Saturday, June 18, 2011

Smuggling Chineese Coolies And Opium Into United States

One dark night last November a high power gasoline launch came stealthily in from the Pacific and entered Monterey Bay.  The engine was muffled so that her progress was almost noiseless, nor was there the sound of a single voice aboard nor the faintest glimmer of light, not even the spark from a cigar end, and yet she carried twenty-five human beings, two white men and twenty-three coolies, the latter huddled closely and lying low.  Avoiding the regular landing places the launch headed for a sandy beach with no habitation in sight and rested silent and motionless while a couple of small boats were put ashore.  The first of these had barely shoved her nose into the sand when a sharp voice exclaimed, "Hands up, you are under arrest!" and half a dozen shadowy figures sprang up from their hiding place on the beach and the starlight glinted upon their leveled weapons.  The other boat was so close behind that escape was impossible.  The coolies lost their heads and began to shout and cackle in their high-keyed voices, but the two white men surrendered silently and sullenly.  They knew that the game was up; the entire outfit, coolies, smugglers and launch, was in the hands of the government.

Almost simultaneously with this capture of yellow contraband by the immigration officials, a hotel room was raided in Los Angeles and a dashing young woman was captured by the officers.  She was discovered reading a novel and smoking a cigarette the while after the manner of the heroines of melodrama.  The next morning the papers described her as the queen of the smugglers and she was booked on the police blotter as having conspired to land Chinese illegally in the United States.
At the same time another alleged conspirator was taken in the toils, a swarthy Mexican, but one of the educated and resourceful type.  He carried himself like one used to command and it was claimed that he had formerly been governor of Lower California.

How much all this sounds like a page from a picturesque novel!  How much resemblance it bears to the stage setting of a melodrama, the moonless night, the deserted coast, the silent mysterious vessel, the swift action of the arrest with the steel glitter of leveled firearms.  But it is all reality, part of the day's and night's work of the immigration inspectors on the Pacific Coast; a taciturn lot of young men, vigorous, alert and close-mouthed.  Unfortunate indeed is the latter characteristic, for what a lot of rattling good stories these chaps could tell, if only they would!
But it is not their business to volunteer information for story writers.  Their duty is to guard our irregular coast line which extends with easy landing places for a distance of about six hundred miles between San Diego, near the Mexican coast line and north to San Francisco and beyond.  Here is played (and adventurous moves are being made even while you read these words) a man-size game of "hide-and-seek,: in which gold plays a part and Death often takes a hand.

The revenue cutter Bear and the swift launch Orient ply up and down the coast, keeping a sharp lookout for low-lying, smoke colored power boats, ostensibly mere fishing craft, but often smugglers of yellow contraband, the excluded Chinese, who are brought up from Ensenada and other Mexican ports to be shipped ashore in this land of their heart's desire.

Mexican desperadoes, smug Chinese merchants, white men of many nationalities, but all with the temperament of gamblers or soldiers of fortune, are regularly engaged in this game, wherein the chances are good and the stakes are high.  Even negroes and Japanese have been known to try their hand at it, but they are exceptional cases.
There is no lack of capital behind the smuggling rings, and ready cash is an essential for some of the moves; cash for equipping the power boats and schooners; property for those who must furnish bond when suspected Chinese are detained, and gold without stint for the lawyers who undertake their defense.
It is claimed that there are about fifty smuggling rings operating between El Paso and the Pacific Coast and between Tia Juana and San Francisco, and that no less than twenty vessels are constantly engaged in the traffic.
First the coolies are landed in Mexico, a matter of no difficulty as they are not excluded from that country.  Those who are without means have no trouble finding employment and immediately set about to save a couple hundred dollars for their passage money into the United States, which, as a rule, must be paid in advance.  When financially qualified they receive a course of instruction in a school, where a smattering of English is taught together with a few general bits of description to enable them to lie plausibly in case of capture by immigration officials.  For instance, they are given names of certain streets and numbers in San Francisco's Chinatown where they presumably lived before the great fire, at which time their "chuck gees" were so unfortunately destroyed.  These are the papers which certify that a Chinaman has a legal right to be in this country, and although it is possible to supply some of the smuggled coolies with "chuck gees," formerly owned by celestials who have returned to China or died, yet there are not enough of these valuable documents to go around, so a little pigeon English and an apparent familiarity with San Francisco is very helpful in case of examination.

Although the Mexican government does not interfere with them in any way, yet there is always a mysterious and secret leave-taking from Ensenada or any other Mexican port of departure.  The reason for this is that there is considerable danger of the immigration official being "tipped off" by some volunteer who is desirous of earning the reward for such information.  So the twenty-odd who are chosen for such a consignment slip away from town by twos and threes in the twilight and meet at some convenient secluded spot.  It may be a deserted beach or an obscure boat house, and one rendezvous is a certain cave in a seaside cliff into which, with favorable tide, the water runs high enough to float a skiff.
Once at sea, the Chinese are taking big chances but they know that the little power boats are swifter than almost any other craft on the waters, while the diminutive size of the hull, which hugs the water and is painted a shade of grey that is almost invisible, is also a factor that counts in their favor.
Sinister tales are afloat, and they seem to be well founded, of launches which have been pursued by government vessels and which were known to carry a score or so of coolies.  When overhauled, after a long chase, not a Chinaman was aboard, though unmistakable traces of them were found.  There was no legal evidence in these cases to convict the crew of having thrown their living cargo into the sea, but that was the only solution of the mystery.  The white men were armed and courageous, the coolies timid and weaponless, and moreover they had paid their passage money in advance.  The smugglers faced long terms of imprisonment if they were caught with the evidence, so why not destroy the evidence?

