Primary Source: An “Asiatic” Forty-Niner Speaks Truth to Power, Part 3

Norman Ah-Sing had no patience for a frivolous lawsuit against him.

Noel C. Cilker
6 min readJun 11, 2021

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, Norman Ah-Sing, a Chinese merchant in San Francisco during the gold rush, responded angrily, forcefully, and eloquently to the governor of California, who had advocated a ban on Chinese immigration.

A butcher shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, date unknown.

Norman Ah-Sing, described as a “sallow, dried, cadaverous, but active and keen old fellow” by his peers, attired himself in “a singular mixture of the Chinese and American, as he maintained his queue, and at the same time literally ‘capped the climax’ with a stove-pipe hat!” Born in Macao, Norman immigrated to New York in the 1820s, then spent time in Charleston before making his way to San Francisco in 1849 after gold was discovered in California.

There he established Macao & Woosung restaurant and the first mutual aid society for Chinese immigrants. Over the next five years he made friends as well as enemies, and in 1852 he made newspaper headlines. Governor John Bigler had proclaimed a need to block the Chinese from entering the state, so Norman wrote an open letter to the governor, criticizing his logic and proclaiming, “The declaration of your independence, and all the acts of your government, your people, and your history are all against you.” The governor was not pleased.

While this was the most powerful person Norman resisted, it was not the first time he pushed back against a white man. Two years before this episode, Norman was involved in a much smaller incident that the newspapers captured with thinly hidden glee. For Norman, however, it highlighted a daily fact of life in gold rush San Francisco: The Chinese were subject to harassment, bullying, and general disrespect by whites.

Chinese parade in San Francisco, date unknown. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Gold rush writers muse about the Chinese. (1850s)

Many contemporary writers made this observation while also being part of the problem. Frank Soulé, John Gihon, and Jim Nisbet, coauthors of the 1855 chronicle of San Francisco’s then-young history, Annals of San Francisco, wrote:

[T]here is a strong feeling, — prejudice it may be, — existing in California against all Chinamen, and they are nicknamed, cuffed about and treated very unceremoniously by every other class.

To prove their own point, they then opined of the Chinese:

[His] person does not smell very sweetly; his color and the features of his face are unusual; his penuriousness is extreme; his lying, knavery and natural cowardice are proverbial; he dwells apart from white persons, herding only with countrymen, unable to communicate his ideas to such as are not of his nation, or to show the better part of his nature. He is poor and mean, somewhat slavish and crouching, and is despised by the whites, who would only laugh in derision if even a divine were to pretend to place the two races on an equality.

The three authors were only picking up the theme laid down earlier by the city’s newspaper, the Daily Alta California, in 1853:

[I]t is of no advantage to us to have them here. They can never become like us, and they are not of that race or native character which will ever elevate the social condition of California. . . . It is therefore unwise to encourage them in coming hither; they cannot or ought not to become citizens, and the whole advantage in having them here at all may be summed up in these words — it benefits American commerce, at the expense of American civilization.

And in his memoirs, gold rusher Peter Burnett recalled that even children imitated the intolerant behavior of their parents:

While parents will not very often openly assault Chinamen in the streets of the city, they can manage to show their hostility through their children. The young are natural tyrants, and, when they find victims upon whom they can practice this tyranny with impunity, they never fail to do it. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for the police and other officers of the law to prevent this violence in children, when they are not restrained, but rather encouraged, by their parents and a majority of the voters.

A sketch from 1855 depicts whites bullying the Chinese. (Bancroft Library)

A man is muddied and threatens litigation. (1850)

It’s with this backdrop that we see a personal conflict between merchant Norman Ah-Sing and a white man who wandered onto his property in 1850. The New Orleans Weekly Delta, picking through “wire” stories then as newspapers do now, found one to entertain its readers. For Norman, however, it was less a moment of entertainment and more a stand against an entitled interloper. (Note: The term “Celestial” was a common moniker for a Chinese person, who came from the “Celestial Empire,” one of many older references to China.)

CELESTIAL LAW. —

A short time since, a gentleman of this city who was passing by the premises of a Chinese hombre, who keeps a restaurant not far from the corner of Sacramento and Kearny streets. Perhaps, not keeping the line of travel very correctly, as it was late at night, he fell into a cess pool that was not well inclosed, upon the bounds of the Chinaman. Having sustained considerable damage, both in mind and costume, he called on an attorney to bring suit in the case. Previous to commencing, the man of law sent a note to the celestial delinquent, calling on him to make amends to the complainant or he would be obliged to commence proceedings, and would send an officer for the purpose. In a short time, the attorney received a note done up in the regular mandarin style, in full Chinese characters.

A cartoon of a man losing his boot in the muddy streets of San Francisco, 1850s. (Getty Images)

Norman Ah-Sing responds to the charge. (1850)

Not one to be intimidated (this was a man who sailed across the Pacific Ocean to New York, Charleston, Europe, and California), Norman penned a response that informed the lawyer what he thought of the complaint.

By the laws of the Celestial Empire, which have been in force from the time of Confucius to the reign of the present illustrious Tau-kwang, it is provided that when a man trespasses upon another’s grounds, and thereby falleth into a sink, he shall get nothing but dirty clothes, unless he happeneth to be an outside barbarian, in which case he shall also get laughed at. As-Sing believes those laws still in force in all parts of the world, and also in California. But, if Mr. E. thinks otherwise, he can trot that officer along with the writ.

According to the newspaper,

This answer had the desired effect. All have stood in awe ever since, and As-Sing has not been visited by the men of law.

Norman would later have trouble with the law, which would ultimately lead to his undoing (assault, fraud, involvement in illegal organizations), but in 1850, it was he who wagged the finger at those attempting to take advantage of him with a cheap score.

Portrait of a Chinese man, c. 1853. (Oakland Museum of California)

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.