Chinese New Year fascinated William H. Brewer, especially the part that involved firecrackers.

He had come to California in 1860 to work with the state geologist, Josiah Dwight Whitney, to make a survey of the state. For four years, the geological team traveled up and down California, and Brewer described what he saw in letters to his brother in New York.

On Jan. 29, 1862, he was in San Francisco.

"Wednesday was the Chinese New Year and such a time as they have had! I will bet that over 10 tons of firecrackers have been burned. This is their great day of the year. They claim that their great dynasty began 17,500 and some odd years ago, a pedigree that beats even that of the first families of Virginia," he wrote.

It rained a lot in March. Lowlands flooded. Muddy roads made travel impossible. Back in San Francisco again, Brewer complained to his brother that the Chinese never learned the language or adopted Western ways.

"He comes to make money and return. Even if he dies here his body is returned and buried in the celestial land. Dead Chinamen form an important form of freight on every ship leaving this port for China."

Brewer then described what he found particularly strange.

"Men wear their long hair braided into a tail, which is either done up around the head or hangs down to the heels behind. A man losing his tail falls into disgrace upon returning to his own country and it is made a crime under the laws of this state for anyone to cut off a Chinaman's tail."


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Brewer went to a Protestant mission station for the Chinese immigrants and attended a chapel service. He was the only white man there and the service was all in Chinese.

"In front of me sat a rich Chinese merchant, his fingernails an inch long looking like the talons of a bird of prey."

He couldn't figure out the plot, but enjoyed himself thoroughly even though he found the musical accompaniment, which included gongs, drums, cymbals and a "guitar-like instrument," extremely noisy and without any melody.

In February 1863, he was again amazed by the Chinese New Year's celebration.

"The festival lasts two weeks, but the police grant them the privilege of firing firecrackers only three days. ... I thought I had seen firecrackers before, but became convinced that I had not. ... On the top of a store is a crowd of 20 or 30 men (Chinese). Packs of crackers are lighted, hurled in the air, and allowed to fall in the street. A part of the time 12 men are lighting and throwing out the packs, a 100 crackers in explosion at each instant, making a continuous roar that can be heard all over the city."

Brewer's letters were published in a book, "Up and Down California" in 1930 by Yale University Press. Since then the University of California Press has republished the book several times.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.