Perserverence: The Journey of Chinese in Oregon
July 1 2012By Jeffrey Richardson
From their table at the Golden Horse Restaurant in Portland’s Chinatown, Mary Leong, a youthful 90 year old, and Fred Wong, equally spry at 87, can glance in any direction and the memories come back to them. Over a lunch of rice porridge and beef chow fun, they banter about the neighborhood. With wry humor and wistful moments, they recall lives shared by their families across the arc of time, a mosaic of memories and anecdotal history of Portland’s Old Town Chinatown.
Their deep roots in Oregon, the Leong and Wong families provide a link between the arrival of the first Chinese in the 1850s, and the second wave in the 1940s, when federal laws banning most Chinese immigration were finally repealed.
Wong’s maternal grandfather arrived from China just before the twentieth century, cooking for logging crews in remote camps. His father, a merchant, arrived in the early 1900s. Leong’s lineage in Oregon reaches back six generations. One great uncle had a clothing store at 2nd Ave. and Oak Street in Portland, while several other uncles were hop farmers in the Canby area.
The story of Chinese in Oregon reaches far back, with chapters of immigration, alienation, discrimination, acceptance, commerce and perseverance in the American West. However fragmented the record of their early American experience was, the Chinese came and became accidental, but essential, pioneers of the West.
In the mid-1800s, China was torn by internal conflict, natural disasters and foreign pressure. As the result of the Opium Wars, the country was forced to make commercial concessions to other countries, including allowing opium to be imported from Britain’s colony in India, with devastating social and economic consequences. The conflict was followed by the Taiping Rebellion in 1850, one of many home-grown uprisings against the corrupt and ineffective government of the ruling dynasty. This deadly internal strife was followed by a succession of floods that left millions without adequate food. Millions of Chinese perished while hundreds of thousands left in search of new opportunities. With news of gold discoveries in California and Oregon, many headed to America—Gum San, Land of the Golden Mountain.
This group of Chinese would build the infrastructure of a new state and energize its young economy to a degree disproportionate to its numbers. Virtually all were men, too poor to bring wives and families, indebted to labor contractors who advanced them funds for passage. Many scholars believe that most came in hopes of returning to China with the means to raise their families from poverty. A few succeeded. Many were essentially stranded in America, earning barely enough to send money home but never earning enough to return.
One Chinese immigrant wrote home to his wife from the John Day country of Eastern Oregon, voicing the anguish of separation: “Because of our destitution I went out, trying to make a living. Who could know that fate is always opposite to man’s design? Because I can get no gold, I am detained in this secluded corner of a strange land. Furthermore, my beauty, you are implicated in an endless misfortune. I wish this paper would console you a little. This is all I can do for now ."
Though despairing and lonely, he was not alone, as thousands of his fellows immigrants struggled throughout rural and urban Oregon to survive the isolation and harsh economic realities of a strange frontier that required perseverance and ingenuity.
For Dr. Marie Rose Wong, the quest to understand the Chinese journey to America began in earnest with the discovery of mysterious papers in her father’s old steamer trunk, papers that had allowed him to enter the United States despite harsh immigration restrictions. Her research eventually led her to write, Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: The Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon.
“Even among scholars there is disagreement as to whether the large numbers of Chinese who came to American shores in the nineteenth century were part of the long history of Chinese diaspora—a going-forth never to return to a land that could not support them—or, whether they were sojourners, who came to make their fortunes with intentions of returning to build a better life in their homeland,” says Wong, an associate professor of urban planning and Asian American studies at Seattle University.
She counsels the importance of understanding the history of Chinese immigrants through the lens of their collective and individual experiences.
“One of the things that stands out to me,” says Wong, “is the great amount of individual and community intelligence, initiative and adaptability among the Chinese who made Oregon their home.”
Golden Mountains and Iron Railways
By 1900, the number of Chinese in Oregon had risen from less than 1,000 to nearly 10,000, still a scant 2.5 percent of the state’s population. Yet, it was on their backs, over the course of forty years, that the mining industry of Oregon was developed: from Josephine and Jackson counties in the south, and Grant, Baker, and Malheur counties in the east, to Union and Wallowa counties in the northeast and Coos and Lincoln on the coast. While Chinese were legally precluded from actually owning claims, the law often went unenforced, or they found ways around it as they prospected and opened new areas to mineral development. The Downie Creek and Ellis Mines in Baker County are two such examples where Chinese miners leased and worked claims held by others.
Hydraulic placer mining operations required water, so the Chinese dug canals dozens of miles long to funnel it to the mining sites via the El Dorado Ditch and the Sparta Ditch in Baker County, and in Jackson County, the Sterling Mine Ditch.
