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Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community – Links

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Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community – Interpretive Marker

The dedication of the Olympia Chinatown Historical Marker took place May 22, 2004 at Heritage Park.

Interpretive Marker located in Heritage Park, near the site of Olympia’s last Chinatown

 

The Olympia Area Chinese Fellowship Youth Orchestra
provided traditional music for the ceremony.

Bill and Toy Kay, Brian Lock, Jimmy Locke, Mary Pang, and City Councilman Doug Mah unveil the marker

 

Lion Dance presented by Mak Fai Washington Kung Fu Club of Seattle.
Performers include Kavin Chan, Gary Chan, Royal Gam, Sifu Mak, Sifu Zhu, Assim and Franklin Hsu.

Project Sponsors

Olympia Heritage Commission
Locke Family Association
Olympia Area Chinese Association

Event Sponsors

Locke Family Association
City of Olympia Parks and Recreation
Olympia Area Chinese Association

Event Planning and Staging

Kathy Thompson
Carla Wulfsberg
Emily Locke
Jane Locke
Muoi Nguy
Wendy Seid

Special Thanks

Bill and Toy Kay for sponsoring the Lion Dance performance. 
Susan Karren, Director, Archival Operations, NARA – Pacific Alaska Region 
Ron Chew, Director, Wing Luke Asian Museum
Jane Boubel, City of Olympia Parks and Recreation 
David Hanna, City of Olympia Parks and Recreation 
Greg Miller, Bartel’s Men Store 
Lynne Chao and Corliss Fong

The Olympia Chinatown Historical Project Committee, 1998.  

L-R: Shanna Stevenson, Bill Kay, Edward Echtle, Brian Lock, Toy Kay and Ron Locke

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Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community – Chinese Cemetery

At Forest Memorial Gardens, 2501 Pacific Ave., Olympia

Marker for Locke Mai Tuck

Edward Echtle photo

 

As late as the 1930s members of Olympia’s Chinese community still gathered at Forest Cemetery for the traditional springtime Ching Ming memorial ceremony.  After tidying the site, they laid out offerings of food, burned incense and set off fireworks to ward off malevolent spirits.

Early Chinese sojourners made arrangements with their surname association to return their bones to their family’s ancestral burial site in China so that family members could honor them.  These associations interred Chinese who died in the United States with only a temporary marker and some years later exhumed them for their return to China.  This service required that a traveling monk, or “bone gatherer” visit the city every few years and prepare the remains for the voyage home.  This practice persisted until the 1930s when  war and the Communist Revolution in China severed contact.

Forest Cemetery records show a section sold to “Chinese Sam,” (probably Sam Fun Locke,) generically labeled “Chinese.”  The site, which is in the oldest part of the cemetery, is located just inside the gate, on the raised ground to the left.   The Chinese community managed this section as a cemetery within a cemetery, maintaining their own records separate from the rest of the non-Chinese burials.

At present [2014] there is only one marker remaining, that of Locke Mai Tuck who drowned while tending oyster floats at Henderson Inlet in 1914.  In 1987 construction workers found his marker under the sod when Pacific Avenue was widened, lost during the years the cemetery was neglected and overgrown.  The Cemetery association did not record individual Chinese interments.  The Locke Family Association kept these records but they were destroyed in the 1970s when the Locke Family Association Hall in Seattle burned.   It is unknown how many of Olympia’s Chinese pioneers at the site awaiting a return to their families in China.

