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Salem's Chinese Americans

Most of the Chinese who worked in the area came from the province of Kwang Tung, heading first to the goldfields in California around 1850, then later headeding north. Chinese were recruited by six "companies" in China these organizations held life and death power over its members and demanded tax beyond the passage money, 1/3 to go to the central Chinese government, 1/3 to the immigrant’s tong and 1/3 for return of the immigrants ashes to his homeland. Ships bringing Chinese to Oregon direct from Hong Kong began to arrive in Portland beginning in 1868, consigned under contract to Tong Duck Chung. A dozen ships from China arrived in Portland over the next five years each bringing between 300 and 500 Chinese.

Often Chinese who immigrated to the United States believed they were going to a barbaric land and would bring along their own personal items such as bowls, cutlery, clothing and food supplies such as rice, even though these were available locally. Most immigrants sent their money back home to their families and planned to stay only ten years. Since most Chinese immigrants were male, social clubs for the Chinese to preserve a feeling of their culture away from their homeland were important, leisure time was spent at these social clubs or imbibing in gambling or opium. Opium had been introduced by the British from India to the Chinese thus creating a market for British encouraged product. Chinese came for the higher wages, even though they worked for a pittance compared to what a white man could get; it was still approximately five times more than what a day’s wages would bring back in the homeland.

Chinese numbered 367 in Marion County in 1890; 235 in 1900, and 288 in 1910. Bureau of Labor statistics show that there were 72 Chinese in Marion County in 1920 earning an average individual yearly income of $800. In 1911-12 the monthly living cost per capita for Chinese laboring man in Oregon was $7.65. In 1905 in Marion County, a Chinaman received from $26 to $35 per month for railroad work, $26 to $30 per month for farm labor, and $25 to $40 for laundry and restaurant work. An anti-Chinese advocate, the Portland Oregonian newspaper editor , Harvey W. Scott, believed Chinese were useful only for menial labor. He was openly disfavor able of the Chinese due to the fact they would not assimilate into the general population culture, but praised the Chinamen for leaving the profit which his employer had made from the cheap labor furnished. As early as 1873 opposition to Chinese was voiced by the Salem Weekly Mercury for July 11. The editor charged that Republicans constituted the board of county commissioners and that the board had a reputation so foul as to drive carrion crows away from Marion County. "It employs Chinese to work the county roads. White men are plenty and need the work."

Most Chinese came to the Salem area around the 1870s and early 1880s with the Chinese population at its peak at 300. The Exclusion Act of 1892 closed immigration of Chinese and a population decline began in the 1890s. The First Baptist Church in Salem opened a Chinese mission school in Salem in 1877 and enrolled up to 40 at various times. Jeung Gwoon Jeu was made city missionary. The mission school was continued through the summer of 1881, but Reverend C. H. Mattoon, editor of the Baptist Annals of Oregon, sorrowfully notes: "Doubtless the object of the pupils was to learn the language for personal and pecuniary benefits".

Chinese in Salem worked on railroad construction clearing land, building roads, ditching swamps, building levees and in hotels, laundries, kitchens. They became gardeners, worked with agriculture crops, were servants and small tradesmen in metropolitan areas. Chinese had no citizen rights, were not allowed to vote or own land or mining claims.

Salem’s Chinatown was in downtown Salem. It was located on the east side of Liberty Street between State and Court Streets. In the 1880s Salem’s Chinatown consisted of hovels abandoned by white tenants and located where such housing existed. The east side of Liberty Street between Court and State was a Chinese settlement of evil repute. Bell Tower, a bawdy house with very sinister reputation was located there as was another place or two with similar reputation but catering to Oriental patronage. A Chinese prostitute was stabbed to death in 1895. Other Chinese occupied rookeries on Ferry Street and tumble down structures at Commercial and Trade owned by Ed Hirsch. The corner of State and Liberty also housed another Chinese den. Rents charged Chinese tenants were excessive. Property owners were reluctant to raze sagging, out-moded buildings occupied by Chinese because of the high return from a very modest investment. In way of improvements and repairs the Chinese demanded little and got less.

Salem’s Chinese laundries in the 1880s were housed in at least two buildings with distinguished pioneer heritage. William Rector’s building, erected on Commercial Street in 1851 as a town hall, housed the territorial legislature in 1856. On June 3, 1885, it housed Hop Sing and Hop Lee’s wash house, which is featured in one of the rare photos of Chinese in Salem. On that day a spectacular fire left the landmark a gutted ruin. Some of Salem’s starchiest bosoms had been reduced to ashes. Most of the Salem’s Oregon Statesman newspaper staff lost their extra shirts and underwear in the combustion. What happened to Hop Sing is unknown, but Hop Lee remained in the locality and became a wealthy hop grower. The Rector building at the time of the fire was owned by Ed Hirsch, state treasurer and later Salem post master. There was no insurance. During the height of the flaming destruction, the Chemeketa House (later the Marion Hotel) which was directly across the street was threatened by burning debris and embers. Manager W. H. Leininger held Toy, a wiry, agile Chinaman by the heels over the cornice while the little Oriental quenched fire with a wet broom.

