Portland Chinese-American History Walking Tour
By Gary W. Libby
Chinese people have lived in Portland since 1858. Unfortunately, most of the buildings in which Portland’s historic Chinese community once lived and worked are no longer in existence having fallen victim to urban renewal and the ravages of time. Therefore, we must rely on our imagination to picture what used to be.
This tour is linear and does not make a complete loop back to the point of beginning. It covers approximately 2 miles to the last site on the tour. The return distance to the point of beginning from there is approximately one mile. The complete tour takes about 90 minutes to do, including the time needed to return to the point of beginning.
1. Custom House Wharf
This walking tour begins on Portland’s historic waterfront at 1 Custom House Wharf.
The northern end of this clapboard building, located on the east side of the wharf beginning at the rear of the brick building which faces onto Commercial Street, was the site of Maine’s first known Chinese restaurant. Ar Tee Lam owned the restaurant which opened in 1880. Nothing is known of the restaurant’s name or cuisine. However, since there were only 9 Chinese men among Portland’s 33,810 residents at the time of the 1880 census, most likely the food served was overwhelmingly typical American with some highly Americanized versions of Chinese dishes such as chop suey. The restaurant closed about 1893.
Mr. Lam was also one of Maine’s earliest Chinese residents to become a naturalized American citizen. His application for naturalization was approved in the Cumberland County Superior Court March 3, 1876. He was also the first Chinese man to become a registered Maine voter.
When he registered November 28, 1891, Mr. Lam said that he had been born in China in 1837 and had lived in Portland for 33 years. He had previously voted in Portland. Prior to opening his restaurant he was a cigar maker and owned a tobacco shop at various locations on Federal Street from 1873 to 1879. On October 1, 1870 he pled guilty to “search and seizure,” a legal euphemism for bootlegging, and paid a $50.00 fine in the Portland Municipal Court. He apparently repented of such behavior and joined the Congress Square Sunday School on Christmas 1870.
Leaving Custom House Wharf, we take a right onto Commercial Street and head 2 blocks to Franklin Street where we turn left and walk uphill to its intersection with Congress Street.
2. Congress Street
The grassy area between the north and southbound lanes of Franklin Street on the north side of Congress Street was the site of Ar Foo Fong’s New Chinaman’s Tea Shop in 1871.
George C. Shaw, the founder of what became the Shaw’s Supermarket chain, was associated with a Guangdong tea merchant, Ar Showe. In 1860 Mr. Shaw opened a store, called the China Tea Company, at 135 Middle Street. He brought Ar Foo Fong to Portland to assist customers in choosing tea.
Mr. Fong wore traditional Chinese clothing while at work. His employer positioned him close to the store’s front window where he was in full view of passers by. He soon became the talk of the town. By 1871 Mr. Fong had opened his own store at 333 Congress Street. An 1874 advertisement for his store boasted of “A good assortment of Canned Fruits, Groceries, &c. Quick Sales and Small Profits.”
Now we head west on Congress Street opposite Lincoln Park where the First Baptist Church once stood at 353 Congress Street.
That church began its Chinese Sunday school, the second in Portland, about 1902 when Frank Chin Guey and a friend approached the church and asked to be taught the Bible and to be instructed in the English language. They were taken into the church’s Sunday school and provided with an instructor. Mr. Guey persisted in his studies of English and Christianity eventually becoming a member of the church.
As interest grew among Portland’s Chinese community, the church established a separate Chinese Sunday School which had about thirty-five members in July 1913.
At that time, Frank Chin Guey, who had owned a laundry in Portland for 12 years, returned home to Canton Province, China, to visit his elderly mother whom he had been supporting through his laundry earnings. Prior to his departure, the other members of the First Baptist Church’s Chinese Sunday School arranged a banquet in his honor which was attended by nearly 200 parishioners and friends. In addition to spending time with his mother, he planned to do missionary work. He expected to remain in China for about two years. He left his brother in charge of his Temple Street laundry while he was gone.
