The Yellow Peril and the Dockers
A fortnight ago three friends and I went down to the West India docks to visit a ship that had just arrived from the Argentine. It was not an unpleasant morning, the air was crisp, there was a slight wind and the bus ride was quiet pleasant. But when we reached the docks, there was no feeling of happiness prevailing there. There were hundreds of dockers loitering along the wharves waiting for a chance to work. There were scores upon scores of seamen, white, brown and black, waiting wistfully for an undermanned ship. Despair was written in great large letters all over their faces: still they waited, hope against hope. We almost forgot our own pressing troubles as we made our way through the pitiful body of strong men, willing, eager to sell themselves to the merciless and intrenched employers for bread: yet refused a chance to toil on the docks that are stored with fine cloth and good food, while their wives and children are in rags and starving.
We were met at the gate by an old pal who took us down to the hold of his ship, where we had breakfast à la creole, rice and corn meal and flour dumplings, swimming in coconut oil and thick coarse unadulterated cocoa made in native style with fat floating on the top. It was a great meal and for years I had not tasted one like it; but it turned bitter in my mouth when I thought of the despairing crowd of men outside. Even the wretched life of my swarthy friends in the ships' bottoms was better than gnawing starvation ashore.
My friend, Pedro, did not hear any news of his people in Brazil and he too was ina state of despair as he could not secure a berth to work his way back home. I came back west wondering what steps would be taken to relieve the awful distress in docklands. I did not wonder for long. A few evenings after, a Harmsworth-Northcliffe news-sheet blazoned the remedy from its posters all over London:
- CHINATOWN SCANDAL
- WHITE GIRLS AND YELLOW MEN
- POPLAR COUNCIL APPEAL TO HOME OFFICE
There was some excitement in the West India Dock Road. Mr Cairns and the Evening News had turned the trick. For the first time in many hopeless weeks, the jobless dockers and seamen would forget their hunger to vent their wrath on the Chinamen and the other coloured elements in Poplar. The next evening I visited the West India Dock Road to see what was happening. And business was going on as usual in one of the large Chinese restaurants, there was the usual number of white girl waitresses – quite pretty some of them. In light banter, I put the question to them that I have often asked before: “Why do you work here?” the answer is: “The pay is better than what we can get in the West End, the tips are large and our petty Chinese masters are kinder than our big ghoulish bosses.” In some restaurants, the white mothers sit with their quaint half-caste babies. The kept Press, with an air of mock innocence, asks: “What fascination do our English girls find in these coloured foreigners?” The kept Press ought to know, when its position is the same as the girls', with the sole difference that its wages is higher and the prostitutes are men. The great food firm of Lyons', with its long chain of restaurants scattered all through London, is determined to drive hundreds of its striking girls to a worse life than that of Chinatown, because they tried to organise themselves into a Union. And Lyons pay the Press to do their dirty work.
I tried my luck on a Chinese lottery and lost my 2/-, but it was harmless; I felt much safer than I could in a West End gambling den. If one is partial to the pipe and can present credentials, one may rest at ease on a mat and smoke in peace and at leisure in some back room in Chinatown. There is an exotic flavour in Dockland, and existence would not be intolerable there were it not for the hideous spectre of unemployment which haunts the wharves and which must be laid at the door of English Capitalism.
A few months ago the dockers got a rise in wages, and English ships soon vanished from English ports. In Liverpool, Hull, Bristol and Cardiff, conditions are just as bad. The British ships are being diverted to continental ports where labour is cheaper. This affects skilled labour of all trades. As well as the great mass of unskilled workers.
The whole plot is so obvious and yet the nicely fed and clothed labour officials play the capitalist game to perfection, by stirring up the passions of the workers against aliens (need I add Jews?) At Portsmouth, last month, the Ships Stewards and Cooks Union put through a resolution “protesting against the employment of all Chinese and Asiatic labour, requesting the Government to repatriate all Chinese not of British nationality, and asking that in future no Chinese be engaged on board British ships west of the Suez Canal.” Since the beginning of last year, the Government has gone far towards meeting these demands and standardising the rate of pay; but the seamen officials do not believe in a standard wage for all ship workers. One of them informed me recently, that the black men had been organised, and the Indians were being brought into line, but the Chinese were hopeless! They will not live and work up to the general standard of British seamen and if the standard of wages were ever so high, the ship-owners would use the Chinese as their tools and potential scabs against the white. Therefore only one course is open: Chinese must must not be employed on British ships, nor allowed to reside in English ports. As I have seen Chinese working and living just like other people in different parts of the world, I know that the premise is false. The dockers, instead of being unduly concerned about the presence of their coloured fellow men, who like themselves are the victims of capitalism and civilisation, should turn their attention to the huge stores of wealth along the water front. The country's riches are not in the West End, in the palatial houses of the suburbs; they are stored in the East End, and the jobless should lead the attack on the bastilles, the bonded warehouses along the docks to solve the question of unemployment.