National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
Portland New Chinatown--Japantown Historic District,
Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

[photo]Portland New Chinatown--Japantown Historic District
Photograph courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office

The Portland New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District is nationally significant for its history as the largest and most intact Chinatown in Oregon.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places on November 21, 1989, the district, located in Northwest Portland, is a 10-block area bounded by Burnside Street on the south, Fifth Avenue on the west, Glisan Street on the north and Third Avenue on the east. The majority of the buildings in the District are designed by some of Portland's best architects and builders from the period 1880-1943. The last date marks the year that Chinese were allowed to become naturalized citizens, and granted the right to vote and legally own land in the United States.

Historically, the Chinese community settled in two distinct areas in Portland, with Burnside dividing "Old Chinatown" from "New Chinatown." Most of the Chinese who settled in Portland originally lived in the Toi Shan, Yan Ping, Hoi Ping, and Sun Hui districts near Canton, in southeast China, and were from the same family, or clan. Many of the early sojourners came to Portland from the northernmost gold fields of California and southwestern Oregon, while others arrived directly by steamship from China via San Francisco. The earliest confirmed arrival of a Chinese man in Portland was in 1851. This gentleman, Mr. Sung Sung opened a restaurant, and a boarding house, "Tong Sung House," on SW 2nd Street.

The movement of Chinese inhabitants into Portland was slow during the 1850's. This changed in 1857, when the steamship "Columbia" docked in Portland with several Chinese disembarking to live in the city. Chinatown developed near the river because it was considered an undesirable residential area by the European Americans due to constant flooding and the Chinese were prohibited from moving into residential areas that developed to the west and north. By 1870, Chinese immigrants occupied six waterfront blocks.

As the Chinese population increased significantly in the 1870's and 1880's, they began to concentrate on the blocks bounded by SW 1st and 2nd Avenues and Washington and Alder Streets. In 1867, the first Chinese temple or "Joss House" was built near the corner of Oak Street and SW 2nd Avenue. By 1870, 31 Chinese businesses were operating, including a Chinese grocery store, which was a new phenomenon in Portland. Duck Loung & Co. (later Tuck Lung) which dates from this time, is one of the oldest remaining grocery stores and restaurants in Portland. By the mid-1870's, Chinatown was well established, with its residential and commercial center located at the corner of Alder Street and SW 2nd Avenue. The three leading merchants, Wa-kee, Ye-loung, and Tong-duck-chung, all operated their businesses within two blocks of the area.

[photo]
Portland New Chinatown--Japantown Historic District
Photograph courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office

Between 1880 and 1910, Portland's Chinese population increased dramatically. This was due to new work opportunities that replaced the traditional land clearing, mining and railroad construction work that had been available to the original sojourners. Because the Chinese were confined to a small geographic area, excluded from living in other areas of the city and denied the right to own property, Chinatown soon became a high-density ghetto with over 300 Chinese residents per block.

The earliest buildings in Chinatown were two stories high and constructed of wood. Due to fires and natural deterioration, the wooden buildings were gradually replaced with brick and stone structures varying from two to three stories in height. The Chinese made both interior and exterior alterations to the buildings to reflect their cultural traditions. It was not unusual to see iron balconies, wooden awnings, and curved bright colored canopies in red or gold over business entryways. The building's ground floor usually contained several businesses, the affluent businesses being very large and the less lucrative businesses extremely small. Upper floors of buildings were used for housing, meeting halls, theaters, and Joss Houses.

On August 3, 1873 the most devastating fire in Portland's history began in a Chinese laundry in an area where the buildings were mostly made of wood. The fire burned 20 city blocks before it was brought under control. Ten of the blocks contained 17 of 62 existing Chinese businesses. All were reduced to ashes. As the wooden buildings were replaced by brick and stone structures, property assessments, taxes, and rents increased. Many Chinese merchants could not afford the increased rents and began moving to Couch's Addition and established New Chinatown in the area north of Burnside. In the late 1870's, Chinese merchants began to import wives and bring their families to Portland, which created the need for a more domestic community rather than the previous bachelor society. Portland's Chinatown developed as a residential community faster than either San Francisco or Seattle's Chinatowns.

