I discovered this article while researching the history of Shanghai nightlife at Columbia University in the 1990s. It gives the reader of the age an evocative if somewhat orientalist account of Chinese life in the city in the early 1920s, before the jazz age hit the Chinese population of the city like a firestorm. The author's recounting of the Sing-Song girls in the Chinese teahouse is hilarious and also revealing of the attitudes of many westerners towards Chinese culture and music during that age--a combination of curiosity and disdain. The author has the Chinese girls speaking "pidgin" English, which was quite common in westerners' depictions of Chinese speaking English during that period. If you can get past the orientalist overtones, you might find that this is a very valuable account from westerner's eyes and ears of what it must have been like to stumble into a Chinese teahouse and be served by the young Sing-Song girls. The section on coolies is similar and it's hard to say whether the author is being serious or tongue-in-cheek in his lavish descriptions of what the coolies were saying.
Night Sounds in Shanghai
By James W. Bennett
(Sunset Vol 45 Nov. 1921)
It was the second evening of the Chinese New year festival. The streets of Shanghai were deserted. China had ceased functioning as an ordinary, work-a-day country and was taking the entire week for merry-making.
I walked down the silent, echoing lanes, ordinarily so filled with the polyglot throng of China's great Clearing House and was conscious of a feeling of loneliness. I missed the accustomed cries of the burden carriers, the calls of the vendors, the shouts of the hucksters.
As my walk took me away from the homes of the International Settlement further into the native Chinese city, I began to note subtle breakings of the silence. From within each dark boarded-up house I thought I detected the faintest strains of' music. At first I could not be sure that I had heard aright, so I stopped. Then, as I shamelessly listened at the entrance of one of the houses, I recognized the unmistakable notes of Chinese fiddles, flutes and tom-toms, notes that seemed to drift leisurely out to the street.
Chinese music heard broadside from a distance of fifteen feet is a barbaric diapason of discord, a medley of blues. an earsplitting dissonance. But the same music. coming from a radius of a hundred feet, filtered through several doors, undergoes a change. When it reaches the street, purified of its tympanum-jarring blare, it becomes almost a thing of rare melody.
As my walk progressed, the evening darkened into night, and the festivities behind the boarded-up doors appeared to grow more hilarious. In passing one particular darkened house, I detected the high-pitched shouting which denoted the progress of the Chinese drinking game of "Numbers." This game is a guessing contest played by two persons and in which each player holds up simultaneously one to five fingers and instantly guesses the number of fingers elevated by both. They play very rapidly, and, as the game proceeds, the pIayers unconsciously shout their numbers at the top of their lungs. The Chinese are keen students of gambling psychology and are very clever at guessing the play of their opponents. Strange to say, the loser must pay the penalty of drinking all the wine in his cup, while the winner is absolved from imbibing that round. The Chinaman can never understand the evident willingness of Occidental players to lose, for he himself desires to remain sober at the game and at the banquet as long as possible; he has an abhorrence of quick alcoholic oblivion.
As my time still lacked an hour of an eight-thirty dinner appointment, I decided to while away a portion of it by entering a tea-house. I climbed the stairs and, as I reached the top, the reek of hundreds of perspiring people seemed to strike me full in the face. The room was enormous yet crowded almost to overflowing.
A waiter found me a table on which was cluttered the cold remains of a dish of shark's fins, looking nauseatingly glutinous, a half-filled bowl of equally cold rice and an empty tea-cup.
"I wantchee tea," I told him crossly.
"No sabe." he countered. "
I pointed to the tea-cup and nodded a vigorous affirmative. I then indicated the shark's fins and the rice and shook my head in violent negation. He grinned delightedly. He then began to talk in rapid Chinese and ended his sentence with a jovial wink. I presumed that he was descanting on the brand of tea to be brought to me, so I nodded a "Yes," and he disappeared on a dead run.
In five minutes I learned the reason for that wink, for three girls, dressed in gorgeous silks, appeared at my table. They knelt down on cushions at my feet. Their ages appeared to be about thirteen years, but they were painted and calcimined within an inch of their lives. They were Chinese "Sing-song Girls," the cabaret singers of the Celestial Empire, the geishas of China.
"No wantchee," I said.
In a flash one girl jumped up and frowned at me. "I spiggoty Eeng-leesh veree goodee. You right now tellee Bossman you wantchee me come singee one song. Hell-dam', here I am. I veree goodee singee."
"All right, infant," I capitulated weakly, "trot out your grand opera," and she, sensing my consent, if not understanding my words, motioned to her orchestra.
Now, a Sing-song girl's orchestra consists of one player, and each girl has her own accompanist. The "orchestra" of my linguistic singer was a wrinkled octogenarian with rheumy almost sightless eyes who performed upon the squawkiest Chinese fiddle I had ever heard. He played four notes and then the girl began to sing. Her voice was stupendous in volume; it was shrill as the grating of a hundred files; it was as tuneless as the first notes of a rooster, heard by an insomnia-ridden man. How can I describe that song? Imagine a man yodeling a cracked falsetto at the top of his voice and religiously attempting to sing two out of every three notes a half beat out of time and two degrees out of harmony, then permit him to be assisted by vicious interruptions from a pocket edition of a horse-fiddle and you have the tout ensembleof a Chinese cabaret song.
A factor which adds a fantastic quality to such songs is that the words are alwavs poetic. Translated, they probably would read
The wind softly caresses
The snow-driven white breast
Of the mountain.
