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Wah Chung and Ashland's Chinatown: Part 1

"The well known local capitalist:"He was described in 1913 as "the well known local capitalist"by the Ashland Tidings newspaper. Ashland's former Mayor Henry Provost had Chinese New Year dinner at his house in 1915. Who was he?

He was a Chinese man who, along with his family, became part of the fabric of early 20th century Ashland. He was known in Ashland as Wah Chung, which was the name of his business: Wah Chung and Company.

For some reason people found it easier to call him by his business' name rather than learning his Chinese name. That's why in all the quotes from the Tidings his name is Wah Chung. However, his birth name was Wong Quon Sue. Out of respect for him and his culture, in this article I will primarily refer to Wah Chung by his family name, Mr. Wong.

Here's another glimpse of Mr. Wong's social standing from a 1916 Ashland Tidings article about Chinese New Year. "The local celebration lacked some of the features of those of bygone years when the entire population of Ashland made a pilgrimage to Wah Chung's on China New Year and partook of Chinese nuts and candies and watched the fireworks."

Mr. Wong, the Businessman: Mr. Wong made his money and his place in the community as the Chinese Labor Contractor for Southern Pacific (SP) railroad, a position he held more than 42 years. He was still working full-time for SP at age 82!

Mr. Wong was responsible for hiring, feeding and taking care of Chinese workers who maintained a section of the SP tracks near Ashland and another section near Salt Lake City. How did he find time for all of this plus a family, a grocery store, a restaurant, a mine in the Applegate, and more?

Mr. Wong owned four lots in the railroad district. Three of them were at the corner of A Street and 2nd Street, the historic center of Ashland’s Chinatown. He built a new two-story house there. Carpenters were putting the finishing touches on the house just in time for his 1901 wedding to “a San Francisco belle of China town.” A newspaper article described his house as having electric lights, a small but beautiful bedroom, and all modern conveniences.

Mr. Wong owned a two-story Chinese grocery store on A Street next to his house. In addition to serving the local Chinese community, his store was a magnet for children in the railroad district. Elizabeth Carter remembers going to Wah Chung’s store with her father and brother to buy firecrackers.

Mrs. Wah Chung (Mrs. Wong) and the Children: Mr. and Mrs. Wong adopted a girl, Jennie, and several years later had a son, Sammy. They also had a daughter, Gin Tie, who died of cholera at 9 months of age. Victoria Kindell — who ran the Historic Railroad Museum in Ashland — located Gin Tie Wah Chung’s unmarked grave at the Ashland Cemetery and paid for a grave marker to be placed there.

Jennie and Sammy both attended public schools in Ashland. According to the Mail Tribune, Sammy “was a bright boy and was well liked by both teachers and pupils.”

Mabel Dunlap said that when Jennie was in elementary school, “Many of the children made fun of her and called her names. Probably because of my defense of the bewildered Chinese girl, and because of our friendship, I became a special friend of her family,” Mabel added. “I often went to Jennie’s home with her, and at times was asked to write letters for Mrs. Wah Chung, who could speak English but could not write it.” Bridging Two Cultures: The Tidings in 1913 wrote warmly of the doll Jennie brought to her elementary school fair. “A Chinese doll dressed and entered in a doll cab handsomely decorated with the Stars and Stripes and with the Chinese national colors, by Jennie Wah Chung, attracted much attention.”

I think this doll perfectly encapsulates the way Mr. Wong and his family were able to successfully bridge two cultures. On the one hand, Jennie had a Chinese doll. On the other hand, she entered it decorated with the Stars and Stripes. That made it hard to judge her as a “foreigner.” Yet she didn’t abandon her culture. Along with the Stars and Stripes, she included the Chinese national colors in the doll cab.

Mr. Wong seems to have been able to adeptly live this balancing act. He was able to befriend and gain the trust of the powerful families and institutions of Ashland. As Ashland business owner Henry Enders said, “Wah Chung was a perfect gentleman ... everybody trusted him.” He and his wife mixed socially with “the cream of the crop” in town, and he did things like drive his patriotically decorated car in Ashland Fourth of July parades.

Mr. Wong died in a Portland hospital in 1927. Tragically for Mrs. Wong (Mrs. Wah Chung), their son Sammy died only three months after his father, due to a drowning accident in the Willamette River. Jennie married and moved to Boston, while Mrs. Wong returned to China.

In conclusion, here is an upbeat entry from the Ashland Tidings of Dec. 14, 1916, that says a lot about the man Mr. Wong and his relationship with the Ashland community. “Wah Chung, popular Chinese merchant, made his yearly round last week, distributing Chinese lily bulbs to his merchant friends. The bulbs are supposed to have the peculiar property of bringing happiness and prosperity to those under whose care they bloom.”

In Part 2, I will focus on the Chinese community in Ashland in the late 1800s and early 1900s (and tell you why Chinese New Year was different in 1916).

Quote from: Dunlap, Mabel Roach, as told to Bernice Gillespie, “Local Woman Recalls Days of the Chinese in Ashland,” Ashland Daily Tidings, October 7, 1964

As his contribution to building community, writer and herbal health researcher Peter Finkle is walking every street in Ashland and writing an article with photos about every street. Visit WalkAshland.com to see and read about local people, history, yard art, architecture, gardens and more.

Southern Oregon Historical Society photoJennie Wah Chung with a doll (not her Chinese doll), date unknown.
Southern Oregon Historical Society PhotoMr. and Mrs. Wong and their daughter Jennie, date unknown.