The members of the First Baptist Church’s Chinese Sunday school continued to host occasional banquets for parishioners and friends. In March 1916 about 200 attended a banquet in the vestry which was hung with the Chinese Republic’s flag as well as the American flag. The menu consisted of grapefruit, soup, and roast turkey with mashed potatoes and all the usual “fixings” followed by cold meats and salad topped off by desert and coffee. The Sunday School class then presented a program in which various members read psalms and sang in both English and Chinese.
The First Baptist Church’s Chinese Sunday School students and teachers also held an annual summer picnic at which they enjoyed sports and games as well as traditional Down East foods such as lobster and Chinese dishes. These picnics usually attracted about fifty participants.
By the time of World War II Portland’s Chinese community was in decline. Most of the laundries had closed and the First Baptist Church’s Chinese Sunday school followed suit in the early 1950s. The local Chinese ceased to have a communal focus.
Just a little farther west we reach the former site of the Second Parish Congregational Church at 373 Congress Street. This church housed Portland’s first Chinese Sunday School.
About 1880, Mrs. H. F. Crocker, who was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as well as the Second Parish Church, gathered together four or five of Portland’s Chinese laundrymen into the church’s Sunday school. In December 1885 the class numbered nineteen and hosted a social evening at the church vestry.
Thereafter the church took an active interest in the spiritual well being of Portland’s Chinese. Many Chinese used their connection with the church as an opportunity to learn English and to socialize with members of the larger society.
In 1887, the Chinese Sunday school students pooled their money and bought the church a communion table at a cost of about forty dollars. The church, which is now a Presbyterian church, continues to use that communion table, more than a hundred years later, at its new location at 32 Neal Street in Portland.
By 1888 the church had established a separate Sunday school for its twenty-four Chinese members with Miss Mary Baker as superintendent. Their average Sunday school attendance was about fifteen or sixteen. The contributions from the class, which amounted to between $30 and $40 a year, were devoted to aid in supporting a Chinese student at the theological school at Tung Cho, China.
Membership in the Sunday school did not necessarily result in church membership. In fact only a small number of the Sunday school students actually joined the church. At some time before the turn of the Twentieth Century the Second Parish’s Chinese Sunday school seems to have ended.
Continuing west on Congress Street we come to One Monument Square.
This modern building was the site of the United States Hotel which housed a Chinese laundry in the Congress Street end of its basement. This laundry existed from 1879 to 1903 under several owners.
Many Chinese laundrymen congregated here after closing their shops on Saturday evening and socialized among themselves into Sunday, their only day of rest. Their activities often included gambling. In the early 1890s, the Portland Police Department conducted several raids in which they arrested Chinese laundrymen and confiscated money and gambling apparatus.
The laundrymen followed other pursuits here. As early as 1891, Chinese laundrymen had formed a musical combo including fiddles, a form of pandeau pipes, and a banjo. The group’s evening rehearsals drew crowds to the sidewalk near the laundry. An article in the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier described the selections practiced as “of the native growth of China, wild, weird and peculiar.”
Walk south along the front of One Monument Square, cross Federal Street, and turn left between a row of 19th Century buildings and One City Center until you reach Free Street. Then turn right and head west on Free Street.
On the south side, 14 Free Street was the site of the Canton Low Restaurant between 1912 and 1920.
Shortly before Christmas 1916 the restaurant was the scene of a midnight fracas involving a couple of soldiers from Fort McKinley. As may be expected, the tales told by the participants differed in important respects.
According to the newspaper reports, the soldiers said that they had ordered and paid for their food but, before they began eating, they were ordered to leave. The restaurant employees said that the soldiers had entered the restaurant apparently looking for trouble and started an argument with a waiter.
