Mr. Denby to Mr. Gresham.
Pelting, April 7, 1893. (Received May 23.)
Sir: The construction, now under way, of the new offices for this legation affords an interesting opportunity to obtain some statistics as to the building industry in Peking.
Labor of all kinds, both skilled and unskilled, in China is notoriously cheap, and builders form no exception to the rule. The workmen employed on the new office building number about forty, varying from day to day. At their head is an overseer, whose wages per day are 3 tiao 6, or about 24 cents United States currency, and who supplies his own food. Under this overseer are 30 or 40 masons and carpenters, who are of two classes: First, takung, or superior workmen, who receive the equivalent of 11 cents per day and three meals. They have the option of supplying their own food, in which case they receive 16 cents per day, or 5 cents additional. Second, hsiao kung, or inferior workmen, who receive 2¾ cents per day and three meals. In case they supply their own food they receive 5 cents per day additional, or about 8 cents in all. Some carpenters of superior ability receive wages at a higher rate than the above, amounting to 25 or 30 cents a day. These, however, are few in number, and are employed only on the more difficult part of the woodwork.
The food furnished by the contractor consists of three meals daily, viz, at 6 a.m., 12 m., and 6 p.m. Only old rice and salted vegetables are supplied, all three meals being the same. It is said to cost the contractor about 3½ cents per day for this food, not counting cook’s wages and fire. Less than 5 cents per day is the total estimated cost per man.
It is an unwritten part of the contract between the contractor and his employés that they are to have, in addition to the time allowed for meals, two interims for rest a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, of about twenty minutes each. To a western observer this would seem an entirely unnecessary indulgence, for no workmen in the world have so mastered the art of dilatoriness as the Chinese. They move about their task with a deliberation which could scarcely be increased without becoming entire repose. The consequence is that many men here will not perform the work which could easily be done by one American, and the advantage of individual low wages disappears in the greater numbers which it is necessary to employ.
It is a curious commentary on the management of public funds in China that carpenters and masons employed on Government buildings insist on receiving, and do receive, higher wages than for private work. The profits of such contracts are known to be large, and employés, supported by powerful guilds in each trade, demand a division of the spoils. The result is that of funds appropriated for public buildings and other improvements only about 60 per cent is actually spent as ostensibly intended.
The laying of cement foundations for buildings is, in Peking, a specialty of a certain class of workmen, who do nothing else. The contract for foundations is let to a subcontractor at so much per square foot. The usual building foundation consists of a mixture of seven parts earth to three parts lime thoroughly mixed and put down wet. It is then rammed with light wooden mallets and afterwards made firmer still by a very effective Chinese instrument called a “wo.” This consists of a heavy disk of iron lifted by a number of coolies, by means of ropes [Page 233]attached to its rim, and allowed to fall heavily on the cement from a height of about 7 or 8 feet. The coolies engaged in this operation keep time by all joining in the chorus of a song, the verses of which are chanted by a bystander, who seems to take no other part in the work. The shouting of this chorus by a dozen lusty voices is the inevitable accompaniment of foundation building in China, and is persisted in with a perseverance which almost leads one to believe that walls could not be built without it.
An observation of the attitude of contractors toward their workmen seems to show that the lower orders of laborers are possessed of certain privileges and are not devoid of means of insisting on their recognition. No such thing as oppression or ill-treatment is ever attempted. The coalition of laborers into guilds for the advancement of their interests is an ancient institution in China, and recent instances have not been wanting to demonstrate the power of the humblest classes to assert their views and obtain recognition of them before the most exalted tribunals.
It is hoped that the new offices will be completed and ready for occupation during the month of July.
I have, etc.,