Friday, October 22, 2021

OHQ Teases Winter Issue with Sung Lung Laundry in 1889

The image of the Sung Lung Laundry on Court Street appears at least twice in the Library's historic photos collection (here and here), and you may have seen it in other contexts as well. Relatively speaking, it's often reproduced, and even a little iconic.

Sung Lung Laundry 1889 - via twitter

The Oregon Historical Society tweeted out another instance of it this week, and if you click all the way through, it appears to be the highest resolution scan of them all. Maybe you've already figured out where it was exactly, but if not, here it is placed on a map of early Salem.

Sung Lung Laundry at 105 Court and angle of photo
Reed Opera House on left
1888 Sanborn Map, Library of Congress

And the approximate view today.

Paulus building in pale lavender on left (streetview)

On the Paulus Building, which replaced the laundry, the Downtown Historic District Nomination says:

The Paulus Building contributes to the evolving history of Salem's commercial district. It achieves significance as a fine example of the Commercial style of architecture and for its association with local contractor Christopher Paulus, who constructed several commercial buildings in Salem. Other known Paulus buildings are either no longer standing or substantially altered. Constructed by Paulus in 1907 as a rental property, this building replaced two small one-story wood structures: a Chinese store and a Chinese laundry. Paulus removed both, and erected his new brick building located on one of the first paved streets in Salem. The building is substantially intact on the exterior and throughout the interior.

In our historic preservation framework, we valorize this second-generation of redevelopment, and sometimes understand the structures it replaced as anonymous things of less consequence. Even with the word "evolving," in those historical assessments we flatten out the history and do not give enough weight to change and dynamism.

Sandwich board detail

In the photo was also a sandwich board advertising a circus, and it is possible to date the image, not just to 1889 like the Library captions, but more specifically to early April 1889.

April 15th, 1889

April 15th, 1889

What is the Extent of Chinatown?

One thing that is a little interesting is that this block face on Court Street has not generally been considered a part of "Chinatown." 

But in no small part because until recently we haven't been very interested in any detailed sense or history of Chinatown, there is a lack of clarity on it. And currently the Grey-Belle/Thielsen building at 440 State Street and its history also seem to be running some interference with the reading of sources.

In 1888 its center, as signified by the number of buildings tagged "Chinese," was clearly on the north side of State Street, between Liberty and High. But Chinese residents and businesses were not just confined to it.

Chinese laundries at outlined stars

The 1888 Sanborn detail maps list five or perhaps six Chinese laundries in four different places around the downtown. (Indicated with the outline stars.) Half of them are directly across State Street from the concentration of dwellings tagged Chinese at that time.  (The solid star. You may recall also the laundry in the Bennett Hotel, which burned down in 1887.)

Block 21 downtown - Marion County Assessor

Later in 1903 when Council declared "Chinatown Condemned," and "old eyesore must be destroyed," they focused on "the west half of block No. 21, known as 'Chinatown.'" That's the same area as in 1888.

Library display showed block 20, not 21

For an exhibit at the Library a couple of years ago, they cited that 1903 article about Council action on block 21, but showed a clip from a Sanborn map of block 20. That's probably a partial consequence of the 440 State Street building, which is in block 20. It's not wrong to include parts of block 20, but it's also not the best illustration for the condemnation action and article of 1903, which is explicitly about "the west half of block No. 21."

In one of the stories on the recent alley naming project at Salem Reporter, they claimed a much larger extent, writing

Alley 7, now named George Lai Sun Alley, is bounded by State and Ferry Streets and was once the center of a vibrant six block Chinatown in Salem.

That alley is on the south side of State Street, in block 20 like the image from the Library exhibit. 

But six blocks? That contemporary assessors map shows four blocks. Six blocks is a lot of downtown! The 1903 article again suggests a focus on a half-block with some outlying dispersal.

Over time there does seem to be a drift south and east, from Liberty to High, and north of State Street to south of it. We may have an overly static notion of boundaries, and need to consider more flexible or ragged boundaries, and boundaries that change over time.

Attending More to Connotation and Context

Above all, right now we may still working with a notion of Chinatown that is primarily an expression of Anglo wishes, interests, even projection. In this context of the alley names and with a certain geographic exaggeration, "Chinatown" may be more marketing hook than historically informed judgement.

It would be especially interesting to know if Chinese residents had any notion of their own about a "Chinatown." In our English sources from Salem, the word has relentless negative connotations. Even though now we are trying to reclaim the word, to revive and retell a neglected history, and to settle on it some new valences, it may be we need to attend more fully to original and mainly derogatory contexts.

A through-line of dirt and menace, 1890, 1903, 1921

A restaurant note from 1919 uses the rhetoric of invasion, eradication, and displacement:

Invading Salem's Chinatown with American home cooked meals and service, the Fern Cafe has made its appearance near the Oregon Electric station on South High Street....It is thought that this is the beginning of the movement which will eradicate the present ramshackle dwellings on this valuable site and result in the erection of a modern office building in this section of Salem's business district.

With that OHS tweet, teasing a new issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly, perhaps there is a piece in process on Salem's Chinatown and on the rediscovered shrine at the cemetery, and it will be great to read when it comes out. Hopefully it will give us a little more precision and also convey some sense of dynamism. Above all, we have been reliant on Anglo sources, modern and vintage, with all their biases and interests. Maybe some primary sources in Chinese will become available with the new research. You may recall brief notes on a trip to China to research burials and family associated with the shrine. We very much need more on those stories and that side of things!

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