Chinese in Southern Oregon
Written by: Jan Wright
Southern Oregon University archeologist Chelsea Rose, speaking of the early Chinese families who came here during the nineteenth-century gold rush and railroad eras, states that they left no descendants behind in the Rogue Valley. One of the major reasons for that is Oregon’s Chinese Exclusion Laws enacted in 1882 effectively outlawed the long-term presence of people of Chinese descent.
It would be easy today to overlook the fact that Chinese lived here at all if it weren’t for a few place names (like China Gulch) and a dozen or so photographs taken by Peter Britt. Most of the distinctive material items such as hand-painted bowls, pipes, soy jars, and tools with inscribed Chinese characters have come to light in bits and pieces that archeologists have dug up with their trowels. According to census records, Jacksonville had the largest population of Chinese in the Rogue Valley which featured its own Chinatown. Archeological digs in the area along California Street where Chinatown once was have yielded many intriguing artifacts.
As with other immigrants to North America, the reality of life in Southern Oregon was different than they had envisioned when they set out from their homes. The Chinese (mostly men) came in organized groups expecting to work. They answered to a boss who made sure they were fed, housed, and paid for their work. Many labored on large projects, building railroads, constructing buildings, and digging ditches. Others scoured the mines for minute pockets of gold that white miners had left behind. Some even became cowboys and ranch hands in isolated spots in Oregon. After major projects like railroads and construction were finished, many Chinese immigrants established their own businesses–laundries, restaurants, stores–while others became cooks for private families.
In addition to difficult and exhaustive work, the Chinese faced the kind of racial discrimination and violence that most people would not tolerate today. White Americans had the same complaints about the Chinese as they did about other minorities: they did not assimilate, they spoke their own language, they sent much of the money they made back to China, and they were not Christian. It was not legal for Chinese (or other minorities) to own property in Oregon, their mining companies and businesses were heavily taxed, their living quarters were segregated from the rest of town, and they faced frequent episodes of derision and violence.
Southern Oregon Historical Society has a collection of Chinese artifacts and some archival documents that illuminate the daily lives of Chinese people who immigrated to Oregon. It is worth checking out the many objects and paper traces at www.sohs.org. Search for “Chinese” on both the Mega Index in the Research tab and the Online Catalog on the Collections tab. You will see incomparable embroidered clothing, gaming pieces, pipes, bowls, tools, money, jewelry, and musical instruments. You can also find linked articles from SOHS website illuminating the lives of Oregon’s Chinese residents, as well as individuals like Gin Lin and Wah Chung, in the past issues of the Table Rock Sentinel and Southern Oregon History Today.