Regardless of the cause, the result was a free for all in which dishes and flatware were hurled causing a deep gash in the hand of a waiter, Chin Hem. The restaurant employees set upon the soldiers with a baseball bat and hot pokers. In their haste to depart, the soldiers broke two windows and leaped through a glass door receiving cuts that required medical treatment following their arrest. They were convicted in the Portland Municipal Court of assault on Ling Fun, the restaurant manager. They were sentenced to 30 days in jail, fined $8.00, and assessed one-half the costs each for the damage done to the restaurant and its dishes.
Quong Lee had a laundry at 17 Free Street in 1886.
The north side of Free Street, now the blank wall of a parking garage, was once home to several Chinese businesses. The second floor of 23 Free Street was the site of Portland’s second Chinese restaurant, owned by Charlie Sing in 1903.
Like Mr. Lam’s Custom House Wharf restaurant, nothing is known of the cuisine served there although it, too, probably served typically Yankee food along with heavily Americanized Chinese dishes. Mr. Sing and his employee lived in a room on the third floor.
Mr. Sing’s restaurant, which was popular with soldiers and sailors stationed at the various forts around Portland harbor, generated significant controversy since the presence of that many service men attracted Portland’s lewd women and a reputation for rowdy behavior.
On August 31, 1903 Mr. Sing asked a soldier, who had been a frequent customer, and another soldier with him, to leave because they were making too much noise and causing a disturbance. The soldiers returned, one holding a revolver and the other carrying a brick which he threw through the door glass, fragments of which struck Mr. Sing in the face. He received about a dozen stitches from Dr. Leighton, the police surgeon.
A crowd of probably 200 gathered around outside, more than two-thirds of whom were soldiers and sailors and their lady friends, who “seemed to feel deeply hurt that they were not to be permitted to patronize this place last evening as usual.” Thereafter, the Portland municipal authorities took a dim view of Mr. Sing’s restaurant and eventually ordered it closed.
The Chee King Tong, located at 25a Free Street, was incorporated as a non-profit corporation in Portland, July 13, 1922, by Wong York, President; Chin Heung, Vice President and Treasurer; and Chin Hong, Secretary. The Directors were Wong York, Chin F. X. Yen, Chin Pung, Yan Toy Yee, Chin Heung, Chin Dong Tong and Goon Dong Fong. The Chee King Tong lasted until at least 1927.
There was a Chinese laundry at 27 Free Street from 1900 through 1927 and another at 29 Free Street from 1883 through 1908.
We proceed west on Free Street and take a right onto Center Street.
In the early 1900s, Center Street was a street of tenements which housed many ethnic groups, including single Chinese men and some Chinese families. 118 Center Street, in particular, on the western side about mid-way up the block, had a colorful reputation.
From the 1910s into the 1930s, the first floor housed a succession of Chinese owned tea and grocery stores. There was an opulent gambling den in the cellar.
On January 14, 1917 Portland Police Chief Daniel L. Bowen and Captain Stephen Cady acting on complaints and, using the ruse that they were farmers in town to see the sights, succeeded in gaining access to a luxurious club room where they arrested four men for gambling. Two of those arrested were from Lewiston, one from Portland and one from Boston.
In another raid, as the policemen approached the front Chinese curio shop, two Chinese men brushed by them and darted into the building’s hallway. When the police followed them, the Chinese men attempted to run through the rear door into the back yard. Captain Cady grabbed them. Chief Bowen opened the door which led to the basement and made his way into the club room there.
The room, which was handsomely decorated with silk and other Oriental fittings, was full of Chinese men, only two of whom were seated at a table covered with dominos and a mixture of Chinese and American money. The Chief arrested the two gamblers and ordered the rest of the men to leave the premises. The Chief called for a patrol wagon to transport the prisoners. When it arrived a crowd of about 300 had gathered on Center Street. The police confiscated the gambling paraphernalia.
Many Chinese men and a few Chinese families lived in the upper floors of the building over the early years of the 20th Century.
128 Center Street was the location of the Wah Lee Laundry from 1879 to 1885.
We proceed north and turn right onto Monument Square.
