This article was produced in collaboration with The Portland Chinese Times, a locally published, weekly Chinese-language newspaper that is an important resource for the community.
In the 1850s, the California Gold Rush attracted emigrants from Southern China to the American West, including Oregon. They fled the hardships of their homeland in search of a better life in the United States, mainly working in gold mines, coastal fisheries and railroads. The men who emigrated from China were not allowed to bring their families, due to strict American immigration laws, and were subjected to extreme racism and discrimination. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) was set up to protect these immigrants.
After the great flood in 1894, Portland was rebuilt, and many Chinese moved from what had been Chinatown, at Southwest Second Avenue and Oak Street, north side of Burnside, where today’s Old Town Chinatown is located.
By the 1900s, Portland had the second largest Chinatown on the West Coast, and 12 percent of the entire city’s population was Chinese. The buildings housed restaurants, Chinese opera theaters, grocers and herbal shops that catered to the Chinese population. Today, Portland’s Chinatown is a tourist destination rather than a Chinese enclave.
In the past decade, Chinese immigration to Portland has grown rapidly. The newer generations of immigrants come over as families, are more educated, and have economic power. Many live and work in the area between Southeast Powell Boulevard and Division Street around 82nd Avenue, which is considered the “New Chinatown.”
Another important piece of Chinese history in Portland is Block 14 of Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, which was specifically set aside for Chinese immigrants. In the 1900s, this was the final resting place for many of the Chinese immigrants who had helped build Portland. In keeping with Chinese custom, immigrants were buried in the cemetery for a time, until their bones could be dug up and returned to China to be reunited with relatives.
This tradition carried on for many years until the county decided to reclaim Block 14. In 1948, it was excavated with a bulldozer, the remains found were returned to China, and a building was erected on the site. In 2004, when Multnomah County planned to sell the property, Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery notified the Chinese community, and with the help of Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Oregon Historical Society’s records, an archaeological investigation was undertaken. In 2005, a team of archaeologists found two completely intact burials, which halted the county’s plan to sell the building. Multnomah County now plans to build a memorial garden on that spot to honor the Chinese immigrants who helped build Portland.