him — Fader, big Fader, up! up! What you call HIM?

“We call him God,” answered the clerk. 

So he noted that in his journal also. 

He then gave the following brief translation of his notes from the wrapping-paper, which I now have in my possession: 

Tell all men, no gamble; tell all men, no steal

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em gold; tell all men, no steal em cargo; tell all men, no talk em lies; tell all men to be very good men.

— pages 318-319

An invented example of frontier California Chinese Pidgin English comes from a European traveler in Asia (!). He’s pretty transparent about making it up for argument’s sake, not to mention that it fails to obey grammatical rules of either Asian or Californian CPE:

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During his residence at Pekin, Mr. Burlingame interested himself in endeavoring to introduce the telegraph into China, and though meeting with opposition on account of certain superstitions of the Chinese, he was ultimately successful. The Chinese do not understand the working of the telegraph — at least the great majority of them do not — and like many other people elsewhere, with regard to any thing incomprehensible, they are inclined to ascribe it to a satanic origin. In California, the Chinese residents make a liberal use of the telegraph; though they do not trouble themselves with an investigation of its workings, they fully appreciate its importance. John, in California, is at liberty to send his messages in “pigeon-English,” and very funny work he makes of it occasionally. Chin Lung, in Sacramento, telegraphs to Ming Yup, in San Francisco, “You me send one piecee me trunk,” which means, in plain language, “Send me my trunk.” Mr. Yup complies with the request, and responds by telegraph, “Me you trunkee you sendee.” The inventor of pigeon-English is unknown, and it is well for his name that it has not been handed down; he deserves the execration of all who are compelled to use the legacy he has left. It is just as difficult for a Chinese to learn pigeon-English as it would be to learn pure and honest English, and it is about as intelligible as Greek or Sanscrit to a newly-arrived foreigner. In Shanghae or Hong Kong, say to your Chinese ma-foo, who claims to speak English, “Bring me a glass of water,” and he will not understand you. Repeat your order in those words, and he stands dumb and uncomprehending, as though you had spoken the dialect of the moon. But if you say, “You go me catchee bring one piecee glass water; savey,” and his tawny face beams intelligence as he obeys the order.

— page 334 of Thomas Wallace Knox, “Overland through Asia” (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company), 1871

Here’s an apparently non-Asian San Francisco newspaper reporter and court interpreter (in CPE??), testifying before a US government committee whose work seems to have contributed to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and claiming under oath to give an accurate recollection of what indeed looks like real Chinese Pidgin English:

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There was an old Chinaman here, who was nicknamed Brandy. He was employed by the Chinese for the purpose of conveying the dead out of the houses to some place from which the undertakers could carry them away. On one occasion he had a Chinaman to carry away who had become so stiff, rigor mortis had set in to such degree, that he could not bend him in any way at all, and he could not get him out of the little room in which he was. The passages were so narrow and intricate that he could not carry him out, nad the Chinaman said, “All right; me fix him.” 

— United States Congress, “Report of the Joint Special Committee on Chinese Immigration” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1877), page 327

Wallis Nash shows us Oregon in the mid-to-late frontier era, and he’s generally an open-minded accurate observer of genuine CPE:

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If they are a both sometimes by not comprehending orders, they make up for it by quaint ways. An English neighbor of ours has one Chee, a boy of sixteen, as house-servant, and a very good cook and general servant she has made of him. Chee and his mistress are on the best of terms usually; sometimes they fall out. The mistress was staying with us for a few days once, while her husband was out hunting in the hills, and she preferred sleeping in her own house. This Chee strongly disapproved, as it involved his going up to make the bed and clean the house, instead of having high-jinks in the China house down in the town. When his mistress went into the house, Chee pointed into her bedroom, and in a mysterious voice warned her thus: “Heap debble-y in there. Some time I make bed, I see four, fi’ debble-y go under bed. Some time come catch you in night!

