Lone Chinatown gate, with no one around. The gate used to be one of the most visited parts of Chinatown. Photo by Joseph Howitt.

Two decades ago, one of the driving reasons to visit Portland was our Chinatown. Restaurants like Hung Far Low and Golden Dragon were well known throughout the community, and Portland’s Chinatown is one of the oldest sections of the city. 

The history of one of the most popular Chinatowns in America stretches back to the 1800s, when immigrants moved to the West looking for work. Chinese families started to move south of Burnside, and eventually moved to the north end, into Old Town. With the removal of the Exclusionary Act (a law passed in 1882 essentially banning Chinese immigrants from moving to Oregon), Chinese people in Portland were allowed to own businesses and share their culture with the rest of Portland. Sadly, almost none of the original businesses that were in that area are still there today, as Chinatown is a shell of what it was two decades ago. With the high property taxes rising, and declining condition of Portland’s downtown, a large amount of foot traffic has slowly started to disappear. The historic sign of the once great Chinatown’s crown jewel, restaurant Hung Far Low, is one of the only relics left of the district, apart from Chinatown’s entrance gate. Native Portlanders have fond memories of that and other restaurants, and although it had its second run in the Jade District near 82nd, Hung Far Low closed in 2015. Many landmarks in downtown had historic backgrounds, such as Providence Park, once used as gardens by Chinese families. 

Crime, houselessness, rising rent, property tax, and many other things played a major part in the slowing of the Chinatown district’s popularity, eventually creating a memory of the historic area, instead of maintaining the image. A large part of the absence of business in general amongst Asian owned stores and restaurants could be due to the rise in xenophobia and racism targeted towards Asian American citizens, this past year. 

The key to bringing business back to the area is all in visitor-ship, and how much Chinatown is inserted into the image of Portland. Downtown got hit hard this past year, both financially and physically from the pandemic and protests, which resulted in many changes, with newer buildings and fewer tourists. One business that is still working to share the story of Chinatown is Portland Chinatown Museum, located on 127 NW 3rd Ave. To share his views and ideas on how to revitalize a historically rich section of Portland, Portland Chinatown Museum Co-Founder and former board member Terry Chung speaks on the ongoing issue. “The city is not going to help. Our feelings are that the city abandoned us, even though we are paying these taxes and money towards it,” Chung shares. One could wonder, is the city abandoning this area so the developers can come in and take over the properties? Old Town is one of the first things you see when crossing the Burnside Bridge, and with the buildings and businesses in need of help from the city, the owners have waited for years for something that might not present itself. “We see developers buying up the properties around here, and they aren’t doing anything yet,” Chung says. What’s the long term plan for this city? Does it want Chinatown to exist? These questions might sound critical towards city officials, however they are important to ask, as the current property owners left on their own in Chinatown right now are waiting for answers.

“Portland’s Chinatown was a vibrant scene in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and a lot of popular restaurants were here for everyone to come and see, but the city got involved in urban renewal. When that happens, you close the streets down. You take away the parking. What restaurant can survive without parking? That really was the death for some restaurants,” Chung explains. Being a co-founder, Chung has extensive knowledge of the history of Chinatown, and is hopeful that Chinatown can return to its vibrance, with introductions of many different museums and historical societies of multiple cultures, and share their stories with tourists from all over. “When people come to visit a city, it’s not the newest place they go to first, it’s the historic places,” Chung states. 

Many consider the new Jade District, around 82nd street, to be the “New Chinatown,” with the arrival of many restaurants and stores. However, the absence of history around that area is one of the many reasons why it is not in the debate of replacing downtown Old Town. A change in the demographics of the Chinese population in the late 1900s created the slow decline of the support of the local businesses, but as Chung proposed, “Portland has the resources to turn this 10 block radius into a cultural megastar, because it would be the only city that would have six different cultural sites or museums that could cater to the traffic that you would get from the convention centers.” His idea is to bring in the six cultures that were integral to the history of Portland, being the Chinese, Indigenous people of the Chinook tribe, Greek, Japanese, and Jewish museums or businesses around Old Town, to attract tourists from the convention center or around the downtown area.

This would completely change the amount of revenue and visitation from tourists. “When people go to visit other towns, they visit the historical sites; that is what the city should invest their money in, which will generate more restaurants, more bars, more stores that people are interested in. We have to keep people coming into the area,” Chung explains. “The four historical sites in Portland right now are Lan Su gardens, Japanese American Museum of Oregon, our Museum, and the Jewish Museums.”

The Portland Chinatown Museum always has new ideas that they are excited to bring to the Portland history buffs, and are encouraging anyone to participate in the historical Lion dance that happens around Chinese New Year.

Chinatown has seen tough times, but there is always hope to bring back life to the area, because people like Chung and others that work at the Portland Chinatown Museum are working to maintain its rich cultural history. So if you’re ever near Old Town with some time to spare, stop by Chinatown and help preserve one of Portland’s oldest neighborhoods.

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