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From the records of the district court at Honolulu for the year 1898 you may, if you have patience, unearth the dim beginnings of this story of the fifty candles. It is a story that stretches over twenty years, all the way from that bare Honolulu courtroom to a night of fog and violence in San Francisco. Many months after the night of the tule-fog, I happened into the Hawaiian capital and took down from a library shelf a big legal-looking book, bound in bright yellow leather the color of a Filipino houseboy's shoes on his Saturday night in town. I found what I was looking for under the heading: "In the Matter of Chang See."
The Chinese, we are told, are masters of indirection, of saying one thing and meaning another, of arriving at their goal by way of a devious, irrelevant maze. Our legal system must have been invented and perfected by Chinamen -- but is this lèse majesté or contempt of court or something? Beyond question the decision of the learned court in the matter of Chang See, as set down in the big yellow book, is obscured and befuddled by a mass of unspeakably dreary words. See 21 Cyc., 317 Church Habeas Corpus, 2d Ed., Sec. 169. By all means consult Kelley v. Johnson, 31 U. S. (6 Pet.) 622, 631-32. And many more of the same sort.
Here and there, however, you will happen on phrases that mean something to the layman; that indicate, behind the barrier of legal verbiage, the presence of a flesh-and-blood human fighting for his freedom -- for his very life. Piece these phrases together and you may be able to reconstruct the scene in the courtroom that day in 1898, when a lean impassive Chinaman ofthirty stood alone against the great American nation. In other words, Chang See v. U. S.
I say he stood alone, though he was, of course, represented by counsel. "Harry Childs for the Petitioner," says the big yellow book. Poor Harry Childs -- his mind was already beginning to go. It had been keen enough when he came to the islands, but the hot sun and the cool drinks -- well, he was a little hazy that day in court. He died long ago -- just shriveled up and died of an overdose of the Paradise of the Pacific -- so it can hardly injure his professional standing to intimate that he was of little aid to his client, Chang See.
Chang See was petitioning the United States for a writ of habeas corpus and his freedom from the custody of the inspector of immigration at the port of Honolulu. He had arrived at the port from China some two months previously, bringing with him a birth certificate recently obtained and forwarded to him by friends in Honolulu. This certificate asserted that Chang See had been born in Honolulu of Chinese parents -- that he had first seen the light on a December day thirty years before in a house out near Queen Emma's yard, on the beach at Waikiki. When he was four years old his parents had taken him back with them to their native village of Sun Chin, in China.
If the certificate spoke the truth, then Chang See must be regarded as an American citizen and freely admitted to Honolulu with no wearisome chatter about the Chinese Exclusion Act. But the inspector at the port had been made wary by long service. He admitted that the certificate was undoubtedly founded on fact. But, he contended, how was he to know that this tall, wise-looking Chinaman was the little boy Chang See who had once played about the beach at Waikiki?
Thus challenged, the petitioner brought in witnesses to prove his identity. He brought twelve of them in all -- shuffling old men, ancient dames with black silk trousers and tiny feet, younger sports prominent in the night life of Hotel Street. Some of them were reputed to have known him as a baby out near Queen Emma's yard; others had been the companions of the days of his youth in the village of Sun Chin.
Chang See's witnesses had begun their testimony before the inspector confidently enough. Then under the inspector's stony stare they had weakened. They had become confused, contradictory. Even the man who had obtained the birth certificate gave as the name of Chang See's father an entirely new and unheard-of appellation. In a word, the petitioner's friends one and all deserted him. Something seemed to have happened to them.
And something had happened to them. That something was the vivid remembrance of a little old lady with a thin face and cruel eyes, who was at the moment sitting in Peking, the virtual ruler of all China. Chang See had been lately active in fields that did not appeal to the dowager empress. He had been one of the group of brilliant reformers who had come so near winning the young emperor to their way of thinking, until that day in September when the empress had put down her foot, with its six-inch Manchu sole. She had made the emperor practically a prisoner in the palace and had announced that those who wished to change the existing order in China would please see her first. And if she saw them first--
She didn't see many of them. They fled for their lives, Chang See among them. His witnesses knew this. They knew that the little old lady was sitting waiting in the midst of her web at Peking -- waiting and hoping for the return of Chang See. They knew that the dear old thing had virtually promised to have a man ready with a basket to catch Chang See's head as it fell. Overcome with fear for themselves, for their people at home, they became foggy of mind, uncertain of names and dates. And Chang See's case smashed on the rock of their indifference.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the inspector of immigration was not convinced of the petitioner's identity. Following the usual formula, Harry Childs appealed the case to Washington.
