|CHINESE AMERICAN STUDIES |
By Max Millard
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Written for Cameron House Bilingual Youth Program
San Francisco, California, summer 2004
1. Chinese immigrants to California from 1850 to 1882
Word of a mountain of gold across the ocean arrived in Hong Kong in 1849, and quickly spread throughout the Chinese provinces. By 1851, 25,000 Chinese immigrants had left their homes and moved to California, a land some came to call gam saan, or "gold mountain."
Once the Chinese immigrants arrived in California, they found that the gold mountain was an illusion. Mining was uncertain work, and the gold fields were littered with disappointed prospectors and hostile locals. Work could be scarce, and new arrivals sometimes found it difficult to earn enough to eat, let alone to strike it rich. Even worse, they soon discovered that they were cut off from their families: With no source of money, the immigrants could not pay for their wives and children to make the long voyage from China, and could not go back home themselves. As the dream of gold faded, these men found themselves stranded in a strange new land far from home. It was a land that did not welcome them, a land that afforded them few means of survival, and a land in which they were very much alone.
But as soon as the Chinese began arriving in large numbers, white Americans discriminated against them. Black people, Mexicans and other Latinos got the same treatment. American miners felt that the hard-working and low-paid Chinese were reducing their wages. In the gold fields, the attitude was: "You can dig here when I'm done." The California government imposed special taxes and laws to keep the Chinese from getting ahead. This discrimination occurred in spite of the fact that the Chinese often contributed the crucial labor necessary to the mining enterprise.
In the 1850s, the California legislature passed a law taxing all foreign miners. Although stated in general terms, it was enforced chiefly against the Mexicans and the Chinese through 1870. The Foreign Miners License tax law required all non-native born workers to pay the $20 per month for the right to mine. That was a lot of money then, equal to hundreds of dollars today. As a result, most of the Mexican miners left and returned to Mexico.
The vast majority of this first group, in the 1840s and 1850s, was young and male, and many of them had little formal education and work experience. Once in California, they had to find work that required little facility in English, and that required skills that could be learned quickly.
Discriminatory legislation forced many Chinese into low-paying, menial, and often arduous jobs. In many cases, they took on the most dangerous and least desirable components of work available.
In the 1850s, the United States Constitution reserved the right of naturalization for white immigrants to this country. Thus, Chinese immigrants lived at the whim of local governments, with some allowed to become naturalized citizens, but most not. Without this right, it was difficult to pursue livelihoods. For example, Chinese immigrants were unable to own property or land, or to file mining claims. They couldn't get licenses and were barred from many occupations.
Most newcomers to California were Americans from the eastern United States. There, many of them had opposed immigration from Europe, and they believed that American-born whites were the only ones who deserved full rights. The idea that native-born Americans should come first is called nativist.
Poor white immigrants from European countries such as Ireland and Russia had suffered from Eastern nativists. They thought that by attacking the Chinese, their own status would be raised higher. Therefore, Chinese immigrants faced discrimination from many different groups, including other immigrants.
In California, the Chinese newcomers soon became an exploited work force, especially since they were almost all men. They were considered outsiders by the white majority. They had almost no legal rights. They couldn't become citizens or vote, or go to public school. They were tolerated because they worked very hard for very little money, and during the 1850s and 1860s, that was all that mattered. The economy was strong then, and no matter how little they earned, it was still a lot more than most of them could get in China.
Many of their customs and traditions were violated, and they were often insulted. Sometimes they were beaten or imprisoned, and in some cases killed.
The Chinese resented the idea that they were being discriminated against, but for the most part they remained quiet.
From Seattle to Los Angeles, from Wyoming to the small towns of California, immigrants from China were forced out of business, run out of town, beaten, tortured, lynched, and massacred, usually with little hope of help from the law. Racial hatred, an uncertain economy, and weak government in the new territories all contributed to this climate of terror and bloodshed. The perpetrators of these crimes, which included Americans of European, Mexican, and African descent, largely went unpunished. Exact statistics for this period are difficult to come by, but a case can be made that Chinese immigrants suffered worse treatment than any other group that came voluntarily to the U.S.
b. founding of Chinatown
There were so many Chinese coming into San Francisco -- about 800 in 1849, and 20,000 in 1852 alone -- that they quickly formed a Chinatown in the downtown area of the city. It was about a dozen square blocks, and in that area they were safe. Outside Chinatown, they took their chances. It was common to see young ruffians around the city with queues hanging from their belts that they had cut from unfortunate Chinese men.
