East meets West

In its early days, Ashland had a Chinatown whose residents celebrated the Chinese New Year with music, feasting and fireworks — an event that some businesses in the Historic Railroad District would like to bring back, starting with exhibits at First Friday art walk this week.

The Chinese, most of whom worked on building the railroad in the 1880s, celebrated their New Year with "a grand musical entertainment, firecracker cannonade and general feast," according to an 1894 story in the Ashland Daily Tidings. It added that an ear-numbing 150,000 firecrackers were set off and that hundreds viewed the celebration and ignored a health department official trying to break it up.

That's the spirit — minus the fireworks, now outlawed in town — that the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum on Fourth Street hopes to bring back with its exhibit of photos and artifacts titled "Seventy Thousand Firecrackers: The Story of Chinese New Year in Victorian Ashland."

Museum director Victoria Law will speak at the museum at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14, about the Chinese New Year and culture here.

Gallerie Karon, also on Fourth Street, will display Chinese art, textiles, puppet, jewelry, sculptures and antiques in a show called "East Meets West 5."

Both venues are in the heart of old Chinatown and are seeking to build interest for an annual celebration with marchers and a dragon in coming years, Law said.

"It was such a big event," said Law, though Tidings articles bear out a "very racist" attitude toward the Chinese. Most returned to their native China after the railroad was built. Eight Chinese were buried locally, but with unmarked graves.

Using a history intern from Southern Oregon University, Law has found several Tidings articles, including the one in 1894 noting fireworks were used "to drive the devils away ... a bombardment of the emissaries of Satan." Then the Chinese feasted on "many rarities, stewed skunk and mushrooms, baked birds' nests galore and many other delicacies prized by the Chinese," the paper said.

The year before, the Tidings wrote a story that the Chinese "made a great fuss ... drew a large crowd of spectators ... touched off 70,000 firecrackers ... handed out fiery liquors and rancid sweetmeats in liberal quantities to the people who would have them."

In her talk, Law will describe a strike by Chinese workers against Southern Pacific Railroad, a ban against immigrants from China, acquittal of a man for killing a Chinese man who "went crazy" while on opium, and baptisms of Chinese who "want a Christian sign put on them."

In her research with Ashland cemeteries, Law has found the names of eight Chinese likely buried here from 1905 to 1924. The remains of other Chinese who died here were sent to China for burial, she said.

The museum is working to get memorial stones for the graves, including one for the best documented, Gin Tie, infant daughter of Wah Chung, also called "Jim the Grocer." In her research, Law found a Southern Pacific Bulletin magazine from 1925 with a feature on Wah Chung's 42-year career as labor agent for the Chinese in Ashland, Portland and Salt Lake City. Wah Chung's two-story market was located on A Street where the Ashland Railroad Museum is today.

The Bulletin article lauds Wah Chung's work, saying his crews "have long been noted for their loyalty and length of service ... very proficient in their track work."

In her lecture, Law will note the Tidings was progressive in its treatment of minorities compared to other newspapers, such at the Jacksonville Democratic Times, which wrote of the Chinese New Year, "A considerable quantity of pork, poultry, etc., is being consumed by the average Mongolian, to say nothing of the 'blandee" (brandy) he encases."

The Times also expressed thanks for the end of the "infernal din" of fireworks and criticized Ashland's Presbyterian Chinese Mission School for "the outbreak of Christianity among the heathens."

"The Tidings in these times was still a little racist, but became more and more appreciative and tolerant of the Chinese as time went on," said Law. "Through the vision of the past given by the Tidings, we can see glimpses of early Ashland and the unique local newspaper it has always been."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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