When Ashland had a Chinatown (90 to 130 years ago)
The Chinese family that mixed with Ashland’s elite
The village cluster in China where Ashland’s Chinese residents were born
Chinese New Year in Ashland highlights
What was different about Chinese New Year in 1916?
“The well known local capitalist”
He was described in 1913 as “the well known local capitalist” by the Ashland Tidings newspaper. Was he the owner of a local bank? No. Was he one of the big local landowners from a pioneer family? No again.
Here is a hint from a 1915 Ashland Tidings article: “Mr. and Mrs. Hum Pracht and Mr. and Mrs. Henry Provost were entertained at dinner Sunday evening by Mr. and Mrs. Wah Chung at their home on A street.”
This wasn’t just any dinner and these weren’t just any guests. This was a Chinese New Year dinner. As for the guests, Hum Pracht had managed the bustling Ashland Depot Hotel, and his father Max Pracht had shipped peaches all over the country from his huge Ashland orchard. [Max Pracht article] Henry Provost was a former Mayor of Ashland and part of a prominent Ashland family.
His Real Name
These Tidings articles described a Chinese man who, along with his family, became part of the fabric of early 20thcentury Ashland. He was known in Ashland as Wah Chung, which was the name of his business: Wah Chung and Company.
For some reason, people found it easier to call him by his business name rather than learning his Chinese name. That’s why in all the quotes from the Tidings his name is Wah Chung. However, his birth name was Wong Quon Sue. Out of respect for him and his culture, I will refer to Wah Chung primarily by his family name, Mr. Wong.
Social Standing in Ashland
Here’s another glimpse of Mr. Wong’s social standing from an Ashland Tidings article about the 1916 Chinese New Year. “The local celebration lacked some of the features of those of bygone years when the entire population of Ashland made a pilgrimage to Wah Chung’s on China New Year and partook of Chinese nuts and candies and watched the fireworks.”
If you bear with me until the end of the article, I will explain why the people of Ashland could not enjoy the 1916 Chinese New Year with “rice wine, plum wine and other ancient drinks which go down like water but biteth like the serpent and kicketh like the mule….”
Mr. Wong, the Businessman
Mr. Wong made his money and his place in the community as the Chinese Labor Contractor for Southern Pacific (SP) railroad, a position he held more than 42 years. Most of the workers who built the railroad line across the Siskiyou Mountains in the mid-1880s were Chinese laborers. Some stayed on to maintain the tracks.
Mr. Wong was responsible for hiring, feeding and taking care of Chinese workers to maintain a section of the SP tracks in Oregon and Northern California. That would be a big responsibility in itself. But he also was responsible for finding, feeding and taking care of Chinese workers to maintain a section of SP tracks in the Salt Lake region! How did he find time for all of this plus a family, a grocery store, a restaurant, a mine in the Applegate, community activities and more?
Chinese Community in Ashland
Originally, Ashland’s Chinese community consisted mostly of railroad workers. This was quite different than in Jacksonville, where most Chinese residents were active in gold mining, and where there were more conflicts between the Chinese and American residents.
After the railroad’s completion in 1887, dozens of Chinese stayed on as railroad maintenance workers and used Ashland as a home base. In addition to railroad work, “During the period from 1890 to 1940, many of the Chinese left were running laundries and cooking for hotels and families.” [Atwood-2, page 9] According to Henry Enders, the cooks and waiters at the Ashland Depot Hotel were Chinese men. [Atwood-1, page 83]
Mr. Wong’s Roots in China
I am indebted to staff archeologist Chelsea Rose of SOULA (Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology) for telling me that Wah Chung’s birth name was Wong Quon Sue, and that he was born in Chun Lock village in China’s coastal Taishan county, Guangdong province.
I read dozens of early 1900s newspaper articles and many other references about the early Ashland Chinese community, but never saw his birth name. Ms. Rose pointed out to me that Mr. Wong may have named his store and business Wah Chung (which was a common Chinese-American store or business name) because it roughly translates as “Flower of Opportunity.”
In 2017, Chelsea Rose traveled to Chun Lock village in China as part of her research for the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project. She has learned that not only Wah Chung, but also most of Ashland’s Chinese residents in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were from this same village cluster in China.