The Chinese knew that the city's policemen wouldn't protect them, and that they wouldn't have a fair chance in the courtroom, so Chinatown learned to protect its residents. As soon as a young man arrived on the waterfront, he could find help from two organizations -- his district association made up of people from the same region in China, and from his family association, which was formed for people with the same last name. They helped the young men get settled into Chinese American society, and settled problems inside Chinatown.
Chinese formed Chinatowns throughout California, as a result of the racial hostility around them and of their own traditions of mutual aid in their villages in China. Almost every city in California had a Chinatown. These Chinatowns were separate, almost independent cities within a city that met their housing, economic, social, and psychological needs.
While there are many Chinatowns across the United States and around the globe, San Francisco's Chinese community holds a special place as the oldest, largest, and most visually recognizable urban Chinese American enclave in the world. As more and more Chinese immigrants -- mostly from Guangdong province in southern China -- migrated to northern California in search of fortune and work, San Francisco's Chinatown served as their home away from home, a comfortingly familiar place in an alien and often hostile land.
c. professions of Chinese immigrants
Once they realized how difficult their situation was, the first generation of Chinese immigrants scrambled to find some way to earn a living wage.
The Chinese who didn't mine for gold worked as farmers, in canneries and factories, and in the 1860s, for the railroads.
The railroads were tailor-made for this new pool of Chinese labor. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the U.S. railroad companies were expanding at a breakneck pace, straining to span the continents as quickly -- and cheaply -- as they could. The work was brutally difficult, the pay was low, and workers were injured and killed at a very high rate. For Chinese laborers, though, it represented a chance to enter the workforce, and they accepted lower wages than many native-born U.S. workers would have.
On the Central Pacific Railroad alone, more than 10,000 Chinese workers blasted tunnels, built roadbeds, and laid hundreds of miles of track, often in freezing cold or searing heat. When, in 1869, the final spike was driven into the rails of the Transcontinental Railroad, after a record-breaking five years of construction, few Chinese faces appeared in photographs of the event. But the railroad could never have been completed as quickly as it was without the toil of Chinese railway men -- unknown hundreds of whom lost their lives along its route.
Once the rail construction was completed, Chinese immigrants found work in a variety of industries, from making shoes and sewing clothes to rolling cigars. Since language barriers and racial discrimination barred them from many established trades, however, they often created opportunities for themselves and launched new businesses.
Many of the shops, restaurants, and laundries in the growing mining towns of California were operated by Chinese immigrants. Chinese immigrants also played an important role in developing much of the farm land of the western U.S., including the vineyards of California.
Among the areas where they found work were within the agricultural and fishing industries. Since most of the early Chinese immigrants were from farming areas in China, it was natural for them to become involved in agriculture in this country. Few of them were able to become independent farmers because most were not citizens and were prevented from owning land by local laws.
They reclaimed swampland in the Sacramento delta. Many raised vegetables and fruit that they sold door to door. Others were sharecroppers or tenant farmers, who leased land and paid the landlord part of their crop. Most were migrant farm laborers. Chinese American farm labor was essential to the development of various crops that required special skill and care, such as harvesting and processing olives. Chinese immigrants also provided essential labor for development of the wine industry in California. In seacoast communities such as Monterey, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo counties, Chinese inhabitants helped develop the industry for squid, abalone, shrimp, sturgeon and various kinds of fish. They also processed kelp and a variety of other marine products. By the late 1880s, there were over 2000 Chinese in fishing camps throughout the San Francisco Bay, Monterey and San Diego areas. Chinese fisherman ran into antagonism from white fisherman who pressured the California legislature with passing restrictions on Chinese fishing activities, which caused hardships for the communities and eventually decline, in Chinese fishing operations.
The Chinese also were actively involved in providing services as laundrymen, cooks, servants, and gardeners. As early as the 1850's the first Chinese laundries are established in San Francisco, and by 1870, the majority of the laundries are run by Chinese. Chinese restaurants are also quite common, servicing first the Chinese community, and later other clients as cooks learned to cook Western fare. Chinese also helped within industries such as textile mills, and shoe and cigar factories.