Winter birds huddle
In the green branches
Of the fir trees.
I am lonely with a loneliness deep,
And my soul is troubled,
I am lonely for my home;
My heart grieves;
The gentle sighing of the night wind
Whispers of home.
The other two children sang their songs with equally enthusiastic furor. I have been many times told that the Sing-song girls are not children. It has been patiently explained to me that they are never younger than fifteen years of age, and more often their ages average from twenty to twenty-five years. But they are all so tiny; their hair dressed with the long bangs that proclaims the unmarried woman, their flowered jackets and absurdly high-water trousers--all makes them seem like little children, costumed and be-painted for some amateur festival.
After they had finished their song they bowed low to me, and the girl who first sang asked if I would do her the honorable favor of presenting her with my pocket handkerchief and three of my calling cards. I did so.
She thanked me very prettily, and then, with all the importance of a conjuror doing a famous trick, she scrutinized my visiting card and said:
"Now, I weel read your mas' honorable dam' name. It ees-'Jambs Ben-eeet'."
Whereupon, with a delightedly triumphant smile, she tucked my pocket-handkerchief in her jacket, apparently as a memento of the occasion. The two other girls crowded about her, and she distributed the two remaining visiting cards. This ceremony completed she led her troupe of co-stars away.
Leaving the tea-house, I began to retrace my steps back from the native city to my rooms at the Consulate and soon reached the French Bund. Here, I found they were busily loading coastwise and river steamers; for the poor stevedore coolies are never given a holiday even at New Year time.
The confusion along the Bund seemed tremendous, coming upon it, as I did, from the quiet streets of the native city. The ant-like running to and fro of the burden-bearers under the flares of rush lights, their singing and shouting, made it all seem indeed like the city of Hurly-Burly itself.
I have heard the negroes singing on the levees at New Orleans; I have listened to the Polynesians crooning as they loaded copra at Papeete or Pago-Pago; I have accustomed my ear to the shouting of the blacks engaged in similar work at Thursday Islands, but all those sounds fade into an orderly silence in comparison with the noises heard along the Bund.
Like the inward urge of the hound to bay at the moon, it seems that the coolie must sing at his work. It is traditional, persisting tenaciously through countless generations. Each workman is apparently required to utter a definite cry, denoting to what craft of carriers he belongs. Then he must amend that cry for every variation in the load he carries. If he is of the craft of stone carriers, his call will signify the fact, but, if he carries marble on one trip and limestone his next, he must give a different call for each load. These variations are difficult for an untrained ear to detect. After listening to many calls I was able to note a differentiation somewhat as follows:
"Heh"hoh! Heh-hoh!" and "Hehheh-hoh! Heh-heh-hoh!"
The translation of a few of the calls show them to be abrupt, as: "Look out, you! Look out!" The great per cent of them, however, when translated, will read something like this:
"Make way, honorable gentleman, a poor unworthy coolie now passes you, bearing a dirty load of goods, and he fears that you will soil your wondrous silk vestments!”
I remember once inadvertentlv blocking the passage of two coolies bearing a sedan chair. It was a murky night in Suchow and the unlighted excuse for a street was only wide enough for my donkey to pass the chair by dint of considerable manipulation. As I showed no haste to open the passage, the coolies suddenly grew very wroth and began to shout a phrase at me, glowering the while. Being in a teasing mood, I obdurately held my ground. They raised the pitch of their voices and began to shake their fists at me, still repeating the phrase.
I turned to my companion, also perched on a donkey behind me, and remarked that I thought the coolies were swearing at me, or, at least, they were calling me one of their favorite expressions-"Foreign Devil!" My friend knew Chinese; he grinned and gave me the translation of their vicious-sounding phrase:
"Will the highly exalted gentlemen deign to step aside for the smallest fraction of a moment and permit the poorest and most humble of persons to pass with their esteemed Lord's magnificent chair?"
I had delayed too much time on the Bund to permit of my walking home, so I signaled to a ricksha. That night was fated to be a night of noises, for my ricksha boy, while we were returning to the Consulate, broke into song. Only once since has it been my misfortune to hear a ricksha boy sing, for they are one of the few silent classes of coolies. This outburst, I soon discovered, was caused by too frequent imbibition of hot Chinese wine. He swung an erratic course up the street, narrowly escaping collisions but singing gleefully the while.
At last, his fare, fearing for the fate of his "most honorable neck," poked the coolie briskly in the ribs with a walking stick. This acted as a temporary soberer, the song ceased, and I was glad to note that my progress was considerably improved.
Late that night, as I turned in, I could still hear from my windows the singing of the coolies loading steamers for Seattle at the Japanese dock, less than a block away.
Again, as was the case of the New Year revelers, the singing came from a distance; it was muffled bv the closed windows and the discords seemed to have been filtered away.
As I listened to the coolie cries I wondered idly of what were those yellow men thinking. Was it of the buying of a wife from Ningpo, the ultimate fate of a father's soul, the tale of a fellow coolie about the great white fox spirit, or, more probably, was it of the heaping bowls of rice, garnished with bits of stewed meat that they would consume in the morning?
I would never know the answer. Instead, I heard only the echoing calls, sounding bell-like in the frosty air, repeating phrases centuries old, phrases requesting that:
".... The most highly respected Sir should avoid danger to himself by removing his corporeal body from the path of the poor unworthy person bearing this precious load of salt!"