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Portland New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District
Portland, Oregon
 
Portland's Chinatown Gate
Photograph by Travis Estell, Flickr

The Portland New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District is located in Portland, Oregon near the Willamette River. The district is made up of Portland's original Japanese community (Nihonmachi) and its second or "new" Chinatown, once the second largest Chinatown in the U.S.

Chinese immigrants began moving to Portland during the late 1850's from the gold fields of California and farms of southwestern Oregon, while others arrived directly by steamship from China via San Francisco. Chinatown developed around SW 1st and 2nd Avenues and SW Washington and Alder Streets, an area considered undesirable by European Americans due to constant flooding from the Willamette River.

In 1867, the first Chinese temple or "joss house" was built in Chinatown and by 1870, 31 Chinese businesses were operating, including a Chinese grocery store. Duck Loung & Co. (later Tuck Lung), which dates from this time, was one of the oldest grocery stores and restaurants in Portland until it closed in the 1980s. By the mid-1870's, Chinese immigrants occupied six waterfront blocks in Portland.

Up until the mid-1870s, the majority of the residents in Chinatown were male bachelors, however, in the late 1870's, Chinese merchants began to import wives or bring their families to Portland, creating the need for a more established community. Portland's Chinatown developed as a residential community faster than either San Francisco's or Seattle's Chinatowns.

The historic "Chop Suey Hung Far Low
Cocktails" restaurant sign in Chinatown
Photograph by Mike Krezesak, Flickr

The earliest buildings in Chinatown were two-story and made of wood. Due to fires and natural deterioration, the wooden buildings were gradually replaced with brick and stone ones varying from two to three stories. The Chinese made alterations to the buildings to reflect their cultural traditions. It was not unusual to see iron balconies, wooden awnings, and curved brightly-colored canopies over business doorways. The ground floor usually contained several businesses and the upper floors were used as residences and for meeting halls, theaters, and joss houses.

In 1873, the most devastating fire in Portland's history began in a Chinese laundry in Chinatown. The fire burned 20 city blocks before it was brought under control. As the wooden buildings that had burned were replaced by brick and stone structures, property assessments, taxes, and rents increased. Chinese merchants could not afford the increases and began slowly moving their businesses north of Burnside Street. In addition, the need for larger living quarters, the existing overpopulation in Chinatown, and the desire to escape from the Willamette River's continuous flooding made the migration north to a "New Chinatown" a practical decision.

In 1880, New Chinatown occupied seven city blocks; five years later, the Old and New Chinatowns had spread over a 14-block area. Within this five-year span, the number of Chinese businesses increased from 63 to 123. In the 1880's and 1890's, Portland had a population of over 4,500 Chinese, second only to San Francisco, California. During the winter months, when the seasonal labor force returned to Portland from work in the Alaskan canneries and Oregon, Washington, and California farm fields, the estimated Chinese population swelled to approximately 10,000.

In 1894, the Willamette River flooded 250 city blocks in Portland. After the flood, many Chinese businesses moved out of Old Chinatown to New Chinatown. By 1895, New Chinatown had a hospital, four churches, two joss houses, five herb shops, and a theater. Although Old Chinatown continued to exist, parking lots, White businesses, and changing land values eroded its boundaries. The center of the Chinese community soon shifted to New Chinatown.

The Tokio Sukiyaki House restaurant
in Portland's Japantown c. 1939
Courtesy of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment

In 1882, Congress passed the first of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which restricted Chinese immigration to the U.S. Other exclusionary laws aimed at Chinese immigrants were passed by Congress between 1888 and 1902, effectively reducing the number of Chinese workers entering the U.S. Consequently, Japanese immigrants became increasingly sought after by American businesses. Because of this, the number of Japanese immigrating to the U.S., particularly to the West Coast, increased rapidly.

During the 1890s, hundreds of Japanese immigrants, mostly young bachelors, came to Oregon to work for the railroads, lumber mills, farms, and fish canneries. Portland became the heart of the Japanese community in Oregon and a Japantown developed along with New Chinatown with stores, hotels, apartments, laundries, restaurants, and bath houses all serving both Japanese and non-Japanese customers.

With the signing of a "Gentlemen's Agreement" between the U.S. and Japan in 1907, Japan denied passports to Japanese citizens who wanted to work in the U.S. and the U.S. permitted the immigration of students, business people, and spouses of Japanese already in the U.S. With the adoption of the Gentleman's Agreement, Japanese women began to immigrate to the U.S. in greater numbers either as new brides or to join their families. Portland's Japantown began to develop into a more stable community with residences, schools, churches, and a central business district with hotels, apartments, newspapers, doctors and dentists, tailors, grocery stores, barber shops, restaurants, and general merchandise stores.

