By a Special Contributor
“Few people have an idea of the difficult work the officials and the employees of the Los Angeles postoffice daily grapple with in handing out and in forwarding the correspondence of our local Chinese colony. “Little China” in Los Angeles numbers about 4000. The Chinese send back to their families and “cousins”, through the postoffice, about $35,000 a month. There are four carriers for the Chinese district, and they make three deliveries each day. Almost all the letters received are addressed in Chinese characters, and in the Cantonese language, which is the language used in commerce. Nearly all of our Celestial merchants are from the Canton district. A few of the Chinese understand English also write that part of the address which shows its destination, and thus make it easier for the postal employees. Other letters come from different provinces, and nearly every one of the nineteen provinces is represented in “Little China,” and each province has a different dialect, and some of them have several dialects, it is seen that when the mail from the Celestial Kingdom is spread out before them the distributing clerks have a Chinese puzzle to unravel. The key to this puzzle is furnished by Postmaster Flint, who employs a Chinese interpreter, at his own expense. This interpreter understands the Cantonese commercial language, as it is written, also several dialects. Here he is confronted by a problem almost equal to some of those in Euclid. The written language of a province is different from the spoken language, and, in many instances the Chinese who has only a surface learning combines the two. One of the troubles is the equivalent of Los Angeles, in Chinese characters. In writing “California,” they express it as “Gold Hills.” These are translated by the Chinese distributor. Notwithstanding these manifold difficulties there has not been a complaint of a lost letter within the past three or four years. Chinese not being an alphabetical language, it is difficult to express in their characters the equivalent of some of our streets. The writer tries his free hand on Marchessault Street, and the interpreter reduces it to English, or as near it as possible. When the carrier is more than usually puzzled he goes to the headquarters of the association which manages the affairs of Little China, where he finds a representative of each of the Seven Companies. Here the difficulty is unravelled, for all languages and dialects are spoken, and each member knows everyone from his province and where he may be found. The City Directory is also brought into play at the postoffice when the street and number are not given, just as in the case of the “Melican” who has less excuse for not giving full directions. The Chinese themselves aid the carriers in finding the one whom the carrier cannot track, such as a person of little consequence who has no street number, or perhaps does not live anywhere in particular. When a green Chinese arrives he is billeted upon the company which has control of those from his province. His name is there registered, and the merchants from that province also keep track of their countrymen. When a new store is opened, the carrier is so informed, and is requested to leave the letters for Wo Gun at a designated place.
“Chinese are very particular about opening letters. Unless the person is certain that the letter is intended for him, he will not open it. He especially desires to keep out of trouble with the “Melican” government. “A peculiarity noted by the carriers is that they never have letters for Chinese women, though many of the merchants are married. Married women in the Celestial Kingdom of the City of Angels are not permitted to receive letters. If a Chinese woman’s brother or other female relative in China writes to her, the letter must be directed to the head of the household, the husband, and it is written to him, though intended for her; or it is enclosed in an envelope directed to him. This puts the lid on flirting at long range. In like manner, no letters are forwarded to women in China. When Ah Sin writes his first “dear wife,” he indites it in the name of the oldest male in the family. Or, when he is on a pleasure trip to China, he writes to his wife in Los Angeles in the name of his eldest son, and the letter is directed to him, though it be a baby. “Under this custom, if there be no male child, the letter for the wife is written to the husband’s mother, who hands over the letter to her daughter-in-law, without reading it, of course. “In forwarding letters, the postoffice has less work than in receiving them; but the trouble is quite sufficient. The translator marks “China” on the outgoing letters and the distributing clerks look at the top of the envelope, read “China,” and throw the letter in the oriental box. In like manner, the destination is indicated on letters for the Celestial colonies tributary to Los Angeles. “The Chinese system of directing a letter is the reverse from ours. They write the last line of the address at the top, beginning on the right, and reading down in vertical parallel columns. Thus:
4444 Marchessault Street.
“Turn this inscription to the right and it reads downward vertically, as it appears on a Chinese letter.
“The five lines of the address occupy about one-fourth of the length of the envelope, as the pen, or rather brush, makes a wide sweep. The interpreter reduces it to English in cross-plowed lines, something on the style of a young girl’s love letter. Frequently, the address is divided – one part at each end of the envelope. The translator has his say in the middle of the envelope, which adds to its picturesqueness.
“Chinese reason that this system is more convenient and that is the proper way. The first thing that the distributor in China looks at is the top line showing to what country the letter is directed. It shows “North America.” He looks no further, and throws the letter in the North America box. When the letters arrive at any point in North America the distributor looks at the second line, California, and in like manner throws it in the California box. When the letters reach San Francisco, the clerk reads “Los Angeles,” and he also sends it on its way. The interpreter in this city looks at the street number and then at the name of Wun Lung. These are “Englished,” and placed in the box of the carrier for that section of Chinatown. The carrier first looks at the number, and when he arrives calls for Wun Lung.
“The postage on a letter of an ounce or less, from the principal seaports in China, is one sen which is equal to six and a half cents.
“Black-bordered, or mourning letters, as we know them, are not received in the Chinese quarter. The Chinese emblem of mourning is white.
“The Chinese receive a great many newspapers, each one subscribes for the principal yellow journal of his native province, and also of his particular town, or locality. Some of these come tied with strings, the address being written, or brushed, on the margin, which stumps even the interpreter. But, similar instances are common among the “Melicans.” The Chinese, however, are fast learning American customs, and are improving their system of addressing letters.”