1884 Sacramento CPE: Ah Sing’s problem

Historical cycles mutate how we interpret the written evidence of our past.


Men with cues: “Chinese Meal”, San Francisco by Lai Afong, circa 1880 (image credit: Wikipedia)

At the time this following piece was published, it was straight news reporting; by the protocols of the era’s Settler culture, because it dealt with non-White people, it used them as the object of humor as well.

Decades later, we started to view such things more critically, realizing that even though the goal was to report facts, the product was needlessly tainted with hurtful interpretation.

More recently still, we’ve begun to realize that some otherwise scarcely documented languages of the West Coast were unintentionally preserved in articles like the one below. So now such texts are really precious for our understanding of this region’s cultural and linguistic heritage.

You know that my website is focused on Chinuk Wawa / Chinook Jargon, the renowned pidgin-creole language of the Pacific Northwest’s Métis, tribal, and Settler populations. Today we’ll take one of our sporadic excursions into another regional pidgin, the West Coast variety of Chinese Pidgin English.

Notes beforehand to help you out — Settler readers were expected to grasp what was being said in quoted CPE, but you may need some hints.

  • “If…then…” expressions in CPE are simple juxtapositions of the two clauses next to each other in chronological order of events, as in “he not come back quick(,) his father not likee no more”.
  • There’s a “silent it/him” pronoun, much as in Chinook Jargon, e.g. in “his father not likee no more”.
  • Speakers of West Coast pidgin languages frequently asked ‘Are you understanding me?’ as they spoke to someone they shared no other language with, which is why we often see Chinuk Wawa quotations with “Kumtux?” interspersed — and Sabbee? in CPE quotations.
  • “cue / queue / 辮子”  was the traditional Chinese men’s hairstyle, essentially mandatory at the time.

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AH SING’S TROUBLE. — Ah Sing, Police Court interpreter, went to Davisville yesterday morning to interpret in the case of four of his fellow countrymen who were to be tried for petit larceny in stealing wood. After the testimony was in, a white man, apparently without any cause, assaulted him as he was walking over to the depot, and his him several times in the face. The assailant was arrested. Speaking of the occurrence, later in the day, a Sacramento Chinaman said: “Ah Sing, him in bad luck. He get letter two, tlee days ago from China. His father say, ‘What for you no come home?’ His father say boy away too long time; he not come back quick his father not likee no more, and he can’t come home some again. Sabbee? Ah Sing he likee go home see him father, but he no can now. He belong Clistian church, and cut him cue off, and how he wait till catch cue again. Sabbee? He get some cue pletty soon now — little bit — and blaid him up all light.”

— from the Sacramento (CA) Daily Record-Union of February 15, 1884, page 3, column 1

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