Partial List of Chinese pioneers interred at Forest Cemetery: 

Don Yin, “Billy,” d. June 18, 1904
Hey Lee, d. June 23, 1901
Hong Hai, Mrs., d. November 1902
Lee Fon, d. May 1894
Lee Klet, d. April 30, 1915
Leuu Gim Hing, “China Jim,” d. December 25, 1913
Lew He Soon, “Old Charlie,” d. October 1911
Lewis Yu Kea, “Hong Hai,” d. January 24, 1912
Lock Hock Joe, d. August 7, 1904
Lock Kay, d. November 26, 1931
Lock Pow, d. January 1894
Mo Hen, d. April 11, 1899
Poo, Yee “Johnson,” d. November 30, 1934
Sing Yet Ying, d. October 27, 1918
Su He, d. April 24, 1880
Unknown, “Chinaman Joe,” d. July 15, 1899
Unknown, Chinese Man, d. 1892 

 

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Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community – Families

Due to immigration restrictions it was prohibitively expensive and legally difficult for most Chinese men to bring a wife and family members to America. Nevertheless, a small but significant number of Chinese American families established  homes in Olympia from very early on.  Census records show several families that came and went over the early decades of Olympia’s existence.  Intriguing clues and oblique references surface infrequently in local records and much detail may be lost to history.

After the Seatte fire of 1889, a number of displaced Chinese relocated to Olympia.  Among them was the Jim Ah Toone family.  Jim and his wife Nettie Chiang raised a family of five children in Olympia before moving on to Yakima and then Minneapolis where their Olympia-born son Walter James opened the successful Nankin Cafe in 1919. The family continued its operation through 1999.

Jim Ah Toone and Nettie James Family, 1890s
WSHS Photo 

The James Family Children in Olympia 
Keystone/Maste


Nettie James at Ida Smith’s Studio, Olympia 
Photo Courtesy of Corliss Fong and Lynne Chao

 

In 1902, prominent local merchant Sam Fun Locke returned from Toison with a wife.  They lived in the space above the Hong Yek Kee and Company store.  On the occasion of the birth of their first child, Loy Wing, the new family had a photo taken, a copy of which was presented to Sheriff Billings’ family in gratitude for his intervention in the 1886 riots.  Eventually the Lockes had nine children, all born at Hong Yek.

In 1934 Sam Fun Locke, known locally as the “Mayor of Chinatown,” passed away.  The local press described  hs funeral as one of the most elaborate in Olympia history.  Many surviving pioneers from the area and Chinese community leaders from around the region attended the event.  The procession passed by the Water Street Chinatown before proceeding to the Masonic Cemetery at Tumwater.  He was later reinterred at Calvary Cemetery, Seattle.

Sam Fun Locke Family, 1905
Courtesy of Hugh Locke

Sam Fun  Locke Family ca. 1930
Courtesy of Hugh Locke

 

Locke Suey Kay , emigrated around 1900, and brought his wife Lam Shee, and their first two children to Olympia in 1915.  Locke Suey Kay , known locally as Charley Kay, worked as a cook in Olympia.  He was employed for a time at Doane’s Oyster House and, along with many other Olympia Chinese, at the Hotel Olympian.

In 1928 the Kay family opened the Nankin Cafe on the north side of Fourth Avenue between Columbia and Capitol Way.  During the depression Charley worked in Seattle.  Lam Shee Kay, with the help of their children, opened Kay’s Cafe on Capital Way in 1941,  which continued operation through 1976.

 

Lam Shee Kay immigration photo, 1915
Photo courtesy of the Kay Family

Kay Family, ca. 1920s
Photo courtesy of the Kay Family

 

Also among the young Chinese men seeking work in Olympia in the early 1900s was Suey Gim Locke, grandfather of Washington State Governor [1996-2004] Gary Locke.  Governor Locke acknowledged his family’s early connection to Olympia in his 1997 Inaugural Address, excerpted here in a press release:

Locke, the first Chinese-American governor in the nation’s history, traced his family’s roots in Washington from his grandfather’s arrival in the state nearly 100 years ago. His grandfather, Suey Gim Locke, worked as a “house boy” for a family in Olympia, where he learned English in return for his work.

