by Elaine Greensmith Jordan
The old photograph shows a group of Chinese people posed in front of a two-story building — 24 men, five boys, a woman and a dog.
They stand on a wooden porch facing a dirt street. I ponder these folks, frozen in a picture from 1900, and prop the photo next to my monitor, fascinated by a vision of people who once lived here in my town.
Prescott is now an attractive, prosperous Western town enjoyed by golfers and retirees. Tucked in a mile-high region of northern Arizona, our town is far from urban centers and immigration struggles at our border. We romanticize our western past, the Stetsons and six-guns. We like to remember our role in the lawless frontier when we were a place of cowboys,Wyatt Earp, and miners, a hard-drinking, hell-raising place. Reenactors wander our summer streets dressed like sexy ladies and tough sheriffs. Chinese immigrants are not part of that cinematic past, so I gaze at the photo and wonder about their stories.
The wooden building in the photo is the Joss House on Granite Street, two blocks from early Prescott’s downtown saloons, boarding houses, stables, and the mercantile. I’ve heard that the Chinese knew they should enter those downtown areas by alley. Indeed, some say the Chinese used underground tunnels to accommodate them, lest they disgrace the town center. Lest they be seen by the Edwardian ladies whose delicate feet walked Prescott’s wooden sidewalks. Drunkards and miners, yes; Chinese, no.
I imagine that the Joss House in the old photo must have been a hostel for laborers, though its name could mean temple. The men on the porch wear wrinkled coats and hats. They have glum faces and look like a collection of workers, an underground Chinese support group. I say underground because they stand on a back street, out of sight. Our laborers today in Prescott are undocumented Mexican immigrants, a less acceped population too, judging by the letters to the editors of our Daily Courier. Like those Chinese, the undocumented must disappear whenever possible to save themselves from trouble.
The second-floor balcony of the Joss House looks like the entrance to a brothel. I notice that Chinese characters decorate the red panels on the sides and lintel of the central upstairs doorway, and tasseled red lanterns dangle from the roof. (I imagine the color red.) Maybe that’s my overheated thinking, my sense that there are stories untold in my photograph, of privation, of struggle, of unsavory businesses. Studies of Deadwood, South Dakota, have revealed the same.
A careful scan of the photo reveals more than adult men; you can see the young boys too. I doubt that those five Chinese boys in 1900 Prescott were permitted in local Prescott schools. The youngsters in my photo look like part of the work force, though they must have had time to play with their pet dog. I can’t imagine the boys would have been welcome at Washington School, an imposing brick building from those days. The thought of their dashing to school from hidden tunnels carrying bag lunches — and then disappearing at three o’clock— is too incredible.
One of the boys in the photo has his arm around the porch post, and his hat sits jauntily on his head. He’s turned toward another boy, as if to whisper in his ear. I think of him as a rascal, but I’ll bet he doesn’t display his antics on Gurley Street, where the white folk do their business. If any child ventured from the hidden tunnels into a classroom, it would be this kid, and he wouldn’t be the silent, obedient student we teachers prefer.
And what about that lone woman in the photo? The tiny older woman in traditional Chinese dress — a long red tunic with some decoration at the wide sleeves and hem — wears embroidered red slippers on her small feet and holds the hand of a boy. She looks careworn and wise, like she knows the back alleys and the tunnels. We have further evidence of her feminine existence excavated from under our Prescott streets, where they’ve found a porcelain spoon, cup and glass bottle decorated in Oriental designs. There are no younger women in this photo, though. Where are the young girls? Maybe the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, didn’t allow young women to emigrate, and these men and boys don’t have the companionship of young women.
Looking more carefully, I can see a black man, taller than the Chinese, standing aside from the group. He wears formal clothes — tie, shiny waistcoat, and dress trousers with a sharp crease. His hands are in his pockets, a fedora pushed back on his head. You can see status here. In my imagination he’s keeping watch on the stairway entrance. This is an adventurer who scans the street, screens the customers, and greets from his downstairs post. This dark-skinned fellow has disappeared from the idealized cowboy stories of Prescott’s past as completely as the Chinese.
The old photograph makes me feel as if I’ve lived my life here in Prescott on the topside of our town life, on the acceptable side, a bonneted lady going about while another, more perilous realm is hidden below. A precocious boy, an independent woman and a dapper black man have come to me from a secret history, a shadowy underside, as if the earth has opened to reveal a host of stories waiting untold in tunnels. I can’t stop looking.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local teacher and editor. Read more at ElaineGreensmithJordan.com.