The spirit of Butte's Chinatown hides in the shadows of China Alley,
the narrow two-block passageway running from Galena Street to Silver Street
that was once the center of the bustling neighborhood. The Pekin Noodle
Parlor, a fixture since the 1880s, stands at the top of the alley. At
its peak, between four hundred and six hundred Chinese lived and worked
in the two-square-block area. Now crumbling buildings, their China Alley
entrances boarded-up or bricked-in, are all that remain of the once bustling
In 1991 concerned Butte residents formed the Mai Wah Society dedicated
to preserving the history of Butte's Chinese community. That year two
buildings considered the heart of Chinatown-the Wah Chong Tai Company
and Mai Wah Noodle Parlor-were on the verge of being sold for back taxes.
The society acquired them, and in the thirteen years since, volunteers
have worked tirelessly to rehabilitate the buildings and inform locals
and tourists alike about the rich history of the Chinese communities in
Montana and the greater West.
Between 1848 and 1882 over three hundred thousand Chinese immigrated to
the United States. The first Chinese immigrants-many of them forced to
leave the southeastern province of Kwangtung because of bleak economic
conditions, civil war, and a corrupt government-labored in the California
goldfields. Later immigrants found jobs on the Central Pacific Railroad,
which employed nearly seventeen thousand Chinese before its completion
The tide of Chinese immigration ended in 1882 with the passage of the
Chinese Exclusion Act that prohibited laborers from entering the country
for ten years and prevented those already here from becoming naturalized
citizens. The only exemptions were merchants and their wives. Congress
renewed the law in 1892 and ten years later indefinitely barred laborers.
This law remained in place until 1943 when the Seventy-eighth Congress
established an annual quota of 105 Chinese immigrants.
The history of the Chinese in Butte stretches back to 1868 with the
establishment of the first placer gold mines. Eventually, some two thousand
Chinese placer miners worked and lived in German Gulch, French Gulch,
Rocker, Pioneer City, Bannack, and Alder Gulch. Forced out of mining by
discriminatory taxation, threats, and ordinances stemming from the fear
of cheap labor, the Chinese opened service-oriented businesses such as
laundries and mercantiles in booming Butte, a supply hub for surrounding
The economic depressions of the 1870s and the 1890s exacerbated anti-Chinese
tensions, leading to riots and the boycotting of Chinese businesses across
In 1895 Butte labor unions and the chamber of commerce instituted a citywide
boycott of Chinese-owned businesses that threatened to destroy the Chinese
community. Led by respected Chinese physician Dr. Huie Pock, Chinese businessmen
sued the labor unions and eventually won, though they received no compensation
for their lost business.
Despite such hostilities, Chin Chun Hock, founder of Seattle's oldest
Chinese mercantile, opened a branch store in Butte on West Galena Street
about 1893. When Hock visited Butte in October 1898, he announced plans
to construct a new building for the Wah Chong Tai Company on China Alley.
The company moved into its two-story brick building at 15 West Mercury
Street the next year.
Wah Chong Tai-meaning "announcing beautiful old China"-served
as a hub of the Chinese community, accommodating a mercantile, post office,
and bank within its walls. The company also helped procure lodging and
jobs for recent immigrants. The mercantile operated from a large room
in the front of the building and sold goods imported from China to a Chinese
and Euramerican clientele. A balcony above the mezzanine displayed the
porcelain, clothing, and other goods offered for sale. An herbal store
was located in the rear of the building. Accessed from a door on China
Alley, the second floor housed a restaurant catering solely to Chinese
patrons. Even today the building retains an amazing degree of integrity.
The mezzanine and display balcony remain just as they were when the Wah
Chong Tai served Butte's Chinese community.
Constructed in 1909, the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor adjoins the Wah Chong Tai
to the west. Its first ?oor housed an arcade of shops, and the upstairs
noodle parlor served a mixture of Mandarin- and American-style dishes
until 1941. Sandwiched between the second-floor restaurant and first-floor
shops is a "cheater" story, a labyrinth of rooms that once housed
retail shops and low-ceilinged apartments. Stepping into the brilliantly
painted red and yellow interior of the Mai Wah building, the visitor is
transported to Chinatown. The rough plank floor bears signs of the thousands
of feet that clattered through the front door en route to the shops scattered
throughout the two buildings. On the second-floor, the kitchen's pressed-tin
ceiling is blackened with soot from the preparation of countless meals.
The icebox and the stove with its three mammoth caverns meant to fit the
woks stand in their original positions.
The decline of Butte's Chinatown that began in 1895 continued steadily
for the next four decades as residents left to seek their fortunes in
San Francisco and other cities where Chinatowns still flourished. By 1940
only ninety-two Chinese lived in Butte. As people sold their valuable
Chinatown property, the neighborhood inexorably lost its Chinese influence.
Today there are few reminders of Butte's Chinese heritage, but one of
them is the annual Chinese New Year celebration, billed as "the shortest,
loudest Chinese New Year Parade in the world." Leading the annual
parade is Montana's only Chinese parade dragon, Taiwan's gift to the Mai
Wah Society in 1998. As it winds through the streets greeting residents
and tourists, the dragon bestows blessings of prosperity and happiness
to all it encounters.
The Mai Wah Society museum located at 17 West Mercury Street is open from
May to September. In 2004 the museum plans to launch its first permanent
exhibit, The Chinese Experience in the West, to showcase items from its
collection, the first public display of these artifacts. To learn more
about the Mai Wah Society and museum, including the 2004 schedule, visit
CARRIE SCHNEIDER is a former Mai Wah Society volunteer and a graduate
of the Museum Studies program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Magazine of Western History, Volume 54 Number 2(Summer 2004),
67-69; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana
Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2004.