Little Canton

Tacoma’s Chinese community began with the arrival of Lung Fat in 1873.[1] Many Chinese people were drawn to Tacoma because of the presence of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the employment it offered.[2] The Northern Pacific also leased land to many Chinese residents along the waterfront which soon developed into Tacoma’s Chinatown, known as Little Canton, as many of the Chinese people in Tacoma were Cantonese.[3][4][5][6][7] Little Canton was described by Murray Morgan as “a line of thirteen houses standing between the mill and Old Tacoma on the outboard side of the tracts. It was very Chinese in appearance, with pastel-colored paper curtaining the windows, bamboo furniture, and narrow gardens paralleling the rails.”[8] However, Chinese people lived and worked in other areas of the city: Railroad Street (now Commerce) between 11th and 13th, on C Street (now Broadway) between 7th and 9th, Mt. St. Helen’s Avenue, Steele Street near where the Massasoit Hotel would later be, and along 17th Street to Old Tacoma Street.[9][10][11] The Chinese community in Tacoma became fairly established in the 1870s, and by 1885 Tacoma’s population had grown to 6,936, of whom 700 were Chinese people.[12][13][14][15] The Chinese population in Tacoma fluctuated as there were many who worked temporary jobs in fish canneries, lumber camps, sawmills, coal mines, and hop farms and stayed in and out of Tacoma.[16]

 

The Chinese residents lived in relative peace with white Tacomans throughout the 1870s and in the early 1880s because of their labor and willingness to do work that was unpalatable to white residents.[49] While many Chinese residents were domestic servants, laundry workers, and unskilled laborers, other notable members of the community worked as merchants and skilled workers.[50][51][52][53] Chinese merchants sold porcelain, rice, dried goods, clothing, tea, wines, silks, medicines and general merchandise.[54][55][56][57][58][59] Accounts of the living situation of the Chinese community in Tacoma are not difficult to find. However, health and safety ordinances and claims of unsanitary conditions was commonly used to legally undermine the presence of Chinese residents. As a result, it is difficult to separate fact from racist exaggeration.[60][61][62] Chinese residents were known to keep a variety of animals from pigs and chickens to dogs and cats.[63][64]

 

The Chinese community in Tacoma was not limited to the bare essentials of survival. The Chinese residents had a rich cultural life as evidenced by the presence of three Joss Houses, Chinese temples, and the accounts of a Chinese New Year celebration that Chinese merchants shared with white merchants in February of 1885.[65][66][67] Some members of the Chinese community were Christian or attended Sunday school classes and a Methodist mission school on C Street taught English to some of the Chinese residents.[68][69][70] Many Chinese people kept gardens, which provided them with fresh vegetables to eat alongside the “bottom fish,” rice, steamed bread, and skunk cabbage that made up their diet.[71][72][73] Tacoma had at least one Chinese restaurant.[74] Much of the Chinese population wore traditional Chinese clothing consisting of blue blouses, blue cotton pants, and sandals.[75] They typically kept their hair long and queued, a style in which the sides are shaved so that there is only a long portion of braided hair on the top of the head.[76][77] However, the Chinese community was not as insular as popular depictions would suggest. Some Chinese merchants in Tacoma attempted to create connections between the Chinese and the white populations. Sing Lee, Kwok Sue, and How Lung were all merchants and labor contractors who anglicized aspects of their professional and personal lives by wearing suits, keeping books, paying taxes, and learning English, with some even attending Christian church services.[78]

fOOTNOTES

[1] Lorraine Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel: The Chinese in Washington State (Tacoma: Washington State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1977), 24.

[2] Art Chin, Golden Tassels: A History of the Chinese in Washington, 1857-1992 (Seattle: Art Chin, 1992), 59.

[3] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 25.

[4] Ibid, 50.

[5] Affidavit of Mow Lung, June 24, 1886, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, NARA, M-179, Roll 707.

[6] Affidavit of Lum May, May 2, 1886, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, NARA, M-179, Roll 707.

[7] Morgan Murray, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 240.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 25.

[10] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 238.

[11] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[12] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 25.

[13] Ibid, 26.

[14] Ibid, 33.

[15] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[16] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 25.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 50.

[19] Affidavit of Mow Lung.

[20] Affidavit of Kwok Sue, June 3, 1886, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, NARA, M-179, Roll 707.

[21] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 50.

[22] Affidavit of Mow Lung.

[23] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 25.

[24] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 238.

[25] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 25.

[26] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 238.

[27] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[28] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 49.

[29] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 237.

[30] Herbert Hunt, Tacoma: Its History and its Builders, (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1916), 373.

[31] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Hunt, Tacoma, 373.

[35] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[36] Hunt, Tacoma, 373.

[37] Affidavit of Tak Nam, June 15, 1886, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, NARA, M-179, Roll 707.

[38] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 50.

[39] Affidavit of Lum May.

[40] Affidavit of Tak Nam.

[41] Affidavit of N. W. Gow, June 14, 1886, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, NARA, M-179, Roll 707.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[44] Affidavit of Sing Lee, June 3 1886, Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, NARA, M-179, Roll 707.

[45] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 52.

[46] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[47] Hunt, Tacoma, 373.

[48] “Home,” Chinese Reconciliation Park Foundation, accessed May 9, 2017. http://www.tacomachinesepark.org/

[49] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 26.

[50] Ibid, 35.

[51] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 214.

[52] Chin, Golden Tassels, 58.

[53] Ibid, 59.

[54] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 212.

[55] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 51.

[56] Ibid, 52.

[57] Affidavit of Lum May.

[58] Affidavit of Kwok Sue.

[59] Affidavit of Tak Nam.

[60] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 39.

[61] Ibid, 40.

[62] Frederick Bee, “The Other Side of the Chinese Question,” (San Francisco: 1886), 8

[63] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 34.

[64] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[65] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 45.

[66] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 212.

[67] Ibid, 213.

[68] Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel, 45.

[69] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[70] Hunt, Tacoma, 364.

[71] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 214.

[72] Ibid, 240.

[73] Chin, Golden Tassels, 59.

[74] Affidavit of Mow Lung.

[75] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 215.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Michael Godley, “The End of the Queue: Hair as Symbol in Chinese History,” China Heritage Quarterly 27 (2011), accessed May 9, 2017. url: http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/features.php?searchterm=027_queue.inc&issue=027.

[78] Morgan, Puget’s Sound, 215.

Map excerpts from Little Canton StoryMap: City of Tacoma, W.T., Western Terminus of N.P.R.R. Puget Sound 1885. [N.P, 1885] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/75696669/. (Accessed May 10, 2017.)

Background map in biography section: Glover, E. S, and A.L. Bancroft & Company. View of New Tacoma and Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, Washington Territory. Portland, Or, 1878. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/75696667/. (Accessed May 10, 2017.)