[photo]Portland New Chinatown--Japantown Historic District
Photograph courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office

In the early 1880's, the need for larger living quarters, the existing overpopulation in "Old Chinatown” an increase in Chinese population, less expensive rents, and an escape from the Willamette River's continuous flooding made the move north to "New Chinatown" a practical decision. In 1880, the Chinese community grew to 63 businesses and migrated north, adding three more city blocks and four new laundries to "New Chinatown.” In 1880, "New Chinatown" occupied seven city blocks; five years later, Chinatown had dispersed over a 14-block area. Within this five-year span, the number of Chinese businesses increased from 63 to 123. In the 1880's and 1890's, Portland had a population of over 4,500 Chinese, second only to San Francisco in the United States. It is estimated that during the winter months when the transient labor force returned to Portland from work in the canneries and fields, that the Chinese population reached approximately 10,000.

[photo]
Portland New Chinatown--Japantown Historic District
Photograph courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office

In June of 1894, the Willamette River flooded 250 city blocks and rose 36.2 feet above the usual low water mark. After the flood, many Chinese businesses moved to "New Chinatown," replacing many businesses on 3rd and 4th Avenues in the primarily Japanese district.  By 1895, "New Chinatown" had a hospital, four churches, two Joss Houses, five Herb Shops and a theater. Reflective of other
American Chinatowns, the Chinese moved into existing commercial buildings and gave them a Chinese cultural character, with bi-lingual signs, balcony and canopy additions, and exotic merchandise. Although "Old Chinatown" continued to exist, White businesses, parking lots, and changing land values eroded its boundaries. The center of the Chinese community soon became the area around NW Fourth Avenue and Davis Street.

As a result of discrimination, four types of Chinese associations evolved that governed the social, political and economic life of the community. The first type was the family association or clan, which was based upon lineage through male family members. When the Chinese came to America, family association lineage was expanded to include all those with the same surname in a geographically defined area. In America, the family association provided food, shelter, and protection from rival Chinese associations, and financial security to its members. In Chinatown, the family association headquarters often contained a bank, post office and welfare office. It was usually located in a store owned by a wealthy family member. In 1922, the Oregonian reported that there were 11 family associations located in the Chinese community.

A second type of association was the District Association or Hui-huan, which provided many of the same functions as the family associations, but whose membership was based on coming from the same district and speaking the same dialect. It provided security for the sojourner who belonged to a minor family or did not wish to be associated with a family association. The third type of association were the tongs or secret societies. Tongs originated in China as secret societies where their focus for centuries was rebellion and political asylum. During times of political unrest in China, the tongs were active in overthrowing reigning dynasties. The sojourners from southeastern China brought their secret societies with them when they settled in America. They also were associated with criminal activities.

[photo]Portland New Chinatown--Japantown Historic District
Photograph courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office

Over time, other organizations also became important to the Chinese community, including Chinese Churches. In 1873 a Chinese missionary by the name of Dong Gong arrived from San Francisco to open a Chinese mission school. The first session was attended by 75 sojourners and led to the creation of the first Chinese Baptist Church in Oregon. Within ten years, several other Protestant churches opened mission schools. In addition to teaching Christian concepts and beliefs, they offered the opportunity to learn English. In 1913, the Chinese community formed their own Presbyterian Church in the heart of Chinatown at 117 NW Third Avenue and named it in honor of early missionaries, Reverend and Mrs. Holt.

Today, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) or Chung Wah Hui Gwoon is probably the best known Chinese organization. It originated in San Francisco in the early 1860's, and by 1882, they were formalized into CCBA-USA. Across the United States in major Chinatown communities, branches of the CCBA were formed. The CCBA was established in Portland about 1890 in a building at Second and Pine Streets. The President of the CCBA was popularly known as the "Mayor of Chinatown" and also the semi-official representative of the Chinese Government. On October 2, 1906, Moy Back Hin, a Chinese millionaire, was officially appointed Consul for the states of Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and Montana by the Chinese Government. The Consul headquarters were located in Portland because of its large Chinese population and trade relation with China. Moy Back Hin is credited with pursuing restitution for the Chinese displaced from Tacoma in the 1880's, and establishing the CCBA Language School in 1908.