In one case the report was made public of a boatload of Chinese who were seen crowded into a skiff in the wake of a rapidly disappearing "fishing" launch.  Before the pursuers could overtake it, however, the over-weighted rowboat was swamped and once more the evidence was destroyed.
On other occasion a small cargo consisting of ten coolies narrowly escaped a worse fate.  Being in danger of capture from a government vessel, the captain of a small schooner ran close to the Coronado Islands, twenty miles off the coast of San Diego, and marooned his charges without water or food.  Now the Coronado's are without water, being rugged and uninhabited rocks jutting up from the ocean, and the only food obtainable is shell fish, the eggs of wild birds and such game as could be caught with the naked hands.  It was by shear good luck that they were discovered before death ended their sufferings.  They had been in a famishing condition for ten days before a party of pleasure seekers from San Diego happened to notice a signal which they had hoisted, a tattered piece of sail cloth on a stick.  It was too rough for the pleasure boat to attempt a landing, as the island is accessible only in fine weather, and then with a row boat, but provisions and water were bundled up in packages that would float and allowed to drift ashore to the abandoned coolies, who fought for them with the ferocity of despair.  The following morning the ten castaways were taken aboard by the Orient, but as the Coronado's are Mexican territory, the victims of the smuggler's cruelty could not be sent back to China by the authorities.  Instead of that, they were returned to the Mexican port from which they had sailed and probably by this time have managed to smuggle themselves into the United States by one of the numerous "Blind Trails."

Many stories are told of long, stern chases at sea, and of attempts, sometimes successful and sometimes in vain, to capture the smugglers by stratagem.  Some of the immigration officials have gone so far as to disguise themselves and make use of a launch such as is used by the fishermen of San Pedro.  In this way they could keep watch about the islands around the coast with good chances of success, as many of the fishermen are friendly towards the smugglers and willing to earn an occasional hundred or so by helping them out.  Sometimes, too, when information as to a proposed landing is secured, an ambush is arranged and armed men are stationed to watch out for the grey painted launch without lights.  One ambuscade like this had doubtful results.  The immigration officials were in waiting on the bascule bridge at the entrance to Long Beach Harbor and when, in the darkness and fog, they descried the smuggler's craft they fired upon it after due warning.  In spite of the fusillade, the launch took the chance and ran through the harbor entrance and disappeared in the lagoons.  Shortly afterwards it reappeared and again sped past under a rain of shots.  The officials said that no landing could have been made in that time, but several weeks afterwards a dozen pair of Chinese shoes were found in the mud near the harbor.  The theory is that the coolies were met by friends who had brought them American footwear to correspond with their ready-made suits and cropped hair.
Even when smuggled coolies are caught in obscure cellars in Chinatown, the agents of the smugglers' ring do not necessarily lose.  Even if the coolie has not paid his way in advance, there is a good prospect of the syndicate making its money just the same.  The method of accomplishing this is ingenious enough:  the Chinese laborer gives his promise or note to pay a certain amount upon being landed here, and by the Chinese code of honor no repudiation of contract is probable.  Even if the coolie is captured, he is bound to pay the two hundred dollars, or whatever the amount may be, and the matter is arranged thus: the prisoner is given expert legal services and his hearing before the court lengthened as much as possible and if he is ordered deported an appeal is taken on some technicality.  Meanwhile he is admitted to bail to the amount of a thousand dollars or so, and the sum is readily advanced by the wealthy members of the ring.  It may be six months or even a year before the case is again brought before the court and meanwhile the smuggled coolie has been industriously tilling the soil or washing clothes or making fair wages at some other employment.  Form the amount which he saves, he is able to pay to the smugglers' syndicate the amount for which he gave his note, so that the dealers in this human contraband stand to win either way.

The methods of the guides who bring the coolies over the "blind trail" are as ingenious and unscrupulous as those of their seafaring brethren.  The same dark stories drift into civilization of the bodies of slaughtered Chinese found in lonely mountain passes, who were thus disposed of when the danger of pursuit became imminent.
Mexicans are usually chosen as guides, as there are many to select from who have been born and bred among the southwestern ranges and know every pass and canyon.  The small bands of Chinese are attired as much as possible after the fashion of Mexican laborers, and the big straw sombreros that come well down over their faces would cause them to go unsuspected by the casual passerby.  Not that they take any chance in meeting people, for they hide by day and travel by night, avoiding the well known trails and being especially careful to leave no tracks.  When they are forced to leave the hard ground to cross a dusty road the precaution is taken of laying a blanket on the ground over which they have passed.  This is quickly raised at the four corners, and as it is flipped up the dust rises and settles again completely obliterating the tracks.  Sometimes these bands are led into colonies of their fellow countrymen, which may be a ranch where a large number of coolies are employed or perhaps a Chinese quarter of one of the smaller towns.  The efforts of the smugglers are directed to getting their charges safely into the Chinatown of one of the larger cities and there are several ingenious methods of sending them speedily out of the thinly settled districts and into the cities.