The building at 28 Monument Square, which is the location of the Public Market House, was the location of one of Portland’s earliest and longest lasting Chinese restaurants, the Oriental Restaurant.
The upper floor(s) of the building housed a boarding house for Chinese men who worked at the Oriental Restaurant and other businesses. The Oriental’s color scheme included dark mahogany trim, white curtains at the windows and green silk curtains hanging at the entrances of the twenty-one separate, private dining areas, each of which had a table for six covered by snowy linens. Each of these private dining areas had a push buzzer to summon the wait staff and an electric fan similar to those at the Empire.
A feature of the new restaurant was a hand carved teak table, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory, accompanied by two massive, hand carved teak and similarly inlaid chairs which were valued at more than $500. The restaurant was also graced by several tapestry designs in hand carved teak frames also inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory and valued at more than $500 each.
The syndicate engaged an orchestra and soloist for the restaurant’s grand opening. The restaurant’s layout had the pantry and coffee urns located at the rear of the street floor. The windows that opened onto Monument Square showcased costly Chinese jars set on magnificent teak wood stands. The kitchen, refrigeration, store room and a watchman’s room were located in the basement. Big crocks in the basement were used to sprout beans. Packages of Chinese teas were available for sale near the cashier. The Oriental Restaurant closed in 1938.
East a few buildings along Monument Square at Number 19 was the Pekin Company Restaurant which was managed by Chin Heung, who often served as the spokesman for Portland’s early Chinese community. The opening of the Oriental Restaurant resulted in the closing of the more plebeian Pekin Company Restaurant in 1917.
Doubling back and heading west across Center Street we reach the Maine College of Art building. In 1877, 14-year-old Sam Lee, an immigrant from China, opened Maine’s first Chinese hand laundry in a now long gone building in 1877. His laundry bore the generic name “Chinese Laundry.”
Crossing to the north side of Congress Street we go two blocks west until we reach Oak Street. We turn right on the east side of Oak Street. At number 65, Chin Heung, who we met as the owner of the Pekin Company Restaurant at 19 Monument Square, had opened an earlier Chinese restaurant there in 1910. That foray into the restaurant business was short-lived. The restaurant’s name changed to the Shanghai Restaurant in 1911 with Henry Nom as the owner. Charlie Hing took over the restaurant in 1914, followed by Lin Soo in 1915. Mr. Soo closed the restaurant and moved to Lewiston, Maine, in 1916.
We turn back to Congress Street and continue west on the north side of the street until we reach the Empire Dine & Dance at the corner of Forest Avenue.
This night spot takes its name from Portland’s first deluxe Chinese restaurant, the Empire Restaurant, which was opened July 6, 1916 by a syndicate of out of state Chinese investors. The Empire was located on the second floor of the building at 573 ½ Congress Street.
- Read more about the Empire Dine and Dance
The restaurant was originally built with two dining areas. If one turned left at the head of the stairs one entered a dining room for men and women. To the right was a dining room reserved only for men in which smoking was allowed.
The dining room for men and women had a dozen private booths that sat six each. The booths were finished in mahogany and cream and each had an electric fan and a wall button to summon the waiters. There were cream colored draperies at the windows of each booth. The tables were adorned with fresh flowers. In addition to the booths, that section of the restaurant had between fifteen and twenty tables with four chairs each.
The men’s dining room had another fifteen tables each with four chairs. The cigarette and cigar smoke was dissipated by what was described as a “clever system of ventilation.” A three-piece orchestra and a female soloist were situated in a niche between the two dining rooms. They played most days and every evening.
The restaurant sold Chinese candies and confections in addition to meals. Patrons reached the second floor restaurant via an elegant marble entrance and stairway. When it opened, the restaurant employed ten Chinese waiters and eight Chinese cooks and kitchen helpers.
We continue west on Congress Street to Congress Square and cross to the south side, opposite the State Theater.
