Oregon History: Chinese-Americans

Kam Wah Chung State Heritage building
The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day explores Chinese-American culture in Oregon. The site is based in a rustic building that was constructed as a trading post along the Dalles Military Road in the mid-1860s. Here Chinese herbal doctor Ing Hay administered traditional Chinese remedies to the Chinese gold-mine workers, pioneers, and others from a wide area. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Poverty, warfare, overpopulation, and ambition racked the peoples of the Pearl River Delta in the mid-19th century. Foreigners carved out enclaves in Macao, Hong Kong, and Canton, bribed their way into the Chinese economy by importing opium, and siphoned off a rich trade in luxury items. Many Chinese aspired to a better life and Gum San--Gold Mountain--beckoned. Tales of gold discoveries along the Pacific Coast proved irresistible. Thousands of men responded. Their plan was simple--go to Gum San, work hard every day, store up gold, and return to purchase land and hold position in Chinese society.
As the gold rush drifted northward into Oregon, the Chinese followed the discoveries. They were relegated to the worked-over placers, barred from some districts altogether, and compelled to pay a head tax because of race. They worked, paid, and endured. By the 1870s, for example, Chinese males constituted nearly half the population of Grant County. They lived frugally and labored hard. They moved tons of rock to get to pay dirt in crevices and potholes in the upper John Day diggings. They ran restaurants, laundries, herbal pharmacies, and gambling dens.
Because of their distinctive dress, language, religion, and difference from the surrounding culture, the Chinese were treated brutally. The editor of the Grant County News on October 15, 1885, observed: "To every one it is apparent that the Chinese are a curse and a blight to this county, not only financially, but socially and morally . . . . What the Chinaman wears, he brings from China, and what he eats (except rats and lizards), he brings across the ocean, and thus American trade or production reaps no benefit from his presence." The presence of tongs--kinship and social organizations--and Chinese determination to carry wealth home fostered intense discrimination. Murders, assaults, segregation, intimidation, special taxation, and opposition confronted the Chinese at every turn.
salmon cannery label
Chinese men monopolized work at Astoria canneries in the 1870s but faced increasing bigotry in the 1880s. Shown above is an Oregon trademark label: Columbia River Salmon - #246, Columbia Canning Company, Oregon, 1889 Learn more about salmon trademarks​. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
What did they do? They persevered and many achieved their goals. They found employment in railroad construction. Chinese laborers provided much of the backbreaking toil to make the cuts for the Oregon & California Railroad as it inched southward through the Umpqua Mountains to the Rogue River Valley or on the line of the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company as it stretched eastward in 1880-82 through the Columbia Gorge. Willing to endure cannery work, Chinese men by the 1870s had acquired a near monopoly of work in canneries from Astoria to The Dalles. They gutted the fish, operated the steam pressure cookers, fastened the labels, and prepared tons of cases for shipment to a world market. They labored at nearly 40 canneries lining the shores of the Columbia for low wages and compulsory residency in company dormitories.
The Chinese congregated in Chinatown in Portland or, when their seasonal work diminished, traveled to communities in San Francisco, Seattle, or Vancouver, British Columbia. Anti-Chinese bigotry grew in the 1880s. Chinese were driven out of several communities--Oregon City, Albina, and Mount Tabor. In 1887 vigilantes murdered ten or a dozen Chinese miners in Hells Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border. The Chinese Exclusion Act then cut off immigration, leaving nearly 9,000 Chinese men in Oregon with little prospect of bringing a bride from home or paying for passage of family members. The downward spiral began. Each year Oregon had fewer residents of Chinese ancestry. Those who had resources returned home. Others, like Doc Hay and Lung On, remained, running an herbal drug store and car dealership in John Day. Bert Why operated a grocery store in North Bend. Most of the men who stayed remained single and lived lonely lives in Gum San.