Category Archives: labor

Fuling: City of Steps

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 27-28:

THERE ARE NO BICYCLES in Fuling. Otherwise it is similar to any other small Chinese city—loud, busy, dirty, crowded; the traffic twisted, the pedestrians jostling each other; shops overstaffed and full of goods, streets covered with propaganda signs; no traffic lights, drivers honking constantly; televisions blaring, people bickering over prices; and along the main streets rows of frightened-looking trees, their leaves gray with coal dust, the same gray dust that covers everything in the city.

There are no bicycles because Fuling is full of steps, and the city is full of steps because it is squeezed close on the mountains that press against the junction of the Wu and Yangtze Rivers. Narrow streets also rise from the riverbanks, switchbacking up the hills, but they are cramped and indirect and too steep for bicycles. Automobile traffic tangles on the sharp corners. And so the long stone staircases are the true boulevards of Fuling, carrying most of its traffic—shoppers descending the stairs, pausing to browse in stores; porters climbing up, shoulders bowed under the weight of crates and bundles.

Virtually every necessary good or service can be found along these stairways and their landings. There are shops and restaurants, cobblers and barbers. One of the lower stairways is lined with Daoist fortune-tellers. Another staircase is home to a group of three dentists who work at a table covered with rusty tools, syringes in mysterious fluids, and pans of cruelly defeated teeth—a sort of crude advertisement. Sometimes a peasant will stop to have his tooth pulled, after haggling over the price, and a crowd will gather to watch. Everything is public. A haircut comes with an audience. The price of any purchase is commented on by the other shoppers who pause as they pass. For medical problems one can sit in the open air and see a traditional Chinese physician, who has a regular stand near the top of one of the stairways. His stand consists of a stool, a box of bottles, and a white sheet with big characters that say:

To Help You Relieve Worries and Solve Problems! Particular Treatments: Corns, Sluggishness, Black Moles, Ear Checks. Surgery—No Pain, No Itching, No Bloodletting, No Effects on Your Job!

Fuling is not an easy city. Old people rest on the staircases, panting. To carry anything up the hills is backbreaking work, and so the city is full of porters. They haul their loads on bamboo poles balanced across their shoulders, the same way freight was carried in the south of China in the 1800s, when the English referred to such laborers as “coolies”—from the Chinese kuli, or “bitter strength.” Here in Fuling, as in all of the eastern Sichuan river towns, the porters are called Bang-Bang Jun—the Stick-Stick Army. They have uniforms (the simple blue clothes of the Chinese peasantry), and the weapons of their trade (bamboo poles and loops of cheap rope), and they tend to gather in packs, in companies, in battalions. To bargain with one stick-stick soldier is to bargain with a regiment. Their jobs are difficult enough without cutthroat competition, and they look out for each other; there is no formal union but the informal bond of hard labor is much closer. During midday, when most people rest, the stick-stick soldiers can be seen along the midtown streets, sitting on their poles, smoking, chatting, playing cards; and in their leisure there is an air not so much of relaxation as of a lull in the battle.

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Samurai in San Francisco, 1860

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 119-121:

The International Hotel stood on the corner of Jackson and Kearney Streets in the center of the city. When the samurai alighted in front of the lobby, their strange appearance attracted crowds of spectators, who must have watched their every move. “One wore a light blue gown and trowsers the colors of the sky at sunset, spangled, starred and barred with gold and crimson,” reported the Daily Evening Bulletin on March 20. Each man displayed on his jacket his family crest in white “circular, oval, or square patches,” which were “of an import quite unknown to us.” And each wore his long and short swords in the polished scabbards at his left hip, “almost horizontally.” One of them “carried a fan [in his right hand], in his left a walking cane… Almost every man wore sandals, generally [made] of grass.”