From the 1860s to the 1880s, their massive efficiency in labor was again harnessed in Oregon to lay numerous railroad lines and to build the wharves and other waterfront improvements that facilitated riverine commerce. The Oregon Pacific, Oregon Central, and Oregon & California Railroads, as well as the Oregon Railway & Navigation Co., all ran on tracks laid by Chinese crews, connecting large areas of the state. Chinese workers provided the muscle for early road building and repair, as well as canal and sewer construction in the Portland and Hood River areas, in addition to Gilliam, Clackamas, Douglas, and Marion counties.
As Oregon’s fishing and agricultural sectors developed, Chinese cannery workers in Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Lane, and Wasco counties—along with laborers in the Willamette Valley—provided the foundation of cheap labor on which these sectors grew to prosperity and worldwide renown. A number of important manufacturing industries counted heavily on Chinese immigrants for their work ethic and competence, including borax processing in Harney County, woolen textiles in Oregon City, pottery works in Buena Vista, and an iron foundry in Lake Oswego; along with companies producing paper, cigars, shoes, matches, and soap.
Having no money to bring their families to America, some men sought diversion from loneliness in gambling, opium and prostitution—stoking Anglo fears of criminal activity among Chinese, notwithstanding the prevalence of such activities among the white populations. Whatever the source of fear, the Chinese were repeatedly threatened with violence. This disintegrated into mob attacks on Chinese communities in Oregon City, Mt. Tabor and Albinia in the mid-1880s.
Add to this a dash of high-collared discrimination from Portland civic leaders, who sought to limit and regulate the residential rights and concentrations of Chinese immigrants within city limits in the 1860s and 1870s. Farther south, Jackson County officials imposed a levy of $50 on any Chinese involved in mercantile activities. So arbitrary were these policies that they were sometimes contradictory. While the state constitution prohibited Chinese from owning or working their own claims, they were singled out by Oregon counties that levied discriminatory license fees on Chinese miners. The state condemned Chinese ownership of mines, but counties tolerated it and heavily taxed it.
A Culture in Remnants
Despite such efforts, Oregon’s Chinese entrepreneurs helped build a vital small business sector, serving not only their countrymen but Anglos as well. The raising and selling of produce, wood cutting, laundries, restaurants, labor contracting, mercantile and other enterprises all tapped the broader consumer markets of large and small communities throughout the state.
From McEwen to Echo and Astoria to Ashland, signs of the Chinese presence remain. In the early 1990s, the High Desert Museum created “Gum San: Land of the Golden Mountain," an extensive exhibit of artifacts, photos and narrative to document the experience and contributions of the Chinese in Oregon and the West. For the exhibit's curator, Bob Boyd, the project not only revealed a rich material culture but spoke to the dreams and determination of individual Chinese immigrants. He recalls tramping many miles as he sought to understand the Chinese experience. At one point, he stumbled on the earthen dugouts in northeast Oregon in which Chinese railroad laborers had lived.
“What struck me was their cultural tenacity,” says Boyd. “In the most remote, inhospitable corners of the West, they clung to their spiritual beliefs, clothes and articles of daily life, such as razors and teacups. I pictured these people, exhausted, hunched over in their faded blue Chinese worker outfits eating out of their traditional rice bowls rather than a tin plate because it kept them connected to their homeland, sipping tea from a delicate, beautifully decorated China cup because it was familiar.”
Tom McDannold, a retired professor of geography who taught at Ventura College in California and now lives in Oregon, is compiling an encyclopedia of sites associated with Oregon’s Chinese history and heritage. So far, he has gathered information from 376 sites in thirty-one of the state’s thirty-six counties.
“In many cases, we can make only a passing reference to an obscure place or a place name—a cemetery, a local historical anecdote with little or no documentation,” McDannold acknowledges. “But in other instances, the sites are portals to the human pathos and drama that unfolded there.”
One example comes from La Grande Chinatown, where a mob plundered and burned Chinese businesses in September 1894. The victims were forced into a temporary camp before being deported along train tracks they helped lay. Though Chinese returned a few years later to work local beet fields and occupy their old enclave, it could not have been without scars and fear of reprisal.
Battle Creek in Baker County, the scene of an intertribal Indian skirmish, later became the site of further bloodshed when a Paiute band attacked and killed about forty Chinese miners. Reportedly, a single Chinese man survived. A less violent but no less poignant example of these evocative sites is the 100-plus-year-old Tree of Heaven standing in Lithia Park in Ashland, probably planted by a Chinese cook. Chinese immigrants occasionally planted trees as a source of medicinal bark and berries, and as a symbol of hope.
McDannold noted that the early waves of Chinese immigration to the American West were not just laborers and peasants. “There were far more businessmen, merchants, priests, teachers and herbalists than we previously thought,” he says. “They were enterprising, intelligent and determined."
