Our Heritage, Our History Part 1: Portland Chinatown's Beginnings and Displacement
By Mei Tsai
In celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, APANO is bringing our audience content all month-long, all centered on the theme of Building Power. Each week will see a different topic, with each topic connected by our central theme. This week's topic is Anti-Displacement. This post is one of a two-part series. Part two can be found here.
The migration of Chinese laborers to Oregon began during the Gold Rush, many of whom were miners migrating from California. When the Gold Rush ended, many laborers decided to stay in Oregon. Many of the Chinese laborers who stayed after the Gold Rush worked in the port industry in Portland, and they mostly lived close to their work, which was right along the waterfront. The cluster of Chinese laborers in a central location – southwest Portland right along the Willamette – was the beginning of Portland’s Chinatown.
[caption id="attachment_4182" align="alignleft" width="375"]
Photo Source: National Park Service[/caption]
Events in Portland such as floods and fires displaced the Chinese community. At least 14 Chinese-owned businesses were totally destroyed in Portland’s most devastating fire in 1873. When the buildings were replaced, property assessments, taxes, and rents increased to rates that the Chinese merchants could not afford, so they slowly began moving further up north on Burnside.
In response to this shift in the Chinese community’s movement, several opinions were published in the Oregonian during the 1860s that expressed prejudice against Chinese residents. One commenter, Harvey Scott, the editor for The Oregonian at the time, wrote that while the presence of Chinese residents was good, he did not want to see them living in the city. While part of the sentiment was due to the prevalence of opium, gambling, and other illegal activities in parts of Chinatown, much of the opinions were tied to racist and xenophobic perceptions of Chinese immigrants. The newspaper’s position was that the Chinese community needed to be segregated for the benefit of the city’s public image. Many who read the papers, especially wealthy white residents, agreed. Some refused to allow Chinese residents to rent spaces. By 1865, a city ordinance to essentially segregate the Chinese community was introduced. While it did not pass, many landlords continued to refuse Chinese residents from renting spaces in their buildings.
[caption id="attachment_4183" align="alignright" width="375"]
Photo Source: National Park Service[/caption]
By the 1910s, the Chinese vegetable gardens, established in the 1870s near what is now Goose Hollow, were all but gone. The vegetable gardens were a source of income for vegetable gardeners who peddled their vegetables in the core of downtown Portland. In 1910, the city banned peddling produce in the downtown area, which greatly reduced the gardeners’ income and the need for the garden space. At the same time, the city was also encouraging urban residential development, as well as the development of the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club in the area. With the banning of produce peddling, owners of the garden plots thought it was more lucrative to sell the land than continue growing vegetables, and proponents of urban residential development projects gradually bought the gardening land. The city’s ordinance coupled with the city’s development plans, in effect, removed a space that members of the Chinese community would go to for different reasons.
Many forces the Chinese-American community faced in the early days of the city’s existence are still visible today. The Jade District is a prime example.
APANO's work with the Jade District has been centered on development without displacement. To support this work, consider donating to APANO so we can continue our work based on our anti-displacement values. As if that was not a good enough reason, as awardees of the Coulter Foundation, all donations to APANO at $100 or more will be matched dollar for dollar- that means you can double your gift and extend its impact!
To follow APANO during heritage month, use hashtags #APIsBuildingPower and #AAPIHM, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter: @APANONews.
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