On West Burnside Street and Northwest Fourth Avenue, an ornate archway awaits. Flanked by two fierce, bronze lion statues and topped with ornate depictions of dragons and mythical creatures, this historic gate marks the entrance to Portland’s Old Town Chinatown. While the district is not the thriving center of the Chinese American community that it once was, several spots here still offer a taste of that history.
Walk one block within these gates and you’ll discover the new Portland Chinatown Museum, as rich in history as the neighborhood it remembers. The museum documents stories of the Chinese immigrants who helped fortune-seeking pioneers build Portland from the muddy, unpaved ground up (on the traditional lands of many Native tribes already living in the area).
Know Before You Go
The Portland Chinatown Museum is currently open Thursday–Sunday, from noon–5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults and free for children age 12 and younger.
Portland Chinatown Museum
Old Town Chinatown can feel like a place where old meets new and east meets west. It’s in the small architectural details in the area, like the red and gold lampposts and the few buildings still topped with glazed roof tiles.
Mingled in with Portland mainstays like Ground Kontrol arcade bar and legendary drag revue Darcelle XV, members of this former Chinese enclave remain — even after many of the Chinese businesses, neighborhood organizations and residents slowly moved out. And thanks to the opening of the Portland Chinatown Museum in December 2018, the history of Old Town Chinatown won’t be lost.
Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns
The museum’s permanent exhibit, Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns, traces the impact of Chinese immigrants who sailed east to the western shores of the U.S. to build lives and communities in cities like Portland. A version of this exhibit was shown at the Oregon Historical Society in 2016, and its success was the impetus for Portland Chinatown History Foundation (a group of Chinatown elders who grew up in the neighborhood or who had family businesses there) to start thinking seriously about opening the museum. Jennifer Fang, Assistant Director at Portland Chinatown Museum, shared the sentiment many locals felt after viewing the OHS exhibit: “We [wanted] to be able to bring this show home to Chinatown.”
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Beyond the Gate is full of crisp black and white photos of 18th-century Chinese immigrants living in the very blocks of Portland that visitors now walk through every day — a reminder of how Chinese immigrants arrived in Portland with much to offer and were integral to the city’s founding. Creative replicas of a Chinese dry good store, medicine shop and an illicit gambling den full of artifacts are just a few of the exhibit’s highlights.
From there, the exhibit shows peaks and valleys of the lives of early Chinese immigrants. Many came to Portland in search of fortune after the West Coast gold rush and flourished as merchants, building homes in the city with Chinese language schools and a Chinese opera house. Portland’s original Chinatown was located north of the gateway and was the second largest Chinatown in the United States (after San Francisco) in the late 19th century. But, as Beyond the Gate documents, many Chinese Portlanders were eventually driven out of the city due to rising anti-Chinese sentiment and Chinese exclusion laws.
The exhibit ends with the work of Dean Wong, who has photographed Chinatowns across America and captured contemporary visions of Portland’s Chinatown. The museum is remarkable in that it’s documenting the very city blocks that surround it, bringing their history to life in a way that belies what we see now while strolling through the neighborhood.
Visiting the Portland Chinatown Museum
The Portland Chinatown Museum is currently open Thursday–Sunday, from noon–5 p.m. Check out their website for updates on traveling exhibits and events. And while you’re in the neighborhood, why not check out a few more Chinese attractions nearby? Old Town Chinatown is not a static artifact, but a neighborhood whose identity continues living on at these must-visit spots.
Lan Su Chinese Garden
A serene retreat in the middle of Portland, this lush, city block-sized garden offers a moment of peace from the city hubbub. Designed by artisans from Suzhou and modeled after traditional Chinese gardens, Lan Su is full of native Chinese flora and foliage, as well as artful architectural touches like stone mosaics, wood carvings, a sculptural grotto and a waterfall. The garden’s rich landscape changes with the seasons and special events are frequent, so return visits are highly encouraged.
Chinese Restaurants in Chinatown
A mainstay in Old Town Chinatown, Good Taste is a favorite among locals craving their favorite Cantonese comfort dishes. Located just beyond the Chinatown gates, the restaurant is known for its wonton soups, congee and roast pork — and for enticing drooling diners with roasted ducks in the window. Pro-tip: get an order of Chinese donuts, a.k.a. youtiao, to dip in a bowl of steamy congee.
Red Robe Tea House & Café
Step into Red Robe Tea House for cozy ambiance and a menu of fresh aromatic teas, including varieties like jasmine pearls, lychee black tea, chrysanthemum flowers and roasted Tie Guan Yin. Founded in 2011, the tea house is a newer addition to the neighborhood and is conveniently located right around the corner from the Portland Chinatown Museum. Pair your favorite tea with hot pot or noodle soup from the café’s food menu.
Located just a block away from Lan Su, Golden Horse is a great spot to dine after a visit to the garden. Golden Horse has been around long enough to see many of its Chinese neighbors move out and is one of the few remaining Chinese restaurants in Old Town. The lunch specials are a great deal and include popular Chinese American entrees like pork in Peking sauce, mapo tofu and cashew chicken.
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