The officials there, with unexpected promptness, agreed with the inspector, and Chang See was driven to his last resort. He besought the district court in Honolulu for a writ; and on a certain morning in December, '98 -- as a matter of fact it must have been Chang See's birthday, provided he was Chang See -- he stood awaiting the decision of the judge.
I can picture that scene in court for you, partly from the records, partly from the story of one who was there and remembers. Judge Smith was presiding; "H. Smith," he has it in the yellow book, with the modesty required of judges by custom. He was a big, blond, cool-looking man with a rather peevish manner not uncommon among whites in a tropic country. He sat idly thumbing the pages of his decision. There were a good many of them, he noticed. The languid hour of noon was approaching, and through his mind flashed a vision of his lanai, close by the white breakers at Waikiki. An armchair and magazines just in from the mainland awaited him there; also bottles, glasses, and ice, all of which were capable of being brought into delightful touch with one another.
H. Smith took a sip from a glass at his elbow -- indubitably water -- and began to read. He had, he said, studied with great diligence the petition submitted by counsel, which, he added with a disapproving glance at Harry Childs, was unnecessarily long and involved. The petitioner, as he understood it, based his application for a right to land on the assertion that he was Chang See, born of Chinese parents in Honolulu thirty years before, in a house near Queen Emma's yard at Waikiki. If the assertion were true, if the petitioner were Chang See, then as an American citizen he must be granted all he sought. But was this petitioner Chang See? The matter was clouded by grave doubts. Pass over the fact that he had waited more than twenty-nine years before asking for his birth certificate. Pass over as well the fact that the man who had obtained the certificate had later, by his testimony, appeared uncertain of the name of Chang See's father. Turn to the testimony of the petitioner's other witnesses.
He analyzed that testimony. He tore it to shreds. All at once he was reminded of the case in re Wang Chi-tung, 3 U. S. District Court, Hawaii 601-610. He was reminded of other anecdotes of a like nature. His voice droned on and on. The clerk of court fumbled sleepily at his watch fob and scowled at Chang See, the petitioner. All this time wasted!
H. Smith grew more genial when he came to the final page of his decision. After all, it had not taken so long as he expected. Summing it all up, quoting a few more authorities, he admitted at last that he shared the doubts of the inspector and the officials at Washington. He therefore, he added quite pleasantly, remanded the petitioner into the custody of the Inspector of Immigration for deportation to China.
The petitioner was a student who understood many languages, and he needed no interpreter to translate for him the words of the judge. He heard them, however, without so much as the flicker of an eyelash. We know now that he was Chang See. There was no justice in the world for him that day; but no one could have read his despair in his face. Harry Childs, on the other hand, was not a nerveless Oriental. His tobacco heart ablaze with anger, the lawyer leaped to his feet and did a most unprofessional thing.
"With all due respect to the dignity of this court," he cried, "I wish to advise Your Honor that you have sentenced this man to his death. Owing to his activities for reform in China, there is a price on his head there today. I wish to add -- I wish to say--" He faltered under the angry glare bent upon him by H. Smith. "I wish to repeat and emphasize -- you have sentenced this man to his death!"
Harry Childs had never been in high favor in that court, and if looks could kill he would then and there have preceded his client into eternity. Outwardly, however, the judicial calm was unruffled.
"The matter brought up by the learned counsel," said the judge -- and legal verbiage sometimes lends itself admirably to sarcasm -- "is not one involved in the petition as presented. I need hardly add that I regard it as a matter with which this court has no concern. The court is adjourned."
Chang See stood waiting not far from the judge's bench. Into his eyes had come an expression of amused contempt which might have annoyed the learned judge had he seen it. But H. Smith was already on his way to the cottage at Waikiki. He waited, did the Chinaman, until the inspector came for him, and they started down the aisle together. It was only a narrow path between the benches, but it was the beginning of the road that must lead Chang See back to China and a most unpleasant death. Yet he set out on it with his head held high and with a firm brave step.
Did Chang See tread that path to its logical and bitter end? Did he come in time to the edge of the web in the center of which the dowager empress, spiderlike, sat waiting? The story, as has been said, stretches over twenty years, and the succeeding chapters may seem, at first glance, irrelevant. But before we finish we shall be able to put together the pieces of our Chinese puzzle and know the end of the path that led at first between two rows of benches in a Honolulu court.
Copyright © 1921 by Nelson S. Bond
Posted November 2, 2011
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