The Old Chinaman at Cannery Row
N 36° 36.973 W 121° 54.021
10S E 598333 N 4052862
Quick Description: John Steinbeck devotes an entire chapter of his world famous novel "Cannery Row" to a local ghost story, told in Monterey in the 1930s and 1940s
Location: California, United States
Date Posted: 6/2/2006 8:38:21 AM
Waymark Code: WME32
In the evening just at dusk, a curious thing happened on Cannery Row. It happened in the time between sunset and the lighting of the street lights. There is a small quiet gray period then. Down the hill, past the Palace Flophouse, down the chicken walk and through the vacant lot came an old Chinaman. He wore an ancient flat straw hat, blue jeans, both coat and trousers, and heavy shoes of which one sole was loose so that it slapped the ground when he walked. In his hand he carried a covered wicker basket. His face was lean and brown, even the whites were brown and deep set so that they looked out of holes. He came by just at dusk and crossed the street and went through the opening between Western Biological and the Hediondo Cannery. Then he crossed the little beach and disappeared among the piles and steel posts which support the piers. No one saw him again until dawn.
But in the dawn, during that time when the street light has been turned off and the daylight has not come, the old Chinaman crept out from among the piles, crossed the beach and the street. He went up the hill to the second street, went through a gate in a high board fence and was not seen again until evening. People, sleeping, heard his flapping shoe go by and they awakened for a moment. It had been happening for years but no one ever got used to him. Some people thought he was God and very old people thought he was Death and children thought he was a very funny old Chinaman, as children always think anything old and strange is funny. But the children did not taunt him or shout at him as they should for he carried a little cloud of fear about with him.
Only one brave and beautiful boy of ten named Andy from Salinas ever crossed the old Chinaman. Andy was visiting in Monterey and he saw the old man and knew he must shout at him if only to keep his self-respect, but even Andy, brave as he was, felt the little cloud of fear. Andy watched him go by evening after evening while his duty and his terror wrestled. And then one evening Andy braced himself and marched behind the old man singing in a shrill falsetto, “Ching-Chong Chinaman sitting on a rail – ‘Long came a white man an’ chopped off his tail.”
The old man stopped and turned. Andy stopped. The deep-brown eyes looked at Andy and the thin corded lips moved. What happened then Andy was never able either to explain or to forget. For the eyes spread out until there was no Chinaman. And then it was one eye – one huge brown eye as big as a church door. Andy looked through the shiny transparent brown door and through it he saw a lonely countryside, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains shaped like crows’ and dogs’ heads and tents and mushrooms. There was low coarse grass on the plain and here and there a little mound. And a small animal like a woodchuck sat on each mound. And the loneliness – the desolate cold aloneness of the landscape made Andy whimper because there wasn’t anybody at all in the world and he was left. Andy shut his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see it any more and when he opened them he was in Cannery Row and the old Chinaman was jus flap-flapping between Western Biological and the Hediondo Cannery. Andy was the only boy who ever did that and he never did it again.
Type: Local Legend or Lore
Referenced in (list books, websites and other media):
John Steinbeck, "Cannery Row" (c)1945, Chapter 4
Additional Coordinates: N 36° 37.078 W 121° 54.111
Website Reference: Not listed