The Chinese workers who fought discrimination at an 1880s West Berkeley soap factory

The Standard Soap Works factory housed its Chinese workers in racially segregated shacks before deciding it wanted to “fill their places with white labor.”

A pen-and ink-drawing of the Standard Soap Works from around 1890. The wharf in the foreground was built in 1874. Credit: Private collection
Richard Parks Thomas in 1897. Credit: San Francisco Call

In 1863, a 6-foot, 37-year-old army lieutenant, Richard Parks Thomas, was mustered out of the Grand Army of the Republic after surviving a rifle ball shot in his leg. Thomas came to San Francisco, where he first worked in and then owned a large soap factory. When it burned down in 1873, he chose to rebuild in the wide-open countryside of West Berkeley, where land was cheap. He purchased an entire square block — bounded by Addison Street, Allston Way, 2nd Street and 3rd Street —to build his new four-story, wooden building for the Standard Soap Works.

The country was suffering through the economic depression of the 1870s. Thousands of businesses were failing, causing about 154,000 unemployed white men from the East Coast to head west on the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, along with tens of thousands of Chinese and Irish immigrant laborers. The 1868 Burlington Treaty between the U.S. and China opened unrestricted immigration from China, which resulted in the arrival of about 30,000 Chinese men. Of the 64,000 Chinese immigrants in the United States in 1870, 50,000 were in California. And in an atmosphere of fierce competition for work, they were frequently scapegoated and reviled.

Standard Soap trade card. The company made over 350 kinds of soap. Credit: Private collection

The Standard Soap Works opened its Berkeley factory early in 1876, and Thomas saw Chinese immigrants as a source of cheap labor. West Berkeley resident Wilhelmine Cianciarulo’s childhood memoir gives evidence that Chinese employees and their families lived on company grounds (near the site of the Berkeley Boathouse today), in what must have been company-built housing. It was rare for Chinese workers to have their families in America at this time due to legal restrictions (a few years later, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese families from joining the immigrant men and also prevented non-naturalized Chinese residents from obtaining citizenship). While Standard Works’ worker housing was notable, it was also racially segregated: White workers had their own three-room, red-painted cottages facing Third Street — probably larger than the Chinese workers’ housing, which Cianciarulo described as “shacks.”

A huge anti-Chinese rally was held in Oakland in the same year of the soap company’s opening in 1876, and the Alameda County Democratic Party sent a letter to Congress requesting “relief from the Mongolian incubus.” One of the complaints was that the Chinese lived in unsanitary conditions. The Citizens’ Anti-Chinese Meeting adopted a resolution requiring a 500-square-foot minimum for sleeping room requirements and that rooms had to be kept in “a good and healthy condition.” However, other published comments in the Bay Area asserted that local Chinese residents lived in neat houses (like at the soap factory). It was said at the time that these men in too-cramped quarters must have echoed the same conditions in China. Other immigrant groups lived in overcrowded housing as well, but the attention was placed on the Chinese housing.

The earliest photo of the Standard Soap Works, most likely taken in 1876 when Third Street was still a dirt road. Chinese workers laid railroad tracks on Third Street in January 1877. Credit: Private collection

65 for Chinese immigration, 9,402 against

Berkeley was a part of Oakland Township (the area north of the City of Oakland all the way to Cerrito Creek) until it voted to become a city in 1878 to avoid being swallowed up by the City of Oakland. In Berkeley’s first election, the people elected the newly formed Workingman’s Party slate, including the mayor. This was the party of Denis Kearny, himself a recent immigrant from Ireland, who effectively yelled, “The Chinese Must Go,” the battle cry of angry mobs and newspaper headlines. He once belted out to an agitated crowd, “Before I starve in this country, I will cut a man’s throat and take whatever he has got.”

In July 1879, the County of Alameda tested popular sentiment on Chinese immigration, so lawmakers might gauge their constituents. The results of that election was 65 for Chinese immigration and 9,402 against it. Kearny cast a large shadow.

In 1879, California passed a law prohibiting any corporation from hiring Chinese employees; a maximum fine of $5,000 and 500 days in jail enforced the law. While the federal government overrode most of the state’s anti-Chinese laws, it allowed the state’s ban on Chinese immigration to stand because the anti-Chinese voting bloc had become the pivotal power in deciding the state and national elections.

In that same year, Mayor Washburne R. Andrus of Oakland, also a member of the Workingman’s Party, made a statement about the Chinese population in the area, claiming their district should not be allowed to expand as it did in San Francisco. He also proposed the cutting of the Chinese men’s queues if they were sent to jail so as to maintain sanitary conditions. But Andrus would go much further into a fear-filled racist speech:

The presence of these people is in every way undesirable and should be discouraged by every legal method, direct or indirect.  … Our own citizens cannot compete with them as laborers, because people who are American citizens are usually burdened with the responsibility of providing for a wife and children, while the Chinese are not. Not only the more humble laborers, but the whole body of mechanics are threatened with pauperization.”

When factory owners argued that, to stay in business and compete with Eastern factories and enterprises, they had to hire low-wage Chinese labor or go out of business, Mayor Andrus responded with a twisted bit of political double-speak.

“I do not suggest these things through a desire to persecute these people, nor to subject them to any grievance, but because they will not stop coming here until they see that the general spirit of our law is against them,” he said. “They will continue to immigrate here as long as they can enter into full and free competition with Americans, but the influx of Asiatics will cease when it is a certainty that our people are doing everything in their power to keep them away.”

