Just before midnight on Dec. 17, 1874, a crew member cried out on the deck of the steamship S.S. Japan.
There was a fire. In just 45 minutes, the flames engulfed the 4,000-ton ship’s wooden hull, trapping some of the passengers below deck. Others, mostly Chinese migrant workers, could not reach the lifeboats and jumped into the South China Sea, where they were weighed down by their gold-filled belts and sank to the bottom.
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The Chinese laborers were returning home from the American West. More than 400 had spent three or four years there, building the Central Pacific railroad, mining precious metals, constructing California’s first irrigation system, and earning about $400 each in gold. They had almost made it back when the S.S. Japan, a U.S-flagged vessel employed by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, sank about 20 miles from the coast of Hong Kong. Nearly all perished.
"It’s pretty striking how close they were to China," said Robert Wells, a retired U.S. Navy captain and author of Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster.
"They worked so hard in America and were almost home when they were lost."
Wells, also a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, said it is somewhat surprising that most Americans today have never heard of the sinking of the S.S. Japan, one of the largest passenger steamships in the world at the time.
"It’s like the Titanic of the East," he said. "It caused quite a stir in Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Washington, [D.C.]."
The origins of the S.S. Japan lie with Abraham Lincoln, who just before his assassination in 1865 signed a bill into law that established a trans-Pacific oceanic mail service. Lincoln hoped the measure would be a first step toward completing a trans-Pacific railroad and developing trade relations with China.
One of four large steamships built in New York, the S.S. Japan became an integral part of the enormous U.S.-bound migration of Chinese laborers. Spurred by the Burlingame-Seward Treaty (1868) that conferred "most favored nation" status on China and guaranteed low-cost immigrant labor for U.S. firms, the steamers transported tens of thousands of Chinese workers from Hong Kong to San Francisco in the next decade. Mark Twain referred to the capacious S.S. Japan as a "perfect palace of a ship."
Even before the ship’s sinking, the vessel had a significant impact on the immigration politics of post-Civil War America. The S.S. Japan transported not only male Chinese laborers but also women on its voyages, viewed by American seamen as prostitutes and covered sensationally in the press. When immigration officials in San Francisco jailed 21 Chinese women for being "lewd and debauched" and demanded $500 in gold each for their release according to California law, the state’s supreme court upheld the statute. However, the U.S. Supreme Court freed the women in Chy Lung v. Freeman (1875), ruling that only the federal government could establish laws regarding the arrival of foreigners.
Eventually, anti-Chinese sentiment swelled to such an extent that U.S. lawmakers decided to cut off the flow of cheap labor. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) placed a decade-long moratorium on virtually all Chinese immigration; the moratorium was later extended through various restrictions and quotas.
"They did help build America, and the Chinese were the only race that were excluded from the United States," Wells said.
While Americans might be unaware of the S.S. Japan’s history, they have likely heard something about the South China Sea. It is one of the tensest spots in today’s increasingly unstable world.
The United States accuses China of risking conflict in the region through its construction of nearly 3,000 acres of manmade islands, some militarized with radar stations, anchorage bases, and landing strips. The sea is not only a concern to U.S. allies who have territorial claims in the region, including Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, but also to the United States and the broader international community: 30 percent of global maritime trading vessels pass through its waters.
"China has overplayed their territorial ambitions in the South China Sea," Wells said. "China wants to bring the United States into this as a geopolitical issue."
"What our policy has done is to not take the bait and to continue to support the neighbors, support Vietnam, the Philippines," he added, though he suggested that the Obama administration could do more on this front.
He also offered a modest proposal—perhaps it is time for the United States to recover the vestiges of the S.S. Japan and its passengers, as both a humanitarian gesture and an assertion of U.S. law. Under American admiralty statutes, a "U.S.-flagged vessel is a U.S.-flagged vessel, no matter where it sinks," he said.
How would China respond?
"China would welcome and respect the American acknowledgement of the Chinese contribution represented on this ship," he said, before adding that "I also think, though, they would be sensitive to anything to do with the South China Sea."
Wells added that, regardless of China’s reaction, it might simply be the right thing to do. According to Confucian tradition, the souls of the lost cannot ascend to heaven unless their remains reside in the mainland.
"We didn’t forget them—we found their story," he said. "They’re telling their story from the wreckage."