“Although I may be standing less than a mile from where our family started its life in America, we’ve come a long way,” the new governor said.

http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/governorlocke/speeches/speech-view.asp?SpeechSeq=107

 

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Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community – Market Gardens

By the 1870s some of Olympia’s Chinese residents earned their keep as market gardeners.  In fact, they were so efficient they effectively cornered the local produce market for some years.  Two or more crops annually were common, and some even harvested wild blackberries which were offered for sale along with garden produce:

We are asserting only what everybody knows to be a fact, when we say that, until the arrival of our Chinese gardeners, all our earliest small fruits and vegetables came by steamer from San Francisco, for which we paid exorbitant prices.  Now, through the native tact and indomitable energy of Chinamen, these fruits and vegetables are raised from our own soil and brought to our doors, weeks earlier than ever they were produced by white men.

Olympia: Washington Standard, June 20, 1879.

In a 1933 interview, George Blankenship of Olympia recalled an early Chinese garden at the foot of the bluff below the Capitol Campus, along the tide flat.  This was later displaced by the Northern Pacific Railroad depot and switching yard when the Tacoma to Grays Harbor line was built around 1890.  The area is now part of Heritage Park.

One of Olympia’s early produce grower was Lum Jo.  Lum was also an herbalist and described himself in the census as the community doctor as well as a farmer.  His garden and small cabin were located at Eighth and Plumb Streets.  There is still a natural spring flowing at the site which Lum Jo used to irrigate his crops.  Known locally as “The Vegetable Man,”  Lum delivered his produce door to door in baskets he carried on a shoulder pole.  In 1889 the Washington Standard reported that a local gardener, possibly Lum Jo, had switched from shoulder pole baskets to a horse cart to make his deliveries.

In 1887 gardener, Wong Jong Hang, leased three acres located between the foot of Madison Street above West Bay Avenue on Olympia’s west side.  This site is also adjacent to a natural spring.  Terms of this lease included the use of a cabin already at the site, clearing of the land of stumps and other debris, and grading the steep bluff to a more gentle incline.  Evidently this was a successful endeavor, as plats for the development of the West Side in 1918 continued to show this site in use as a “China Garden.”

Yet another truck garden located near where Eastside Street now [2014] crosses the Interstate 5 freeway was developed around 1891 by Lock Chong and Le-u Choong and was one of the first leases recorded in the Stevens Addition plat.

It remains unclear whether these lease dates reflect the actual time of establishment of these gardens, due to the lack of formally recorded business agreements between local Chinese and the white community prior to the mid 1880s.  It may be that the gardens existed before the paperwork was filed.   Considering the tensions of the anti-Chinese era, whites and Chinese may have been reluctant to create a “paper trail.”  The appearance of these leases after the 1880s may reflect a lessening of anti-Chinese sentiments among whites.

 

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Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community – Restaurants

 

Restaurants were a pioneer business for Chinese immigrants.  Many early Chinese found employment as cooks for affluent families, at lumber camps and in hotels and rooming houses and learned this trade “on the job.”  Since opening a restaurant required a relatively small capital investment, it was a more accessible first enterprise.  While it is still unknown what the first Chinese owned restaurant in Olympia was, records show a number that came and went through the 1890s and early 1900s.  During the 1890s,local restaurateur Jim Ah Toone operated the historic Gold Bar Restaurant on lower Capitol Way, the site of the meeting of the first territorial legislature in 1853.

Lumber and plywood mills around the Olympia area operated three shifts a day.  Local Chinese-owned restaurants were among the few that stayed open late and opened early to serve the workers coming and going to their shifts.  Menus were not strictly Chinese cuisine; steak and eggs, ham, and potatoes were also available to hungry workers at reasonable prices.  The combination of extended hours and low prices enabled Chinese owned restaurants to compete in Olympia.

                   

The Pekin Cafe, ca. 1920.  This restaurant was located on the east side of Capitol Way between State Street and Fourth Avenue.  The Pekin Cafe advertised that they “…specialize in chop suey and noodles, [and] the choicest American dishes.”  The proprietor, Lock Hoy, went on to manage the Shanghai Cafe on Fifth Ave.