The Bulletin reported on March 19 that the Japanese “through the interpreters kept up such sort of conversation as they could. Fortunately, [California] Governor [John] Downey happened to be in town, and was early at the door. The Japanese could hardly believe that such a modest, unassuming, quiet little man could be a governor.” “It was necessary for … Brooke to explain repeatedly that this was the real Governor, before they could believe it,” reported the Daily Alta California on the same day. “They surveyed him from head to foot, and looked at the door again and again to see the retinue of attendants whom they thought ought to be following him.”

Katsu Kaishū, for his part, made a grand impression on the San Franciscans, who discerned in him a likeness to the former explorer, Gold Rush millionaire, California senator, Democratic candidate for president of the United States, and one of their greatest heroes. “The Captain of the corvette is a fine looking man, marvelously resembling in stature, form, and features Colonel [John Charles] Fremont, only that his eye is darker, and his mouth less distinctly shows the pluck of its owner,” the Bulletin commented on March 19.

By all accounts, the samurai entourage savored their sojourn of nearly two months in the burgeoning silver metropolis by the bay. Certain scenes come to mind. Katsu Kaishū posing for a tintype portrait at William Shew’s photographic studio on Montgomery Street—the two swords and family crest prominently displayed on his person, the hair tied back, the noble expression complemented by dark, determined eyes. The Japanese touring the waterfront, observing with keen interest a convoy vessel of San Francisco Bay and merchant ships from Panama. Kaishū noting that while the larger merchant ships are commanded by military men, captains of the smaller merchant vessels are civilians. Kaishū and Brooke visiting the “gorgeous redbrick” home of a certain naval officer, “the owner of the largest merchant ship, which he commands.” The samurai entourage visiting the San Francisco Baths on Washington Street, because, as the Daily Alta California reported on March 21, they are “desirous of trying the American style” of bathing. Riding the sand cars on the Market Street Railway, “a sight, which being new to them, they [view] with much interest.” Browsing in Kohler’s spacious piano warerooms and bazaar on Sansome Street, where they observe musical instruments, toys, and opera glasses, and inspecting the sewing machines at the Wheeler and Wilson’s store; Kaishū taking note of the gaslights that illuminated the streets after dark so that one may walk about town without a lantern.

And Kaishū marveled at the industrialization of the town—the clamor of steam-powered windmills from the factories; the mechanical saws; the newspaper printing presses; the San Francisco branch of the United States Mint, comprising a three-story red brick building on Commercial Street; the iron foundries where great hammers and iron plating were manufactured; the gas works on First Street; the “Vulcan works, where,” the Daily Alta reported on March 21, “luckily, castings were being run, and the trip-hammer, planing, and other machines were successfully set in motion.” And if Kaishū was enthralled by modern technology, imagine his astonishment at the sight of a factory worker openly engaged with a prostitute during break time, and his perplexity at being offered “the wife of a Mr. So-and-So for a certain amount per hour.”

Keeping to more practical matters, Kaishū later wrote:

All of this machinery was run on steam power, eliminating the need for manual labor and vastly facilitating [production]. Japan [meanwhile] had shunned foreign commerce. As long as we had the means to produce commodities sufficient for our own domestic consumption, we had no need for [such] machinery, but rather depended on the labor of our highly skilled artisans and craftsmen.

In the spring of 1860, then, as Katsu Kaishū walked the streets of San Francisco, he was poignantly reminded of the urgent need to “conduct international trade,” mechanize Japanese industry, and “change Japan’s antiquated ways.”

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Japanese Hamhung, 1930s

From On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2018), Kindle pp. 83-84:

This was the boomtown atmosphere in which Lee Bae-suk had grown up. Throughout the 1930s, Hamhung quickly became, in many respects, a Japanese city—organized, industrialized, modernized, militarized. Korea was living under what came to be called “the black umbrella” of absolute Japanese rule. The occupiers humiliated and exploited Hamhung’s citizens, often brutally, but they also sought to assimilate them—that is, to make them Japanese subjects, slowly eradicating all vestiges of Korean consciousness. As a boy in Hamhung, Lee was taught to bow toward the east, in the direction of the emperor. He prayed to Shinto gods, at Shinto shrines, kneeling in the shadow of red torii gates. At school, he and his classmates were required to recite the Pledge of the Imperial Subjects, promising to “serve the Emperor with united hearts.” Lee, like all citizens, had to forsake his Korean name and adopt a Japanese one. He learned the Japanese language and was forbidden to study Korean in school. The Korean anthem was not to be sung, the Korean flag not to be unfurled, traditional white Korean clothing not to be worn. People were even expected to give up Korean hairstyles, cutting off their braids and topknots.