White labor

On Memorial Day of 1879, there was a huge gathering of Republicans at Willow Grove Park, which was located at Fourth Street and University Avenue, for a barbecue; 3,000 people came to hear George C. Perkins’s speech about running for the governorship. Perkins spoke about how the Central Pacific Railroad was largely built by “Coolie” labor, using the resentment against Chinese labor as a campaign tool for his ambition. Perkins’ opponent, Dr. Glenn of Colusa County, hired Chinese labor on his ranch, so Perkins procured a quartet to sing a dirty little ditty to the excited crowd:

Oh where is Glenn?

Oh where is Glenn?

He’s ranching in Colusa

With his gang of Chinamen

The song swept across the state like lightning and Dr. Glenn was defeated in this 1879 election.

Within this toxic cloud of mistrust, fear, misunderstanding and hate, the Standard Soap Works was reported in a May 1879 edition of the Berkeley Advocate to have decided to “send off the few Chinamen they employ and fill their places with white labor.”

From the Berkeley Advocate, May 29, 1879.

(It is of note that Daniel E. Dowling, the superintendent of the Standard Soap Works, employed a Chinese cook at his house at Allston Way and Third Street. Richard Parks Thomas also employed a Chinese cook at his home in the Berkeley Hills.)

The article asserted that the only reason the Chinese workers were not fired earlier was that they just could not find reliable white workers. After years of responsible enterprise, the Soap Works bowed to cultural pressure and possibly a fear of violent acts and boycotts.

An old trade card of the Standard Soap Works factory. On the right side of the postcard an unknown person has used Chinese characters to write the factory’s name phonetically. Courtesy of Sarah Wickander

The Chinese workers fought back by taking the company to court.

The Berkeley Advocate states the case was “brought” by Richard Lloyd, a West Berkeley painter. It is not known if Lloyd acted as the workers’ attorney or filed the case from his outrage at the firings or if these men were even legally capable of filing a suit without Lloyd. (Chinese people were not allowed to testify against whites in the state’s courts, and the workers were likely not naturalized Americans.) Alameda County District Attorney E. M. Gibson demanded in court that employers abide by the law and the Constitution: “The voice of the people was against the employment of Chinese, and [I will] do all in [my] power, unintimidated by fear or favor, to see the law and the Constitution faithfully carried out.”

As written records of Superior Court cases in Alameda County are neither published nor kept beyond a short period of time, there is no record of the outcome of this trial. But a newspaper report indicates Standard Soap Works still employed Chinese workers in 1882, which could be evidence that the plaintiffs won their case in court.

Bent nails and unequal justice

The climate of violence in Berkeley was unabated. There were attacks on single Chinese men walking the streets or selling goods. Once a group of white Berkeley boys pulled out their slingshots and fired bent nails at a Chinese man who worked as a “houseboy” and was simply walking down the street. He felt his life at risk and pulled a revolver and fired in the boys’ direction. At the criminal hearing on the matter, it was stated that “houseboys” often carried revolvers as they were often threatened or attacked. Arrests of Chinese individuals in Berkeley for gambling, unsanitary living conditions, visiting and running opium dens, animal abuse and, occasionally, violent crime were reported. Most arrests, however, were for business license violations. Cultural differences remained through the decades and became fodder for separation and hate.

Anti-Chinese sentiment also showed itself in how justice was meted out. In February 1880, a white man named Hunt embezzled money from the Soap Works. Thomas, the factory owner, magnanimously did not prosecute him and simply settled for about $100. Hunt claimed the money was lost or stolen from him while he was drunk, and that was the end of it.

Two years later, in February 1882, a Chinese employee of the Standard Soap Works was supposedly seen stealing personal items at the factory and a Berkeley Advocate news article ranted, “O those docile and faithful Chinamen! Why, they are natural rogues. Petty larceny is their proclivity. Soap, be it never so standard, cannot wash out this trait in their character.” The Chinese man accused of theft was referred to only as “John,” short for “John Chinaman.”

Exclusion

By mid-1882, the year the federal Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the effects of the push to remove Chinese labor from Berkeley were evident. A Berkeley Advocate article reflected that “nearly all” Chinese laborers had left Berkeley, noting how the heavy fines imposed on laundrymen for “violation of the sanitary ordinances” was the reason, as if only Chinese laundries caused an unhealthy situation (there were white laundries as well). The fact there were no sewer main systems installed by the city until 1885 was more likely the source of the real problem of stagnant wastewater. There were also high license fees imposed on Chinese-owned laundries and businesses, supposedly as a deterrent to their existence, with the hope that the white-owned businesses would survive and then thrive. There were forceful, well-organized calls to boycott all Chinese businesses and any white-owned business that employed Chinese workers.

The Berkeley Advocate, Feb. 6, 1886.

In February 1886, Standard Soap announced it had fired all its Chinese workers, just two months before an anti-Chinese league formed in Berkeley. In 1887, Thomas told a representative for historian/publisher H. H. Bancroft: “The people employed are all bright, intelligent looking white men and women.”

Yet the Chinese communities in Berkeley persevered through all this adversity.

Richard Schwartz, a Bay Area historian, is the author of “Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees.” He recently published a story in Local News Matters about the rise in anti-Asian racism during the Berkeley 1906 Earthquake relief effort. He has also written award-winning and bestselling books such as “The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis,” “Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century,” “Eccentrics, Heroes and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley” and “The Circle of Stones: An Investigation of the Circle of Stones in Stampede Valley, Sierra County, California.You can learn more about his work on his website.