— from Wallis Nash, “Two Years in Oregon” (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882), page 205

Another passage from Nash shows (without commenting on it) quotes Chee’s European employer accommodating his linguistic repertoire by trying to speak CPE to him:

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Another time, his master and mistress being out, Chee amused himself with their photograph-album. They found many of the pictures shifted, and one charming young lady missing. Chee stoutly denied it all, and swore he never saw the picture. So his “boss,” Hop Kee, was appealed to. In the afternoon of the same day Hop Kee appeared with a second Chinaman. This man produced the missing photograph for identification, and then Hop Kee disappeared into Chee’s kitchen and administered a hearty beating to the culprit. When Hop Kee reappeared, panting, his companion explained and apologized thus: “Chee heap bad boy; but he no steal um; he heap love um picture; he sew um up his bed.”

Another time Chee was pottering about in the garden when his mistress called him. He would not answer, so she called him again, and this was the conversation:

“Chee, come here.” “Heap tired in foot; can’ walk.” “Chee, come here directly.” Chee comes and gets his orders. “Wha’ for you can’ talk me there?” “Chee, you must not answer me like that; you speak as if I were a dog.” “Well, you allee same likee one dog!” “Chee, how dare you? I tell Hop Kee what you say.” “I no care.” But Hop Kee comes that afternoon and hears the sad accusation, and this is his advice: “Mrs. —-, you heap takee some poker; you beat him. I heap much obliged. Chee no good; you whip um.

Chee asks for his wages, and even for some in advance. “What for you want money, Chee?” “I want fi’teen dollar.” “What for, Chee?” “I want buy one big watch.” “How big, Chee?” “Heap big watch, he weigh ha’ pound.” And I believe it does weigh half a pound.

— pages 206-207

Thaddeus Stevens Kenderdine is an engaging early post-frontier California tour guide prone to the occasional self-taught literary person’s spelling slipups. His memoir recounts with some accuracy a sermon heard in CCPE:

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Once amid the metallic night-mare Huie Way rapped attention and pointing to some figures and implements in bronze on a large table commenced a strident harrangue which one of our Endeavor ministers interpreted somewhat in this fashion : “When Chinaman farmer wantee plentee lain he give Gaw muchee lice.” “He says when the Chinese farmer wants much rain he gives God plenty of rice.” Then a collection of figures, with a huge central idol, is shown, denoting the Chinese idea of the Deity, with incense burning and implements of war around. As the smoke arises to the point of torment, thus again Huie, “When Chinaman wantee good luck fighter play Gaw and blun plentee smoke. Blight splear head say we lickee and killee velly muchee;” pointing to a flaming spear head above the scene. Then the interpreter, “He says when the Chinese wish success in battle they pray to God and burn plenty of incense. The bright spear head means victory, and the slaughter of many enemies.” As Huie’s voice sounded as from a bubbling mush-pot our translator’s rendering from pigeon English to the King’s own was wonderful.

— from page 103 of T.S. Kenderdine, “California Revisited, 1858-1897” (Newtown, PA: no publisher, 1898)

For perspective, we can take in Kenderdine’s only other reference to “pigeon English”, which doesn’t apply to Chinese people, but to Natives using a pidginized blend of languages such as I’ve written about in previous articles here:

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Passing a resistive [sic] dog I went to an open door where a typical Spanish-Indian couple were eating breakfast. A carpetless floor ; bare, wooden table ; rude benches; meat in a fiery stew; a cup of water to extinguish it; some coarse bread, with Jose and Merced stolidly partaking of the rude viands ; all took me back to the Mission days, long past. After some trouble I made them understand our errand — this unlike Alissandro-Ramona couple — when the woman went with us to the church, and the sexton being come, she took us in and in hushed tones with occasional obeisances, as we passed sacred objects, tried to answer our enquiries. Our talk under favorable out-door auspices was but a jargon of Pigeon English and Spanish and we were both relieved when I gave her a fee, which, as usual was about as small as the donor could make it and not seem mean.

— pages 121-122

Do you see the differences between the fictional and real Chinese Pidgin English above?

What do you think?