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 immigrants 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
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 days 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.
Salems Chinatown was in downtown Salem. It was located
on the east side of Liberty Street between State and Court
Streets. In the 1880s Salems 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.
Salems Chinese laundries in the 1880s were housed in
at least two buildings with distinguished pioneer heritage.
William Rectors 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 Lees
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 Salems starchiest bosoms
had been reduced to ashes. Most of the Salems 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 couldnt 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
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. Salems
concerned focused more on the lack of regard for acceptable
sanitation and even less regard for the white doctors
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 Salems
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 Salems Chinatown,
labeling its article this time as "Chinese Fragrance"
a greeting to ones 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
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
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.