BRIDGING OLD, NEW IN CHINATOWN
Newcomers to Portland probably know Old Town/Chinatown as the site of the Shanghai Tunnels, Lan Su Chinese Garden and the iconic Portland, Oregon sign.
Old-timers may know that the area we know as Old Town/Chinatown is Portland's oldest neighborhood and what used to be the second largest Chinatown in the nation after San Franscisco, a major hub for the community until it was displaced by development and other factors in recent decades.
The Chinese, in fact, were the earliest non-European immigrant group to land in Portland in 1851, the year the city was incorporated.
An early photo from that year shows a muddy street — now Southwest Front Avenue — with a sign for the Hop Wo Laundry, a "pretty powerful statement that they were here from the beginning," says Jaqueline Peterson Loomis, a historian and executive director of the nonprofit Portland Chinatown History Foundation, which includes a 10-member board of mostly Chinese elders.
While there's been much effort in recent years to celebrate the history of Portland's various immigrant communities, much of the city's Chinese history is still misunderstood, Peterson Loomis says.
That's why she's been working with partners to create and build the soon-to-open Portland Chinatown Museum — a gleaming new 7,500-square-foot visitor space with photos, listening stations, contemporary arts and multimedia storytelling exhibits meant to honor Chinatown's past, celebrate its present and help to create its future.
"It's about finding ways to modernize while maintaining respect for the tradition," Peterson Loomis says.
While the museum will be rooted in history, it will be forward-facing and relevant in today's times with a focus on contemporary Asian-American art by young Asian-American artists in all media.
The soft opening of the museum is set for June 7, with the debut of the inaugural exhibit, "Made in Chinatown, USA: Portland," by Seattle-based photographer Dean Wong.
Wong is author of the photography book, "Seeing the Light: Four Decades in Chinatown," which The New York Times called an "eloquent documentation of complex and evolving communities."
The exhibit aims to document the complexity, beauty and pride of Chinatown and its people.
The newly constructed museum, at a cost of just over $1 million, is a project of Prosper Portland, with grants from the Oregon Cultural Trust, Oregon Community Foundation and the Collins Foundation.
Year-round, the community will have use of the museum space, throught its large conference room for educational programs and event space, as well as a research library.
This fall, the museum will hold its grand opening with an unveiling of its permanent exhibit, "Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portland's Historic Chinatowns," which is an original exhibition created, curated and written by Peterson Loomis and designed by Carey Wong, a world-renowned theater and set designer.
The Oregon Historical Society hosted "Beyond the Gate" for three months in 2016.
A companion OHS exhibit, "Chinese-American: Exclusion/Inclusion," had been on loan from the New York Historical Society at San Francisco's Chinese Historical Society, and is now part of San Francisco's permanent installation.
Getting history right
The history of Portland's Chinese immigrants is complex, but Peterson Loomis has been working to tell an accurate story.
Those who started emigrating here in the 1850s were young families who came to settle as entrepreneurs. They were educated and opened restaurants, shops and other merchant businesses and over time supported the waves of railroad and cannery laborers.
They were not subject to those who came after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — a law Congress passed that restricted the movements of Chinese residents until it was repealed in 1943.
Due to anti-Chinese sentiment, the community had been fragmented, and grew more so over time.
But if you take a walk through Chinatown today, you'll see signs of old and new everwhere.
In 2005, for instance, the Hung Far Low sign on the Chinese-owned chop suey restaurant from 1928 was restored when the restaurant was relocated.
The iconic Chinatown lion gate at Northwest Fourth Avenue and West Burnside Street was installed in 1986, marking the entrance to the new Chinatown and a memorial to Oregon's Chinese pioneers.
Leaders in the city and community have helped to preserve the buildings, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Around the corner from the new museum, there's Chen's Good Taste Restaurant, which serves up classic Cantonese noodles and house-roasted barbecued pork; as well as Red Robe Tea House & Cafe, where you can enjoy Chinese tea, drinking snacks and Cantonese-fusion lunch items.
A major turning point in Portland's Chinatown happened within the community in recent years over talks in planning the annual Lunar Festival to celebrate Chinese New Year in February.
"The biggest development in the Portland Chinese community in the last two years is the increasing interactions among the groups, each of which typically represent a faction of the community," says Kitson Yu, chair of the Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Community Liaison Committee.
"They started to reach a consensus on the challenges and issues faced by the community as a whole. In particular, they all agree that they should work together on helping revitalize Portland's Old Town/Chinatown and preserve its rich culture and heritage."
The celebration included calligraphy, paper cutting, sculpting handmade figurines, mahjong and, of course, dragon dances and red envelopes for good luck.
According to Yu, for the first time ever, all the traditional Chinese association buildings in Chinatown were opened to the public for guided tours during the festival. "These historically independent associations are now collaborating together and with newly established Chinese associations including the Oregon Chinese Coalition and the All Chinese Heritage Integrity Empowerment Fund as well as the Lan Su Chinese Garden, and the Portland Chinatown History Foundation."
In the past five years, Peterson Loomis has been working hard with partners to help ensure the new museum will help bridge the gap between the old and new generations.
"You can feel somehow that this time, we really are turning the tide," she says. "Part of our role is to help people understand this is a very complex but very important part of history for Portland and Oregon, and cast aside some of the stereotypes we carry."
The inaugural exhibition of the Portland Chinatown Museum will be open to the public for First Thursday, 4-8 p.m. Thursday, June 7, 127 N.W. Third Ave. For more: www.portlandchinatownmuseum.org