Monday, December 1, 2014

The Pekin Noodle Parlor: Not a Brothel!

Butte’s Chinese community settled on the block bordered by West Mercury, South Main, West Galena, and Colorado streets in the late nineteenth century. Dwellings, club rooms, laundries, restaurants, and stores selling Chinese goods crowded its thoroughfares and alleyways. Butte attorney F. T. McBride built the Pekin Noodle Parlor building at 117 South Main on speculation in 1909. Hum Yow moved his Mercury Street noodle parlor to the second floor of the new building and soon owned the property.

Upstairs noodle parlors were common in urban Chinese communities, and the Pekin’s central stair and neon sign has long beckoned both Asian and Euro-American customers. Close proximity to Butte’s once-teeming red light district has long fueled local legends about the Pekin. Online reviews of the restaurant unfortunately label it a former brothel because of its seventeen curtained booths. However, these booths were a fixture in Asian restaurants across the West and simply offered diners privacy. Hum Yow’s Chinese Goods and Silks and G. P. Meinhart’s sign painting business originally occupied the two storefronts. A gambling casino operated in the basement from the 1910s to the 1950s. It was a business and family home and never housed prostitution.

For more than a century, the curtained booths in the Pekin Noodle Parlor
have provided private dining and nothing more.
Hum Yow and his wife Bessie Wong—both California-born first-generation Chinese—raised three children in the family living quarters in the building and housed immigrant lodgers as well. While it is true that the building has a basement entrance to Butte’s underground tunnel system, these tunnels were designed to provide steam heat to downtown buildings and are not what many call “Chinese tunnels.”  Butte’s tunnels sometimes provided a means of delivery for food and messages as well as steam heat, but they were not built by the Chinese nor were they exclusively used by them. (Read more about mythical “Chinese tunnels.”)

Butte's Pekin Noodle Parlor is Montana's oldest Chinese restaurant still operated by the same family.
(1979 HABS/HAER photo by Jet Lowe, Library of Congress.)
The Hums retired to California in 1952 and several more generations of the family have maintained this landmark business. It is Montana’s oldest family-operated Chinese restaurant.

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