[photo]
Portland New Chinatown--Japantown Historic District
Photograph courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office

In the late 1880's, before the CCBA was formally organized, the community was controlled by the merchant class because they could speak English. When the association became organized, the owners of the stores elected the president and board of directors. As the influence of the merchants diminished in the 1890's power struggles occurred within the Chinese community. Due to this, the CCBA was reorganized in 1909-1910. Under the new structure, each business owner, family, district and tong association was given representation on the new board of directors. Plans were made to build a new CCBA hall at 315  N.W. Davis Street. A lot was purchased for $1,600 and a new four-story brick building was completed for $40,000 in 1911. The CCBA provided a focus for the entire Chinese community and reinforced Fourth and Davis as the heart of "New Chinatown."

Prior to World War II, the CCBA's primary purpose was to fight unjust discrimination against Chinese businesses and individuals, arbitrate disputes among the various Chinese associations, assist Chinese with the United States immigration authorities, and run the Chinese Language School. The Chinese Language School was opened in 1908. Students studied Cantonese, Chinese geography, literature, writing, and history. After World War II, as the Chinese population dispersed, enrollments declined, and classes were limited to weekly meetings.

[photo]Portland New Chinatown--Japantown Historic District
Photograph courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office

In 1916, the Chinese took part in the Rose Parade, the City's most important civic event, for the first time. This marked the entry of Chinese into the mainstream of Portland society. By the late 1920's, second and third generation Chinese had made enough money that they no longer had to live within the confines of Chinatown. Slowly they began to leave Chinatown and  move into other Portland neighborhoods and suburbs. The outward expansion from Chinatown was even more dramatic after 1943 when Congress changed the immigration laws and allowed Chinese to become naturalized citizens. This change allowed Chinese access to many of the professional and commercial activities that had been prohibited to them previously.

Portland's "Old and New Chinatown's" began to disappear as their population dispersed. By the 1960's, only one Chinese restaurant and business remained in "Old Chinatown" south of Burnside. "New Chinatown" survived with a number of Chinese restaurants and association halls but lacked the vitality it had when Chinatown existed as a cohesive community.

In the 1970's, renewed interest in "New Chinatown" stimulated a revitalization effort. Several Chinese businessmen expanded or opened new restaurants and groceries. Members of the CCBA committed themselves to remaining in Chinatown. In 1979, with $175,000 provided by the Republic of China, $100,000 by the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, and many private donations, they restored their historic headquarters. They also established the Chinatown Development Committee who developed a plan for the revitalization of Chinatown. The plan was officially adopted by the Portland City Council in 1984. With assistance from the Portland Development Commission, the CCBA has installed bi-lingual street signs, ornamental streetlights and banners and a Chinese Gateway, at Fourth and Burnside.

[photo]
Portland New Chinatown--Japantown Historic District
Photograph courtesy of the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office

There are many architectural building styles represented within the district, which are typical of the 19th and 20th century. Styles for contributing buildings include the Italianate, 19th and 20th Century Commercial, Moderne, Half Modern, Mediterranean and Industrial. Brick and stucco are primarily used as the building materials. Some building cornices, pediments, friezes, and door and window surrounds are embellished with cast iron, terra cotta, cast stone, and pressed metal. Many of the buildings within the Chinatown Historic District were designed by notable architects and builders. Original plans and specifications have been found for many of these buildings.  Architects and architectural firms who designed buildings within the district are: Justus Krumbein, Warren H. Williams, Houghtaling & Dougan, Charles W. Ertz; Alexander C. Ewart; Bennes & Hendricks; Whitehouse & Fouilhoux; David C. Lewis; MacNaughton & Raymond; Emil Schacht; Strong & MacNaughton; Richard Martinjr; and David L. Williams.

Excerpted and edited from Judith Rees, Portland New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District Oregon SHPO, November 21, 1989.

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