Mere traces of Helena’s rich Chinese heritage and history remain in downtown Helena, which was once the heart of the largest Chinese community in Montana.
In its heyday in the 1870s, Helena’s Chinatown thrived, with a population of 650, making up 20 percent of the town’s population of 3,000. It even had a Chinese newspaper.
From the 1870s and into the 1960s, the South Main area (now South Last Chance Gulch) was a vibrant neighborhood teeming with restaurants, bars, shops, dwellings and ubiquitous grocery stores that were bulldozed away in the late 1960s and 1970s by urban renewal.
What remains is a historic plaque, a public art mural, abuilding and vivid memories of those who lived in Helena’s Chinatown.
In many ways, the neighborhood’s story reflects and symbolizes the larger history of Chinese immigrants in Montana.
A great neighborhood
“It was a great neighborhood,” said Jeff Wong, owner of Yat Son cafe in East Helena. “It was a really fun neighborhood. There was super pluralism before it had a definition. It was kind of tough and a little worn out. There were dozens of bars between Neill Avenue and State Street and shoe stores and groceries.”
The racially-mixed neighborhood was packed with cafes, restaurants, a department store, drug store, garage and a host of mom-and-pop shops.
In July, it would be just hopping, said Wong. “The year the man landed on the moon, the bars were super lively that day.”
He recalled the annual Stampede Parade was huge and always came right down Main Street, and the Salvation Army band, wearing mismatched blue wool uniforms would stand on the street and play.
Every day had something good about it, he said. But one of the memories he savors is how it lit up at night: “When the neon lights came on — everyone had one — and it was spectacular.”
Restaurants, such as Yat Son and House of Wong, were open into the wee hours, serving steaming bowls of homemade noodles to movie- and theater-goers and revelers.
Jeff’s father, Fred Wong, who grew up in the neighborhood, ran Fred’s OK Cafe — across from what is now the Lewis & Clark Library.
He later bought Yat Son Noodle Parlor, next to Big Dorothy’s house of prostitution — now the Windbag Saloon & Grill.
Jeff’s sister, Crystal Wong Shors, described their father as a fantastic cook. “He could just work magic with food.” All six children and their mom, Ella, worked in the restaurant.
“Jeff smelled like chop suey,” Crystal said with a laugh. As a baby, he would be in his carriage in the back office. And from the time he was a toddler, his father would tie a clean towel around his waist as an apron, so he could pretend he worked as a waiter.
“My father loved feeding people,” recalled Crystal. She and Jeff remember banquets he would cook for family and friends, where 40 to 80 people would show up.
However, not all the Helena memories are aglow with happiness.
Fred and his wife, Ella, knew their share of discrimination.
In fact, the family’s history in many ways is a microcosm of the larger story of the Chinese in Montana.
Fred and his brother, George, grew up in Helena’s Chinatown and hung out with a tough gang of kids known as the Sixth Warders, said Jeff. George told him they would hitch a ride on a trolley car out to the old Broadwater Hotel, where the rest of the gang would go for a soak in the hot springs. But George would have to watch. He wasn’t allowed in the pools because he was Chinese.
“My dad was in Golden Gloves boxing,” said Jeff. One time, Fred and his boxing buddies went out for hot chocolate to celebrate a match and a woman at a local business refused Fred service because he was Chinese.
“All the people with him got up and left,” said Jeff. His father chose to focus on their friendship, rather than that woman’s actions.
When Fred fell in love with Ella Schwarzhans, who was of German-Irish heritage, they had to travel to Seattle to get married in the mid-1940s. Montana’s anti-miscegenation laws, on the books from 1909 to 1953, outlawed marriage between whites and Asians or with blacks.
Their mother was proud of their Chinese heritage and kept what Jeff and Crystal call the “Chinese suitcase,” stuffed with news clippings about China. It was their personal encyclopedia for any school assignments on family heritage.
“She was super fair-minded,” said Jeff. “She instilled in us pride of being Chinese and all the good things about it.”
