Perserverence: The Journey of Chinese in Oregon

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Chinese in the 1850s, and the second wave in the 1940s, when federal laws banning most Chinese immigration were finally repealed.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.

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.”

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