They have gone so far as to utilize the automobile for this purpose and only a short time ago a big touring car was stopped by the immigration officials with a tonneau full of contraband Chinese.  The capture was effected at night and it required the persuasion of sawed off shotguns to bring the car to a stop.  Very shrewdly the officers had stationed themselves in a narrow pass with a steep grade so that no escape was possible.
Another recent case in which the automobile was used for coolie smuggling was that of a well know San Diego businessman who was tempted by the large profits to risk his reputation and liberty, breaking into the game as an outsider; just as the casual visitor to Monte Carlo is sometimes overcome by the sight of the apparently easy money and takes a chance on the impulse of the moment.

The man ran down to Tia Juana in his forty-horse-power car and picked up a Mexican, a coolie and about four thousand dollars worth of opium, the contraband, human and otherwise being deposited on the floor of the tonneau  and covered with rugs.  The return trip to San Diego was made in safety, but the contract called for delivery in the Los Angeles Chinatown, and by the time the automobile had left the southern city on the Los Angeles Road the immigration officials had been "tipped off" by one of the many observant spies.  It was too late to set out in pursuit from San Diego but a telephone message was dispatched to Elsinore, about halfway between the two cities, and the officers stationed there were instructed to intercept the automobile.  It was known that the amateur smuggler was not coming through that little town but taking the coast road, so a couple of inspectors mounted their motorcycles and made a midnight ride across rugged country to the old Spanish mission of San Juan Capistrano.  Here they waited in ambush in the shadows of the ruined adobe structure and presently the silence of the night was broken by the distant roar of an exhaust.  The automobile was tearing along at full speed with the muffler cut out, trying at all hazards to make Los Angeles before daylight.  The motorcycle men seized their guns and took up a position where they could command the road and as the searchlights of the automobile came into sight they shouted for it to halt.  The driver of the car probably thought that he was being intercepted by "speed cops" and decided that the quickest way out of the difficulty was to stop and give his number which would result in nothing more serious than a fine of ten dollars or so for breaking the speed laws.  But the Mexican had probably an inkling of the truth for as the car stopped he drew a revolver and shouted to his companion to go ahead.  It was too late, however.  At the flash of his weapon the officers sprang into the car, overpowered the Mexican and dragged him from the machine, disarming him in the struggle.  The white man made no resistance; realizing that he had lost out in the desperate game he allowed the officers to throw back the rugs disclosing the crouching coolie and the tins of opium.
The ingenuity of the smugglers is shown by a system of introducing their charges into sealed freight cars without breaking the seal:  the method is to use a cold chisel on certain bolts which hold the sliding door to the car.  When these bolts are removed it is possible to pry open that end of the door farthest from the seal just wide enough to admit a man with some squeezing.  With the human cargo safely aboard, the door is slipped back into place and fresh bolts are inserted in the holes left by the original ones and the nuts are screwed to them by one of the Chinese inside.  The car can then stand inspection by train men or suspicious immigration officials; the seal is undisturbed and all is apparently as it was.  The train is made up, the cars pulled into San Francisco or Los Angeles and by unscrewing the bolts from within the Chinese can escape.

Some odd cases recently came to light which indicated the connivance of negro porters and waiters in secreting Chinese on the passenger trains.  Frightened coolies have been found cowering in linen closets, coolers and in the lavatory of an empty car.  In fact they were so securely hidden in the latter instance that they would have been safely landed at their destination but for their curiosity regarding a certain mysterious push button.  They kept pushing the button and in their deluded ignorance were rejoiced at the faint tinkle that responded.  At the outer end of the car, though, the faint tinkle was a imperious and persistent ringing and the conductor, who happened to pass through, sought for a reason.  The porter's explanation was far from satisfactory but the sight which met the conductor's eyes when he opened the door was sufficiently enlightening; three yellow, grinning, "heathen Chinese" playing tricks with the electric bell.  As there is a liberal reward, $350.00, for information that leads to the capture of yellow contraband, the worthy conductor felt that he had not investigated in vain.
As to the number of coolies arrested and deported, the Commissioner General of Immigration furnished the following figures to the author:  Total arrests for fiscal year ending June 30th, 1910, 977.  Deportations, 825.  For the following year ending June 30th, 1911, arrests 669, deportations, 552.  These figures are for the entire United States.

For southern California, the section of the country treated in the article, they are large in proportion: for 1911, arrests, 172; deportations, 135.  For Arizona for 1911, arrests, 85; deportations, 74.  Western Texas for 1911, arrests, 157; deportations, 168.

Originally published in Technical World Magazine, June 1912.
Written by Charlton Lawrence Edholm.

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