They worked on reclaiming marshes in the Central Valley so that the land could become agriculturally productive. They built the stone bridges and fences, constructed roads, and excavated storage areas for the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma counties.
They also got into other professions. They earned a reputation for making good boots, cigars and shirts, and they began to operate a lot of laundries, because that was one service that was always needed in an overcrowded city like San Francisco. they could charge less than white-owned laundries and still make a living.
d. anti-Chinese movement
Chinese were allowed to immigrate to the United States, and received formal protection under the Burlingame Treaty in 1868.
But by the 1870s the railroads had been built, the gold fields no longer had enough gold for mining, and America was sinking into the worst economic depression in its history.
For more than 20 years after the discovery of gold, California was the great land of opportunity. Nobody, it seemed, could fail to make money there. It had gold and silver; it had rich agricultural land; railroad building and industry provided employment for thousands. Over half a million people had moved there by 1870, all of them determined to share in California's prosperity.
Suddenly the dream was shattered. In 1873 the United States entered a period of economic depression. The enormous cost of the Civil War, combined with excessive railroad building, losses from wild commercial ventures, overconfidence, inflated credit, and the investment of too much capital in new land helped lead to the failure of the stock market. The boom days were over. During the next five years railroad building almost stopped, industrial development came to a standstill, and many businesses failed. In California, as elsewhere, thousands of people were thrown out of work. At the same time, immigrants were continuing to come to America. Many people began to resent this, saying there were not enough jobs to go around, and foreigners should be kept out of the country. No group was considered more "foreign" than the Chinese.
In the late 1870s, hundreds of thousands of white men in California were suddenly out of work, and they began to look at the cheap Chinese labor as a threat.
White Americans claimed that jobs were scarce, and the Chinese were stealing the only jobs that there were because of their willingness to work for smaller wages. They also claimed that the Chinese were sending too much gold back to China, and said that the wealth should remain within the United States.
Racial tensions increased as more and more Chinese emigrated, occupied jobs, and created competition on the job market.
Although the depression was nationwide, white workers on the West Coast were especially quick to blame declining wages and economic ills on Chinese workers.
Though vastly outnumbered by European immigrants Germany, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, the Chinese were so much more visible than the Europeans that they bore most of the blame against foreigners.
Anti-Chinese songs appeared, such as "Twelve Hundred More," published in 1877, which ended with the words: "Drive out the China man!"
The white-owned English-language newspapers started writing editorials about the "Chinese question." To many, the question was: how can San Francisco get rid of the Chinese? What's the best way to make them leave?
"The nativist view, that America should remain a white, Protestant country, had found widespread support by now. Many whites considered the Chinese to be racially inferior and incapable of mixing into white society. An 1877 report by the California Senate summarized nativist objections to the Chinese as follows:
"During their entire settlement in California, they have never adapted themselves to our habits, mode of dress, or our educational system, have never learned the sanctity of an oath, never desired to become citizens, or to perform the duties of citizenship, never discovered the difference between right and wrong, never ceased the worship of their idol gods, or advanced a step beyond the traditions of their native hive."
The city started passing laws that would hurt the Chinese. The San Francisco city government passed the Sidewalk Ordinance of 1870, which banned the Chinese method of carrying vegetables or laundry on a pole. No one used poles except the Chinese. Then came the laundry tax, which was aimed mainly against the Chinese. Laundries that had the most horses to pull their wagons paid higher taxes, but any laundry that had no horses at all, which was true of the Chinese ones, had to pay the highest tax of all.
The city passed a cubic air ordinance, which required every person to have at least 500 cubic feet of air space in their dwelling place. Those who did not -- the residents of Chinatown -- were sent to jail. And if you went to jail, there was a queue ordinance, which said that no prisoner could have hair longer than an inch. For a Chinese man, this was a deep humiliation. Soon the whole state of California was considering the Chinese question.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the great Scottish writer who was in San Francisco during the depression years, commented on some of the accusations: "The Chinese are considered stupid, because they are imperfectly acquainted with English. They are held to be base, because their dexterity and frugality enable them to underbid the lazy, luxurious Caucasian. They are said to be thieves; I am sure they have no monopoly on that. They are called cruel; the Anglo-Saxon and the cheerful Irishman may each reflect before he bears the accusation."