Henderson House Museum Photo

 

The Nan Young Cafe, which opened around 1918, operated at 116 West Fourth Street.  This became the Nankin Cafe after it was purchased by Charley Kay in 1928, but closed in the 1930s due to the depression.

Photo courtesy of Bill and Toy Kay

                                           

   

During the depression when opportunity was scarce in Olympia, Charley Kay worked in Seattle.  In order to make ends meet, his wife Lam Shee, with the help of their children, opened Kay’s Cafe in 1941 at 111 Capitol Way, The restaurant was operated by the Kay family at that location until 1976.

Photo courtesy of Bill and Toy Kay

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Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community – Laundries

A number of Chinese owned laundries existed in Olympia over the years.  As laundries required little start up capital, they were often the first business a recent Chinese immigrant could start.  Since profit margins were small, laundry operators had to cut expenses wherever possible.  For example, the continual need for wood to heat water prompted some of the Chinese engaged in the laundry business to collect bark and other waste wood from mills around Budd Inlet  They used rafts to transport it back to their laundries to use as fuel for heating water.

The 1870 Federal Census lists three Chinese laundries in Olympia.  One laundry, operated by Ung Cheung and Ung Naeg was the home of the only female Chinese resident listed in any local census of the time, Kow Kow, age 16 in 1870.

A few of the early laundries located away from the central Chinese quarters on Fourth Avenue.  Some of the earliest were located in the vicinity of the intersection of what is now State and Washington Streets, which was then waterfront.  Probably the earliest of these was the Shong Gong Laundry, located on the north side of State Street between Washington and Franklin Streets, the present site (2007) of the Intercity Transit station.  Early maps show a number of small Chinese laundries in this vicinity into the 1880s, probably supported by business from the various inns and boarding houses nearby.  Many disappear within a short time, evidence of the transitory nature of the business.  The Quong Dan Laundry, for example, appears on the northwest corner of the intersection of State and Washington streets in the late 1880s but is gone by 1896.

When the core of the Chinese community relocated to Fifth Street, the Kwong Hong Yick Laundry was the most substantial Chinese laundry in Olympia and operated into the early twentieth century.  There were usually about six to eight men who lived and worked at Kwong Hong Yick, and many who lived above the stores on Fifth Street were employed there.  Established around 1889, it may have been a continuation of the Yick Lee Laundry business which was located on Fourth Avenue next to Hong Yek and Company.  Kwong Hong Yick operated until 1913 at this location and then moved to new quarters on Capitol Way north of State St. when the Fifth St. Chinatown moved to Water St.

One of the longest lived laundries in Olympia was the Chong Lee laundry on the south side of State Street between Capitol Way and Washington Streets.  Initially, the Chong Lee laundry began business in 1891 at the northwest corner of  Columbia and State Streets in a one story frame building on piling, directly adjacent to Percival’s Dock.  By the early 1900s Chong Lee Laundry moved to the larger State Street location, where it operated until at least 1920.  This laundry changed hands a number of times.  Records show the owner/proprietors to be Lock Kung, Lock Suig and Lock Lee in 1910.

Parade on Third St. (present State St,)  the Chong Lee Laundry in the background.
Washington State Library Photo

 

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Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community – Chinatowns

The International Chinese Business Directory of the World for the Year 1913

Over the years Olympia’s main Chinese quarters were located in three places.  Available records show the earliest Chinatown was located ½ block west of Capital Way on Fourth Avenue, although some Chinese-owned businesses located near the intersection of State and Washington Streets.  The core of Chinatown consisted of several structures including at least one hand laundry and two small mercantiles.

As downtown expanded in the late 1880s, Chinese relocated their businesses to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Columbia Streets, on what was then the waterfront.  Five two-story wood frame buildings, housing the Hong Yek Kee Company, the Quong Yuen Sang Company and the Hong Hai Company were built on piles over tide flats.

