Chinaman in the Boat
by Sy Schreckinger – ANTIQUE TOY WORLD Magazine – June, 1999
Gold! Its discovery in California in 1848
sparked massive migration by treasure seekers from all points of the
globe. Expectations soared for the multitudes who arrived to seek their
fortunes and escape from impoverishment.
The hills of California attracted persons from as distant a land as
China, with an estimated 25,000 Chinese immigrants in 1851, and escalating
to a staggering 250,000 by the year 1880. They were regarded as "cheap
labor" employed primarily as mine workers, carpenters, track layers, cooks
and domestic help.
However, the growth and strengthening of labor unions began to turn
the tide against this group of "foreigners". Support from influential
politicians resulted in the passage of a law in 1882 which restricted
Chinese laborers from entering the United States for a period of ten
years. The outcry for deportation of all Chinese soon emanated from the
disgruntled American working class. The Democratic Party as well as the
Workingman's Party proclaimed their sentiments with banners declaring "The
Chinese Must Go!". Oriental residents of this country were now victims of
increasing hostility, prejudice, and ruthless acts of cruelty.
Sometime during the period of 1879-1882, a lead-zinc alloy
mechanical bank entitled "Chinaman in the Boat" (Figure 1) was created.
Intended as a child's toy to encourage thrift, it capitalized upon the
dehumanization of unwanted Asians through a caricature. The appeal of
"Chinaman in the Boat" relied upon gross and erroneous perceptions of
As seen in Figure 1, this mechanical portrays a Chinese man garbed in
native attire. He is seated in a junk. A black cat is perched upon the bow
of the craft, and a square imprinted flip-type lid lies directly in front
of the seafarer. There are numerous inscriptions strategically placed upon
the boat which serve to further dishonor and humiliate these Oriental
outcasts. On the deck behind the Chinaman are the words "Hotel Yacht, Free
Excursion, Music By The Band Forward When It Is Not Seasick". On one side
of the cat is the phrase "I Am Seasick Oh Morrow". It appears obvious that
the attempt is to equate, in a satirical manner, the screeching of a
wretching, seasick cat with the high-pitched notes of a Chinese
orchestra. In addition, the words "Cash, Cheap Labor, Hotel Dinner One
Cent In Advance" are printed on one side of the square flip-type lid in
front of the Chinaman. When this piece is flipped, an oval tray appears;
on it are a dead rat, a place setting of a knife and fork, and the words
"Dinner Is Ready". The widespread, derogatory untruth was that the Chinese
national delicacy was boiled rat.
The attempt at racial disparagement is further demonstrated by
operation of the "Chinaman in the Boat" Bank. Initially, a coin is placed
upon the space marked "Cash" which is positioned directly in front of the
Oriental. The Chinaman's queue is then pressed. Simultaneously, his left
arm rises, flipping over the lid-type cover, thus exposing a dish
containing the dead rat and the words "Dinner Is Ready". During this
action the coin is deposited within the boat's hull. When the queue is
released the Chinaman's arm descends and the square cover slips back to
its original position. Monies are removed by unscrewing the deck from the
hull of the boat. (Worthy of mention is the fact that, during this
shameful era, the deplorable practice of pulling a Chinaman's queue was an
acceptable and oft- repeated act by common rabble malcontents.)
Unfortunately, to date, there has been no factual evidence to reveal
the identity of the inventor and/or manufacturer of the "Chinaman in the
Boat" mechanical bank. However, consensus of opinion amongst bank
collectors and historians is that master bank designer, Mr. Charles A.
Bailey, was its creator and its site of production was Cobalt,
Connecticut. Assumptions are based upon several similarities between
"Chinaman in the Boat" and mechanicals conclusively attributed to Bailey
at his Cobalt factory. These include a comparable style of lettering used
on his "Baby Elephant Bank, Opens At X O'Clock" (refer to Antique Toy
World, March, 1999) and "Darkey Fisherman Bank" (Antique Toy World,
1999). In addition, all banks produced in Cobalt, including "Chinaman in
the Boat", have highly-defined, beautifully-detailed castings. Also
reflected in all of these early banks is Bailey's uniquely wry, sardonic,
unorthodox sense of humor. Most importantly, "Chinaman in the Boat" is
constructed of precisely the same lead-zinc alloy utilized in all of the
other banks manufactured by Bailey at his Cobalt facility.
I am not aware of any casting variations of "Chinaman in the Boat",
but there is a color variant. The bank may be painted in the colors seen
in Figure 1, or partially finished in semi-transparent japan colors (i.e.
the Chinaman wears a red jacket with yellow trousers; the bottom of the
boat retains the natural silver-grey color of the lead-zinc alloy from
which it was produced, while the top half of the hull is japanned a glossy
purple color). All other parts of the banks are decorated in similar
colors to the example in Figure 1.
The mechanicals produced by Bailey at his Cobalt plant are considered
quite rare. I am assuming that very limited production, combined with
fragile materials and construction, account for their present status.
To date, no reproductions of the "Chinaman in the Boat" mechanical
bank have surfaced, and none are believed to exist. Nonetheless, the side
elevation diagram seen in Figure 2 is intended to aid collectors in
determining size and scale.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The "Chinaman in the Boat" Bank (Figure 1) is from
the collection of Steve and Marilyn Steckbeck.