Everywhere Lee looked, he saw examples of Japanese authority and expertise: Japanese teachers, Japanese civil servants, Japanese soldiers and tax collectors and cops. The mayor was Japanese. So was the provincial governor. Even the city itself was given a Japanese name: Hamhung became Kanko. The Japanese Kempeitai, which many Koreans came to call the “thought police,” tightened its hold on the city, stamping out dissent or expressions of Korean identity. The police organized the citizens into neighborhood associations, each one composed of ten families. These cells, designed to enforce compliance of Japanese laws, had a chilling effect on community relations, effectively turning Korean against Korean, requiring neighbors to spy on one another.

During the late 1930s, the industrial complex of greater Hamhung became an arsenal and a forge for Japan’s deepening war against China. Enormous quantities of explosives were manufactured there. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, operations at Hamhung expanded exponentially. Among other secret projects, Japanese physicists made early attempts to build an atomic weapon. Using uranium reportedly mined from the mountains around the Chosin Reservoir, they constructed a crude cyclotron, produced heavy water, and even began to develop a primitive atomic device.

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Modernizing Hamhung, 1920s

From On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2018), Kindle pp. 82-83:

When Japan took formal possession of Korea, in 1910, Hamhung was a medieval city steeped in just these sorts of myths and folk traditions. But in the mid-1920s, as the Japanese tightened their grip on the country, modernity began to arrive. A team of Japanese engineers struck upon an ambitious idea: They would build roads into the mountains northwest of Hamhung and harness the might of the Changjin River—Chosin in Japanese—an important tributary that flowed north toward the Yalu. In the highlands, some seventy road miles from Hamhung, the engineers would construct a large dam that would flood the valley floor. The Changjin waters would rise, swallowing the wrinkled country, and the resulting reservoir, with all its scallops and appendages, would extend southward for more than forty miles. It would be a deep lake splayed out in the mountains, practically on the rooftop of Korea.

This scheme alone was considered a nearly impossible feat, but then the engineers envisioned something bolder: They would effectively reverse the course of the river by building a network of pipes near where it entered the lake on its south end. The pipes would snake along, often underground, carrying cold lake water from the mountains to the coast. Thus, a river that had once flowed north would flow south, through man-made conduits. Working with gravity, these tubes of racing water would feed into a series of hydroelectric plants down on the plain that would supply Hamhung and its neighboring port city of Hungnam with enough power to transform the area into a military-industrial center, perhaps the largest in Korea. Some said it was quixotic.

Some said the engineers were tempting fate, manipulating sacrosanct forces of nature. But the immense project worked as planned. The Chosin Reservoir was completed in 1929, the year Lee was born, and, with dizzying speed, Hamhung-Hungnam underwent a metamorphosis, much of it under the direction of the Noguchi Corporation, a Japanese conglomerate founded by a chemical engineering mogul named Jun Noguchi, who was said to be the “entrepreneurial king of the peninsula.” A nitrogen fertilizer plant, the largest in the Far East, was quickly constructed, and the area became one of the world’s largest producers of ammonium sulfate. Then came oil refineries, chemical concerns, textile mills, metal foundries, munitions works. They produced dynamite and mercury oxide powder and high-octane aviation fuel. It was a grinding, stinking, spewing complex of industries designed to fuel Japan’s expansionist aims across Asia.

