How’s that for a birth certificate?

I’ll offer the following passage without comment, just because it’s interesting. It describes the state of politics in San Francisco in the year 1850. Within a year of the start of the gold rush, the population of the city had boomed from less than one thousand to more than twenty-five times that number, and it would only continue to grow:

The elections of the times were a farce and a holiday; nobody knew whom he was voting for nor what he was shouting for, but he voted as often and shouted as loud as he could. Every American citizen was entitled to a vote, and every one, no matter from what part of the world he came, claimed to be an American citizen and defied any one to prove the contrary. Proof consisted of club, sling-shot, bowie, and pistol. A grand free fight was a refreshment to the soul. After “a pleasant time by all was had,” the populace settled down and forgot all about the officers whom it had elected.

—Stewart Edward White,
The Forty-Niners: A Chronicle of the California Trail and El Dorado. 1920.


The Forty-Niners.


The Only Thing Missing is a Little Teapot Spout …

When I was a child, one of the first things I remember hearing about China was the taboo behind girl babies. When I misbehaved, my dad would joke around and say, “Therese, if you don’t straighten up, we’re going to ship you to China.” I knew what that meant. My days of watching westerns, martial arts, films, and Night Gallery would be over. I would be sealed in a wooden crate without any “fragile” stickers, placed on a palate, and shipped with all the other girls who behaved badly. It was said that a Chinese family often felt cursed if a female child was born into it. I’m sure my parents sometimes felt the same way — I know my younger brother certainly did.

In the novel we’re working on, my writing partner and I chose as our main character a young girl living under terrible circumstances in mid-19th century China. We wanted to breathe life into a seemingly useless pest. During our research into this time and place, we came across many grim historical discoveries, but one towered above them all:

If a Chinese baby dies, no loving hands prepare it for its grave. A piece of coarse matting is tied around the tiny body, and it is carried to a little tower erected outside most cities, with little openings like windows, but without doors. All that is left of baby is thrown in through one of these openings, and falls into the pit below the tower. If the little one is a girl, the parents are not always particular to ascertain if it is quite dead or not.

That quote is taken from a book called Child-Life in Chinese Homes, written by an English missionary to China named Mrs. Bryson and published in 1885. It can be fascinating to read these old accounts of westerners in Asia. Often they seem arrogant and superior in their attitudes, neither willing nor able to grasp the meaning or value of the strange customs and people they were discovering. This Mrs. Bryson, though, does seem in her writings to have a real love for the children and families she met and worked with.

Baby tower, Foochow, ca. 1900. From Chinese Pictures: Notes on Photographs Made in China, by Mrs. J.F. Bishop.

I’ll leave you with a trailer for the film King of Masks, one of my favorites. The story is about a simple street performer who finds new joy in his life when he purchases a young boy from a slave trader posing as the boy’s father. He trains the boy as his apprentice and treats him as a grandson. All is well until Doggie (an afectionate term often used for young children in China) is discovered to actually be a girl in disguise:

I Love the Smell of Napalm in the Morning.

One of my favourite lines from one of my favourite films (Apocalypse Now!). Now that I think about it, I don’t really know what napalm even smells like (thank goodness). It was the powerful writing of Coppola and Milius along with Robert Duvall’s enthusiastic line delivery that in a sense tricked me into thinking I knew what Napalm smelled like. As my writing partner and I research and piece together 1850s Guangzhou (Canton), it is our quest to convey the smells of a dirty declining city to our readers. We describe a world that triggers our most primal sense. The sense of smell. Living in continual grime, rot, and filth, the voices of our characters reflect anguish and desperation. The overall tone and quality of life in the streets of Guangzhou was unclean, and smelled repulsive and foul. Nauseatingly foul. What did people smell like? Hygiene was definitely not at its high point in the 1850s. Were teeth decayed? You bet. Probably rotted to the gumline. What did breath smell like after a hedonistic night out at the local opium den? Perhaps too much whiskey was involved which in turn may have caused a thick layer of vomit to cover the dirt floors. The flies. The stench. The horror. Please continue to follow our progress as we communicate a failing society and wartime Canton to our readers.

ps: Next time you’re at the pumps filling up the chevy, think of Captain Kilgore and napalm in the morning. I hear napalm smells like gasoline…

Hong Kong Phooey. What’s in a name?

As I reread the first chapter of our novel, I catch myself thinking about how much thought goes into character naming and identification. What is their mission, their backstory, their voice? It reminds me of the name selection process I encountered when I brought my Chesapeake Bay Retriever home. What does he look like? What is his backstory? What are his personality traits? Is he a humper? A thief? A lowdown dirty … well you know. A breeder once told me it is best to give dogs two syllable names. I followed those guidelines. I named my last Chessie Morro — after Morro Bay, where I lived. My current Chessie is Hooper. He is named after a lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay.


That said, I wonder how much sober care and effort went into naming Shaggy? Witchy Poo, Sigmund the Sea Monster, or my favourite, Hong Kong Phooey? Did Schulz ever fret over naming Charley Brown? Linus? Hmmmm.

In our novel, the main characters required Chinese names. More specific, Guangzhou (Canton) names. More specific yet, 1850s names. Our characters required peasant names, names from the working class — and since neither of us speak Chinese, we had to spend a lot of time poring over name books and web sites, trying to find something appropriate and then verifying that the name was in fact Cantonese and not, as most of the names we came across, Mandarin. This was all especially difficult when you take into account all the various ways of spelling out Chinese sounds in our English alphabet.

