Mai Wah: Remembering the Legacy of Chinese Immigrants in Montana

Items packaged for sale or use in a pharmaceutical company sit as they did in 1942 when the Chen family’s Mai Wah store closed abruptly. (Daryl Ehrlich/Daily Montan)

The Mai Wah Noodles and Chop Sui sign atop the building on West Mercury Street is printed in large black and white lettering, a visual and lasting reminder of what was once home to one of the largest Chinese communities in the interconnected West.

But the building stands where the people are no longer there.

The bulk of Poti’s once thriving population, estimated at more than 1,000, disappeared from the mining town around the time, if not earlier, of World War II. Many families struggled in the 1950s, but as mining declined, people also left to find more plentiful and less dangerous work.

Wah Chong Tai Mercantile is next door to Mai Wah, with merchandise still packed, prepackaged, and ready for sale. Small signs translate merchandise ranging from shark fin to tea. The store was closed abruptly in 1942, likely a victim of rationing, growing fear of foreigners and a shift to a wartime economy.

Cases include traditional Chinese medicine items, including king flower, forty, and shark’s fin.

The Mai Wah Society operates a museum that documents the rise of Chinese culture in the West and chronicles its demise. It tells of a thriving community that has contributed to its mining workforce, and it also runs one of the most popular restaurants in all of Butte with many Chinese dishes that are just as familiar today as they were 100 years ago. On the second floor of Mai Wah are huge wood-burning stoves and giant pans serving hot noodles almost around the clock.

Pat Munday, Mai Wah board member and former president of the association, tells us about a time when Mai Wah Press produced food not only for the Chinese community, but also for restaurants in the Italian Bute neighborhoods, which also needed pasta.

The museum serves as a reminder of the once more diverse West, driven by the need for cheap labor. The museum is across the street from the home of one of Butte’s most popular restaurants, Pork Chop John’s and Pork Sandwich, and is close to any government food besides steak. And it was not too far from the neighborhood where Finnish immigrants lived.

Ironically, the museum’s remote location and left untouched for years has conspired to make it a cultural treasure.

For example, the statue of Guan Yu is one of the earliest examples of a Chinese Buddhist deity, although it likely dates back to the 1880s. But in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in China and the elimination of religious artifacts, many statues and temples dedicated to him were destroyed.

“People, especially tourists from China, are crying to see Guan Yu,” Munday said.

Another exhibit showcases the various attempts, particularly in the American West, to persecute Chinese immigrants, who are often criticized as anti-assimilative.

However, Munday explained that whether it was through congressional exclusion laws that expressly bar many Chinese immigrants from jobs or naturalization, he said many have come to America to work to send money home to support a poor, war-torn country. The destructive opium drug trade.

Although places like Denver and Rock Springs, Wyoming, were known for bloody uprisings against Chinese immigrants, Butt often opposed such exclusionary measures, despite calls for a boycott of Chinese companies from various unions.

However, Poti’s Chinese were also part of larger world affairs, and the Mai Wah Museum chronicles that – including membership in the Imperial China Reform Society, which sought to overthrow the widow Empress Cixi.

The Mai Wah Noodle House and Wah Chong Mercantile on West Mercury Street in Butte. To the right of the building is the “China Alley”, a road for the city’s Chinese residents. At least one person was killed there. (Daryl Ehrlich/Daily Montan)

The Mai Wah Society also preserves the ways in which the Poti Chinese assimilated into the city’s rich culture, despite the hostilities found in many western cities. Chinese New Year, like many things in Puti, has always been celebrated with a party and a parade. Some of the workers worked in the mines, while others worked as respected physicians, practicing both Western and Chinese medicine.

For example, the famous Butte doctor Huie Pock has been trained in both America and China. He had two clinics, one for white residents and one for Chinese.

In the red brick building worked more than 40 different vendors and merchants, selling goods, food and groceries to mostly Chinese customers, but others as well. Even today, hardly an inch of space is used.

“While thousands of Chinese residents lived in Montana during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, few traces of their presence remain. The memory of these residents, so critical to the development of the region, is preserved,” said Board Member Mark Johnson. , preserved, and interpreted by the Mai Wah Society.” “Through the efforts of the Mai Wah Society, visitors to Putti can discover the diversity of Montana at its founding and appreciate the contributions and experiences of Chinese Montana residents.”

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