In 1913 further expansion of the land area downtown through filling caused the Chinese owned stores to move a second time.  Five buildings moved from the Fifth Street site to the west side of Water Street, between Fourth and Fifth.  This was the third and final location of Olympia’s Chinatown.

 

 

The Chinese store was key to early Chinese community.  It served as a multi-purpose facility, providing many services to resident Chinese.  Inside, Chinese laborers found lodging, cooked their meals, sent and received mail, purchased supplies and socialized.  For the primarily young male Chinese immigrant population, leisure time was often boisterous, with drinking and gambling the favorite forms of passtime.  The Chinese merchants who operated these stores often rose to local prominence as representatives of the Chinese community, serving as liaisons between the Chinese and the white populations in business and government transactions.

     

By the 1890s Olympia Merchant Sam Fun Locke emerged as an important leader in the community.  He arrived in 1874 as a railroad laborer, but soon rose to senior partner of the Hong Yek Kee Company.  He served as banker for the laborers, many of whom spoke no English.   Sam Fun Locke used this money to finance new Chinese owned businesses in Olympia and as far away as Hoquiam and South Bend, keeping the funds in a metal box in his home above Hong Yek.

Three of the five buildings that made up Olympia’s Chinatown, ca. 1902, SE corner of 5th and Columbia Streets.  From left to right: “Chinese boarding house”  (partly shown,) Hong Yek Kee and Co. Import Mercantile and Labor Contracting, and the Kwong Hong Yick Laundry.  Note the firewood stacked on the side of Kwong Hong Yick,
used for fuel to heat water and the laundry drying platform built on the roof.
National Archives and Records Administration Photo.
NARA’s Pacific Alaska Region

                            

Interior of the Hong Yek Kee Mercantile.  Doorway on right looks across alley into the Kwong Hong Yick Laundry.
National Archives and Records Administration Photo.
NARA Pacific Alaska Region

 

By the early 1900s the local population of Chinese began to dwindle.  Restrictive immigration laws limited new arrivals to replace the aging population.  In addition, immigrant laborers from Japan filled many of the jobs that formerly employed Chinese.  Many of Olympia’s Chinese retired to larger population centers like Seattle or, if they were able, returned to their families in China.  By the early 1940s the old stores on Water Street were nearly vacant.  In 1943 the fire department deemed them hazardous and condemned them.  They were razed later that year; the same year the US repealed Chinese exclusion laws. 

                   

Olympia Fire Dept photo of the rear of Water St Chinatown ca1940
Digital Archives

 

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Olympia’s Historic Chinese History – Railroads and Riots

 

 

Chinese railroad section hands at the 
Tenino Northern Pacific Railroad depot, early 1880s

WSHS Image

In the early 1870s construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad in western Washington brought a large influx of new Chinese laborers to Olympia, adding to the existing population.  Excitement ran high locally over the approach of the rails and residents expected Olympia to be the terminus on Puget Sound.  When the Northern Pacific Railroad bypassed Olympia in favor of Tacoma in 1873, Olympia residents formed the Thurston County Railroad Construction Company and began building their own narrow gauge spur line to the main tracks at Tenino, fifteen miles to the south.  Initially conceived and implemented as a volunteer effort, work soon slowed to a crawl.  After the project languished for a time, the TCRCC hired a Chinese labor contractor identified in records as Jimmia to complete the project.  Jimmia recruited forty laborers for the task.  They completed the grading of the right of way and track laying.   Completed in 1878, historians consider the little railroad to have saved Olympia from economic oblivion and helped preserve its standing as the capitol.

 

Anti Chinese Era

By the the 1880s unemployed Euroamericans saw Chinese residents as unfair labor competition for scarce jobs.  Many whites derided Chinese, (who were relegated to lower earning status all along,) as detrimental to wages because they worked for less. Tragically, the Knights of Labor used this animosity to unite European immigrant laborers against the Chinese as a common foe.

