Pair of OHS shows traces complex path of immigrants in Portland, nation

COURTESY: OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Displays, such as this from the famous Chinatown restaurant Hung Far Low, are part of the Oregon Historical Society exhibit 'Beyond the Gate.'At one time, Chinatown was part of downtown Portland and was the second-largest community of Chinese in the country, after San Francisco.

That was from 1870 to 1900, just off the Willamette River waterfront, and before the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition and Oriental Fair, when Portland became an attractive city to the masses and lured more money, business, bigger buildings and people to downtown. Chinatown later moved north of Burnside Street, where it still exists, although beyond the ornate gate, Chinatown is very small compared to its heyday.

The exhibit “Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns” at the Oregon Historical Society museum tells the story of Portland’s Chinatown, from the early immigrants — the first business was formed in 1851, the Hop Wo Laundry — through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and burgeoning population to Chinatown’s diminishing space and resident migration to Portland’s east side and integration into the city’s melting pot.

Concurrently, OHS also features “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion,” a world-class exhibit from the New-York Historical Society, telling the story of U.S. relations with China going back to trade days and Chinese Americans early days as laborers through the late 20th century. The show focuses on the systematic segregation of the population from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 through World War II.

COURTESY: OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Old photos are part of the Oregon Historical Society's 'Beyond the Gate' exhibit.It’s quite a pair of exhibits, continuing the Oregon Historical Society’s emphasis on telling stories of all Oregonians, “not just the pioneers,” says Kerry Tymchuk, executive director.

“Exclusion/Inclusion” will be at OHS until June 1, when it will be moved to China for display. Curated by Dr. Jacqueline Peterson-Loomis, a retired Washington State University history professor and former OHS board member, “Beyond the Gate” will show at OHS until June 21.

“When I heard about the (New York) show, I thought to myself, ‘That would be wonderful for Portland and Oregon Historical Society to have,’” Peterson says. “I knew what to expect as far as quality, and I thought, ‘We’d be happy to do (the Chinatown exhibit), but it better be good.’ That was like throwing down the gauntlet.”

Peterson worked with designer Carey Wong, a theater and opera set designer who lives in Gig Harbor, Wash., on the Chinatown exhibit, “and the entire content was fueled by the Chinese community, as I’ve been working with them for 15 years.” It draws on oral history interviews, photographs, business directories, maps and historic artifacts.

After gold was discovered in the West in 1848, Chinese miners, laundrymen, cooks, gardeners, merchants and doctors moved to California and the Northwest. Chinatown in the late 19th century had its own identity in the city, and had successful businesses and leaders. While the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited most immigration from China to the United States, namely workers, and even forced out Oregon residents of Chinese descent, Portland still remained the country’s second-largest Chinatown.

COURTESY PHOTO - PETERSON“The (Exclusion Act) was really discouraging to the merchant population,” Peterson says. “They thought they had moved up in society.”

Old Chinatown was located along what is now Southwest Second and Front avenues, from Mill to Ankeny streets. Then, in the couple decades after 1905, New Chinatown formed north of Burnside.

Growth continued to push Chinatown, as with the building of Union Station, and Chinatown started to decrease in size in the late 1940s. The Chinese American population and businesses moved to the east side, or simply integrated into Portland. Then the area was refurbished by the Portland Development Commission, and the Pearl District was expanded. Businesses, namely restaurants, had to sell.

“In the late 1990s Chinatown was still very vibrant with a lot of activities, dinner and old folks playing Mahjong,” Peterson says. “It’s still kind of a cultural and spiritual center. We’ll see whether it’ll all be obliterated, torn down with high rises built, or whether it’ll endure like the Skidmore Old Town District.”

“Exclusion/Inclusion” is an intoxicating trip through Chinese American history, exploring citizenship and rights. One highlight is a simulated interview area — “Machinery of Exclusion” — where U.S. immigration officials would interview and document Chinese Americans and families. You can read about and hear re-creations of real interviews.

“There are public programs associated with the OHS exhibits. See The OHS museum, 1200 S.W. Park Ave. is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $11. For more:

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