“This is where I grew up,” said my grandfather as we drove past NW 5th and Davis in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown. That drive in 2015 was the first time I heard my grandfather’s (or Gung Gung as we call him in Cantonese) stories of his childhood in Chinatown in the 1920s and 30s. He continued pointing out where restaurants once stood, the location of a deli where he delivered Chinese newspapers and the secret gambling dens where his father worked. Born in Portland’s Chinatown in 1924, my Gung Gung has spent most of his life in Portland except for a few years serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. I can only imagine the changes he’s seen.
At its peak, Portland’s Chinatown was the thriving home to 10,000 residents, making it the second largest Chinatown in the United States. Today, much of the Chinese community has since moved from the neighborhood, but for many like myself and my Gung Gung, it holds very dear memories. As a young girl, I loved visiting Chinatown with my family for dim sum. I can still taste the delicious char siu bao (BBQ pork buns) and hear my great aunt firmly telling me that egg rolls aren’t Chinese.
Exploring Portland’s Old Town Chinatown
Strolling through Chinatown, I see reminders of the thriving community that was once here. The beautiful Chinatown gateway still welcomes visitors, and the nearby Portland Chinatown Museum (temporarily closed) is a fantastic place to learn about the area’s rich history. “They have a picture of my mom and dad with my sister when they first came to the U.S.,” Gung Gung shares as he recalls the photo in which his sister, Ruth, was dressed as a boy because they heard boys were more likely allowed into the United States. One block from the museum is the Lan Su Chinese Garden, a beautiful oasis rich with Chinese tradition and culture created in partnership with the city of Suzhou.
A Time Capsule in Eastern Oregon
This history of Chinese in Oregon stretches beyond Portland. Originally lured by gold, Oregon’s first Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1850s to mining towns in the eastern part of the state. During a visit to John Day, I was surprised to learn it once had the second largest Chinatown in Oregon. A thriving part of that Chinatown, and the main stop on my visit, was the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site (open May 1-Oct. 31), a seven-room building that acted as a gathering place, medical center, bunkhouse, and religious center.
“When I visited in the 50s, it wasn’t open to the public,” my Gung Gung explained, “I called a friend with a key to let me in.”
Today, there are no special connections required to enter, and I signed up for a free public tour at the nearby interpretive center. This incredible place has been meticulously restored as if residents Ing “Doc” Hay and Lung On still lived there. The shelves are lined with Chinese herbs and canisters of green tea and tobacco. Doc Hay was renowned throughout the region for curing ailments with secret concoctions of herbs, even using a mysterious bear claw. Although the bullet holes in the building’s metal front door and the cleaver next to Doc Hay’s bed are a reminder of the racial discrimination, these two brave men were successful and well-respected by the community, both within and outside of Chinatown.
Honoring Massacre Victims
Gung Gung also told me stories of Chinese miners in Eastern Oregon who were murdered for gold. “They were just thrown into the river,” he told me with sadness in his voice. I learned this site, located at a remote section of the Snake River, is known as Chinese Massacre Cove. A stone memorial honoring the 34 gold miners murdered in 1887 was erected in 2012 and is reachable by jet boat tour. The inscription reading “no one was held accountable” is a solemn reminder of the harsh treatment experienced by many Chinese immigrants.
As the lure of gold mining lost its luster, many Chinese began working in farming, railroad construction, and salmon canneries. In the 1870s, Chinese arrived in Astoria to work in the salmon canneries and aided in constructing the jetties, the sewer system, and the railroads connecting Astoria inland. The Garden of Surging Waves, the City of Astoria’s Bicentennial Legacy gift, honors and celebrates the Chinese history in Astoria. The Garden artistically tells the stories of early immigrants and beautifully displays Chinese art and tradition.
“It makes me proud to be Chinese,” my mother said when I text her a photo during my visit to the Garden.
Shaping Oregon’s Beer Culture
The Chinese also played an integral role in hop production in the Willamette Valley, helping shape Oregon’s world-famous beer culture. “My uncle owned a hop farm in Donald,” Gung Gung said. “Many of my friends and family picked hops every summer down by Salem.”
Chinese workers worked excruciatingly long hours on hop farms. Although the Oregon Constitution prohibited Chinese immigrants from owning property, a few, like my Gung Gung’s family, leased property or found loopholes to ownership. Unfortunately, due to those laws, many Chinese were forced out of the hop industry. So, while there may not be any remaining Chinese hop farms to visit, it’s worthwhile to drive this prosperous land and remember the immigrants who shaped Oregon’s thriving agriculture.
Hope and Portland’s “New” Chinatown
Hearing my Gung Gung’s stories and visiting the historic sites made me feel as my mother did by the Garden of Surging Waves. I felt proud to be Chinese. These early pioneers paved the way for families like mine to thrive here. Despite hardships, the rise of xenophobia, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigrants played an integral role in Oregon’s story. Decades later, the Chinese community is still thriving in Portland. Albeit outside of Old Town Chinatown, nowadays I make my way to Portland’s Jade District on East 82nd street for delicious char siu bao, and, yes, I still order the egg rolls.
Find Chinese History in Oregon
Portland Chinatown Museum (Portland Region)
Lan Su Chinese Garden (Portland Region)
Jade District (Portland Region)
Portland Art Museum (Portland Region)
Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site (Eastern Oregon)
Chinese Massacre Cove (Eastern Oregon)
Chinese Cemetery (Eastern Oregon)
Pendleton Underground Tours (Eastern Oregon)
Garden of Surging Waves (Oregon Coast)