When archaeologists Eric Gleason and Jacqui Cheung bought a run-down building in The Dalles’ downtown in 2000, they had a vague sense of its history. 210 E. 1st St. was simply known as “the Chinese building,” having operated as a Chinese laundry and merchandise store from the late 1800s to the 1920s. But the building had long since fallen into disrepair, and information about its owners and occupants proved elusive.
Gleason and Cheung’s renovations and research over the last 20 years have revealed a deeper history of the Wing Hong Hai Company store — and the small but vibrant Chinatown that surrounded it. The artifacts and documents they’ve uncovered offer a glimpse of what life may have been like for Asian immigrants who came to The Dalles 150 years ago. Gleason and Cheung join us for a tour of the building and to share some of those insights.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. What happens when two archaeologists buy a building with more than a century of history? They start doing archaeological digs in their new backyard. Eric Gleason and Jacqui Cheung bought a rundown building in The Dalles’ downtown in 2000. At the time, it was known as ‘the Chinese building.’ It had operated as a Chinese laundry and merchandise store from the late 1800s to the 1920s. But with Gleason and Cheung’s work, the building’s deeper history is coming alive. We visited the building this week with Gleason. Cheung was out of town, but she joined us via Zoom. I started by asking Gleason why they wanted to buy the building in the first place.
Eric Gleason: Jacqui was a little more reluctant about it than I was. But we’d moved to The Dalles in 1989 and spent a lot of time walking around town, because we lived not too far from this location, and had always walked by this building and seen it as being rather forlorn and dilapidated. When the For Sale sign got stuck on it, we thought, well, now’s the time to take a chance and purchase this place and try and fix it up and make it a more vital part of the community again.
Miller: You say ‘we’ thought that, but you also said that you were more interested than Jacqui. So, Jacqui, what’s your version of the story?
Jacqui Cheung: It’s not necessarily that I didn’t appreciate the building. It was just [that] I knew it was going to be a big project, and I didn’t know whether we would have the time or energy to devote to that at that time. But it was something that Eric…
Miller: Were you right? That you were a little bit afraid of how much you were biting off?
Cheung: Yes. And it took a lot of effort. I would have to say that Eric did a huge amount of work at the beginning, to the point where when I saw the progress, I felt like this is gonna be possible. Even if we go kind of slow and take our time with it, it was okay.
Miller: How much did the two of you know about the history of, even just of, this building before you bought it?
Gleason: It’s listed in the National Register in the downtown commercial district of The Dalles, so there’s a little bit of information about it there. Once we started doing some research, it turned out that some of that information was wrong. Actually, it’s on the National Register as the Chew Kee and Company Store, which was actually the store that was two doors to the east of here. So that’s kind of what we had to begin with, and then we just started doing research. Then when we started doing a little archaeology out in the back, then we really dove into the history.
Miller: Can you take us there right now?
Miller: Because it seems like that’s an important piece of this story for you. So, as we’re walking… well let’s go to the back. When you say archaeology, so you dug in the back?
Gleason: Yeah. As you can see right here, if you go out these back doors you fall 14 feet onto the concrete.
Miller: Wow. We’re not gonna do that.
Miller: … hopefully.
Gleason: I had always assumed that the archaeology had been excavated away when they did the remodeling of this building in the 1940s. One of the things that we planned to do is put a deck out here because, as an original part of this building, there had been a deck out here where, when it was a Chinese laundry they had dried the clothes out back. So we want to put one back there. But to do it we have to do it up to the new standards and codes and stuff like that. We were going to need some pretty substantial footings, so we dug archaeological excavation units at each one of the pier locations. We found out that I was mistaken about how much of the archaeology was left. It looked like almost all of the archaeology was left.
Miller: Meaning people, actual experts, hadn’t dug in a careful way to figure out what was there?
Gleason: That is correct. Yeah because, well, it’s under concrete and asphalt right now. And it has been that way for the last 80 years, so nobody had really taken a look. There had been a little bit of looting in an area where the asphalt had been broken up. When we looked through the dirt that the person had dug out, there were some artifacts associated with the Chinese occupation there. But I had just assumed that they had been disturbed.
Miller: What did you find in the places where you dug?
