Shall We Be Ruined By Chinese Cheap Labour? by Jerome K Jerome

Story type: Essay

“What is all this talk I ‘ear about the Chinese?” said Mrs. Wilkins to me the other morning. We generally indulge in a little chat while Mrs. Wilkins is laying the breakfast-table. Letters and newspapers do not arrive in my part of the Temple much before nine. From half- past eight to nine I am rather glad of Mrs. Wilkins. “They ‘ave been up to some of their tricks again, ‘aven’t they?”

“The foreigner, Mrs. Wilkins,” I replied, “whether he be Chinee or any other he, is always up to tricks. Was not England specially prepared by an all-wise Providence to frustrate these knavish tricks? Which of such particular tricks may you be referring to at the moment, Mrs. Wilkins?”

“Well, ‘e’s comin’ over ‘ere–isn’t he, sir? to take the work out of our mouths, as it were.”

“Well, not exactly over here, to England, Mrs. Wilkins,” I explained. “He has been introduced into Africa to work in the mines there.”

“It’s a funny thing,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “but to ‘ear the way some of them talk in our block, you might run away with the notion–that is, if you didn’t know ’em–that work was their only joy. I said to one of ’em, the other evening–a man as calls ‘isself a brass finisher, though, Lord knows, the only brass ‘e ever finishes is what ‘is poor wife earns and isn’t quick enough to ‘ide away from ‘im–well, whatever ‘appens, I says, it will be clever of ’em if they take away much work from you. It made them all laugh, that did,” added Mrs. Wilkins, with a touch of pardonable pride.

“Ah,” continued the good lady, “it’s surprising ‘ow contented they can be with a little, some of ’em. Give ’em a ‘ard-working woman to look after them, and a day out once a week with a procession of the unemployed, they don’t ask for nothing more. There’s that beauty my poor sister Jane was fool enough to marry. Serves ‘er right, as I used to tell ‘er at first, till there didn’t seem any more need to rub it into ‘er. She’d ‘ad one good ‘usband. It wouldn’t ‘ave been fair for ‘er to ‘ave ‘ad another, even if there’d been a chance of it, seeing the few of ’em there is to go round among so many. But it’s always the same with us widows: if we ‘appen to ‘ave been lucky the first time, we put it down to our own judgment–think we can’t ever make a mistake; and if we draw a wrong ‘un, as the saying is, we argue as if it was the duty of Providence to make it up to us the second time. Why, I’d a been making a fool of myself three years ago if ‘e ‘adn’t been good-natured enough to call one afternoon when I was out, and ‘ook it off with two pounds eight in the best teapot that I ‘ad been soft enough to talk to ‘im about: and never let me set eyes on ‘im again. God bless ‘im! ‘E’s one of the born-tireds, ‘e is, as poor Jane might ‘ave seen for ‘erself, if she ‘ad only looked at ‘im, instead of listening to ‘im.

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“But that’s courtship all the world over–old and young alike, so far as I’ve been able to see it,” was the opinion of Mrs. Wilkins. “The man’s all eyes and the woman all ears. They don’t seem to ‘ave any other senses left ’em. I ran against ‘im the other night, on my way ‘ome, at the corner of Gray’s Inn Road. There was the usual crowd watching a pack of them Italians laying down the asphalt in ‘Olborn, and ‘e was among ’em. ‘E ‘ad secured the only lamp-post, and was leaning agen it.

“‘Ullo,’ I says, ‘glad to see you ‘aven’t lost your job. Nothin’ like stickin’ to it, when you’ve dropped into somethin’ that really suits you.’

“‘What do you mean, Martha?’ ‘e says. ‘E’s not one of what I call your smart sort. It takes a bit of sarcasm to get through ‘is ‘ead.

“‘Well,’ I says, ‘you’re still on the old track, I see, looking for work. Take care you don’t ‘ave an accident one of these days and run up agen it before you’ve got time to get out of its way.’

“‘It’s these miserable foreigners,’ ‘e says. ‘Look at ’em,’ ‘e says.

