Cannery Row


John Steinbeck

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The Old “Chinaman” Character Analysis

An old man who emerges at dusk each evening and walks through Cannery Row, eventually disappearing beneath a pier on the beach. Then, at dawn, the old man reappears and walks back through Cannery Row and moves through a hole in a fence. No one knows what this man does or who he is, but they leave him alone, as some people think he is God and other people think he is “Death.” One day, though, a young boy named Andy shouts a racist rhyme at the old man, prompting him to turn around. As Andy faces him, he sees the old man’s eyes merge into one another, whereupon a lonely and mountainous vista appears where the man’s face should be. This terrifies Andy and makes him feel like the only person on earth, so he shuts his eyes. When he opens them again, the old man is simply walking away, and no one ever bothers him again. Although this story condemns Andy for his racist lack of empathy, it’s worth noting that Steinbeck’s portrayal of the old man—and his dated use of the word “chinaman”—is itself problematic, since it draws upon stereotypes of Asiatic mysteriousness, an idea that ultimately others people like this old man and frames them as supernaturally strange just because they hail from faraway places and don’t conform to American notions of normality. Given that this is the one of the only instances of magical realism in the entire novel (and certainly the most pronounced instance, at that), it’s unfortunately obvious that Steinbeck himself has conflated his own character’s uniqueness with racially charged notions of otherness.

The Old “Chinaman” Quotes in Cannery Row

The Cannery Row quotes below are all either spoken by The Old “Chinaman” or refer to The Old “Chinaman”. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin Books edition of Cannery Row published in 2002.
Chapter 4 Quotes

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 cows’ 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 just flap-flapping between Western Biological and the Hediondo Cannery. Andy was the only boy who ever did that and he never did it again.

Related Characters: The Old “Chinaman”, Andy
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Cannery Row LitChart as a printable PDF.
Cannery Row PDF

The Old “Chinaman” Character Timeline in Cannery Row

The timeline below shows where the character The Old “Chinaman” appears in Cannery Row. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 4
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon
Each evening, a man Steinbeck calls “ the old Chinaman ” walks through the streets with a basket, disappearing down on the beach beneath the... (full context)
Vice and Virtue Theme Icon
Loneliness, Melancholy, and Happiness Theme Icon
Kindness, Empathy, and Friendship Theme Icon
The old man turns, and Andy watches his two eyes “spread out until” they merge and engulf the... (full context)