Henness: Rediscovering history of Chinese in McMinnville

Submitted photo##In downtown McMinnville, an underground space has been converted into a museum. It features a re-creation of the Chinese restaurant and living quarters once located there.
Submitted photo##In downtown McMinnville, an underground space has been converted into a museum. It features a re-creation of the Chinese restaurant and living quarters once located there.

Imagine a chilly Saturday evening on the 22nd of January, 1887.

The musky smell of incense winds through carriage-lined streets on the west end of McMinnville. Near Second and A Street, now Adams Street, nearly 100 Chinese men have gathered to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

As dusk darkens into night, they light fireworks and erupt into a chorus of fiddles, kettledrums, gongs, and cymbals.

Glowing red lanterns and Chinese lilies adorn both Chinese laundry businesses at the site. They are closed for a week, as the laundrymen exchange stories with other Cantonese speaking residents — loggers, farmhands and cooks — while feasting on chicken, pork and rice washed down with gin.

This is the scene I imagined after finding several mentions of Chinese New Year in McMinnville’s historic newspapers.

In the 1880 census, 124 Chinese men were living in Yamhill County. Though not welcomed by all, they had become an integral part of the local economy.

Their yearly Chinese New Year gathering had become familiar.

Local history often centers on European immigrants who platted towns, built wealth and established local governments. Rarely mentioned are the hundreds of Chinese men, who, over several decades, provided the back-breaking labor which made it all possible.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Tiffany Henness a resident of McMinnville, is an educator with Be the Bridge, a faith-based, racial-literacy nonprofit. She has written for the Asian American Christian Collaborative and Oregon Humanities. As a descendant of early 20th century Chinese immigrants, she is honored to present local Asian American issues. She can be reached at henness@me.com. com

As early as the 1870s, European American settlers hired Chinese crews at $1.25 an acre to clear timber for farming. They also hired such crews to grow and harvest crops, such as potatoes and hops, and pack produce for market.

Grain was processed in local mills that were built with Chinese crews. Agriculture, logging, and manufacturing industries benefited greatly from local railways also built by Chinese laborers.

Chinese entrepreneurs opened the first commercial laundries all over Yamhill County. And a few wealthier families employed Chinese domestic servants.

How did all these Chinese men end up packing strawberries and ironing shirt collars in Yamhill County?

We typically point to the gold rush and recruitment by railroad companies. Yet there is much more to the story.

More than half the Chinese who came to the U.S. prior to 1940 were from a single county in China — Sunning (新寧), now known as Toisan (台山). About 1,200 square miles, Toisan is not quite twice the size of Yamhill County.

Famine, ethnic conflicts and Britain’s war on China had devastated this area in the mid-19th century. That scattered more than 2.5 million men, young and old, around the globe looking for work and a fresh start.

More than mere gold lust, Chinese came to the U.S. as a survival strategy, a way for fathers and sons to earn enough to support families back home.

Though often depicted as unskilled laborers or illiterate farmers, these Chinese immigrants were actually not so different from European immigrants. Many also came with technical and engineering skills, good business sense, and a knack for creating new opportunities.

In the late 19th century, Chinese accounted for 10% of the total population of Portland. At times, they accounted for up to 30% in Astoria and 42% in Grant County, on Oregon’s dry side.

Oregon’s Chinese population peaked in 1900 at 10,397, then began to decline.

Chinese communities sprang up in both urban and rural areas. And they created complex transpacific trade networks.

In Yamhill County, two Chinese businessmen were quite popular. And they made their homes here for 30 or 40 years.

But it seems they vanished from local history and have become largely forgotten. What happened?

Historian Jennifer Fang wrote about the erasure of the Chinese from Oregon history in the Winter 2021 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly.

She noted that Oregon’s Constitution prohibited Chinese from owning land or voting, and said municipal governments “developed ordinances and taxation policies that greatly restricted and regulated the work and living locations, environments and conditions of Chinese.” (Volume 122, No.4, Page 332)

Oregon law also prohibited interracial marriage. Any person with so much as a single Chinese grandparent was prohibited from marrying a person of purely European descent.

Due to the Page Act of 1875, Chinese women were effectively barred from entering the U.S., as well. Therefore, it was nearly impossible for single Chinese men to marry and start a family, or married Chinese men to bring their wives over.

As a result, very few Chinese children were born, preventing natural population growth.

The Chinese population in Oregon declined sharply in the early 20th century, due to these exclusionary government policies, aggravated by anti-Chinese violence.

After Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, incidents of anti-Chinese violence increased. All around Oregon, Chinese residents were forced out of cities and towns by intimidation or physical attack.

In nearby Hubbard, in Marion County, a local mob went after Chinese workers in the hop fields. Threats against anyone who hired Chinese were serious enough that hop growers hired armed guards to stand watch.

In spite of all this, one resolute Chinese businessman, Sam Yick, was planning a future for his family in McMinnville. He would have been the guy handing out Chinese lilies to McMinnville residents for Chinese New Year in 1887.

Yick hired a Chinese artist to paint murals inside his laundry business. And he invited residents of the town to see them.

It appears Yick was well-liked. His comings and goings were noted in the paper, and he was listed, along with lawyers, councilmen, doctors and editors, as dignitaries struck by the flu in 1890.

That same year, two years before passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the local news mentions Yick heading to China, intent on bringing his family back with him to McMinnville. He said he planned to return, buy property and enroll his children in the public schools.

He must have been optimistic. Of course, that didn’t happen.

A few years later, Yick returned to McMinnville anyway, by himself, and resumed providing laundry services until at least 1912. By then, he was about 50 years old.

Nearly all Chinese residents had left by then, and Yick soon followed. The 1920 census lists only two Chinese residents of McMinnville, both cooks at Hotel Yamhill, next to the Mack Theater.

Walking around McMinnville today, you’d never know there was once a small but vibrant Chinese community. There are no plaques or other public signs that acknowledge the contributions, or even mention the existence, of the Chinese who arrived nearly 150 years ago.

How can we reclaim this history and keep it alive as part of McMinnville’s story? The answer may be hiding below the charming shops on Third Street.

In the 1990s, Matt and Marilyn Worrix discovered Chinese characters written on a door and wall in the basement under their former Elks Lodge quarters.

Matt Worrix spent years researching Chinese American history and restoring the basement with his good friend Carl Smith. They attempted to recreate the Chinese restaurant and living quarters that once occupied this basement sometime after the building was constructed in 1908.

The result of their efforts is a mini-museum honoring Oregon’s Chinese history.

Earlier this year, Marilyn Worrix gave a private tour of this basement. Among the tourgoers was local pastor Ted Yuen, who has lived in McMinnville since 2005 without ever knowing this space existed.

Yuen said, “As a Chinese American, this historic basement lodging was an exciting discovery. It helped me connect my cultural background with this community. The basement is also a tangible artifact of what life may have been like for Chinese immigrants during a period of Chinese Exclusion.”

How Chinese American history comes alive there is an experience few have had the opportunity to enjoy.

The basement lacks the safety upgrades required by the city’s building and fire departments for general public access. It will take some work and funding to meet these requirements and make the space available for a broader menu of tours.

To accomplish this, building owner Marilyn Kosel and I are organizing a group of committed volunteers.

Each time I present on local Asian American history, more community members volunteer to help make this basement museum available to the public in some way. If you would like to join us, please reach out.

Who knows, we may even see a lunar new year celebration return to the streets of McMinnville at some point in the future.



Nice article…many parallels to today’s immigrants decisions to leave their countries. interesting how present day views, towards people considered foreign, haven’t changed much.

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