“‘There’s enough of you doing that,’ I says. ‘I’ve got my room to put straight and three hours needlework to do before I can get to bed. But don’t let me ‘inder you. You might forget what work was like, if you didn’t take an opportunity of watching it now and then.’

“‘They come over ‘ere,’ ‘e says, ‘and take the work away from us chaps.’

“‘Ah,’ I says, ‘poor things, perhaps they ain’t married.’

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“‘Lazy devils! ‘e says. ‘Look at ’em, smoking cigarettes. I could do that sort of work. There’s nothing in it. It don’t take ‘eathen foreigners to dab a bit of tar about a road.’

“‘Yes,’ I says, ‘you always could do anybody else’s work but your own.’

“‘I can’t find it, Martha,’ ‘e says.

“‘No,’ I says, ‘and you never will in the sort of places you go looking for it. They don’t ‘ang it out on lamp-posts, and they don’t leave it about at the street corners. Go ‘ome,’ I says, ‘and turn the mangle for your poor wife. That’s big enough for you to find, even in the dark.’

“Looking for work!” snorted Mrs. Wilkins with contempt; “we women never ‘ave much difficulty in finding it, I’ve noticed. There are times when I feel I could do with losing it for a day.”

“But what did he reply, Mrs. Wilkins,” I asked; “your brass-finishing friend, who was holding forth on the subject of Chinese cheap labour.” Mrs. Wilkins as a conversationalist is not easily kept to the point. I was curious to know what the working classes were thinking on the subject.

“Oh, that,” replied Mrs. Wilkins, “‘e did not say nothing. ‘E ain’t the sort that’s got much to say in an argument. ‘E belongs to the crowd that ‘angs about at the back, and does the shouting. But there was another of ’em, a young fellow as I feels sorry for, with a wife and three small children, who ‘asn’t ‘ad much luck for the last six months; and that through no fault of ‘is own, I should say, from the look of ‘im. ‘I was a fool,’ says ‘e, ‘when I chucked a good situation and went out to the war. They told me I was going to fight for equal rights for all white men. I thought they meant that all of us were going to ‘ave a better chance, and it seemed worth making a bit of sacrifice for, that did. I should be glad if they would give me a job in their mines that would enable me to feed my wife and children. That’s all I ask them for!’”

“It is a difficult problem, Mrs. Wilkins,” I said. “According to the mine owners–“

“Ah,” said Mrs. Wilkins. “They don’t seem to be exactly what you’d call popular, them mine owners, do they? Daresay they’re not as bad as they’re painted.”

“Some people, Mrs. Wilkins,” I said, “paint them very black. There are those who hold that the South African mine-owner is not a man at all, but a kind of pantomime demon. You take Goliath, the whale that swallowed Jonah, a selection from the least respectable citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah at their worst, Bluebeard, Bloody Queen Mary, Guy Fawkes, and the sea-serpent–or, rather, you take the most objectionable attributes of all these various personages, and mix them up together. The result is the South African mine-owner, a monster who would willingly promote a company for the putting on the market of a new meat extract, prepared exclusively from new-born infants, provided the scheme promised a fair and reasonable opportunity of fleecing the widow and orphan.”

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“I’ve ‘eard they’re a bad lot,” said Mrs. Wilkins. “But we’re most of us that, if we listen to what other people say about us.”

“Quite so, Mrs. Wilkins,” I agreed. “One never arrives at the truth by listening to one side only. On the other hand, for example, there are those who stoutly maintain that the South African mine-owner is a kind of spiritual creature, all heart and sentiment, who, against his own will, has been, so to speak, dumped down upon this earth as the result of over-production up above of the higher class of archangel. The stock of archangels of superior finish exceeds the heavenly demand; the surplus has been dropped down into South Africa and has taken to mine owning. It is not that these celestial visitors of German sounding nomenclature care themselves about the gold. Their only desire is, during this earthly pilgrimage of theirs, to benefit the human race. Nothing can be obtained in this world without money- -“

“That’s true,” said Mrs. Wilkins, with a sigh.

“For gold, everything can be obtained. The aim of the mine-owning archangel is to provide the world with gold. Why should the world trouble to grow things and make things? ‘Let us,’ say these archangels, temporarily dwelling in South Africa, ‘dig up and distribute to the world plenty of gold, then the world can buy whatever it wants, and be happy.’

