Chinatown and Japantown
From the 1870s through the 1910s, the entire Willamette River waterfront was the city’s harbor, an extended area now called Old Town. By the 1870s the more northerly neighborhoods of Old Town, roughly bounded by NW 2nd and 4th Avenues and Burnside and Everett Streets, became known as Chinatown, an enclave of historic redbrick buildings that was home to Chinese and Japanese immigrants who came to Oregon seeking work and then made their homes here.
Portland’s historic Chinatown is nowhere nearly as vibrant as those in Seattle or Vancouver (the 2000 census found no Asian-born people living in Chinatown’s zip code), though it was once larger than either. Chinatown still has about 20 Chinese American–owned businesses, including a number of restaurants; several are worth stopping in for 1930s time-warp decor and decent Americanized Chinese food.
The first Chinese immigrants moved to Oregon in the 1850s, working at manual labor first in lumber camps, gold mines, and later on the railroads. Many eventually settled in Portland’s Chinatown, where they operated stores, laundries, and other businesses. Then as now, the presence of low-paid “foreign” labor was seen as a threat by many European-bred Americans, and the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented further immigration to the United States from China.
At its peak, around 1890, Portland’s Chinatown had a population of around 5,000, second in size only to San Francisco’s. Of course, the need for inexpensive labor remained after the anti-Chinese immigration law took effect, and labor recruiters began to tap workers from Japan, who could legally immigrate.
As the Chinese in Chinatown grew old or moved on, they were replaced by Japanese people, and Chinatown became Japantown; by 1940, Portland’s Japantown had over 100 Japanese-owned businesses and a population of some 3,500 Japanese and Japanese-American residents.
Portland’s thriving Japanese community came to a sudden end in 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, leading to the evacuation and internment of thousands of Japanese-American citizens. Almost overnight, Japantown was a deserted ghost town. With all the Japanese gone, Chinese businesses moved back in, and the area once again became known as Chinatown; but in many ways, this neighborhood has never recovered. (Today’s center of Asian population is out along SE 82nd Avenue.)
Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center
For insights into Portland’s immigrant Japanese community and the internment, visit the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center (121 NW 2nd Ave., 503/224-1458, www.oregonnikkei.org, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Tues.–Sat., noon–3 p.m. Sun., $3 donation welcome), in the heart of old Japantown; it is one of the most fascinating small museums in Portland.
Presented as a gesture of goodwill from the Chinese community to the city of Portland, the colorful Chinatown Gate (W. Burnside St. and SW 4th Ave.) is the largest of its kind in the United States and marks the entrance to historic Chinatown. Dedicated in 1986, the Chinatown Gate comprises five roofs, 64 dragons, and two huge lions. Notice that the male lion is on the right with a ball under his foot, while the female has a cub under her paw. Also note the red lampposts along Chinatown streets. These are traditional Portland gaslight posts painted red, but they have the street names on them written in Chinese.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel