Imagine for a moment that you have a time machine. Now, say you park it on the corner of Howard and Spokane Falls, set the temporal controls for the late 1890s and flip the switch. What would you see? You'd probably be surprised by the high concentration of Chinese immigrants in the streets and Chinese businesses occupying the ground-floor retail spaces. You might then surmise that you had veered horribly off course during your journey -- not in time but in space. From your vantage point, it would appear that you'd traveled to late 19th-century Seattle, Portland or San Francisco. Chinatown in Spokane? Could it be?
This Tuesday, local historian Judy Knaack will give a lecture entitled "What Ever Happened to Spokane's Chinatown?" at the Downtown Library. The presentation will be drawn from Knaack's EWU master's thesis, The Chinese in Spokane, 1860-1915. By interviewing first-, second- and third-generation Chinese immigrants and by poring over old newspaper stories and city records, Knaack has formed a fascinating picture of Chinese immigrant life in early Spokane. What she discovered is a community within a community, isolated by language, culture and the prejudices of the day: more than 500 Chinese -- primarily men -- living (by 1890) within the area between Howard and Browne and between Spokane Falls Blvd. and Riverside.
The first Chinese immigrants appeared in Spokane sometime after the California gold rush of the 1850s. Many originally came to California to work the mines and to help build the railroads.
"These people were very poor," says Knaack, a research assistant at EWU and a reference assistant at the Spokane Library. "And the gold in California ran out really fast. When gold was discovered in Oregon and in Canada, they migrated into the Northwest and eventually trickled into Spokane. The railroads brought even more Chinese to town."
In their isolation, Spokane's Chinese looked to each other and shared traditions for comfort. These people worked hard (a few put down permanent roots, becoming merchants and operating laundries) and found solace and escape in benevolent secret societies, gambling and opium.
"They would stick together because many of the older ones didn't speak English. They were very lonely, and they wanted to be with people who could relate to them as they were related to in China."
Chinese merchants were generally respected in the larger Spokane community because they were seen as businessmen with a stake in the local economy.
"The merchants were the glue that kept the society together because they were kind of the go-betweens between the white society and their own people," says Knaack. "They were making money here, they were living here and a lot of times, their families were here, whereas the rest of the men had to leave their families behind to come work here. They would even write letters home for some of these guys who were illiterate. But most, when they came here, really planned on going home and for that reason, they didn't assimilate. And because they didn't assimilate, they were not well accepted. They kept to themselves. They didn't change their way of dress or their way of speech, and so they isolated themselves within the confines of Chinatown."
But there was a dark side to the area that appealed to certain members of the greater community. The adventurous and curious along with a criminal element were drawn to Chinatown and its forbidden fruits: gambling, prostitution and opium. Local law enforcement of the time turned a blind eye to these vices as long as they involved only the Chinese.
"Everybody was turning their back on the gambling and opium," claims Knaack. "In fact, in 1900, you could walk by a Chinese mercantile with the doors wide open and you could look right in and see pipes and all sorts of paraphernalia and smoke wafting out the door. No one did anything about it -- until white people started smoking it. That's when everything sort of hit the fan and the police raids started."
Many of the men residing in Spokane's Chinatown had families back home, waiting for them to make enough money to return. These plans were frequently dashed as a result of gambling losses and opium addiction. Eventually, however, many of these Chinese immigrants did manage to buy their passage home.
And Spokane's Chinatown?
"In the '40s, there were still five restaurants in that area, but slowly other businesses moved in and the families slowly moved to other parts of town," says Knaack. "For the most part, they assimilated."
"What Happened to Spokane's Chinatown?" will be
presented at the Downtown Library, meeting room 1A, on
Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 6:30 pm. Free. Call: 444-5312.