Thousands of peasants, many of them displaced by the new lake, moved down from the mountains to work in the factories. Schools sprang up, a train station, a city hall, suburbs, all of it stitched together with streetcars and underground sewer systems and electricity and telegraph wire. It was a modern marvel of civil planning and central design—at least that was how the authorities portrayed the region’s transformation. Through Japanese ingenuity and Korean sweat, men had built a lake that built a city.

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Making Appalachian Applejack

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 64-66:

The still sat on a flat bald stretching about fifty feet across the side of the mountain. Devil Anse used a sixty-gallon boiler that he had bought from the owner of a steamer on the Big Sandy. The deal had taken place at dusk one evening near Louisa, Kentucky. They rolled the heavy boiler onto a flatboat, covered it with a tarp, and disguised it with barrels. Then Devil Anse and three men—possibly his sons, and possibly Big Jim, Randall’s son, who worked for Devil Anse making moonshine (though it is hard to know for sure since the business was clandestine)—had poled it up the river. Finally, it, like everything else, had been lugged the mile up the creek to the bald on a corn sled—a wooden crate on runners for hauling corn out of sloped, rocky fields. They cut a door in the bottom of the boiler and placed it on a big square slab of sandstone that was balanced with rocks underneath its corners.

Devil Anse and his sons built a dry stone wall around the still with a roof of split boards over it. They left a hole in the wall to allow them to reach in and build a fire beneath the sandstone slab. Fresh ice-cold water was funneled to the operation via wooden troughs from an uphill spring. The wood they needed for making buckets and barrels and for fires was plentiful around the bald. All they had to haul up was the main ingredient. When they were making apple brandy, or applejack, Devil Anse’s specialty, they needed three hundred bushels for a large batch, and lugging those apples up to the still on the corn sled was a major task. Up top, the men took turns mashing the apples a bushel at a time in a solid tub, using the butt of a small buckeye tree. They shoveled the apple pulp into 125-gallon vats and stirred in water to create what looked like a thin applesauce. They made about 1,300 gallons of apple mash at a time and then let it sit for ten days while it soured.

On the eleventh day, they began filling the still with the fermented apple mash. The cap was screwed onto the still, and the worm—a copper coil—onto the cap. They built an intense but low-smoke hickory-wood fire beneath the stone. By heating the stone instead of directly heating the boiler, they never burned the mash. Once the stone and still were hot, it took just a small fire to keep the batch at a low boil, just right for making moonshine. Alcohol vaporizes at 173 degrees F, and they kept it as close to that temperature as possible to avoid scalding it.

As steam rose from the simmering mash, it passed through the copper coil, which ran through a wooden barrel filled with cold spring water, and condensed. The resulting liquid trickled out into a wooden bucket. Each full bucket was emptied into a barrel. As long as the stream of liquid coming from the barrel tasted like brandy, they kept it coming, usually for about four hours. Once it got watery, they snuffed the fire, emptied the still through the door in the bottom, and started over again. This way they made six singlings—the amount of whiskey from a full still—in a twenty-four-hour period. Each singling amounted to about ten gallons. It was intense work, and when it was finished, they were only halfway there; a man could get very drunk and very sick off singlings, but this was not the product they were after.

Once enough singlings were collected to fill the still twice, the men gave the still a thorough cleaning, then filled it with the singlings and lit the fire; the steam ran through the worm and was condensed again, this time producing an even purer whiskey, the doublings. It was about 98 percent pure alcohol. Around ten gallons were produced before it began to weaken. Then the men put the fire out, topped off the remaining liquid with more singlings, and lit the fire again.

In this way, six gallons of mash produced a gallon of singlings, and a hundred and twenty gallons of singlings yielded forty gallons of top-quality Hatfield applejack.

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What Sparked the Feud, 1878

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 49-50:

By July 1866, Congress had reduced the army to a peacetime level of just over 54,000 men. By 1876, the number had dropped by half again, to 27,000. That year, America’s centennial celebration took a blow when the news hit the week before the Fourth of July that General George Custer had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of two thousand Lakota and Cheyenne, under Sitting Bull, in the Montana Territory. Custer had been dispatched to open the Black Hills to gold prospectors, which the Indians, whose land it now was, hotly opposed, and to make a statement that would hit newspaper front pages from coast to coast during the presidential political conventions. Instead, Custer’s Last Stand shocked the nation.