Gleason: We dug five different holes which were one meter by one meter in size. We ended up getting a lot of help from friends who’re archaeologists, too. One of the things that was good was usually when we’re doing archaeology sometimes we find stuff and sometimes we don’t find stuff. It was exciting and fun to get to work with these guys because we actually started finding stuff. We ended up finding, I believe, over 20,000 artifacts back there – not counting all the faunal remains. Maybe another 20,000 faunal remains – bones from the meals consumed by the folks that lived here.
Miller: So, if there were bits of bones back there, does that mean that part of what you found was a trash pile?
Gleason: It was all a trash pile. Because the building we’re standing in now was built in 1879. The previous building at this location had burned down earlier that year in a big town-wide fire. When they rebuilt this, it must have been more expensive to rebuild in brick than it was – the original one was wood – so they made it shorter. This building is 20 feet shorter than the one it replaced. But that left kind of a cellar hole out back, which was a great place to throw garbage for the next 20 or 30 years.
Miller: The numbers that you mentioned seem extraordinary to me. You’re talking about tens of thousands of artifacts, and it’s not that big a space. What qualifies as an artifact?
Gleason: If you take a plate or something and you drop it on the ground and it breaks into 100 pieces, that’s 100 artifacts. It’s not one artifact anymore.
Miller: So you can get up to 20,000 pretty quickly with shards.
Gleason: Yeah, shards and nails and things like that.
Miller: What kinds of stuff did you find that was most exciting for you? And maybe Jacqui, you can answer this first. What are some of the artifacts that really piqued your excitement, just as a person and as an archaeologist?
Cheung: It’s always interesting to find more personal items from the occupants. Also I’m interested in what stories that it tells about the occupants, like what kinds of food they may have been importing in Chinese ceramics, what kinds of bowls they were using, the patterns on the bowls. They can be dated to a certain time period.
The thing that I really loved about one of the archaeology units was we could really see layers of history preserved within that unit – of the entire town and that particular part of town. We saw the remnants of the burned building down at the very bottom of that excavation. We found a burned timber. Then we find the rubble, the post-fire rubble. Then we find the deposits from the first occupants of the current brick building, which was a shoe store and jewelry repair. We find little watch parts and shoe parts. Then after the railroad came in on 1st St., a lot of the businesses moved to 2nd St., and the 1st St. became more Chinatown. And then you start seeing artifacts from the Chinese occupation.
Miller: All of that you could see sort of layer above layer in just one area.
Cheung: Yeah, by the types of artifacts you find. The other really cool thing we see in there is the marker for the 1894 flood. We see this thick layer of silt from the flood and there’s 1894. You see the wine bottles that floated in on the flood just still stuck in the silt. And then the Chinese cleaned up their business and resumed.
Miller: Eric, we’ve just heard, almost in passing, what seems like a whole bunch of commercial lives for this one building, or this site, which had a couple buildings I guess, including a laundry and shoe repair and more. What have you been able to learn about what actually happened where we are?
Gleason: One of the things that’s really interesting is, a lot of times when we do archaeology, it’s hard to tie it into an individual – things are just kind of artifacts associated with this time period and stuff. Once we started doing the historic research, we could actually tie in some of these artifacts to specific people and specific times and things like that. So that was really fascinating as well. I don’t know, it’s been kind of cool to learn about the lives of the people and how this structure was used because it was not only just a Chinese store and a Chinese laundry. It was also a place where people lived. The census records indicate that at times there were up to at least 10 people living here. And the immigration records indicate that the kitchen of this building was used by some of the neighboring buildings as well, so they were serving a community benefit function as well.
Miller: Listeners may have heard the freight train passing by. I mean it’s 30 feet, at most, from where we’re standing right now. It’s right in front of the front of the building. Jacqui had mentioned that when the railroad came in, things changed significantly in terms of where different people lived. What exactly happened? What did the railroad mean for The Dalles?
Gleason: Having a railroad right outside your front door was seen as kind of a detriment to most of the commercial businesses, so most of those moved up to 2nd St. and 3rd St.. Then 1st St. was more of a transient person’s location, so there were still quite a few hotels down here at that time. But then, also, the Chinese had all been kind of scattered throughout town. Along 1st St., most of the time there had been a Chinese laundry associated with each of the major hotels. After the 1880s, then it all became more concentrated until it was pretty much, most of the Chinese community was here at this block.
