1888: California CPE doggerel: Ah Sing on Ah Ben


Stereoscopic image of Cuddy (image credit: Getty.edu)

Much as African-American English was, Chinese Pidgin English was used a great deal in 19th-century US popular culture, always for comic effect, and usually by someone costumed as a Chinese person.
There are many newspaper mentions of White performers doing monologues and/or songs in “very good pigeon English” (to summarize the typical editorial evaluation).

We, being who we are in this website’s community, see another connection, this time with Chinook Jargon, which was similarly used in a great number of light poems directed — by virtue of being written rather than spoken — at a White audience.

When I call the following light verse, I’m not quite conveying the intended feelings; it’s actually a political commentary, in a Reconstruction-era newspaper that makes plenty of disparaging remarks about non-Whites and their sympathizers. Anti-Chinese sentiment and political activity was at a peak when this poem was published, need I point out; just go look at the rest of this newspaper page.

“Cleveland” below is US President Grover Cleveland; “Chief Cuddy” is LA police chief Thomas Jefferson Cuddy; the pun on “for a cur” refers to Governor Joseph Benson Foraker of Ohio, an important national political figure of the time — maybe “Ah Ben” is him too. No doubt I’m missing a few other references that were intended.

Of course the Chinese Pidgin English here isn’t a reliable document of that language, having been composed by a non-Chinese person.

But it’s got recognizable features of the distinct West Coast variety of CPE — including the cussing — and it sure is fascinating how well most Coast newspapers assumed their White readers understood the lingo.

I won’t translate everything here; my readers can request any needed clarifications by commenting below…

ah sing 01

ah sing 02

Ah Sing on Ah Ben.

You sabee Ah Ben,
He belly good man,
He heap catchee Plesident,
Allee same, if he can.

We votee all day,
To get him his seat,
And workee like hellee
The Dem’clats to beat.

The party of Cleveland,
Is heap mighty bad;
They won’t let us come,
And we feel belly sad.

So we vote for Ah Ben,
A good man and tlue,
And sing hallelujas,
From out the front pew.

You sabbee my clousin,
His name is Ah Fudge;
Ah Ben will be Plesident,
Then he will be judge.

Then all China will startee
For here mighty quick,
And then ebly Dem’clat
He heap gettee sick.

Then Ah Ben will makee
A mighty good boss,
We buildee big housee
And make him our Joss.

Chief Cuddy we’ll kill,
And his hide we will tan,
And on it we’ll play
Tbe game of fan-tan.

You sabee my bludder
Some take him For-a-ker,
He heap holler and beller
Me no sabee what fur!

He libe in Ohio
And heap catchee long que
To hellee with the Ilish,
The Dutch and the Jew.

Me sabee the White House;
A belly nice place.
Ah Ben he surel catch him.
He heap run a race.

We’ll have a big time,
And the pig we will kill;
And of lats and good licee
We’ll all have our fill.

-Ah Sing.

— from the Los Angeles (CA) Daily Herald of June 29, 1888, page 4, column 3

What do you think?