Both New Chinatown and Japantown continued to thrive into the early 1940s. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan in 1941 ended Japantown's prosperity. FBI agents rounded up prominent members of Portland's Japanese community just hours after the bombing and sent them to special camps in places such as Fort Missoula, Montana; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Three months later, in February 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This cleared the way for more than 120,000 Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent to be voluntarily and eventually involuntarily evacuated from the U.S. West Coast. In May 1942, the Japanese in Portland were forced to abandon their homes and businesses and be evacuated and detained at the Pacific International Livestock and Exposition Center (the Expo Center), which was renamed the Portland Assembly Center. 3,676 people were held there until they were relocated to internment camps at Minidoka, Idaho; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; and Tule Lake, California for the duration of the war.

The corner of NW 4th Avenue and NW Couch Street,
Chinatown with the Hung Far Low Restaurant
in the background, c. 1940s
Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society

From the 1920s to the early 1940s second and third generation Chinese had slowly been leaving Chinatown and moving north and west into other Portland neighborhoods and suburbs. This was accelerated by the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943. The Act lifted restrictions on Chinese immigration to the U.S and permitted certain Chinese immigrants already residing in the U.S. to become citizens. The change allowed Chinese immigrants and people of Chinese descent access to many of the professional and commercial activities that had been prohibited to them previously. After World War II, the Chinese population in Chinatown continued to disperse although the majority of the businesses in Chinatown were still owned by Chinese businessmen.

After the war, Japantown never fully recovered. Many of the people of Japanese descent who had been interned during the war settled in other cities and did not return to Portland although some did. Over the years the neighborhood has served as the home to the Portland Japanese American Citizens League, Nikkeijin Kai and the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center.

The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center at 121 NW 2nd Avenue is in the Merchant Hotel building, which dates from the 1880s, and was the site of a laundry, bathhouse and barbershop once run by Japanese families. The Center has an archive, library, and a history museum which preserves and interprets the story of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in Portland and Oregon. The Center also offers a self-guided Iphone tour of Portland's historic Japantown.

The Pallay Building
Photograph by Werewombat, Wikipedia

Constructed in 1911 by the Chinese community, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) building at 315 NW Davis Street is one of Chinatown’s most significant structures. Established around 1890, the Portland branch of the CCBA carried out functions such as fighting anti-Chinese discrimination, assisting with immigration issues, settling disputes between members of other Chinese associations, and managing various community activities. The CCBA building has been the organization's headquarters since it was built and its design incorporates a number of Chinese elements and motifs including wrought iron grating on its upper balconies and round "moon gate" decorations. Today, the CCBA sponsors the Chinese Language School building established in 1908, hosts a history museum and a Chinese and English library in the building, and works to preserve and promote the New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District.

The Pallay Building at 231-239 NW 3rd Avenue is not only a contributing building to the historic district, but is also individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The building was a focal point of and played a key role in the development of the district. The two-story red brick building was constructed in 1908 and included housing and a Japanese-run hotel on the second floor and retail stores on the first floor. Stores included the Hasagawa Company – a general store, the Mikado Laundry, and a number of restaurants. The building also had a Japanese social club during the 1930's, and a Japanese bathhouse (sento) in the basement.

The Moon Locking Pavilion in the Lan Su Chinese Garden
Photograph by Ethan Trewhitt, Flickr

In the 1970's, the Chinatown Development Committee was established by the CCBA and began to develop a plan for the revitalization of Chinatown. The Portland City Council officially adopted the plan in 1984. Today, Portland New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District has bilingual street signs, ornamental streetlights, banners, and several Chinese businesses and restaurants. A large traditional Chinese Gate with stone lions is located at the entrance to the district on NW 4th Avenue and NW Burnside Street.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden occupies a full city block in New Chinatown at 239 NW Everett Street. Chinese artisans constructed the garden as a collaboration between Portland and its sister city Suzhou, China. The walled garden contains a central lake, traditional buildings and interiors, pavilions, a central lake, and gardens modeled after the Chinese Ming Dynasty gardens of Suzhou. Lan Su combines art, architecture, design, and nature in perfect harmony and is the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China.

Also of note is the historic "Chop Suey Hung Far Low Cocktails" sign, located on the corner of the Hung Far Low (Cantonese for "Red Flower Restaurant") building at NW 4th Avenue and NW Couch Street. The building, constructed in 1916, was owned by the Stubbs family until 1936 when it was purchased by Jack Wong, proprietor of the Hung Far Low Restaurant. Because Chinese could not become U.S citizens until 1943, they could not legally own property, so the purchase of the building had to be kept secret. The Wong family still owns the building today. In 2008, the sign was removed when the building was being re-roofed, and through the efforts of neighborhood businesses, the Old Town Chinatown Business Association, and the Portland Development Commission the sign was restored and rehung in 2010.

Plan your visit

Portland New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District is located in Portland OR and is roughly bounded by NW Glisan St., NW 3rd Ave., NW Burnside St., and NW 5th Ave. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in Portland offers an iPhone tour of the historic Japantown. For more information, visit the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center website. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association museum is open to the public on Saturdays between 10:00am and 1:00pm, and tours of the CCBA headquarters are available with advance notice. The Lan Su Chinese Gardens are open between 10:00am and 6:00pm from April 15 to October14, and 10:00am to 6:00pm from October 15 to April 14. For more information about the Portland New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District, visit the Old Town Chinatown Community Association website.

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