The disputed election of Ohio Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, a former Union general, to the presidency that fall resulted in a compromise with the Democrats that ended Reconstruction and the federal occupation of the South. Army forces were shifted to the West to fight Indians and police the frontier. As America rebuilt, laid rails, and expanded, the Indians would be pushed onto smaller and more marginal reservations in the West, and the blacks, now free but left to their own devices, would be oppressed and persecuted in the South. In southern Appalachia, the isolated hill people would be conned out of their land by wealthy northeastern industrial interests, which, as the railroads opened up the region to mass extraction, swooped in and snatched up coal and timber rights before the locals had any idea what they were worth. In little more than a decade, the industrialists would wrest almost complete economic and political control of the region from the people who lived there.

IT IS NOT SURPRISING THAT the Hatfield-McCoy feud found a new spark at this juncture in history, as the strictures and safeguards of the Reconstruction era suddenly vanished. What does come as a surprise is that amid the high-risk and often turbulent work of the timbering industry, with its unbridled inebriation and rowdiness of unleashed mountain men on payday, it was a rather prosaic dispute over livestock that ignited the tinderbox of the feud.

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Appalachian Timber Boom, 1870s

From The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story, by Dean King (Little, Brown, 2013), Kindle pp. 43-45, 47:

With the South eagerly rebuilding after four years of bitter destruction, timber was in great demand, and the Tug River Valley had it in spades. Indeed, there was not only a seemingly inexhaustible expanse of timber, but also an easy way to transport it: logs could be floated down brooks, streams, and rivers—the Levisa and Tug forks of the Big Sandy and the Guyandotte River in West Virginia—to sawmills on the Ohio River, and from there the lumber could be shipped around the nation.

Giant tulip trees—native only to the East Coast and China and, at two hundred feet, North America’s tallest trees—blossomed in spring, catching sunlight in brilliant lanterns. The mountain men, who called them yellow poplars, put them to the ripsaw and ax. They also felled and floated other hardwoods—steely hickories, dense elms, and sprawling walnuts—on westward rafts. Sawmills on the Ohio hummed, turning these trees into the lumber that was building America. At the international Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, the state of West Virginia would proudly display at its much-visited exhibit samples of its wide array of commercial lumber: from cedar, spruce, and white walnut to chestnut, sugar maple, white ash, and black cherry.

To construct a raft of logs, the loggers floated or sledded their timber to a cofferdam in a river bend. There they interspersed floaters—logs of lighter wood, like poplar, chestnut, basswood, or sometimes pine—with those of the denser ash, oak, hemlock, hickory, maple, or walnut to keep them buoyant. Once the logs were in line, they fastened oak or hickory binders to the ends with hardwood pegs. Over time, metal chain dogs, wedge-shaped steel points joined together by short chains, replaced the wooden pegs. Then the men attached rigging made from ropes or grapevines.

A timber merchant could harvest land he owned, or he could buy trees for a dollar apiece, or two dollars for an especially good specimen (though the most prized wood, walnut, cost up to ten dollars per tree). The price of the labor to fell the trees, peel them—all logs were floated to the mills without their bark—haul them to a waterway, build the raft, and then float it to the mill was a dollar a day per man.

High-quality poplar brought sixteen cents a cube (twelve inches in length by eighteen in diameter). Oak and sycamore and many other species brought in ten to twelve cents. Top walnut went from twenty cents to a dollar a cube. Walnut was so valuable that men would go back and dig up the stumps to sell for veneer.

Those selling timber had their tricks, sometimes concealing rotten cores with solid pegs. Logs with bad knots or holes were locked into rafts with the blemishes facing down to avoid detection. Buyers had their own stratagems: some were known to squeeze their calipers together when measuring logs to trim an inch here and there, which, when compounded across a raft, added up.

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