Marriage, New Home and Ashland’s Chinatown
Mr. Wong started working for Southern Pacific as their Chinese Labor Agent in 1883. He likely moved to Ashland in 1883 or 1884. On September 13, 1901, he married “a San Francisco belle of China town” in a wedding that was attended by “many of the aristocratic circle” of San Francisco, as well as leading Chinese residents of Yreka. His wife, Wong Soo Lue, was known in Ashland as Mrs. Wah Chung.
Mr. Wong owned four lots in the railroad district. At least three of them were at the corner of A Street and 2nd Street, the historic center of Ashland’s Chinatown. Most Chinese in Ashland lived near A and 2nd Streets, or in houses or tents across the railroad tracks from there.
He built a new two-story house there. Carpenters were putting the finishing touches on the house just in time for his 1901 wedding. A newspaper article described his house as having electric lights, a small but beautiful bedroom, and all modern conveniences.
The Wongs’ Garden
The Wah Chung family raised vegetables and fish in their yard. They grew “both vegetables of native variety and vegetables of Oriental variety,” according to the Ashland Tidings of September 6, 1915. “The other day one of the employees of the Tidings office was shown over the patch.” Mrs. Wah Chung gave the Tidings writer several Chinese cucumbers to try. The writer was impressed with their “superior flavor” compared to American cucumbers. He was most impressed by the Chinese string beans – 1 to 2 ½ feet long!
As for fish, “Three large deep pools in the back yard supplied eels and a kind of shrimp which were often used in meal preparation…..” [Dunlap 1964]
Why Ashlanders went to his Chinese Grocery
Mr. Wong owned a two-story Chinese grocery store on A Street next to his house, with a Chinese laundry in the building he owned next to that. In addition to serving the local Chinese community, his store was a magnet for children in the railroad district. Elizabeth Carter remembers going to Wah Chung’s store with her father and brother to buy firecrackers. And Almeda Helman Coder said that “He [Wah Chung] used to give us Chinese nuts, funny little round Chinese nuts, more like a little dried up fruit.” Archeologist Chelsea Rose told me these were lychee nuts. It is interesting to note that she and colleagues found lychee nuts during a 2013 archeological excavation in the Jacksonville Chinatown.
In addition to buying firecrackers, adults in town had another reason to visit his store – the Chinese medicines available there. On Jan. 9, 1910, the Medford Mail Tribune ran this ad: “Chow Young’s Chinese Medicines will cure rheumatism, asthma, paralysis, sores and private diseases. These remedies may be procured at the store of Wah Chung on A street, Ashland, Oregon.”
Wah Chung & Co. included at least two other businesses. At one point he owned a Chinese restaurant at 82 North Main Street (current site of Bluebird Park next to the Thai Pepper restaurant). A 1913 newspaper article said it had been closed for some time and was being reopened by “a gentleman of Chinese lineage” named Charlie. Beyond Ashland, Wah Chung & Co. bought a gold mine in 1896 for $600 from John O’Brien of Applegate.
Mr. Wong was active in the larger community of Ashland. He was a member of the Ashland Commercial Club, precursor to today’s Ashland Chamber of Commerce. He and his wife were listed in the newspaper among the givers to the Ashland Red Cross Offering of 1917.
Mrs. Wah Chung (Mrs. Wong) and the Children
Despite extensive research, I haven’t been able to learn much about the children. Mr. and Mrs. Wong adopted a girl, Jennie, and several years later their son Sammy was born.
They also had a daughter Gin Tie, who sadly died of cholera at nine months of age. Victoria Kindell (who ran the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum for seven years) located Gin Tie Wah Chung’s unmarked grave at the Ashland Cemetery and paid for a grave marker to be placed there.
Jennie and Sammy both attended public schools in Ashland. According to the Mail Tribune, Sammy “was a bright boy and was well liked by both teachers and pupils.” Elizabeth Carter, who grew up on Mountain Avenue next to the railroad tracks, remembers Sammy coming to her house many times to play.
We also know that on Christmas 1921, Sammy was a guest at a “very merry Christmas party” at the home of Mr. and Mrs. G. C. Peebles on upper Liberty Street. First Santa Claus arrived (by car, not sleigh) and then they had a feast.
Mabel Dunlap remembered that when Jennie was in elementary school, “Many of the children made fun of her and called her names. Probably because of my defense of the bewildered Chinese girl, and because of our friendship, I became a special friend of her family.”
