The Chinese Building on First Street will be open for tours Saturday, April 25. In the past, archaeologists have dug research pits to the back of the building, above, as part of an ongoing effort to document the buildings Chinese community. Contributed photo
As of Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Thanks to its relocation to First Street, the Northwest Cherry Festival this year offers a rare glimpse into a little known era of local history: that of the Chinese settlement in The Dalles dating back to the 1880s.
The last remaining building from that era sits forlornly in the 200 block of West First Street.
Originally known as the Win Hong Tai Co., and now simply as the Chinese Building, the property will be open for free to the public all day on Saturday, April 25, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It is the first time the building has been open to the public, said co-owner and archaeologist Eric Gleason.
The open house will also feature displays by the Wasco County Historical Society, The Original Wasco County Courthouse and Old St. Peters Landmark.
Gleason and his partner — and fellow archaeologist — Jacqueline Cheung bought the property a few years ago, not expecting it to have any archaeological treasures.
But, as they did prep work to move in, they found what makes every archaeologists’ heart flutter: a garbage pit. “We love garbage, that’s where the stories are,” Gleason said.
Five fruitful excavation pits yielded 40 archive boxes of archaeological finds, including opium pipes (it was legal then), gambling implements and bones of food like pigs and fish.
The finds are being studied at Oregon State University, and will be the subject of several master’s theses, Gleason said.
Gleason thought the building wouldn’t yield any finds because the rear of the building had been dug up in the 1940s for a ramp. “But it turned out it didn’t really disturb a lot of the archaeological stuff.”
The building was built in late 1879, months after a fire destroyed the waterfront, including the Umatilla House Hotel. The owner of the new building decided to make it fireproof and built it of brick.
It was built by Benjamin Wolf, a Caucasian, because Chinese weren’t allowed to own property. Chinese proprietors leased the building and several businesses operated there between the 1880s and 1920s, Gleason said.
The Win Hong Tai Co. lasted the longest. They operated a laundry for a time, and also sold Chinese merchandise like teas, herbs and silk and fabric and fireworks. “I think fireworks was one of their main sales,” Gleason said.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers. It also prevented Chinese immigrants already here from owning property or becoming citizens.
It also made travel home to China and back to America a paperwork-intensive effort for Chinese businessmen. But those papers can now yield a trove of information about their lives, since they required significant documentation.
For example, their business had to be valued at $1,000 or more, a tidy sum in that day. They also could not have been a manual laborer for at least a year, and they needed to have their good name attested to by two
Gleason has researched the papers of about 60 Chinese using documentation from that federal act.
“There’s just a lot of really fascinating stories to see how the Chinese kind of integrated into the community but were kind of separate as well,” Gleason said. “They were just really a pretty integral part of the community for so long and then just kind of faded away. Part of that was the whole immigration policy. After 1882 it was a whole lot harder to get here and stay here and it was a lot harder to bring your family in.”
He estimates the Chinese population here reached 200 at the most. Chinatown was concentrated on First Street, but the Chinese businessmen did trade with white businesses as needed, Gleason said.
His idea when they bought the place was to use the basement as a work area and rent out the main floor. He may still do that, but isn’t entirely sure yet.