Other history stories

The Street-Straddling Elk of 1916
When Toil Meant Trouble: Butte's Labor Heritage
How Keno was Born in Butte, Montana
The Captain Who Fought World War I in Butte, Montana
Mark Twain's Trip to Butte

Butte's Far Eastern Influences
by George Everett

Hum Wah Long
Hum Wah Long, who came
from Canton, China to Butte,
Montana in the late 1800's.
In most minds, Montana's settlement is set to the anthem of Manifest Destiny, the rhythm of women and children walking in the dust behind wagons on the Bozeman and Corrine Trails. These hardy pilgrims risked all to move westward from places like Iowa, Pennsylvania and Ohio in the Far East (as it was then known) with everything they owned in a wagon the size of a compact car.

A less familiar image is of the settlers who came from what is still known as the Far East -- from China. Between 1850 and 1900, about 250,000 Chinese came to America and thousands ended up in Montana Territory. In the 1870 census, in Montana Territory, out of nearly 20,000 persons tallied in 1870, 1,949 were Chinese, nearly 10 percent of the population. By 1880, Missoula County listed 149 Chinese residents, Deer Lodge County, which then included Butte, counted 710, Madison County had 265, and Helena counted 359.

They came to dig for gold and to help build the railroads. Yet, when the gold booms went bust and the railroads were done, many Chinese chose to stay. They chose small businesses that didn't require a lot of capital and often didn't require them to rely on an employer for their income. Some became tailors, ranch cooks, gardeners, woodcutters, vegetable growers, and herbal doctors. Others opened laundries and restaurants.

Most of the Chinese who came to Montana (and America) came from the southern province called Kwangtung. They paid about $50 for a month-long ride on a ship across the Pacific Ocean. Their destination was a place they knew as Gum San (Gold Mountain) where, they were told, gold nuggets as big as oranges could be plucked from river sands. These stories were given weight by gold carried home by those who had gone before or the money sent back by relatives still working in America.

While gold was the pull, the push was supplied by the chaos of late 19th century that caused China's population to plummet by almost 60 million souls by the turn of the century.

While almost one million Americans died during our Civil War, more than 20 million Chinese died during the Taiping Rebellion led by a messianic fellow named Hong Xiuquan who fancied himself the elder brother of Jesus Christ.

Other settlers considered Chinese to be exotic and inscrutable heathens. They dressed and talked strangely, and wore their hair in long braids like women or Indians.

Few could imagine that they were required to wear their hair this way in China as a sign of loyalty and, if they refused, the penalty was death. Few "Christian" settlers realized that among the "heathen Chinese," was a large number of devout Christians who had been converted by missionaries before leaving China.

Their diet was strange to men who ate a "heart-healthy" fare of meat mixed with flour, beans or bread. One petition argued that the Chinese should be deported because "they eat rice, fish, and vegetables and that otherwise their diet differs from that of the white man." Chinese railroad workers who demanded hot tea to drink were laughed at until those who scoffed became ill from dysentery after drinking unboiled groundwater.

Chinese were denounced for their use of opium by the same folks who used patent medicines laced with laudanum and morphine and drank whiskey straight to relieve physical and emotional pain.

Even Indians were not sure what to make of these strange people. Montana pioneer Granville Stuart described an incident in California in 1853 where Indians killed two Chinese miners because, according to Stuart, "they thought them other kinds of Indians."

During the Nez Perce War in 1877, Nez Perce warriors retreating south from the Battle of the Big Hole intercepted a freight wagon train enroute to Salmon, Idaho. They killed the white teamsters, but spared two Chinese, because their war was not with that "tribe."

Economic depression and the end of large scale labor projects such as the railroads fed the dark whispers of anti-Chinese sentiments that soon found louder voices to exclude the Chinese and deprive them the rights and privileges enjoyed by every other immigrant group.

The railroads that the Chinese helped build brought more women to cook and wash clothes, services previously provided by Chinese. Many settlers fleeing the ashes of the Confederacy brought along their ideas about the subservient role of non-whites and transferred their prejudice against blacks to Chinese.

Unlike simple prejudice, however, this ignorance was validated throughout the West by discriminatory laws that punished only Chinese. Chinese in Montana were not allowed to become citizens, vote, own property, or marry non-Chinese after 1909. Special taxes were levied that only applied to Chinese who owned laundries or worked as miners. These laws encouraged many to act on their prejudices with impunity. The newspapers of the day abound with reports of beatings and harassment against Chinese.

The first reported hanging in Butte was a Chinese miner hung by Dan Haffie because the Chinaman seemed to be getting all of the luck in the diggings on Silver Bow Creek. There is no record of whether Haffie's luck improved after he hung his Chinese neighbor.

Federal laws from 1882 until 1943 placed the burden on the individual to prove why they should not be deported to China and random arrests and interrogations were frequent.

Like everyone else, the Chinese followed gold strikes to what is now Montana and Chinatowns, offering sanctuary from discrimination as well as a common culture, sprang up in the larger towns of the state.

In Alder Gulch, about 500 Chinese miners built a Chinatown in Virginia City with a two-story wooden religious temple. As the gold boom faded there, many of the Chinese moved on to mining camps where the diggings were still paying off. Or, they started businesses in growing towns like Anaconda, Billings, Butte, Deer Lodge, Dillon, and Helena.