A monument to dedicated to Stevenson was later placed in Portsmouth Square, where it still is.
But Stevenson's eloquent defense of the Chinese had little effect. The anti-Chinese feeling was too strong to be contained. Further discriminatory measures were passed by the California legislature. There was the famous Queue Ordinance of 1873, for instance, which stated that Chinese prisoners must have their queues, or braids, cut off. For a Chinese man this was a great indignity. The tradition of wearing a queue dated back to the mid-17th century, and Chinese men were proud of their braids.
Another ordinance, forbidding the removal of bodies or bones without the coroner's permission, was directed against the Chinese tradition of sending the bones of the dead back to China for burial. This practice was important to the Chinese who believed that, by transferring the bones of a dead man to China, they were also sending his spirit back home.
The second California constitution, which was approved in 1879, had an article that said the Chinese were an unwelcome presence in the state and that the legislature was to do everything in its power to discourage them from being there. It forbade corporations from hiring Chinese, and it gave town and cities the right to exclude Chinese from the city limits. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to work for federal, state, and local governments, and could not educate their children in public schools.
For several decades, a law was in place that prevented Chinese immigrants from testifying in court against Americans of European descent -- effectively placing thousands of immigrants outside the protection of the law.
Chinese Americans resisted and acted upon the overt discrimination enacted against them. Chinese Americans brought a number of legal cases to the courts -- municipal, state, and federal -- to combat discriminatory legislation and treatment. Many Chinese also worked with other governmental institutions to protect their rights. They took their cases to the press, including the white press, such as the Overland Monthly, a national magazine.
The leaders of Chinatown fought back. They challenged virtually every one of the legal discriminatory measures in the courts. Some of the challenges went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Some of the laws were overturned. But no court could stop the hatred that was rising in the streets.
e. violence against Chinese
During the financially unstable 1870s, the Chinese became an ideal scapegoat: they were strangers, wore queues, kept to their own kind, and were very productive, which caused anger in the American laboring class. Cartoons and racist writings against the Chinese became common, and demonstrators marched with anti-Chinese slogans.
A political party was formed in San Francisco in 1877 by Dennis Kearney called the Workingmen's Party, which had a rallying cry: "The Chinese must go." The party broke up in 1878, but it left a lingering feeling that Chinese should be excluded from California.
Kearney, an immigrant from Ireland, was the founder of the Workingmen's Party, a powerful labor union. He was a spellbinding orator and he rallied the white workers with the slogan: "The Chinese Must Go!" At nightly meetings in San Francisco he would urge his followers to rid themselves of the "filthy coolies."
There was a lot of anti-Chinese violence, and part of Chinatown was burned. Because the San Francisco city government tried so hard to discourage the Chinese from staying, the rest of the country got the message that the Chinese were undesirable people, and that they should not to be allowed to stay in the United States. The racial hostility against Chinese grew nationwide.
Anti-Chinese riots erupted in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, and in mining towns throughout California. In 1877 angry mobs set fire to 25 Chinese laundries in San Francisco. In 1878 the whole Chinese population of Truckee, California, which numbered about 1000, was driven out of town.
Gangs of rioters robbed and destroyed Chinese homes. White workers threatened employers of Chinese labor with violence unless they dismissed their Chinese workers. Signboards stating "No Chinese Need Apply" became a common sight. Hotels, restaurants, and barbershops refused to serve Chinese customers. Assaults on the Chinese became so common that they were warned to stay off the streets. A San Francisco newspaper reported: "It is scarcely safe for a Chinaman to walk the streets in certain parts of this city. When seen, whether by day or night, they are mercilessly pelted with stones by the young scapegraces who now, there being no school, have nothing else to do, while older hoodlums look on approvingly, and, if the Chinamen venture to resist the assaults, take a hand in and assist the youngsters. Chinese wash houses are sacked almost nightly. A Chinaman apparently has no rights which a white hoodlum, big or little, is bound to respect."