Miller: So this became Chinatown. And partly it seems because it was undesirable for people with more political power or more means.
Gleason: Yeah, I think that’s an accurate description.
Miller: What’s the rough timeline for when that ended? If in the 1880s this would have been a thriving, at least one block Chinatown, when did that change?
Gleason: What’s now called 1st St. was originally platted as Main Street in The Dalles, so it was the main commercial street. It had the widest street, it had the widest sidewalks, and it was kind of the commercial destination. When all that shifted, then this changed into the Chinatown. And it was a Chinatown pretty well established into the 1920s. Then it just slowly became less, as the residents aged and most of them either moved to Portland or moved back to China or passed away here. The last commercial Chinese business here closed its doors in, I believe, 1941 when the owner passed away. That was the Chew Kee and Company Store which was just next door.
Miller: There are some posters here – big blown-up portraits of people and names and dates. Lee Joon Kue 1913, maybe 1 year old or 2 years old. Lee Joon Kue, maybe their mom. Who are these people?
Gleason: Those are the same person, so that was Lee Joon Kue when she first came to The Dalles or it might have been when her family traveled back to China. Then the lower one is when she re-immigrated into The Dalles. She was born in the U.S. so she was a U.S. citizen. Then her family went to China and then, when she got to be a certain age, she moved back to the United States. Those are all from the Chinese Exclusion Act documents, which are up at the National Archives. They had a file on her, and those are both photos from her file because they were trying to ensure that she was the same Lee Joon Kue from 1913 and 1935. They were comparing her baby picture to her adult picture and trying to make sure she was the same individual.
Miller: For the reason, to make sure that they would actually even let her in, they had to ascertain that she was a citizen.
Gleason: Right, that she was a citizen.
Miller: Jacqui, I’m curious, as a Chinese American person yourself, what this whole project has been like for you personally. I mean, this is obviously of deep professional interest; you are an archaeologist. I imagine that there’s also a personal interest here.
Cheung: Yes, it is a personal interest in that I like understanding how the people in this community lived and the struggles that they faced coming to a different place and establishing businesses and also how they related to the larger community. I myself am technically a first generation American, came when I was a year old. But actually my grandparents had come to the United States pretty early on and then moved back to Hong Kong to go to school and get married and things like that. So, I feel that relationship of how those people also worked and tried to establish families and businesses.
Also, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted a lot of the things they could and couldn’t do. Like, if you were a laborer, you had to meet somewhat strict requirements to be able to travel back to see your family: You needed to have a certain amount of money in the bank, and you were not allowed to bring your family or your wife to the United States. If you were a merchant, which required a lot of financial investment, but also it could be sometimes a little more difficult because it was difficult to get work in those types of roles. So that was a big commitment, to be able to more freely travel back and forth to see your family and also to be able to maybe eventually have your family come over. Those were struggles and strategies to try and figure out how to make that work. It helped me also understand a little bit about my great grandparents and how they had to navigate that system as well.
Miller: Going forward, how do both of you hope to communicate the history of Chinese Americans and Chinese people in The Dalles, and what role will this building – your building – play in that? Jacqui, what are your hopes for what this building could do in terms of education and preservation?
Cheung: I think right now, even as a work in progress, it has been a great way to tell that story because people are interested in it. Eric has put some interpretive signs outside, and I meet people who say, ‘Oh I walked by and read the signs, but I always wanted to look inside.’ If we’re there, we’re happy to have people come in and look around and answer questions. Sometimes we have open houses for the community or through the Historical Society. We’ve reached out to the rest of the community as well and hopefully to people throughout the state.
Miller: Eric, what are your hopes?
Gleason: When we bought this place, I had convinced Jacqui that I had a five-year plan to get it all done and all fixed up and everything. And we’re going on 20 years now. So it’s kind of morphed over time. My original idea was to use the basement area as a shop and storage and then rent this area out. But as we’ve learned more about the history, we’re trying to think about how we can integrate that into the re-use of this building.
Miller: Eric Gleason and Jacqui Cheung, thanks very much.
Gleason: Yeah, thank you.
Cheung: Thank you.
Miller: That was the archaeologists, Eric Gleason and Jacqui Cheung talking about the former Wing Hong Hai Company store building that they bought in The Dalles’ downtown in 2000.
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