In 1882, congress passed the first of several exclusionary immigration laws aimed specifically at the Chinese.  The goal was to stem the immigration of unskilled Chinese labor.  Further, US customs officials began requiring Chinese returning from overseas to pass detailed questionings about their families and places of residence to determine whether they might be entering the US under the identity of a legal resident.  Some Chinese bypassed this step and enter illegally, “blending” with the local population until able to speak enough English to get by on their own.

Organized agitation by white workers against the Chinese became increasingly violent.  In September of 1885, white miners at Rock Springs Wyoming attacked Chinese miners, driving them out of town and killing many in the process.  News of this incident emboldened radical anti-Chinese agitators in the Puget Sound region.  Several instances of violence against the Chinese culminated in November, when a white mob that included the Mayor and many prominent businessmen removed the entire Chinese population of Tacoma, and burned their homes and businesses.  Seattle citizens immediately attempted to follow suit, but Territorial Governor Watson Squire called in Federal Troops to keep peace and, for a time, Seattle lived under martial law.

Sporadic outbreaks of violence against the Chinese persisted throughout the winter.  Vigilantes burned Chinese railroad workers out of their homes on Christmas Eve at Tenino and elsewhere in Thurston County.  The men escaped only with their blankets.  When the federal troops finally left  Seattle in early February of 1886, citizens there reprised the “Tacoma Method.”

On February 8, 1886, agitators in Olympia also tried to emulate their counterparts to the north.  The prearranged signal was the ringing of the city fire bell.  Rioters converged on the Chinese dwellings on Fourth Avenue and demanded that the Chinese depart at once.  While the majority of the white population of Olympia approved of Chinese expulsion, they were also determined to uphold the rule of law.  The ambivalence of white Olympia residents over this issue is reflected in the resolution drafted at a town meeting the previous November in the aftermath of the Tacoma riot:

Be It Resolved: […] while we fully realize the fact that we have too much of the Chinese element in our midst, we as clearly recognize the fact that they are here in and by the virtue of law and treaty stipulations, and that we are decidedly opposed to their expulsion by force or by intimidation, or by any other unlawful means, but we will at all times give our aid and support to any measures looking to a peaceable and lawful riddance of that element and a final solution of the ‘Chinese question’

Town Meeting:  November 12, 1885 
Olympia: Washington Standard,  13 November 1885

During the riot Sheriff William Billings deputized many prominent Olympia residents and they patrolled the scene to maintain order.   While the deputies allowed the agitators to harass the Chinese , apparently none were forced to leave.   The deputized businessmen subsequently arrested the leaders of the “riot” who were tried, convicted of conspiracy, fined, and sentenced to prison at McNeil Island.

While shaken by these events, Chinese in Olympia kept their homes and businesses.  In addition, refugees escaping from violence in other cities came to the relative safety of Olympia, bolstering the small population.

Polk Directory listing “No Chinamen Employed”

 

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Echtle: Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community

by Edward Echtle

 

jamesAhtoonefamily

 

This series of articles about the Chinese in Olympia was prepared by Edward Echtle, Olympia historian, for the Olympia Historical Society website. The Society is grateful to Edward for his willingness to share his years of research into this important aspect of Olympia’s history.

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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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Olympia’s Historic Chinese Community

By Edward Echtle

Jim Ah Toone Family, Olympia, 1890s.  WSHS Collection

 

 

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. 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 arrival of the railroads, Chinese looking for new opportunities began arriving in Olympia. In 1852, the first edition of the Columbia (the first newspaper published on Puget Sound) carried an advertisement for Edmund Sylvester’s Olympia House Hotel, which boasted an “…accomplished Chinese cook, who comes highly recommended by the American Consul at Canton.” By the early 1860s, the annual celebration of Lunar New Year by 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.

Before the arrival of the Chinese, most of Olympia’s streets existed only on paper. Hired by the community 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 steamers that served as the main form of transportation on Puget Sound.

WSHS 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 sojourners 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 county region of Guangdong Province, southeast China.

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

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