“I often went to Jennie’s home with her and at times was asked to write letters for Mrs. Wah Chung, who could speak English but could not write it.” “Sometimes I helped with her sewing and was always received with dignity and warmth.”Mabel Dunlap 1964
Marie Prescott remembers attending Jennie’s birthday party at the family home one year. She was in Jennie’s class at school, and said the parents invited everyone in the class to the party and served them a full meal.
Bridging Two Cultures
The Tidings in 1913 wrote warmly of the doll Jennie brought to her elementary school fair. “A Chinese doll dressed and entered in a doll cab handsomely decorated with the Stars and Stripes and with the Chinese national colors, by Jennie Wah Chung, attracted much attention.”
I think this doll perfectly encapsulates the way Mr. Wong and his family were able to successfully bridge two cultures. On the one hand, Jennie had a Chinese doll. On the other hand, she entered it decorated with the Stars and Stripes. That made it hard to judge her as a “foreigner.” Yet she didn’t abandon her culture. Along with the Stars and Stripes, she included the Chinese national colors in the doll cab.
Mr. Wong seems to have been able to adeptly live this balancing act.
“Wah Chung was a perfect gentleman…everybody trusted him.”Ashland business owner Henry Enders
He was able to befriend and gain the trust of the powerful families and institutions of Ashland. He and his wife mixed socially with “the cream of the crop” in town, and he did things like drive his patriotically decorated car in Ashland 4th of July parades.
Mr. Wong’s stellar reputation allowed him to represent and help Ashland’s Chinese citizens, both locally and around the West Coast.
In this introduction to the Chinese community in Ashland, it is important to acknowledge the legal and social discrimination they lived with.
The Chinese faced tremendous discrimination and racism both in Oregon and throughout the United States for many decades. Nationally, “The Chinese Exclusion Act [of 1882] prohibited further immigration of Chinese laborers, and barred those already living in the United States from bringing their wives and families over to join them. The law became increasingly more restrictive, and by 1892 Chinese individuals needed to carry proof of legal residence with them at all times or risk deportation (Voss and Allen 2008:12).” [Rose & Ruiz, page 194]
Wah Chung sometimes had to travel to San Francisco, Portland or Seattle to assist someone who needed help reentering the United States after making a trip home to visit family in China. Here is an example, from an actual document in the year 1900.
The City of Ashland had local discriminatory laws. For example, in 1883, the Ashland city council passed an ordinance designed to keep out Chinese who might want to open a laundry business: “December 7, 1883: ‘China Washouse [sic] or laundry to pay a license of forty dollars per year or at the same rate for a shorter period.'”
The atmosphere in Ashland for Chinese seemed to improve in the last decade of the 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s. Despite this, Wah Chung’s acceptance in the community was an exception. The majority of the Chinese in Ashland either spent almost all their time out of town maintaining the railroad, or they seem to have been nameless and little known to the larger community.
Mabel Dunlap described “…Chinese families who lived in the houses clustered about the Wah Chungs. In these buildings the shades were always drawn and this appealed to my youthful curiosity. Jennie once took me through some of the houses and although the rooms were in semi-darkness, I noted everything was spotless. The women were sewing and doing their household chores and the children were well-behaved.” [Dunlap 1964]
Later Life and Death
Mr. Wong had an outstanding and astounding career with the Southern Pacific. In 1925, the Southern Pacific Bulletin wrote:
“Wah Chung is now 82 years old, yet judging from his hale and hearty appearance he will probably continue for many more years to be of helpful service to the Company’s Maintenance of Way Department.”SP Bulletin
The article went on: “Wah Chung keeps these gangs [the Chinese track workers] up to maximum requirement, looks after the welfare of the men, takes care of their commissary, and has been a very valuable asset to this Company. He enjoys a wide acquaintance and is always a welcome visitor, either in the office or on the line. Although well along in years, he is still quite an active man and personally handles all the details of his work.”
Mr. Wong died in a Portland hospital in 1927, two years after this glowing article was written. Tragically for Mrs. Wong (Mrs. Wah Chung), their son Sammy died only three months after his father, due to a drowning accident in the Willamette River.
In her 1964 interview, Mabel Dunlap said: “The last time I saw Mrs. Wah Chung was on a summer day on a street corner in Ashland. She had come to collect the last of the money due her late husband by the railroad. She planned to return to China. She wept as she told me of Sammy’s death.”
