A little over a century ago, Portland’s Chinatown was geographically the largest in the nation. It was also internationally notorious.
Chinatown was officially formed in the 1880s. The population was predominantly made up of men. Most Chinese women remained in China to raise children and serve their parents-in-law. In addition, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers into the U.S., making it difficult for wives to join their husbands. Without their families present, many men were drawn into some of the popular neighborhood pastimes: opium, gambling and prostitution.
By the late 1800s, crime skyrocketed in Portland’s waterfront and Chinatown. Criminal activity was often channeled through Chinese organizations known as tongs.
Newspapers of the time described tongs as secret societies. They were viewed as brotherhoods and were thought to have affiliations with Chinese crime gangs.
During the 1800s, members increasingly battled over territories leading into the bloody Tong Wars. According to author Richard Dillon inThe Hatchett Men: The Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown, membership in tongs ranged anywhere from 50 to 1,500 members in 1887. It was common for individuals to be members of six tongs at a time. The uptick in violence led police to crack down on the gambling, opiates and secret rooms run by the tongs. But it only drove crime underground.
Many of the buildings that the tongs occupied were built out of wood, with courtyards. These designs allowed tongs to operate hidden opium dens and gambling parlors. It also provided secret passages for fleeing the police.
Eventually, powerful Chinese merchants and white authorities established the Chinese Peace Society to stop the violence in Chinatown. The Peace Society later became the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), which still serves the Portland Chinese community through education and cultural appreciation programs.
You can learn more about the history of Chinatown in the Oregon Experience documentary Portland Noir.