Portland’s historic Chinatown shows signs of revival

Multnomah County

New shops in Portland's historic Chinatown want to honor area's history and culture

Built in 1986, the Chinatown Gate in Portland stands at Northwest 4th Avenue and West Burnside Street. (Portland Tribune, Samantha Kar)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Towering over an intersection on the edge of downtown Portland, the colorful and extravagant Chinatown Gate welcomes visitors and serves as an authentic, symbolic structure of the city’s Chinese heritage.

But now the 33-year-old gate at the corner of Northwest Fourth Avenue and Burnside Street seems to be one of the last relics of a forgotten neighborhood.

From 1880 to 1943, and before being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, the New Chinatown/Japantown District was dominated by Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Chinese immigrants found refuge here when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed, prohibiting any Chinese workers from coming to America. Just over 40 years later, the Immigration Act of 1924 completely excluded all immigrants from Asia and placed further restrictions on the Japanese.

With the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent internment of Japanese Americans, political, economic and social factors led to the decrease of Chinese and Japanese residents and businesses in the district.

In recent years, the 10 city blocks within the district have experienced extreme development, drawing in a completely new crop of businesses, many of which have no ties to the neighborhood’s Chinese and Japanese history. Trendy shops like Deadstock Coffee, sneaker consignment store IndexPDX and streetwear boutique Compound Gallery have risen from the ashes of this historic neighborhood. But these new stores, along with the Lan Su Chinese Garden and Old Town Community Association, all express efforts to honor the past, preserving the present and incorporating the future in order to keep Portland’s New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District on the map.

The laundry business

One of the newcomers not only wants to honor the neighborhood’s history — he also shares it.

Christopher Yen joked about the name of his vintage sportswear and streetwear clothing store in Chinatown, Laundry PDX, because of the association laundry work has with his culture. Often, Chinese Americans and other immigrant groups are stereotyped as owners of those businesses.

LaundryPDX opened in May 2017 in a small garage tucked under the east end of the Morrison Bridge. In March it moved to a space more than three times that size in the historic Tuck Lung building on the corner of Northwest Fourth Avenue and Davis Street.

Naming the business Laundry felt right to Yen, who experienced “a continuation of that feeling moving into (the Tuck Lung building) that was last a Chinese grocery and restaurant in 1980.”

The Tuck Lung building’s hexagonal windows, red columns and tiled roof keep traditional Chinese architecture in the neighborhood, in the midst of rejuvenation nearby. (Portland Tribune, Samantha Kar)

Since Duck Lounge & Co. closed nearly 30 years ago, leaving the building vacant, the Tuck Lung’s ownership has changed multiple times. Now, the top floor is leased by Allied Health Services of Portland for a methadone clinic, and Laundry has taken up a portion of the first floor. An all-in-one social lounge, retail consignment store and barbershop called Produce Organics opened July 20 in the space next to Laundry PDX.

Stores like Laundry PDX have brought younger shoppers into Chinatown, Yen said.

“People are tired of shopping at the types of brick-and-mortars their parents grew up with, that they grew up with,” he said. “I think this place offers people something different. Depends on how you look at it, but this type of commodity of vintage clothing, generally the value that they hold, it’s not intrinsic but contextual.”

Yen said he feels his Chinese heritage motivates him to be an ambassador for this neighborhood — and its history and stories. Yen grew up as an aspiring writer, and he sees Laundry as the opportunity to tell his family’s story in a very different type of way.

Renovations underway

New, modern businesses like Laundry are welcome in Chinatown in the eyes of Helen Ying, who has run the Old Town Community Association for the past five years. The association is in the process of renovating the Chinatown gate. Despite receiving a few grants, members are currently looking to raise an additional $100,000.

The history of the neighborhood is what makes it unusual for Portland, Ying said, and it “needs to be continued to be embraced and highlighted, regardless of what’s actually there.”

“I think we definitely need to continue to support what’s already here and not let them disappear,” Ying said, “and look at how to attract more representation in the neighborhood.”

During a recent visit to the Lan Su Chinese Garden, two blocks from his streetwear store, Yen recalled not hearing the usual car honking and tourist chatter, but could still see “Big Pink” and the skyline. This scene reminded him of a different city: Tokyo.

“You have these ancient parts, preserved sites, public spaces, private spaces, but they’re all around and its modernity, but they can coexist and tell their own story,” Yen said.

Lisa James, executive director of the Lan Su Chinese Garden, is excited about the modernization of Chinatown because “vacant buildings contribute to extensive blight and unbalance in the neighborhood.”

The diversity of businesses in Chinatown, from coffee shops to take-out counters to streetwear stores, allows for the garden to have places to send their 180,000 annual visitors and advertise the neighborhood as a destination.

The garden is approaching its 20th-anniversary next fall and has long been a symbol and piece of China to a larger audience beyond the neighborhood’s 10 blocks and even the city of Portland.

There are only six authentic Chinese gardens in all of North America, with the Lan Su Garden doubling as an authentic botanical garden, with more than 270 species of plants that originate from China. James said there are plans to build a cultural center nearby.

Though Chinatown has changed, business owners and community members have made it their goal to preserve and treasure the valuable history along the way.

“There’s a way to redevelop a neighborhood without gentrifying it, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Yen said. “We’re trying to honor the character of this neighborhood, honor the history of this neighborhood, but build something new and tell new stories.

“As a Chinese American, it feels like important work to me and something that I’m actually, maybe, suited to do.”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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