Ah Kang was unlucky. He had been badly seasick on the ship to San Francisco, and once here, he had struggled to make ends meet. So much for this being Old Gold Mountain. There was hardly any gold at all, at least as far as Ah Kang could tell.
It had been hard to find lodgings, too. Nobody had wanted him to join them, even other Chinese laborers, because of something to do with the cubic feet of their living quarters. Ah Kang did not understand why it was illegal for someone to live within less than 500 cubic feet. He didn’t have a clear sense of how big or small of a space that was, anyway.
When he finally did find a lodging house where he could live, Wing Fat, who was the oldest resident, had said that they were barely legal, with 550 cubic feet per person, if you counted the hallway. It was crowded and stuffy in the room, but rooming with four other Chinese men at least helped keep Ah Kang reasonably warm during the chilly and foggy nights.
Laying railroad track was hard, dangerous work, but it was the only job available to many. Ah Kang had not even been able to get a railroad job, however, and had been forced to resort to taking in laundry like a woman. He had spent a good chunk of what little money he had on a wooden tub and washboard, which he kept propped up against the wall.
This turned out to be his undoing, as a redheaded Irish policeman spotted it through an open window one day. Everyone knew that men were crammed together like sardines in these sorry apartments. The policeman had evidently surmised that the wooden tub and washboard took up enough space that the 500 cubic feet per person rule was not being respected.
He marched up the stairs of the building and into the apartment. It was a very small room indeed, although Ah Kang was alone in it as it was daytime. Ah Kang was sorting through laundry to be washed when the policeman came in.
“Hey there, Chinaman. How many men live here?”
“There are five of us, sir.”
“Are you not aware of the 500 cubic feet ordinance effective April 1876?”
“Yes, I am, sir. We have 550 each.”
“No you don’t. Don’t you try playing dumb with me, Chinaman. You’re under arrest!”
The policeman grabbed Ah Kang by his queue and yanked him up to his feet. Ow, that hurt! Ah Kang’s queue was his pride and glory. It was longer, thicker, and blacker than the queues of any of his roommates, reaching down to his calves. He hadn’t been to the barber recently, so the shaved front part of his hair had grown out a couple of inches. Back in China every man, no matter how poor, was obliged to get the front of his hair shaved every ten days, but this was America.
When the policeman had brought Ah Kang to the county jail, Sheriff Nunan was there, looking over existing prisoners. Ah Kang gulped when he saw a handful of Chinese men who had no queues.
Any prisoner who could not pay the fine would be subject to a haircut, regardless of ethnicity. To be sure, there were some white men with close-cropped hair as well, but they had lost inches, not feet, or even yards of hair. Besides, they were not planning to return to countries where all-over short hair could get a man in serious legal trouble. If Ah-Kang lost his queue, he would not be able to return to China until it grew back, lest he be arrested for treason.
Having a long queue was a symbol of loyalty to the Qing emperor. Never mind that the emperor was a Manchu, and therefore a barbarian foreigner. It rankled that Ah Kang and millions of other Chinese men had to demonstrate loyalty to the Qing, which had conquered the native Chinese rulers almost 250 years ago, but the queue also marked Ah Kang out as a Chinese, and was thus also a symbol of ethnic pride. He was a poor man with tattered clothes, but even white women gave him second looks, thanks to his handsome face, but also out of envy of his long, thick plait.
“Another 500 cubit foot case, Sheriff.” The Irish policeman addressed Sheriff Nunan as he walked away.
“Let’s see. Can you pay the fine? Guessing by the looks of you, probably not.”
No, Ah Kang could not. He knew what was going to happen next. Word was that the sheriff was scissor-happy with Chinese prisoners because severed queues could be sold to hairdressers, who would use them to make elaborate hairpieces for ladies. The hair could be bleached with lye and passed off as European. There was no chance that Ah Kang would be able to keep his queue.
“Come here.” Sheriff Nunan beckoned to Ah Kang with one hand while he picked up a large pair of shears with the other. There was no choice but to obey. Ah Kang closed his eyes in dread of the inevitable.
He felt a rough hand grab hold of his queue and work its way down to the root. The hand settled on the base of the queue before a loud “Schnick, schnick” echoed in the jailhouse.
Ah Kang didn’t dare open his eyes. Even though his head felt lighter and he had heard the thud of the queue falling to the floor, the snipping continued. Was it possible that the Sheriff was actually cutting what was left into a properly shaped haircut like the ones that white men wore?
He could feel the cold steel travel up and down the back and sides of his head, as well as the back half of his crown. It was a good thing that he had a couple of inches in the front. At the very least he might look no worse than a defrocked monk.
After he was released, Ah Kang rubbed the now shorn back of his head. He still had not seen what it looked like. It was a good thing he was in San Francisco, where a man could wear his hair in any style.
This makeover had been humiliating and traumatic—after all, it was obvious that the haircutting ordinance was directly targeted at Chinese—but as long as he stayed in America, he would not get into more trouble for having short hair.
Besides, the fact of his living in close quarters had not changed. It was possible that he could get arrested again for the same reason, and even receive another haircut from Sheriff Nunan’s shears, but at least next time he had no queue to lose.