Mr. Sweet Potatoes by Anonymous

Our milkman has a very odd name,—translated into English it is "Sweet Potatoes." His Chinese neighbors call him "Old Father Sweet Potatoes."

Some persons think him a good man; others say that he is a very bad one. Just how that is I do not know—his business brings him great temptation.

He is accused of putting water into the milk. He himself says, that he only does it when he has not enough milk to supply all his customers; then he does not know what else he can do. When we engaged him to bring milk to us we took him into our yard and showed him that we had a well of our own.

The Chinese in their own country do not make any use of milk or butter. They have a perfect horror of cheese, and in this part of China, perhaps, not more than one man in a hundred will taste of beef. Only a few cows and bullocks are kept, and these are needed to plough the fields and turn the rude machinery of the sugar mills.

I suppose "Father Sweet Potatoes" had never thought of such a thing as owning a cow, until foreign ships began to come to his part of the country. Of course the ships brought foreign men and women, and these all wanted beef to eat—sometimes the Chinese, wishing to speak contemptuously of them, would call them "beef-eating foreigners,"—and they also wanted milk for their cooking and for their children.

So Mr. Sweet Potatoes bought some cows, hoping to make some money in the milk business. They all had long ropes laced about their horns or threaded through their noses, and he got some little children to hold the ropes and guide the cows in search of food; for there are no grass fields in this part of the country, and all the pastures the cows have are the little green places on the rocky hills and the grassy patches along the brooks; and the children sit by and watch them while they graze, for there are no fences, and, left to themselves, the cows might stray into the rice fields or wander away into places where they would be stolen.

Strange to say, we have our best milk when the winter has almost killed the grass, or when the weather is too stormy for the cows to go out; for then they are fed with the tops of pea-nut plants, either green, or dried like hay, and up for sale in great bundles. This is delicious food for the cows, and when they have it then we have good milk indeed, with a thick, white cream upon it.

Sometimes they have cut grass to eat, which has been brought from steep places on the hills to which the cows cannot go. Very poor boys go out with baskets and knives to gather this grass, and are paid only three or four cents for the work of a day.

Mr. Sweet Potatoes has two kinds of cows. Some of them are the native humpback cows, of very small size, very gentle; sometimes red and sometimes brown, with hair that is smooth and glossy quite down to the tiny little hoofs, which look far smaller and cleaner than do the feet of cows in colder climates where they walk out in snow and stand in frosty barns.

These cows have very small horns, sometimes three or four inches long, but often mere little white buds coming out from their dark foreheads. Back of their shoulders they have a small hump, three or four inches high. And, almost always, Sweet Potatoes' cows have with them a pretty, little, sprightly calf; for the Chinese believe, or pretend to believe, that if the calf were taken away the cow would die, and that it is necessary before milking her to first let the calf have a few mouthfuls of milk,—poor little calf!

The other cows are very different from these; they are water buffaloes,—buffaloes not at all like the shaggy bison, but great, awkward creatures, that in summer like to wade into pools, and, safe from flies and mosquitos, to stand with only their horns and upturned faces in sight above the top of the water; or, when there are no pools, to wander into bogs and half bury themselves in the mud. They are as large as a big ox, with very round bodies mounted on very slim legs that have very large knee and ankle joints. They are of the color of a mouse, or a gray pig, and coarse hairs grow thinly over their skin, while, in contrast to the humpback-cows, they have two immense, crescent-shaped horns setting up from their heads, and measuring often a yard from side to side.

Old Father Sweet Potatoes sells ten pint-bottles full for a silver dollar,—that is ten cents a pint,—and in summer he brings us a half-pint in the morning and another half-pint in the afternoon; for the weather is so hot that the milk of the morning will not remain sweet until evening, although the moment it is brought to the house it is boiled and then put in the coolest place we have, which is not a cellar, for cellars cannot be kept sweet and airy in countries where there is so much moisture and many insects.

When, in our walks, we meet these cows they often exhibit fear, especially of foreign ladies and horses, sights with which they are not familiar. The little humpback cows prance skittishly out of the paths; but the great buffaloes stand quite still and stare at us, then throw up their noses and sniff the air in an offended manner that in turn makes us afraid of them.

At night they are all brought home from their wanderings, and the ropes by which they are led are tied to stakes driven into the ground; in winter under a shed, but in summer in the open air. It makes one's neck ache to see them; for the rope is frequently tied so short that they cannot hold their heads erect nor move them very freely, but they do not appear to suffer.

Next to his business the milkman values his daughter, who, when I first saw her, was a plump, rosy-cheeked child and tended her father's cows. If you ever saw a doll with a plaster head that had been broken and then had been mended by having a strip of black silk glued over the crack, you will know how Mr. Sweet Potatoes' daughter looked.

She wore a piece of black crape bound tightly about her head so that no one could see her hair. Some persons said that, owing to illness, she had no hair. If so it must have grown afterwards; for, when she was older and had left tending the cows, she had it put up on her head with pins, in a strange fashion that showed she was going to be married.

Sweet Potatoes had no son and he wished his son-in-law to come and live with him as if he belonged to him. Among the Chinese this is not considered so honorable or so genteel, as to have the daughter leave her home and go and live with her husband's family. It seemed strange that the son-in-law should consent; for though he was very poor he was also very proud, and was very particular to have respect shown to him and in regard to the kinds of work that he was willing to do. I should never have guessed his foolish reason for being so proud, but some one told me that it was because his father, now dead, had once held a small office in the Custom House!