Prejudice and Violence
When the often uneasy confrontation of Western and Eastern cultures in frontier Oregon turned violent, a conspiracy of silence sometimes prevailed. In 1887, along the lonely reaches of the Snake River, a small group of local ranchers slaughtered as many as thirty-four Chinese miners working the river bank for gold. Former Oregonian correspondent R. Gregory Nokes spent years researching the incident, digging into archives, then hiking the steep terrain to reach the murder site, still profoundly remote. His work resulted in publication of a book, Murdered for Gold: The Chinese in Hell’s Canyon.
“It was almost a world unto itself,” Nokes says, recalling the site. “They were coming from a terrible situation and hoping things would work out. If your options are starving and getting by, you’ll get by. Nevertheless, I’m sure it was a very helpless feeling.”
Pointing to the “dark shadows” of American society where racial hatred lurked, Nokes believes robbery was only part of the motive for the killings. “The fact that they killed all of them proves the motive went much deeper than robbery,” he concludes.
Indeed, with respect to the Chinese community, newspapers and political archives from Oregon’s frontier era make difficult and painful reading today. The Oregonian, in an 1866 edition, noted, “the moon-eyed gentry are about as thick as rats in Portland now-a-days.” The same year, an item in the Oregon Sentinel carried the views of a Jacksonville writer:
“It seems an unwise policy to allow a race of brutish heathens who have nothing in common with us, to exhaust our mineral lands without paying a heavy tax for their occupation. These people bring nothing with them to our shores, they add nothing to permanent wealth of this country and so strong is their attachment to their own country they will not let their filthy carcasses lie in our soil," it said, referring to the common practice of exhuming remains of Chinese who had died in America to return to China for permanent interment.
But there were bright spots in the landscape where Americans and Chinese met, both in urban and rural settings.
The town of John Day, in the mining and ranching country of Eastern Oregon’s Grant County, was the site of a famous Chinese enclave. Two extraordinary men, Ing Hay and Lung On, were settling in just about the time that a national outcry against Chinese labor reached fever pitch. Hay and On’s experience in John Day demonstrated that with time and co-existence, barriers of bigotry could be mitigated.
Ing Hay was a traditional Chinese doctor and herbalist, renowned as a healer among whites and Chinese throughout the intermountain West. Lung On epitomized the entrepreneurial zeal of the Chinese merchant class, operating several businesses from the partners’ headquarters at the Kam Wah Chung building. These included a store, a rooming house and eventually a car dealership. The building, now a state historical site, was a gathering place where both whites and Chinese passed the time gambling and swapping local news.
The Kam Wah Chung building was also a spiritual center for local Chinese— its elaborate, colorful altar still standing at the back of the main room. The spiritual beliefs and practices of the immigrant Chinese were a constant source of fascination and revulsion for some Anglo-Christians. Bewildered by the blend of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian concepts that governed Chinese society, early Westerners failed to understand that these disciplines were deeply important to Chinese cultural identity and their ancient civilization. In John Day, local residents came to accept or tolerate the more exotic aspects of Chinese culture exhibited by their neighbors, a process nurtured by the qualities they appreciated in Ing Hay and Lung On. Homage to the two men pervades this Western town even today.
While Anglos were often put off by Chinese spiritual practices, the real source of friction was always economic—the perception that Chinese, willing to accept low pay, were taking jobs from whites. While this claim was often false or failed to account for a variety of complex factors affecting the labor market, agitation for removal of Chinese laborers increased during a national economic slump in the 1870s. Intense pressure from various quarters, including such elements of organized labor as the Knights of Labor, American Federation of Labor, International Workingman’s Association, Workingmen’s Party of California and allied groups in the Pacific Northwest, eventually resulted in passage of several federal Chinese Exclusion Acts beginning in 1882. These acts limited, suspended and attempted to reverse Chinese immigration. Despite the legislation, Portland continued to attract new immigrants from China and from rural areas as mining and railroad construction waned. Portland became the Oregon locus of enforcement for the new legislation.
While prejudice towards Chinese in Portland was an old story, the clamor for coercive, large-scale deportation met resistance. The violence that Chinese experienced elsewhere was averted in Portland. One factor was that Oregonian editor, Harvey Scott, played an important role in keeping the peace. Though he shared many of the cultural biases of the time, Scott long and steadfastly argued for policies hospitable to Chinese workers whose labor was enriching the state. This self-serving argument paired with the newspaper’s broad appeal for law, order and civility.
Just as importantly, the Portland Chinese community was highly organized. Through political and economic leverage, and with the help of determined allies, they became adept at using the legal system to slow large-scale deportation in order to combat the numerous contradictions and injustices of the federal Chinese exclusion laws and flagrant abuses of immigration agencies.
Today, old friends Mary Leong and Fred Wong share memories of a Chinatown they knew, determined to retain Chinese culture in Portland. “Perseverance,” says Wong, a retired teacher, is the most important attribute in the history of Chinese in Oregon. “All the obstacles put in front of those people. Those were very tough times.”
Leong, who spent thirty years selling life insurance, takes a long view of the Chinese experience. “Without the past, there is no future.”