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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #51 (December 20, 2005), page 16.

History of Portland’s Chinatowns takes readers all over the map

Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: The Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon

By Marie Rose Wong

University of Washington Press, 2004

Paperback, 352 pages, $24.95

By Dave Johnson

Of the thousands of MAX riders who cruise by or get off at the Old Town/Chinatown station, how many are aware that there once were three Chinatowns in Portland?

In Sweet Cakes, Long Journeys: The Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon, author and scholar Marie Rose Wong writes about this geographical trio — a rural swale, a few blocks of brick commercial buildings down by the Willamette, and a third urban zone that evolved into present-day Chinatown, which once was, next to San Francisco’s, the second-largest Chinese population in the U.S.

Wong, an assistant professor in the Institute of Public Service at Seattle University, explains that from the mid-19th century to 1900 a gulch west of downtown Portland, often flooded by Tanner Creek, wasn’t stable enough for new housing, so it became a Chinese vegetable garden community.

Bordered by B Street (Burnside) to the north, Market Street to the south, Fourteenth on the east and Twenty-First on its western edge, the produce gardens and clusters of nearby farmer’s shanties were livelihood and home to this small Chinese settlement. It was common to see peddlers toting large baskets of vegetables to downtown markets or into the neighborhoods. In time, a portion of the gardens was claimed by the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club and row crops replaced by the green outfield of PGE Park.

The oldest Chinatown began along the waterfront in buildings leased by Chinese merchants who provided lodging, markets, and other amenities to the thousands of miners, railroad workers, and loggers who drifted to the big city and the comfort of a familiar setting. Originally centered between Taylor and Washington and Front and Second, this urban village prospered under the shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a racist piece of legislation that was ignored by Portland leaders who saw the Chinese city-dwellers as a source of cheap labor.

In this replica of life back home, young Chinese bachelors were the predominant demographic. Wong reports that there was one unmarried woman for every twenty-three single men. She says that in this blossoming district of three-story, red-brick buildings, often adorned with pagodas, a colorful meld of brothels, joss houses, and gambling and opium dens was constantly busy. Wong adds that these structures had narrow hallways, secret passageways, steel doors, and routes to underground tunnels that linked all these illegal emporiums as well as providing a means of escape from the authorities that staged random raids to assuage the alarmed citizenry of greater Portland.

As Chinatown flourished and began to incorporate more downtown blocks (a series of maps of Chinatown, displaying yearly growth, offers visible proof), the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association was formed to improve this booming community, and, on the dark side, tongs or criminal organizations began to set up shop and blood began to flow.

Due to the thriving economy of a bustling downtown and pressure from Anglo Portlanders troubled by licentious prostitution, decadent drug-use, and violent encounters between warring tongs, downtown merchants reclaimed their buildings, forcing the Chinese to relocate to the inner northwest side of town.

Although Wong’s history is short on anecdotal material and long on scholarly stats and demographics, there is lots of intriguing information for both students and anyone curious about the evolution of contemporary Chinatowns. Wong’s chronicle of the history of these three ethnic enclaves is a long-overdue account of those lively days when racism and resultant legislation, self-serving actions of civic leaders, and a fiercely supportive sub-culture combined to shape and define the identity and locale of Portland’s Chinatown.

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