August 13, 2015

Explore These West Coast Asian American Heritage Sites

What makes the six-story Panama Hotel in Seattle, one of our National Treasures, so special? We could start with the fact that, despite being built in 1910, it's remained remarkably intact over the years, and its basement houses the best surviving example in the U.S. of an urban Japanese-style bath house, or sento. It was designed by Sabro Ozasa, thought to be the first Japanese-American architect to practice in Seattle. And perhaps most powerfully, it still holds the belongings, like trunks, suitcases, and boxes, of Japanese Americans incarcerated in “relocation centers” during World War II.

While Asian American/Pacific Islander historic sites can be found all over the country, we’re taking cues from the National Park Service and highlighting a few West Coast examples that tell the story of centuries of Chinese-American and Japanese-American history.

Seattle’s Panama Hotel has continuously operated as a hotel since it was first constructed, and the first floor holds a tea room that’s open to the public.

We hope that if you’re ever in that neck of the woods, you’ll take the time to experience the powerful stories they have to tell. Make your way down from Seattle to Fremont, California, and check out these sites along the way.

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience – Seattle, Washington

At the heart of Seattle’s Chinatown Historic District sits this state-of-the-art museum in the circa-1910 East Kong Yick Building. Named for the first Asian American in the Pacific Northwest to hold elected office, the Wing Luke Museum, or “The Wing,” was founded to “preserve and share the experiences, histories, and contributions of pan-Asian Pacific Americans.”

The Wing Luke Museum houses artifacts and rotating exhibits chronicling the Asian-American experience in Seattle and across the country.

After the city of Seattle was reshaped and developed multiple times over the course of several years in the early 1900s, the two Kong Yick buildings (East and West) on the 700 block of Seattle’s King Street served as the catalysts for a new Chinatown, hosting a mercantile store, restaurants, and even a hotel. The museum moved to the restored East Kong Yick structure in 2006, after inhabiting a remodeled Chinatown garage for almost 42 years.

Visitors can experience a full reproduction of the Yick Fung Company Store, one of the oldest general stores in Chinatown, among other rotating exhibits exploring the Asian-American experience.

Kam Wah Chung Company Building – John Day, Oregon

Located in the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day, Oregon, and originally constructed as a trading post in the 1860s, this building was purchased in 1887 by two Chinese businessmen and served as a “commercial, social, and cultural center for the Chinese community in eastern Oregon” until the 1940s. It housed an informal medical treatment room and pharmacy, a general store, a library and a post office. Today, a museum located in the original building displays hundreds of artifacts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.

According to the National Park Service, “the collection of artifacts found in [this building] is considered one of the most complete records of Chinese herbal medicine and the pioneer life and culture of Chinese immigrants in the U.S.”

New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District – Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon’s Chinatown first came together in the 1870s, developing in a shorter amount of time than either San Francisco’s or Seattle’s Chinese immigrant districts. Wooden buildings were gradually replaced by brick and stone structures, housing apartments, restaurants, and community meeting spaces. Many Chinese businesses moved north to “New Chinatown” around 1895 after severe flooding by the nearby Willamette River jeopardized their current locations, and the center of the Chinese community soon followed.

The 1890s saw the migration of hundreds of Japanese immigrants to the Portland area, drawn by work at railroads, lumber mills, farms, and fish canneries.

Portland’s Chinatown Gate marks the entrance to the city’s New Chinatown Historic District.

A Japantown sprung up in close proximity to New Chinatown, with stores, apartments, hotels, and restaurants all bringing a slice of Japanese culture to the district. As more spouses and families took up residence in Japantown following the “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the U.S. and Japan in 1907, schools, churches, doctors, and grocery stores, among other amenities, soon followed.

U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island – San Francisco Bay, California

Located on the largest island in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island served as an active military installation during the Civil War and World War II. In 1905, 20 acres out of the island’s 740 were set aside for an immigration station by the federal government. The records don't give exact numbers, but estimates suggest that between 1910 and 1940, the station processed up to one million Asian and other immigrants, including 250,000 Chinese and 150,000 Japanese people, earning it the reputation of being the “Ellis Island of the West.”

Immigrants worked in gold mines and on farms, and many labored on construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Angel Island Immigration Station continued to operate until a fire burned the administration building on August 12, 1940.

Estimates suggest that between 1910 and 1940, the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay processed up to one million Asian and other immigrants, earning it the nickname the “Ellis Island of the West.”

Today, the U.S. Immigration Station Barracks Museum allows visitors to explore station’s grounds, including exhibits highlighting historic photographs, artifacts and a re-creation of immigration living quarters and interrogation rooms.

Niles Canyon Transcontinental Railroad Historic District – Fremont and Sunol, California

Just north of San Jose, California, this rail line through Niles Canyon to San Francisco was the final segment of the First Transcontinental Railroad to be completed in 1870, providing the first rail connection between San Francisco Bay and the rest of the United States. Thousands of Chinese laborers were employed by the Central Pacific Railroad Corporation and the Western Pacific Railroad Company, and its completion is considered one of the biggest engineering achievements of the 19th century.

The still-in-use railroad tracks through Niles Canyon are still on the original alignment that Chinese workers laid in the 1860s. According to NPS, “Niles Canyon is the only remaining railroad corridor entering the San Francisco Bay area that has not been substantially altered for modern transportation projects.”

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Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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