An Early Chinatown Is Revealed Through The Discovery Of Artifacts Under A Port Townsend Shopping Mall -- A Culture Uncovered

Excavation of a basement beneath a Port Townsend shopping mall has turned up hundreds of reminders of the role Chinese people played in building that city - and the Pacific Northwest - a century ago.

Although the artifacts were probably throwaways 100 years ago, they provide a tantalizing look at daily life in one of the area's earliest Chinatowns - and even a hint of the sometimes violent intrigues in the trade of smuggling Chinese people and opium into Port Townsend from Canada.

Chinese laborers were originally recruited to the West Coast in the mid-1850s to help build railroads. When those projects were completed, many of the Chinese people found jobs in lumber mills, canneries or hop farms. They mined, fished, grew vegetables, ran restaurants and laundries. In Port Townsend, they moved a bluff above Admiralty Inlet that blocked the town's expansion.

``Water originally came right up to the bluff, with no room to build,'' said Bill Sperry who, with his wife, Kitty, owns the Port Townsend Antique Mall where the artifacts were found.

``The Chinese moved the water back. They used dynamite and high-pressure hoses to sluice away the bluff and make a beach. But nothing has been written about them. Even in the museum, they're barely mentioned.''

The Sperrys hope to remedy that. They plan permanent displays of the best of the artifacts at the mall. They're offering $100 for the best student essay on the history of Chinese people in Port Townsend.

Much of the excavated earth, still unsifted for artifacts, has been moved to where it is accessible to school classes.

Bud Kannenberg, a Port Townsend history buff who has studied the artifacts, estimates they date from about 1875 to 1910, after both the railroads and the Port Townsend bluff sluicing had been completed.

Kannenberg found old city maps that showed Chinese business buildings on the site. And Sperry said the artifacts seem to correlate with activities in those buildings: buttons and bits of cloth beneath a laundry, bottles beneath a food store and perfume and toilet-water bottles beneath a brothel.

``The buildings were on pilings in an area subject to flooding at high tide,'' Kannenberg said. ``It appears that when they wanted to get rid of something, they'd just walk out and throw it on the beach to let the tide take care of it.''

Regrading has put the old beach about nine feet below present-day Washington Street, which runs in front of the mall.

The artifacts include food and liquor bottles, rice bowls, a few coins, opium pipes, ceramic jugs, gambling buttons and several boar's tusks.

``They liked to drink wine, beer and ale, the cheaper liquors,'' Kannenberg reported. ``They ate primarily rice and were fond of pork. They undoubtedly ate fish although no fish bones were recovered.''

The boar's tusks and parts of boar's skulls indicated the use of that animal for food. Sperry said there were wild boars in the area, probably imported in the early days. But they had disappeared by the turn of the century.

Historians say Port Townsend's Chinese community was the only one in the Northwest to weather the anti-Chinese riots of the 1880s, spurred mainly by resentment over the Chinese willingness to perform hard work for low pay. Despite occasional harassment by hoodlums, Port Townsend's Chinese residents were never run out of town as happened in Seattle in 1886 and in many Northwest cities.

Chinese employees of nearby lumber camps or fish canneries, mostly single men, would visit Port Townsend to buy Chinese food or relax in gambling houses or opium dens.

The Exclusion Act of 1882, suspending importation of Asian laborers for 10 years, gave rise to a new industry - smuggling Chinese people from British Columbia.

It was a rough business sometimes. Chinese people would be gathered on islands near Victoria. When there were enough to make a run profitable, they'd be loaded in a boat that, in the dead of night, would head for a beach near Port Townsend.

If the boat was intercepted by United States customs officers, the Chinese people would be pushed overboard to get rid of evidence. Those who managed to swim to shore would walk into the town's Chinese community or to a Chinese-operated vegetable farm where they would be given help in finding a job.

Possession and use of opium was legal in the U.S. in those years. But there was a heavy import tariff, which made smuggling profitable. Tins of opium, refined in Victoria, were often in the smugglers' boats.

Port Townsend's old Chinatown is no more. Fire destroyed much of it in the late 1890s.

Kannenberg was puzzled at the absence of opium tins among the artifacts. But late in the project, one turned up beneath what had been the brothel.

And Sperry reported that a school class, searching the pile of excavated dirt, recently found an old bottle of medication manufactured by N.D. Hill & Sons, Port Townsend, Washington Territory. The pharmacy dated back to 1869, 20 years before statehood.

``These artifacts are a major find,'' Sperry said, ``and we feel it's important to have them on permanent display.''

Kannenberg added, ``What we have recovered is garbage which is not of much monetary value but a great historical look into how the occupants of this site lived their daily lives around 100 years ago.''