Looking at it today, you’d never guess that Portland’s Chinatown was once the second-largest on the West Coast.
Though it thrived in the 1890s, today the historic neighborhood’s past has largely vanished, apart from a few iconic reminders: the landmark Chinatown Gates, dedicated in 1986; a few decorative flourishes on historic building facades; the hilarious yet sincerely beloved neon sign for the Hung Far Low restaurant (here from 1928 to 2005), whose tiny dark bar was the ultimate hangout before or between downtown punk shows. More recently, the Lan Su Chinese Garden, opened in 2000, brought some new cultural life to the area. And now, after years of planning, Portland’s Chinatown finally has a museum dedicated to preserving its history.
The Portland Chinatown Museum’s core exhibit is an expanded version of “Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns,” originally a temporary exhibit that had a three-month run in 2016 at the Oregon Historical Society. That sparked the Portland Chinatown History Foundation and several other donors from the community to seek a permanent home for the contents of the exhibit – which finally formally opened in December. Portland designer Carey Wong, who set up the original exhibit, redesigned it to fit the new space, along with curator Jennifer Fang and Jacqueline Peterson-Loomis, executive director of the new museum.
Before its grand opening, the museum space hosted several other temporary exhibits. One consisted of photographs by Seattle-based Chinese-American photographer Dean Wong, who made a series of photos of, as he put it, “what’s left of Portland’s Chinatown.” Another early show, Descendent Threads, featured paintings and conceptual artwork by three Asian American artists, Ellen George, Lynn Yarne and Roberta Wong. And just before its grand opening, the museum hosted a staged reading of Lauren Yee’s comedic play about her immigrant family, King of the Yees.
For now, the collection is small, but the museum has taken on an outsize role in preserving a vanishing part of Portland history. The museum is open from noon to 5pm Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is US$8 (€7) for adults, $6 (€5.27) for seniors, free for children ages 12 and under. (127 NW 3rd Ave., 503-224-0008).
By Becky Ohlsen