The old Bennett House, one of the buildings of Chinatown was burned January 14 1887, " killing several Chinamen who were probably under the influence of opium." The building was at the northwest corner of State and High streets. In the 1850s this distinguished hostelry, built by Captain Charles Bennett, housed the elite of Oregon and some territorial officers. After 1864 it deteriorated socially and finally became a Chinese wash house and rookery. But even the cold dampness of the January day couldn’t keep the deteriorated old structure from burning fast and furiously. Chinese swarmed out. Others fought to re-enter and save their possessions. Came daylight, and police roped off the area of ashes. After horrified Chinese had removed their compatriots remains and they went about seeking lost cash. Between $1500 and $3000 in damaged coins was recovered.

At the time of the fire the Bennett House belonged to G. W. Gray, a wealthy Salem businessman. No insurance, of course, covered this loss estimated not to exceed $1200 for the building. Whether the fire originated out of neglect or was incendiary could never be settled finally.

In Portland, an Anti-Coolie organization was formed in Portland to replace all Chinese labor by more "deserving" whites and attacks by armed masked men upon defenseless Chinese occurred. But, in Marion County feelings against Chinese did not result in overt acts such as Portland experienced. Salem’s concerned focused more on the lack of regard for acceptable sanitation and even less regard for the white doctor’s treatment of contagious diseases. Their gambling and smoking of opium and that wives were occasionally bought and sold, concerned Salem residents about Chinese morals.

Complaints about Chinese residential and business sanitation and what went on in them was the main focus of Salem concern. Less was said about their prominent and well-to-do owners. An investigative report for the Capital Journal newspaper was published of an account on April 4, 1890 of Salem’s Chinatown that retched the reporter getting it. It documented disgusting greenish decomposing slime from a Chinese wash house which oozed gases from the southwest corner of Commercial and Ferry Streets. A constant stream of decomposing refuse from Chinese kitchens and the stinking remains of fish and poultry combined to render the places full of noxious odors.

Elsewhere in Salem, with a white population, the newspaper investigator saw backyards of butcher shops with trickling streams of water carrying blood and poultry waste deposited in soils to decay, but the Chinese wastes the reporter found most offensive because it was deposited beneath the houses where it could not be readily seen and would not dry out. The only way to access the mess was to tear down the buildings. A follow-up with numerous physicians at the time favored clean-up and sanitation for the city. A few doctors were indifferent since they were reported earning from $500 to $1000 a month off the existing conditions of disease spreading filth.

Again, on September 2, 1893, the Capital Journal reported that conditions had changed little in Salem’s Chinatown, labeling its article this time as "Chinese Fragrance" a greeting to one’s nose, if one was to venture through the alley at the rear of the Chinese dens on the east side of Liberty Street between State and Court Streets. A Statesman Journal article for January 21, 1903 bid farewell to old Chinatown. A half block of old ramshackle buildings on the east side of Liberty Street between Court and State and the alley through the block had been condemned to destruction by city council based on health and police concerns. Also condemned were the old rookeries on Court Street and the old Hirsh building at Commercial and Ferry Streets across from the Marion Hotel. According to the article, the property as a whole was simply filthy with space between the walls filled with decomposed matter of all sorts. Water closets emptied into cesspools and water from sinks flowed into the cesspools and over the open ground.

For the next 20 years the remnants of Chinatown were to be found on High Street on the west side between State and Ferry and spilling over on to State Street. The Chinese had occupied dilapidated properties rejected by the white tenants. The original immigrants were either dead or had departed for their homeland to spend their declining years. For the most part, the second generation of Chinese were familiar with the English language and educated in public schools. Chinatown declined in numbers and by 1920 was mostly a memory of a bygone era.

Compiled by Joan Marie "Toni" Meyering and Monica Mersinger, written by Monica Mersinger

"The Chinese In Salem", by Ben Maxwell, Marion County History, Volume 7, pages 9 to 15. Marion County Historical Society

Pictorial Map Marion County and City of Salem, 1940. Salem Centennial Commission of 1940, Inc. Points of Interest in Salem, Salem Public Library, Salem, Or

Oral presentation, "The Chinese in Oregon", High Desert Museum, Bend, Or, May 5, 2001

The Oregon Motorist, "Where Chinese mined in Oregon", May/June 1981 issue.


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George Sun and Dr. Kum, 1897
George Sun on Right side. Dr. Kum on left. Chinese New Year in Salem 1897. Merchant holding Chinese calling cards.
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