“There may be a flaw in the argument, Mrs. Wilkins,” I allowed. “I am not presenting it to you as the last word upon the subject. I am merely quoting the view of the South African mine-owner, feeling himself a much misunderstood benefactor of mankind.”

“I expect,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “they are just the ordinary sort of Christian, like the rest of us, anxious to do the best they can for themselves, and not too particular as to doing other people in the process.”

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“I am inclined to think, Mrs. Wilkins,” I said, “that you are not very far from the truth. A friend of mine, a year ago, was very bitter on this subject of Chinese cheap labour. A little later there died a distant relative of his who left him twenty thousand South African mining shares. He thinks now that to object to the Chinese is narrow-minded, illiberal, and against all religious teaching. He has bought an abridged edition of Confucius, and tells me that there is much that is ennobling in Chinese morality. Indeed, I gather from him that the introduction of the Chinese into South Africa will be the saving of that country. The noble Chinese will afford an object lesson to the poor white man, displaying to him the virtues of sobriety, thrift, and humility. I also gather that it will be of inestimable benefit to the noble Chinee himself. The Christian missionary will get hold of him in bulk, so to speak, and imbue him with the higher theology. It appears to be one of those rare cases where everybody is benefited at the expense of nobody. It is always a pity to let these rare opportunities slip by.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “I’ve nothin’ to say agen the Chinaman, as a Chinaman. As to ‘is being a ‘eathen, well, throwin’ stones at a church, as the sayin’ is, don’t make a Christian of you. There’s Christians I’ve met as couldn’t do themselves much ‘arm by changing their religion; and as to cleanliness, well, I’ve never met but one, and ‘e was a washerwoman, and I’d rather ‘ave sat next to ‘im in a third-class carriage on a Bank ‘Oliday than next to some of ’em.

“Seems to me,” continued Mrs. Wilkins, “we’ve got into the ‘abit of talkin’ a bit too much about other people’s dirt. The London atmosphere ain’t nat’rally a dry-cleanin’ process in itself, but there’s a goodish few as seem to think it is. One comes across Freeborn Britons ‘ere and there as I’d be sorry to scrub clean for a shillin’ and find my own soap.”

“It is a universal failing, Mrs. Wilkins,” I explained. “If you talk to a travelled Frenchman, he contrasts to his own satisfaction the Paris ouvrier in his blue blouse with the appearance of the London labourer.”

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“I daresay they’re all right according to their lights,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “but it does seem a bit wrong that if our own chaps are willin’ and anxious to work, after all they’ve done, too, in the way of getting the mines for us, they shouldn’t be allowed the job.”

“Again, Mrs. Wilkins, it is difficult to arrive at a just conclusion,” I said. “The mine-owner, according to his enemies, hates the British workman with the natural instinct that evil creatures feel towards the noble and virtuous. He will go to trouble and expense merely to spite the British workman, to keep him out of South Africa. According to his friends, the mine-owner sets his face against the idea of white labour for two reasons. First and foremost, it is not nice work; the mine-owner hates the thought of his beloved white brother toiling in the mines. It is not right that the noble white man should demean himself by such work. Secondly, white labour is too expensive. If for digging gold men had to be paid anything like the same prices they are paid for digging coal, the mines could not be worked. The world would lose the gold that the mine-owner is anxious to bestow upon it.

“The mine-owner, following his own inclinations, would take a little farm, grow potatoes, and live a beautiful life–perhaps write a little poetry. A slave to sense of duty, he is chained to the philanthropic work of gold-mining. If we hamper him and worry him the danger is that he will get angry with us–possibly he will order his fiery chariot and return to where he came from.”

“Well, ‘e can’t take the gold with him, wherever ‘e goes to?” argued Mrs. Wilkins.

“You talk, Mrs. Wilkins,” I said, “as if the gold were of more value to the world than is the mine-owner.”

“Well, isn’t it?” demanded Mrs. Wilkins.

“It’s a new idea, Mrs. Wilkins,” I answered; “it wants thinking out.”

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