Butte was home to Montana's largest Chinese community despite organized efforts to evict them. By 1910, Butte, Montana thrived as an industrial metropolis of from 60,000 to 100,000 with a thriving Chinatown of 400 to 600 Chinese according to Montana historian Dr. Michael Malone. That number may be low, too, based on inaccurate census statistics that didn't reflect the true population for a variety of reasons. According to Rose Hum Lee in The Chinese in the United States of America, from 1870 to 1910 the Chinese population varied from 1,265 to 2,532 inhabitants. Lee herself was born and raised in Butte's Chinatown.

As labor unions gained strength in the 1880s and the 1890s, they organized boycotts to evict Chinese businesses. In the winter of 1896-1897, union members blocked doorways and discouraged customers from entering Chinese restaurants and laundries.

As the boycott went on, some Chinese feared the violence that had already erupted in riots against Chinese in Tacoma, Washington, Denver, Colorado, and Rock Springs, Wyoming and they decided to leave for the safety of larger Chinatowns on the west coast. In Anaconda, violence did erupt with at least one Chinese laundry being bombed in 1890.

Butte businessman and Chinese community leader, Hum Fay

In Butte, however, a group of Butte Chinese businessmen, led by restaurant owner Hum Fay, Dr. Huie Pock, and Quon Loy decided to fight back. They protested to the governments of China and the United States and then filed suit against the leaders of the boycotts. They eventually won their case in court but they were unable to collect damages, which they estimated to be about $500,000 dollars in lost business, although they did receive $1,750.05 to cover their legal fees and expenses.

Until the 1920s, Butte's Chinatown was packed with dozens of businesses that sold Chinese and Japanese dry goods and foods, fireworks, tea and other herbs. The buildings there housed gambling parlors, noodle parlors, and laundries. The 1914 Butte city directory lists 62 Chinese businesses, including four physicians who practiced herbal medicine.

Dr. Caroline McGill, who practiced Western medicine in Butte for most of her life during this time, became good friends with these Chinese colleagues. Her amazing collection that served as the nucleus for the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman contains many gifts of clothing and porcelain that came to her from the Butte Chinese.

Physician and Surgeon,
Dr. Huie Pock

One of these Chinese doctors, Dr. Huie Pock became wealthy through his practice of herbal medicine, acupuncture, and surgery. Western medicine, especially on the remote frontier, was primitive by comparison to herbal remedies fine-tuned by thousands of years of practice in China. He developed an effective herbal poultice using banana stalks to treat various ailments and he shipped these through the mail as well as using them in his local practice. During the influenza epidemic that killed hundreds in Butte in 1918, his herbal treatments saved many lives. When Dr. Pock died in 1927, his son, Quong Huie, squandered the money set aside to bury his parents' remains in China. Dr. Pock and his wife were finally buried in Butte in unmarked graves.

In fact, several Chinese rose to prominence in Butte, despite the fact that one of the city's daily newspapers, The Butte Miner once editorialized that "a Chinaman could no more become an American citizen than could a coyote."

Another Chinese man, known only as Jimmy July, became a naturalized citizen and in 1896 he spoke at the Fourth of July celebration, reciting the Declaration of Independence before an inspired crowd.

Quon Loy came to Butte to represent the interests of Chinese there as the representative of the Chinese Six Companies, a guild of family associations that looked after the rights and benefits of Chinese workers and served as a surrogate government for the Chinese in this country. Quon Loy was an educated person who spoke fluent English and represented Chinese immigrants in legal and business matters. He served as an interpreter, arbitrated conflicts between the larger community and the Chinese, arranged bail, settled debts, and handled burials. He made sure that newcomers had a place to stay until they settled in and found jobs.

Quon Loy was known in Butte as Louie from his name that sounded like the Christian name Louis but actually translated as thunder. His name meant Thunder in the Mountain Pass, well suited to his role as the main arbiter for the Chinese community in Butte. The larger community described him as "the unofficial mayor of Chinatown" and he was often quoted in the newspapers commneting on events important to the Chinese community. He was the manager of the Quong Lung Chung Co. that stood at 16 West Mercury across the street from where the Wah Chong Tai still stands today.

In 1943 with the China and the United States allied in World War II against Japan, the discriminatory laws against Chinese were repealed and most of the remaining Chinese in Montana who had not already left from economic hardship left for defense industry jobs on the coast or to become naturalized citizens anywhere they chose to live. Descendants of Montana's Chinese are now scattered across the country much like the children of other Montana settlers.

While little remains to confirm that thousands of Asian immigrants once worked and lived in Montana, and it is difficult to follow these few threads back to their source, it is not impossible.

The game of Keno now played electronically throughout the region, is a remnant of the White Dove lottery that was brought from China and converted by two Irish brothers in Butte. You might discover a sign board with Chinese characters in the corner of a cabin at the recreated Chinatown in Nevada City, artifacts on display at the Montana Historical Society museum in Helena, porcelain plates and silk robes at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, a small museum display in Dillon, the recreated hand laundry and herb shops in Butte at the World Museum of Mining, or the Mai Wah Museum in what's left of Butte's original Chinatown.

There, the non-profit Mai Wah Society has been working to preserve the history of Asian settlers in Butte and Montana by developing a museum to provide guided tours and display artifacts from Butte and the surrounding area inside two adjoining brick buildings, the Wah Chong Tai and the Mai Wah that were built in the 1890s.

If you follow these remaining strands, they will lead you back to a full tapestry that embellishes and enriches Montana's more widely known history.

Chinese New Year Parade in Butte in front of the
Mai Wah Museum. The dragon leading the parade
was a gift to Montana from the people of Taiwan

This site is designed and maintained by George Everett.
© 2004 by George Everett. All rights reserved.
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