608 Congress Street has housed more Chinese restaurants than any other Portland address. Even before the first Chinese restaurant opened, the Goon Lee Laundry was located here from 1918 to 1926. When the Goon Lee Laundry closed a replacement opened next door at 610 Congress Street which lasted from 1926 to 1947.
The Mandarin Café, which was in business from 1939 to 1947, was the first Chinese restaurant at 608 Congress Street. It was followed by the Cathay Gardens Restaurant from 1955 to 1979.
The Hu Shang Restaurant, Portland’s first Szechuan and Hunan style restaurant, opened in 1979. As the first Chinese restaurant to serve Szechuan style food, and with the benefit of interest in all things Chinese generated by President Nixon’s historic trip to China, Hu Shang (which loosely translated to “Lake Folks”) became tremendously popular, with lines of people waiting for the 70 seats most nights.
Co-owner Ken Ng had an incredible memory for people’s names and a great personality for welcoming returning customers. The restaurant was so successful that the Ng brothers bought a building at 7 Brown Street, closer to Monument Square, and moved to the larger, multilevel, and more elegant location in 1981. The Four Five Six Restaurant occupied this space from 1984 to 1988. The last Chinese restaurant to occupy the space, the Portland Hunan Restaurant, opened in 2005 and closed in 2007.
Returning to the north side of Congress Street we reach 633A Congress Street, the site of the Pagoda Restaurant which was opened in 1938 by a nephew of the owner of the recently closed Oriental Restaurant in Monument Square.
The Pagoda was Portland’s premier Chinese restaurant for much of the mid-Twentieth Century. It moved to 5 Forest Avenue in 1985. The Wong family later sold it and it closed for good in 1994. In 1990 a granddaughter of Daniel C. Wong, who had owned the Pagoda, tried to recreate the old Pagoda Restaurant on a much more modest scale at 144 Cumberland Avenue. Its menu featured a photograph of Daniel C. Wong with the slogan “You can’t go wrong with Wong” together with a reminder that the Wong family had been in business over four generations since 1938. By 1991 the name had changed to the Pagoda II. In 1993 the name changed to Little Chinatown. It closed in 1997.
We continue west on Congress Street until we reach Longfellow Square and State Street, we head one block south on the west side of State Street past the Mercy Hospital to its intersection with Spring Street. We turn right and head west on the north side of Spring Street for three blocks, passing the Reiche School and then crossing Clark Street, where we reach 243 Spring Street.
There were Chinese laundries in the building at 243 Spring Street for more than fifty years, longer than at any other Portland address. The first laundry opened there in 1891 and the last laundry closed there in 1942 .
We now cross to the south side of Spring Street, turn left, return to and cross State Street where, about 100 feet from State Street, we reach an alley at what used to be 156 Spring Street, the last stop on the tour.
The building that was once here at 243 Spring Street was the site of Portland’s last Chinese laundry. In 1943 Chin Kow opened his laundry and continued to run it until September 1966 when a hip injury and old age forced him to close.
His customers called him the “General.” He was born in Canton (Guangdong), China, about 1878. When he came to Portland the minister and a Sunday School teacher at the First Baptist Church helped him to learn English. He usually ate his evening meal at the Pagoda Restaurant. He died at the Barron Center (Portland’s municipal nursing home) September 27, 1969.
This concludes the tour.
There are many other places where Chinese people lived and worked in Portland. This tour is meant to be representative and not exhaustive. The most important site not included in this tour is 615 Forest Avenue, in the Woodfords Corner neighborhood. This building was the location of the Goon Family Laundry and the home of Toy Len Goon, the 1952 American Mother of the Year.
We return to the point of beginning by continuing east on Spring Street (which becomes Middle Street at One Portland Square) past the Cumberland County Civic Center seven blocks to Exchange Street. We take a right on Exchange Street for a block to Fore Street where we cross to Moulton Street for a block to Commercial Street. Then we take a left and head east on Commercial Street 3 blocks to Custom House Wharf.