Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Unearthing Chinese History

Distinctly Montana recently published my article on Montana's Chinese history. Here's a tidbit:

The story of Montana’s Chinese pioneers has almost entirely escaped the state’s written history. By 1870, Chinese comprised ten percent of Montana’s population, but by the mid-1950s, few remained. Their homes and businesses fell victim to urban renewal programs. Time erased their remote mining and railroad camps. Traces of their culture disappeared, and their stories have become the stuff of myth and legend. In 2008, Big Timber gave up some information about its Chinese residents.  University of Montana archaeology graduate students, led by Justin Moschelle and Chris Merritt, uncovered a Chinese restaurant and laundry next to a brothel. Historic maps confirm that Chinese businesses and a “female boarding house”—the euphemism for prostitution—operated in the neighborhood in the early 1900s. Western red light districts and Chinese settlements, both housing outcast populations, were often adjacent. Volunteers working on the Big Timber project unearthed 35,000 artifacts, which comprise Montana’s only known Chinese deposit of the 1930s and 1940s. Among the artifacts are shards of pottery and porcelain, a bluing ball used in laundry operations, Chinese game pieces, and one very curious item. Intentionally placed beneath the doorframe of the entryway was a domestic cat’s paw. Likely some kind of talisman, its placement remains a mystery.

The crew also accessed Big Timber’s tunnels, which locals insist are Chinese. But in Big Timber as in other communities, passageways dubbed “Chinese tunnels” provide convenient access or under sidewalk storage. While they might have been used by Chinese residents, others used them too, and nothing makes these passageways exclusively Chinese.

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