Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community – Origins and Early Arrivals

During the latter half of the 19th century, the Puget Sound region received an influx of settlers from around the world.  Among them were immigrants from southeast China.  Many came to earn money to send to their struggling families, while others arrived planning to stay and make a new start.  These men and women provided a much needed labor force in constructing new towns in the region, including Olympia.

Long before the railroads, Chinese arrived to live and work in Olympia.  In September 1852, the first edition of the Columbian (the first newspaper published on Puget Sound) carried an advertisement for Olympia founder Edmund Sylvester’s Olympia House Hotel, which highlighted its “…accomplished Chinese cook.”  By the early 1860s, the annual celebration of Lunar New Year by the Chinese in Olympia received  regular mention  in the local press:

Chinese New Year.-  The Chinese Residents of our town kept up the a continual popping of firecrackers on Tuesday last, in honor of the commencement of new year.  John is about ten months ahead of us in this anniversary and celebrates in a much more becoming way.  His firecrackers and strong tea take the place of firearms and strong whiskey sometimes used by his more civilized brethren; and their hospitality on such occasions is immense.  They kept a supply of ‘hardware’ for the ‘mellicans’ but confined themselves mostly, we believe, to their tea.

Olympia: Washington Standard, 21 February 1863

Prior to the arrival of the Chinese, most of Olympia’s streets existed only on paper.  Hired by the town as contract laborers, these men built bridges, pulled stumps, and graded streets in and around what is now downtown.  Chinese also worked at many local manufacturing concerns, at lumber camps, and were employed extensively in the local oystering industry.  Some also served as crew on the early steamships that were the main form of transportation on Puget Sound.


Sun Wo, 1890s.

WSHS/Capitol Museum Photo

 

Chinese also found other opportunities.  Many became cooks or house servants for affluent families.  Chinese men operated commercial hand laundries, working long hours and living in their places of business to save money.  Others cultivated vegetables in gardens near town and delivered them door to door, the first locally grown commercial produce.

Community Life

Chinese immigrants with the same surname tended to congregate in the same towns.  Early on, Olympia emerged as a “Locke town.”  Family Associations, based on surname, language and village ties, were the foundation of early Chinese American communities.  Generally, those sharing the same surname were from the same vicinity in  China.   In the case of the Locke clan, this was the Toisan region of Guangdong Province, southeast China.

Most early Chinese immigrants were male.  In the absence of traditional family structure in America they relied on the services provided by the Family Associations to secure a place to live, employment, and legal representation.  In turn, they paid dues to the Association to support the various services it provided.

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