Their daughter Jennie married, perhaps to a San Francisco Chinese businessman. The 1925 Southern Pacific article states that Wah Chung “has a married daughter living in Boston.” I have not been able to track her life after that point.
Back to Chinese New Year 1916
Rather than end this article with death, I’d like to add a bit of humor about Ashland life in 1916. Let’s circle back to my description of Ashland’s Chinese New Year 1916. Why was it different than previous years “when the entire population of Ashland made a pilgrimage to Wah Chung’s on China New Year and partook of Chinese nuts and candies and watched the fireworks.”?
The Tidings article goes on to say: “The great difference was in the banquet, which is the central feature of the New Year celebration, and at which every manner of dish from the Flowery Kingdom is served.”
Now we get to the crux of the matter: “What’s the use of banqueting on bird’s nest soup, shark’s fin and other delicacies if the edibles can not be washed down with good old wine imported from Canton.”
“Alas, rice wine, plum wine and other ancient drinks which go down like water but biteth like the serpent and kicketh like the mule, can not be served at the spreads. ‘Gum sing,’ which means ‘bottom’s up,’ is a toast that can not be drunk. The white man’s prohibition law put a crimp in the celebration.”Ashland Tidings February 3, 1916
Many residents of Ashland were probably cheering when they read this article, due to the cultural clashes at the time around the subject of alcohol. If you remember from your school days that Prohibition in the United States became law in 1920, you remember correctly. So how did that affect Chinese New Year 1916 in Ashland, Oregon? Simply because voters in the State of Oregon “jumped the gun” on the national trend and voted 136,842 to 100,362 “to prohibit after January first, 1916 the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors within the State of Oregon….”
Sadly, this is why the people of Ashland could no longer enjoy Chinese New Year in 1916 with “rice wine, plum wine and other ancient drinks which go down like water but biteth like the serpent and kicketh like the mule….” Thank you, Tidings columnist, for the colorful language.
In conclusion, here is an upbeat entry from the Ashland Tidings that says a lot about the man Mr. Wong and his relationship with the Ashland community.
“Wah Chung, popular Chinese merchant, made his yearly round last week, distributing Chinese lily bulbs to his merchant friends. The bulbs are supposed to have the peculiar property of bringing happiness and prosperity to those under whose care they bloom.”Ashland Tidings December 14, 1916
References for this article:
Ashland Tidings 3/31/1913
Ashland Tidings 6/5/1913
Ashland Tidings 9/29/1913
Ashland Tidings 2/18/1915
Ashland Tidings 2/3/1916
Ashland Tidings 12/14/1916
Ashland Tidings 6/28/1917
Ashland Tidings 6/3/1919
Ashland Tidings 1/4/1922
Atwood-1: Atwood, Kay. Jackson County Conversations, Jackson County Intermediate Education District, 1975.
Atwood-2: Atwood, Kay. Minorities of Early Jackson County, Jackson County Intermediate Education District, 1976.
Dunlap, Mabel Roach, as told to Bernice Gillespie, "Local Woman Recalls Days of the Chinese in Ashland," Ashland Daily Tidings October 7, 1964.
Kindell, Victoria. Personal interview 2/16/2019.
Medford Mail 5/22/1896
Medford Mail Tribune 1/9/1910
Medford Mail Tribune 5/25/1927
Medford Mail Tribune 8/8/1927
Oregon Secretary of State website. https://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/highlights/Documents/proclamation-oswald-west-prohibition.pdf
Rose, Chelsea, M.A. Personal interview 2/13/2019. Chelsea is Staff Archeologist at SOULA (Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology). Her research locally and around the state is part of the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project.
Rose, Chelsea and Ruiz, Chris. "Strangers in a Strange Land: Nation Building, Ethnicity, and Identity in the Oregon Territory," in ALIS VOLAT PROPRIIS: Tales from the Oregon Territory, 1848-1859, Association of Oregon Archaeologists, Occasional Papers No. 9, 2014.
Waldron, Sue. "Growing Up In Ashland's Railroad District," Table Rock Sentinel, SOHS, March 1988.
COLLABORATORS AND FRIENDS
The Southern Oregon Historical Society is a great resource. (1) If you like history, SOHS can always use volunteers to help with research, digitizing and transcribing. Learn about SOHS here. (2) Second, I encourage you to join SOHS as a member to support their work. The JOIN link is here.