In 1879, Congress passed an act severely restricting Chinese immigration, but the act was vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Presidents, governors and mayors veto power, which means that 5 a law from being passed by refusing to sign it. A veto can be overturned by a majority of two-thirds of the politicians who are voting.
Anti-Chinese riots in 1880 led to a treaty with China that barred Chinese coolies (unskilled laborers) from the United States.
2. Chinese Exclusion Act
The anti-Chinese riots continued from 1877 onward, and eventually the rioters achieved their aim. In 1882, under pressure from powerful labor unions, Congress decided that the mass immigration from China must end, and it passed the first Chinese Exclusion Act.
The Exclusion Act barred the immigration of all Chinese laborers to America for the next 10 years and declared the Chinese as ineligible for naturalization. That meant they could not become American citizens.
Any Chinese laborers who came to the country illegally would be imprisoned and then deported.
The act allowed Chinese diplomats, students, and merchants to enter the United States as usual, but not ordinary workers. This was the first time that America had closed her doors to people from any country. It was the nation's only immigration law that was ever based solely on race.
The Chinese were stunned. What had they done to deserve such treatment?
Under the terms of the Exclusion Act, Chinese students, classified as temporary visitors, were still allowed to come to the United States for limited periods. But this caused problems. Once in America, some students, alarmed by the hostility of their white classmates, stopped going to college and disappeared into a Chinatown instead.
The act had practically no effect on the national economy because Chinese were only one-fifth of 1 percent of the nation's population. That's one Chinese out of every 500 Americans. It was based more on racism than on necessity.
All Chinese who were already in the country were allowed to stay, but if they left, they would never be allowed to return. Most were barely earning enough to support themselves and to send a little money back to China. They couldn't afford to leave, and needed the work they could get in America.
Some Chinese fought the Exclusion Act by going to court and challenging whether it was constitutional. But their efforts failed.
It was very effective in stopping Chinese immigration. In 1881, 40,000 Chinese immigrated to the U.S., and in 1887, only 10 Chinese.
c. Chinese who stayed in America
The ones already in America were trapped. The law made Chinese immigrants permanent aliens, and refused to let their wives come over. Chinese men in the U.S. now had little chance of ever reuniting with their wives, or of starting families in their new home.
d. effects on Chinatown
The Exclusion Act created a world without women or families. Many of the men were married, but it was often years or even decades before they saw their families again.
Most Chinese men were devoted to their families. Their main purpose in coming to America was to fulfill their obligation to support their dependent relatives. Their sense of honor prevented them from returning home for good until they had earned enough to provide the comforts they had promised. Some, of course, had earned the right to go home. But most struggled on, never quite managing to save enough. They would go home, briefly, once every four or five years, to see their families, and then return to the United States.
The Exclusion Act, along with the restrictions that followed it, froze the Chinese community in place in 1882, and prevented it from growing and assimilating into U.S. society as European immigrant groups did.
Without new immigrants, it seemed that Chinatown would simply shrivel up and die.
e. renewal of Exclusion Act
The Chinese Exclusion Act was followed by further restrictive measures. The Scott Act of 1888 prohibited Chinese workers from returning to America after a visit to China unless they had relatives in this country, or owned land worth $1,000 -- requirements that few could meet.
The Scott Act virtually put an end to this practice of occasional visits, while the Johnson-Reed Act prevented wives from coming to America to join their husbands. In effect, a whole generation, of Chinese men was condemned to loneliness. Unmarried men fared just as badly as married men. They could not go to China, find a wife, and bring her to America because of the ban on immigration. At the same time, there were very few unmarried Chinese women in America, and intermarriage between Chinese men and white women was rare. Many states had laws prohibiting mixed marriages, and the Chinese themselves frowned on mixed marriages. The cruelty of the new measures stunned the Chinese immigrants. A spokesman among them protested: "I don't understand how the Government of the United States gave us such a law. Talk about friendship between the two countries! When an American goes to China, the Chinese people welcome him. Why we are getting this bad treatment I can't see. Can a man live in this country without a wife, never see his wife? I can't understand your new law breaking up the people in a family."
The Exclusion Act was renewed in 1892 for another 10 years, and again in 1902. In 1904, Chinese immigration was made permanently illegal.