Discriminatory laws also impacted the generations before them.
Their grandfather Wong On Kee left his family in China when he immigrated to the United States in 1899, but the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prevented him from bringing them to the United States. That law remained on the books into World War II.
Unlike the vast majority of Chinese immigrants, Wong On Kee was able to find a Chinese bride here, Ruby Lee Wong, 14, who had slipped into the country via Canada.
The vast majority of Chinese workers in Helena lived as bachelors. As a result of the Exclusion Act, the gender ratio of Chinese immigrants here was highly skewed, with an average of 20 men to as many as 33 to 1 woman, reflected also in nationwide statistics.
That was just one of a number of discriminatory laws on the U.S. and Montana books, according to Montana Historical Society historian Ellen Baumler. Special taxes were levied on Chinese laundries; laws prevented “aliens” from owning property and allowed their property to be confiscated.
Ruby Lee Wong “was a survivor,” said Crystal. Quite a few years younger than her husband, she outlived him. Although she couldn’t read or write English or Chinese, she supported her four children. Once they were raised, she moved to Missoula, where she owned and operated the Golden Pheasant, a popular Chinese restaurant.
Another exceptional Chinese woman, Flora Wong, would arrive in Helena in 1948. Through the efforts of Flora’s mother and a Chinese matchmaker, she escaped from China just before the Communists took over, coming to America as the wife of Helena businessman Charlie Wong.
Flora’s 2011 memoir, “Long Way Home,” the only one ever written by a Chinese Montanan, has sparked lively community interest in Helena’s Chinese history and heritage.
And Lewis & Clark Library’s Big Read celebration of the Chinese-American novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” this month has been a further boost.
Wing Shing Grocery
Interestingly enough, Flora and Charlie Wong’s store, Wing Shing Grocery, once occupied the very spot where the library now stands. Its only trace is fire hydrant No. 854, which stood outside Wing Shing’s door.
The store hummed with life, energy, fragrances and neighbors.
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At the front was the grocery store, recalls Flora’s daughter Nancy Wong. “There was a storage area and a shelf with dried squid and dried fish and little jars with strong scents.” Shelves held such fascinating items as fermented black beans, dried octopus, star anise and garlic sauce — all shipped from Seattle.
In the backroom was the kitchen and dining table, where the family ate, but so did a host of others. Vendors and salesmen would follow the tantalizing aromas of dim sum or steamed pork buns into the kitchen.
Poy Wong, Flora’s son, recalls his parents gathered with friends around the table and “the clacking of Mahjong tiles and the jabbering back and forth in Chinese,” he said. “They just seemed so animated.”
It was also at this back table that the older Chinese men would visit with Charlie, who often translated letters from Chinese into English and vice versa.
“His writing was just impeccable,” said Poy, whether in English or Chinese.
He also recalls his father doing the books at night — as his left hand flew across an abacus, his right would race across the page, recording it.
Arriving in the U.S. in 1922 at age 15, Charlie worked on an uncle’s vegetable farm north of Helena. He also put himself through Warren School, graduating from eighth grade at age 23. For the next 15 years, he worked in the vegetable gardens by day, and at night in Yat Son Noodle Parlor. At age 33, he became his own boss, buying Wing Shing Grocery.
Charlie loved Montana, said Flora, It was a sentiment he repeated often
Knowing both Chinese and American language and culture, he was active in the community, organizing 1940s Chinese Relief “rice bowl” dinners with white business leaders that drew hundreds of attendees. They sent the money back to China, which was fighting the Japanese occupation.
By the time of Flora’s arrival, there were only 100 Chinese residents left in a city of 17,000, she writes in her book.
The Chinese exodus to cities like Seattle and San Francisco had started decades earlier, as reported in 1908 and 1919 in the Helena Weekly Herald and Montana Daily Record.
“They longed for a larger Chinese community,” said Nancy, “so they moved to California.”
But those remaining formed a close-knit neighborhood.
