By Art Chin
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a much larger work by author Art Chin. It was edited to fit in the space allotted.
The early history of the Chinese in the Walla Walla region may be explained by the forces of historical geography intertwined with economic needs of the immigrants and sojourners. In retrospect, perhaps their major contribution to the area was in the truck gardening industry, providing fresh vegetables for many areas of Washington, and beyond.
Railroad building and mining contract work also served as credit to their achievements in the growth of the area, but like Walla Walla itself, fell victim to the shift of economic activities in the Northwest.
Early Chinese settlement
The first Chinese came to Walla Walla during the Gold Rush days of the 1860s. The town of Walla Walla was located on a river bearing the same name, within close proximity to the significantly larger and longer Snake River near its confluence into the mighty Columbia River, which together were the two major water highways of the entire region.
According to a local newspaper source, the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, the Chinese population in and around the Walla Walla area in the 1860s and 1870s may have numbered as high as 5,000. It was mostly a transient population, going to and fro to the mining areas of Oregon, eastern Washington, Montana, British Columbia, and Idaho.
In 1860, the Idaho placer mines were discovered. When some $800 in gold dust was shipped from Walla Walla to Portland, the excitement began. A Chinese settlement arose in Portland itself after steamer ships arrived from China on the Pacific trade route.
The town’s early Chinese settlement began to form around 1874 in the district now occupied by Second Avenue, between Main and Alder Streets, near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. By 1880, the Chinese community had grown to approximately 600, representing one-seventh of the Walla Walla population.
The first store in Chinatown was operated by Charlie Ong’s father under the firm name of Hen Lee Company. Gee Hen Lee was originally a laundryman who rented a log building from Dr. Baker in 1861, after the latter had used it as a successful store for two years, serving the early settlers and miners. Other Chinese operated stores, but Charlie, who became a prominent community leader in the 1930s, believed that the 11 stores operated by the Chinese during that period probably represented the most Chinese stores at any one time.
It was the influx of Chinese laborers working on railroad construction that brought many families to Walla Walla. The second main influx of Chinese came as cooks and many took positions in private homes. And the third and final group were diversified workers, including gardeners, domestic servants, store keepers, and others.
Numerous merchant shops and laundries arose to meet the needs of the area’s people. During this period, in the early 1870s, there were Chinese stores and hand laundries run by such names as Ah Toy, Ah Lee, T. Toy, Wun Fook, Lee Hop, Ah Sing, T. Yick & Co., and Wau Hong, among others, and a dray-line operated by Tin Hook, according to an old day book kept by the J. Alexander store. It was the largest Chinese community of its kind in Washington Territory at the time.
Hen Lee was the leader of the Chinese community then. He brought his wife from China and lived in a cabin at the rear of the Baker Boyer Bank. They raised three boys and two girls. Of his three sons, Shoo Fly and Andy became prominent businessmen in the local community, and Andy was also a court interpreter for many years. It has been noted that Hen Lee also adopted a white baby boy and raised him to adulthood, teaching him to speak Chinese as well as any native Chinese could speak it. …
The pioneer Walla Walla Chinese comprised a primarily male community, as most of the Chinese were here only to gather wealth and then return home to their families; they were otherwise known as sojourners. The Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882 reinforced their aspirations to return home if they could afford it.
The Walla Walla area experienced the emergence of a larger Chinese community as an off-shoot of the local railroad activity. Many Chinese came to Walla Walla around 1872 to help build the railroad from Wallula to Walla Walla town. Wallula served as the Columbia River port outlet for the Walla Walla hinterland. By 1890, it was estimated that there were over 800 Chinese in Walla Walla, whose total population was only 7,000.
In the northeast area of the region near Lake Pend d’Oreille, 900 whites and 1,800 Chinese worked amicably together grading for the Northern Pacific. No tension or incident was reported. The Oregon Railways and Navigation Company also employed mainly Chinese for construction work. In 1883, some 5,000 Chinese and 1,500 white laborers worked to link that line with the Northern Pacific at Wallula.
The employment of Chinese by the Northern Pacific Railroad did not seem to be particularly resented. But when the company dismissed a white section crew late in 1895 and replaced it with Chinese workers, attacks were made on the Chinese quarters in Walla Walla and nearby Pasco. Some masked men marched the Chinese crew over the Kennewick bridge near Pasco and told them to stay away. The Northern Pacific watchman at the bridge reported the incident, and the marked men were brought to court, only to be acquitted by the jury. The watchman now had to be guarded. For his own safety, he was transferred to Spokane.
The second attack against Chinese looked more like a simple robbery carried out while there was some hostility against Chinese. Or perhaps some very zealous anti-Chinese intended to combine a good deed for the white community with a little profit for themselves. Two masked men assaulted three Chinese in a Northern Pacific section house at Kennewick. Two Chinese were knocked unconscious and the third beaten. The assailants rifled through their victims’ pockets and got away with several gold coins worth over $300. As the Chinese were able to give descriptions of their attackers, a detective from Spokane was able to catch the robbers, a baker and a butcher from Pasco. …
Though the Walla Walla area Chinese were not all evicted during the last part of the 19th century, as in some other parts of the Northwest, they did have their racial challenges. As one early Walla Walla resident Parker Barrett noted, “A watermelon taken from a white man’s store was thievery. One stolen from a China man’s watermelon wagon was a good joke. …”
Echoes of a declining Chinatown
In comparison to the Italians, the Chinese gardeners were at a distinct disadvantage. The Italians had families, whereas the Chinese immigration laws prohibited such development. In addition, the Chinese gardener had no ownership incentive, whereas the Italian gardener could easily become a citizen and had everything to gain and build on.
Of interest to note, in January of 1973, the Walla Walla Chinese community was visited by Prof. Betty Lee Sung. Sung speculated that the early Walla Walla attitude toward local Chinese was one of respect, often fondness for household help, but that they were feared economically. At the time of her visit, Sung mentioned that the local Chinese population in Walla Walla may have been as high as 1,250 at one time but numbered only 50 or 60 in 1973.
The passion and the agony of the Chinese background in Walla Walla may be envisioned in the story of one Joe Leng, long known in the area as simply “China Joe.” According to a local news article published on April 21, 1930, the day after his death. “China Joe” arrived in the San Francisco area not long after the early Gold Rush days, perhaps the mid-1860s, at the young age of 12. After living in the Bay area for several years, he migrated northward and finally settled in the Walla Walla area
Joe’s lifestyle was quite common for Chinese bachelors in time and place. He cooked, did gardening work, and performed other odd jobs for residents of Walla Walla and the vicinity. It was documented that while working as a cook at the local garrison, his fingers were burned off with hot grease, but he continued to perform odd jobs despite his handicap. Though his wages were rather meager, he was able to send regular remittances back to his family in China.
All his life, Joe managed to earn his own way, and he saved enough to purchase a wife in China, whom he never saw. Restrictive immigration laws worked against the Chinese effectively, and miscegenation was out of the question. Like so many other Chinese who lived in the Walla Walla area years before and years after, Joe passed away with his dreams.
There still stands today a monument erected at the city’s famous Mt. View Cemetery to honor the Chinese who helped build the Walla Walla community. Although secluded, it is a reminder, a shadow of the past. (end)
Art Chin is a Seattle native with a Master of Arts in Geography from the University of Washington. He is the co-author (with Doug Chin) of “Uphill: The Settlement and Diffusion of the Chinese in Seattle,” and author of “Golden Tassels: A History of the Chinese in Washington,” “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere: The Legacy of the Flying Tiger Line,” and “The Seaboard Saga: A History of Seaboard World Airlines.”
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.