In 1921 the United States denied all foreign-born women the right to share their husbands' citizenship. Then in 1924 the Johnson-Reed Act, or National Origins Act, placed strict limitations on the immigration of certain national groups, and totally prohibited the immigration of any persons "ineligible for citizenship." The Chinese, of course, fell within that classification.
For some Chinese, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was the last straw. They had put up with hostility from the whites for a long time. Now. deprived of the right to be joined by their families,they decided that they'd had enough. Taking what money they had, they returned to China.
Because there were so few Chinese women in America, hardly any children were born here. So the Chinese population in the United States sharply declined.
However, Japanese people were still allowed to come to the United States. But during the 1920s, the United States went through the period of the so-called "yellow peril," when the American media began publicizing the "danger" from Asian people. In 1924 there were so many Japanese living on the West Coast that Congress barred the immigration of all aliens who were not eligible for citizenship, which included Japanese.
The 1924 Immigration Act also made it harder for Chinese to come by excluding all classes of Chinese immigrants, not just laborers. So Chinese immigrants were forced to live a life apart, and to build a society in which they could survive on their own.
The Chinese Exclusion Act led to restrictions against other immigrant groups such as people from the Middle East, India and Japanese.
Because they had been deprived of the right to citizenship, the Chinese immigrants were denied the power of political protest against injustice. Only a limited number of jobs were open to them -- cook, houseboy, and laundryman being the most common. They were barred from most other fields of employment, just as they were prevented from buying homes in white neighborhoods. Many lived their entire lives in their Chinese community -- perpetual bachelors, cut off from their families and from the outside, world. There were some men who had wives and children. Born on American soil, the children were American citizens. Yet they, too, grew up in an atmosphere of discrimination and prejudice that was to persist for a long time.
g. End of exclusion
The Chinese remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943. Then the exclusion laws was repealed because China was an ally of the U.S. against Japan in World War II. But only 105 Chinese immigrants a year were allowed. This remained true until 1965, when there was an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, and 20,000 Chinese per year were allowed in.
3. San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906
The earthquake of April 18, 1906 should have killed Chinatown for good. It burned to the ground in the fire that followed the quake. The Chinese were first sent to live on a golf course, then to Fort Point. The city fathers had no intention of allowing it to return to its site next to the financial district, because the land was much too valuable. The only question was where to move the Chinese. A newspaper article written shortly after the earthquake said:
"A Chinatown in the heart of San Francisco is a thing of the past. The Chinatown of the future will probably be located in Hunters Point, about six miles from Market Street."
Luckily for Chinatown, one of its businessmen realized that the fate of his neighborhood was hanging by a thread. Look Tin Eli was an enterprising American-born merchant. He ran the Sing Chong Bazaar at California and Grant, which was reduced to ashes. If he was ever to rebuild his store, he had to act quickly to stay one step ahead of city officials. In a matter of days, he arranged for a $3 million loan from Hong Kong. Look Tin Eli envisioned a new Chinatown unlike any other place on Earth. He said, "The new Chinatown will be so much more beautiful, artistic, and so much more emphatically oriental that the old Chinatown is not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath."
He hired prominent white architects to design his new building and several others along grant Avenue. His instructions were simple: build me a pagoda. Look Tin Eli had been to China. He knew that Chinese stores didn't look like pagodas. But he also knew that if Chinatown looked the way white Americans thought it should look, the tourists would come, and they would leave their money behind. Even the city fathers couldn't resist this sales pitch. Chinatown was reborn exactly where it had been, with a new facade dreamed up by an American-born Chinese man, designed by white architects, looking like a China that did not exist.
Most Chinese men believed that they would never be able to bring their wives to America. But the fire that followed the earthquake destroyed almost all of the municipal records, and opened the way for new Chinese immigration. Chinese men could now claim that they had been born in San Francisco, and as citizens they could bring their wives to the United States.
Before the earthquake, women were 5 percent or less of the Chinese population. But after the earthquake, about one immigrant out of every four was female. This continued until 1924, when a new law closed the country off to immigrants who could not become citizens. This included Chinese women. The section of the law applying to wives of citizens was changed again in 1930. By that time, women represented 20 percent of the Chinese population in American, which was the beginning of the rise of a community of Chinese American families.