Just one example was the night of Aug. 9, 1962, when Charlie was held up in the store by two armed men. Hearing a commotion, a neighbor “Red” Drennon, pursued the robbers on foot, chasing one up the slope behind what was then Eddy’s Bakery (now Blackfoot River Brewing), and shooting him in the arm when he failed to stop at a warning shot.
“Main Street shrank into itself,” recalled Jeff, saying that by the 1960s, perhaps 40 to 50 Chinese remained here.
Originally, the Chinese came here as placer miners, said Carroll College history professor Robert Swartout. At first, many didn’t intend to stay.
“Not unlike other immigrant groups, they recognized opportunities here,” he said, “especially if they were from the peasant class.”
As placer mining petered out, the Chinese population dropped only to surge again in the 1890s when the Northern Pacific Railroad hired 15,000 Chinese in the Northwest to lay railroad tracks. The county’s Chinese population grew to 602. Mullan Tunnel outside of Helena was built largely by Chinese.
They also owned properties and paid taxes, said Baumler. Some opened laundries because it was a business that didn’t require a large cash outlay.
For decades, they farmed huge produce gardens, which stretched from the present-day library up to what is now the Claimstake Apartments, originally selling the vegetables to miners.
Sanborn maps from the 1880s and ’90s show the neighborhood boasted restaurants, barbers, gambling houses, boarding houses, corrals and dwellings.
All that remains is the 1890 Yee Wau Cabin, at the foot of Reeder’s Alley, which once operated as a grocery store.
Also missing is much written record of their contributions to Montana.
“There may not be an ethnic group that had a greater impact on Montana history,” said Swartout. Chinese workers were key in transforming Montana from an isolated frontier into a territory and state with roads, bridges and railroads, opening it to commerce.
Even the painting in the Montana State Capitol, the “Driving the Golden Spike,” commissioned by the Northern Pacific Railroad, shows no Chinese workers.
Their labors were captured, however, in an 1882 newspaper article. It spoke of the immense “expenditure of muscle” that built countless miles of bridges, trestles and tracks over what seemed insurmountable obstacles: “cable ropes holding a plank staging go down the precipitous sides of the mountain. Down rope ladders, to this staging clamber Chinamen armed with drills, and soon the rock sides are filled with Giant powder. Then they clamber up, the blast is fired and the foothold made by the explosive soon swarms with the Celestials, the ‘can’t be done’ has been done...”
Chinese workers were paid a dollar per day — approximately half of what white workers received.
Racism was accepted and institutionalized well into the 20th century — and promoted by some newspapers and the State of Montana.
“The Chinaman is no more a citizen than a coyote...And He never can be...His habits are disgusting...He is a parasite floating across the Pacific...,” wrote the Butte Bystander, Feb. 11, 1893.
A 1902 Bureau of Agriculture, Labor and Industry urged outright elimination of the Chinese population: “It is doubtful whether it is possible to arouse sufficient public sentiment against these foreigner Chinese and Japanese residents, in communities where they have already become a fixture, to eliminate them entirely, but it is clear that only by this means that any check whatever can be put upon their encroachment.”
In some states, this racism flared into violence, said Swartout, but this was uncommon in Montana.
Much of Montana’s Chinese history was never written, said Swartout, except for a few mentions in newspapers. Most of the Chinese immigrants couldn’t write, so they left no written record.
And sometimes modern history has written over what little did exist. Thus the art mural celebrating Helena’s Chinatown was aptly named, “Palimpsest,” referring to a manuscript that has been erased and written over.
Working class neighborhoods, such as the old Chinatown, weren’t valued as worth saving until more recent times, said Swartout,
“It’s sort of a Chinese tradition,” said Nancy Wong,” you don’t talk about the past, you just keep going forward.”
“At first I didn’t think about it,” said Poy Wong, until years later, when he walked through what had been his neighborhood and found most of it gone.
He doesn’t feel anger, he said. “But sometimes I ask, ‘Why did it all have to happen?’ ”