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Before there was a Portland Chinatown Museum, there was the Old Town History Project. A multiethnic arts and history organization begun in 1999 by Dr. Jacqueline Peterson-Loomis and Prudence Roberts, the mission of the Old Town History Project was to collect oral histories, provide “insider” walking tours, and develop public art installations and community-based history exhibitions in Portland’s Old Town.

The short audio clips featured below are just a small sample of the wealth of oral histories collected by the Old Town History Project, which grew into a multi-year dialogue and collaboration with the elders of the Chinese, Nikkei, Jewish, Greek and African American communities who had lived and worked in Old Town.

To learn more about how the Old Town History Project helped form the Portland Chinatown History Foundation, and the Portland Chinatown Museum, visit our History page.

How did your family come to Portland?

Bertha Saiget

"A relative helped my dad get a job in the laundry at the Benson Hotel. He worked there until he was promoted to a kitchen helper and later to a pastry assistant. And at the end of his career, he was the head pastry chef at the Benson Hotel. At that time, he felt like he had reached the American dream.”

Read the transcript for Bertha's answer:

“The President Jefferson ship brought my parents to America in July 1923. My father’s family were landowners and they farmed the land. But with political unrest, civil wars, and poor economic conditions were the compelling reasons for them to cross the Pacific to come to America. 

My parents were sojourners, they had always planned to return to China when they made their fortune. But that never happened with the Japanese and Chinese war in China, WWII, and the communist takeover in 1949…their dreams of returning to the homeland were shattered. My dad entered the United States as a paper son…Congress had passed the Exclusion Act of 1882, which called for limiting the immigration of Chinese. And with this new law, the Chinese had methods of bypassing that law, and that is paper sons. My parents faced formidable, formidable obstacles in coming to America. They did not speak or understand the English language, had limited economic resources, and no marketable skills. Thus coupled with basic vast cultural differences and racial prejudice made assimilation to this culture difficult.

After dad’s arrival, he went to a church school to learn basic English. He learned some reading and writing and he spoke with an accent. My mother just had survival English. And that’s from her children. We did not live in Chinatown, we grew up…we live 12 blocks west from Chinatown and Chinese school. My dad rented an old house on 16th and Flanders. Employment opportunities were very limited for Chinese men. A relative helped my dad get a job in the laundry at the Benson Hotel. He worked there until he was promoted to a kitchen helper and later to a pastry assistant. And at the end of his career, he was the head pastry chef at the Benson Hotel. At that time, he felt like he had reached the American dream.”

Audio recording from PCM’s “Hidden Histories: New Light on Portland’s Old and New Chinatowns: 1851-1950” presentation (05/22/21).

Patsy Fong Lee

"My grandmother never came back. None of the other siblings ever came back. So he had to fend for himself when he was very young. And he only went through the third grade. But he spoke English well enough to get by."

Read the transcript for Patsy's answer:

“As I recall, my father was left here when he was six years old by his mother, because the people in Chinatown thought it would be best for her to take her children back to China after the father died…and take his body back to China. And they left my father at six years old to stay in Portland. And he didn’t have any other relatives. So he was going from one family to the other. 

My grandmother never came back. None of the other siblings ever came back. So he had to fend for himself when he was very young. And he only went through the third grade. But he spoke English well enough to get by. And he worked, moving back and forth from one family to the other…was very hard for him. But he did go to school. And eventually, when he was old enough, he then worked at whatever jobs that he could get. And I think one of the main jobs that he had at that time was working in a tailor shop…that was probably one of his first jobs.”

Norman Locke

“On my paternal side...my great grandfather came from San Francisco in the late 1800s, and my grandfather, Charles Locke, was a hops farmer in Newburgh, in Aurora, and a small businessman in Portland.”

Read the transcript for Norman's answer:

“My grandmother’s father came to Portland from San Francisco. His trade…he was a tailor, and his name was Joe Fong. He’s my grandmother’s father. He is buried up at the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery…and I don’t have his wife’s name, my great grandmother. And my mother’s parents are from Spokane, Washington. And my grandfather, my mother’s father, operated a women’s clothing store in Spokane, and he was a partner in a supper club. And Bing Crosby used to sing in the supper club before he became world famous…and Crosby writes about it in his autobiography.

On my paternal side…my great grandfather came from San Francisco in the late 1800s, and my grandfather, Charles Locke, was a hops farmer in Newburgh, in Aurora, and a small businessman in Portland. And his wife, my grandmother, was Yulia. That’s a French name. And she owned a lottery in Portland in NW Fourth in Chinatown. She also earned income from different women’s groups. They loaned each other money and got interest…it’s an old Chinese custom…might say 10 or 12 people get together and they’ll loan money and they pay it back in 10 or 12 months and then somebody else borrows. So she earned money that way. And in the 1930s, I was told she also traded, bought and sold foreign exchange at the US Bank. Very unusual. Even for somebody today. She was very brilliant. So anyways, my mother was Agnes Fong and she was born in Spokane, Washington. And she came to Portland in about 1927 to marry my father, Frank Locke.. And Frank Locke was born here about 1907 in Portland, and my mother was born in Spokane about 1909 and she was basically a housewife and my father was educated to be a CPA when he graduated from school, The requirements, the prerequisites, for a CPA was two years of apprenticeship with a CPA firm. And at that time, no one would have him as an apprentice because he wasn’t white. So he offered to work two years for no salary. And they still wouldn’t hire him. So he couldn’t be a CPA. So he ended up working in casinos, hotels and gambling establishments.”

Gloria Wong

“My father was born in China, and came over from Seattle in 1921. My mother was born in 1908 in Portland, Oregon. Her mother was born also in Portland, Oregon, in 1866."

Read the transcript for Gloria's answer:
“My father was born in China, and came over from Seattle in 1921. My mother was born in 1908 in Portland, Oregon. Her mother was born also in Portland, Oregon, in 1866.

My grandfather’s name was Chun Lun. He came to the United States when he was 15 years old…we figured it must have been about 1857. My grandmother’s name is Moy Yung. She was born in 1866 in Portland. Her parents were Mr. and Mrs. Moy Yook, who lived near the Chinese Theatre on Alder Street and Second Avenue. He had a store there called Hai Yuan. Chun Lun and Moy Yung were married October 12, 1882, and lived on Second and Oak. Sometime later, they had moved to a farm and had a hog ranch on Linton road, which is now called St. Helens road. They had nine living children at the time of the affidavit that was done November 6, 1907. The purpose of the affidavit we determined was to verify that all the siblings were born in Portland and were US citizens. “

Oral histories conducted by Dr. Jacqueline Peterson-Loomis, Sarah Chung, and Bertha Saiget.
Original audio recordings by Larry Johnson, unless otherwise noted.

Top image: Photograph of Lee Yoke and Hom Tien Shee, c. 1920s. Courtesy of Bertha Lee Saiget.

The man pictured here came to the United States as a paper son in 1923, posing as a merchant named Lee Yoke. Civil wars, natural disasters and famine in China compelled Lee and his wife Hom Tien Shee to acquire falsified identities to gain admission to the United States. Despite language barriers and racial prejudice, Lee found work at the Benson Hotel and, with Hom, raised eight children in a small house west of Chinatown.