In our research, we found that most Chinese names have sweet and thoughtful meanings*. To an English eye, some Chinese names are long and difficult to pronounce. Zhou Zhou was more difficult, obviously, than say, Chi-Yen. Secretly bringing modern culture names into the mix is always fun too. We’ve organized our scripts to reflect the time and genre. In this novel, for instance, we have a character named Doctor Woo. If you know my musical taste, you can probably guess the origin.

Sometimes character names originate from a closer proximity. For instance, our British Naval Officer is named Cosgrove (my mother’s Irish maiden name). Other times we make names up to reflect the very essence of a personality trait, especially where villains are concerned. The baddy in this novel (an Englishman) has a name that can be translated as “Bad Place.” Want to take a guess at his name?

Please stay tuned, as we continue to create characters, develop backstories, and name characters.

*An exception is something known as “milk names,” or temporary names given to infants and young children, which often implied that the child was worthless and unloved in an attempt to fool the demons who might otherwise want to steal the child away from its parents.

It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man …

… Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have. As I sit here in my living room about to watch Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (again) I am reminded about how difficult it is to kill your characters. They ain’t ever gonna breathe again. Killing folks is a damn thing — even the ones who you’ve written to deserve it. What I admire most about films like Unforgiven and Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch is the ability to portray characters who are both admirable and dirty. I mean, after all, no one is innocent, particularly in desperate times. Those desperate times are where I empathize with characters the most. Everyone likes an underdog, even if that underdog is lowdown, dirty, and belongs in a junkyard. Unlike most John Wayne films, in my favourite stories, there are no heroes, only some baddies killing some other baddies we don’t really know (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; Bladerunner; Apocalypse Now; A Clockwork Orange; and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, to name a few). The only true hero is desperation. I am filled with life when I sit down to watch Unforgiven. It will no doubt prepare me for writing the next chapter of my current novel. Keep your spurs on and your Winchester close by …

The Earliest Plastic Surgery?

Today we jumped feet first into fashion trends of 1850s China. Among the gold fingernails, colourful silk dresses, embroidered robes, precious metal hair adornments, we stumbled upon foot binding. Chinese women believed the only way they could marry into wealth was with bound feet. The bones were broken at a young age (by 6), folded in half, and bandaged tightly so they could no longer grow. The feet often became infected and gangrenous. Foot binding was banned in the early 1900s. I wonder if future generations will view butt implants, breast augmentation, lipo suction, and face lifts from 2000s as equally grotesque and unnecessary or if they will say it was a way for women to marry into wealth. Here is an interview with a foot binding survivor.




The nice thing about writing fiction is that you get to make stuff up. Still, if your story is based in fact or set in some real time and place, it’s good to get the details as close to correct as possible. We’re wrapping up chapter eight of our new book now, finally moving the story from China to San Francisco, and I can’t imagine how we would have gotten this far without the Internet on our side.

Today we were working on a description of the arrival of our main characters in Chinatown in the year 1859. Among the many nice sources we’ve tracked down is the Found SF web site, which has a first-hand account of a visit by Charles Warren Stoddard in the year 1854:

My companion and I tarried long on Dupont Street, between Pacific and Sacramento Streets. The shops were like peep shows on a larger scale. How bright they were! How gay with color! How rich with carvings and curios. Each was like a set-scene on the stage. The shopkeepers and their aids were like actors in a play. They seemed really to be playing and not trying to engage in any serious business. Surely it would have been quite beneath the dignity of such distinguished gentlemen to take the smallest interest in the affairs of trade. They were clad in silks and satins and furs of great value; they had a little fingernail as long as a slice of quill pen; they had tea on tables of carved teak; and they had impossible pipes that breathed unspeakable odors. They wore bracelets of priceless jade. They had private boxes, which hung from the ceiling and looked like cages for some unclassified bird; and they could go up into those boxes when life at the tea-table became tiresome, and get quite another point of view. There they could look down upon the world of traffic that never did anything in their shops, as far as we could see; and, still murmuring to themselves in a tongue that sounds untranslatable and a voice that was never known to rise above a stage whisper, they could at one and the same moment regard with scorn the Christian, keep an eye on the cash-boy, and make perfect pictures of themselves.

Of course Stoddard’s account is not ours, and we’ll use it only as inspiration for some of our own imagined details. But what sidetracked our research today was a picture on that same page:

Hats worn by Chinese

Chinese get the news about a peace pact between the Hop Sing and Bing Kong tongs, c. 1875.

It was the hats that drew our attention—fantastic hats, and in such great variety. I wish I could wear hats like that today without looking like a ridiculous hipster. The question, though, was the date of the photo. 1875? Were those same hats being worn sixteen years earlier in 1859?

Here’s a drawing, also from the Found SF site, which seems to be from 1852:

Chinese merchants and coolie. 1852?

The Chinese had only been arriving in the city since late 1849, so these particular gentlemen were rather fresh off the boat. You can see the big difference in the styles. So when did they switch to the new hats?

I don’t have a definitive answer to that, but one disappointing clue comes from the Wikipedia page for John Batterson Stetson:

The former hat-maker turned a critical eye to the flea-infested coonskin caps favored by many of the gold seekers, and wondered whether fur-felt would work for a lightweight, all-weather hat suitable for the West.

But Stetson didn’t create his company until the year 1865. If gold prospectors were stuck with coonskin caps before that year, then it seems unlikely that Chinese immigrants were wearing all those great hats in the year 1859, although it’s true that the bowler would have been readily available at that time.