Flirting with History: A Romance in Early 20th Century China, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A recent donation of material at the end of December from Barbara Janeway Kome, a Workman family member, is one of those remarkable stories that deal with so many interesting historical themes.  Having just read Bruce Cuming’s fine book, From Sea to Shining Sea, about the gradual movement west in American history and consciousness towards the Pacific, rather than the earlier orientation east towards Europe, the items in Barbara’s donation take on a deeper and richer resonance.

Barbara’s grandparents were Elizabeth Gowan Hoskins and William H. Workman, Jr.  She was from San Francisco and married Thomas Hoskins, a Los Angeles resident who went to the University of California at Berkeley.  One of Hoskins’ best friends was Workman, whose father was a mayor and city treasurer of Los Angeles and founder of the Boyle Heights neighborhood, among other things, and who was a grand-nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman of the Homestead.

Elizabeth Gowan Dec 1901
Elizabeth Gowan, at a little shy of 20 years of age, in a portrait taken by Isaiah W. Taber, San Francisco, December 1901.

In 1969, Barbara’s mother Anne Workman Janeway interviewed Elizabeth about her life with Tom in China and this forms the basis of the series of posts that begin today and continue through next Wednesday.

In 1902, Tom Hoskins, who’d been taking a course at Cal in what was then called “Oriental commerce” and learning Mandarin, was appointed by the State Department to be a member of the American legation in China, something that was new for the department in that country recently rocked by the Boxer Rebellion.  He was engaged that March to Elizabeth Gowan, who he met at an event in Berkeley, and then sailed to China in September.

For two years, Hoskins continued his study of Mandarin while at the legation compound in Peking, now Beijing.  As the Russo-Japanese War erupted in 1904, it was decided that Elizabeth would travel to China to marry Tom and she left that June with her mother.  There was a day in which the shipped stopped in Honolulu, Hawaii, followed by a layover of about two weeks in Japan, where Elizabeth recalled in her interview that the Japanese were “a very friendly people” in “a very easy country to travel in on account of their being so friendly.”  She particularly enjoyed her stay in Kyoto.

The Gowan household in San Francisco in the 1900 census.  Father Edward, a native of Ireland as was his wife Elizabeth, was a carriage painter.  Elizabeth, the second eldest child, was a piano teacher at eighteen years old.

From there, they took a steamer from Nagasaki and made some other stops in Japan and then Korea and then to Tiangku, which Elizabeth described as “the most hideous and unhospitable looking place to land you could possibly imagine” because of its “perfectly flat, yellow mud flats.”  But, there, after two years, was her fiance waiting on shore.  After reuniting with her beau, the couple and Mrs. Gowan traveled by train to Beijing.

Elizabeth had interesting things to say about the Chinese, especially as connected to the residence she and Tom occupied at the legation compound:

Here is San Francisco we had been used to the little Chinese; the little men from Canton, so I had my first view of these huge, tall, handsome Chinese, with a braid of hair this thick [queue], and they were padding around this court without a sound.  It was very impressive.

There were also the servants that were in the household including “two boys and six coolies” with the latter having “one job apiece, like — there was a dishwashing coolie, and then we had our laundryman who was on the place all the time.”  In fact, clothes were pressed after one wearing which Elizabeth said left her “utterly spoiled.”

Then, there were the servants who were “Number One Boy” and “Number Two Boy” who wore uniforms for winter and summer seasons.  These two brought tea, lit a fire in the fireplace and “then brought in the tub, filled it up in front of the fire, and that’s how we bathed, where it was nice and warm.”  The number one servant “had full authority.  He hired and fired all the servants.  He ran the house.  We boarded with him.”

Elizabeth Gowan Haskins Workman interview pg 1
The first page of the transcript of the 1969 interview of Elizabeth conducted by her daughter.

Also mentioned was the “squeeze” with the example given of a servant asking for “five cents for rice” but Elizabeth stated “we knew that he only paid three cents for it, but that twenty percent squeeze was accepted.”  She added “unless we took accounts, we would have been done in unmercifully.  Because everybody got a squeeze.  The Gateman out at the sidewalk got a squeeze, the boys got one.”

During the interview, photographs were examined and Anne Janeway asked her mother, “What picture are we seeing right here?”  Elizabeth replied,

Well, this is an execution.  And here’s a sentence being pronounced on him, and he is bound and brought to the place in a cart.  And there is the ax up in the air ready to come down on him.  And — there’s the head.  It just shows the different stages leading up to the beheading of the poor criminal.

Notably, Elizabeth had positive statements about some of the Chinese and also expressed some sympathy for the executed criminal although in possession of photographs of the horrific event.  Attitudes of Caucasians towards Asians in California were generally filled with racism and animosity and the contrast of this with Elizabeth being a minority and describing her life among the majority in China is striking.

Gowan Haskins news article
A portion of a 1904 newspaper article about the upcoming wedding of Elizabeth Gowan and Thomas Haskins.

On 3 August 1904, Elizabeth and Tom were married at the legation compound at the top of the steps in a courtyard leading to a drawing room of the house of Tom’s boss, the American minister to China, Edwin H. Conger.  The next post in this series continues with Elizabeth’s recollections of her life with Tom in early 20th century China.

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks again, Ruth Ann–the story continues with a second post today and more to come!

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