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"Chinese Tunnels"

Many communities where large numbers of Chinese people once lived are today rumored to have so-called "Chinese tunnels" under downtown buildings and streets. This myth continues to be perpetuated despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For the most authoritative debunking of this tale, see David Chuenyan Lai, The Forbidden City within Victoria, Victoria, BC: Orca (1991). Chapter 4, "Tunnels of the Forbidden Town," pp. 34-39, details how the myth became established. Lai's "Summary," p. 39, can be applied to any city with reported "Chinese tunnels."

During Priscilla Wegars's extensive research on the Chinese in the West, she has never found any documentation or substantiation for these rumored "Chinese tunnels." In cities where the Chinese owned buildings and utilized the basements, the latter may have been subdivided or partitioned into smaller areas as living quarters or opium-smoking establishments, with hallways, but these in no way can be considered "tunnels."

In Lewiston, Idaho, for example, Erb Hardware Company President Jeanine Bennett graciously led Wegars on a tour of the store's basement areas, in response to a local newspaper's suggestion that it contained entrances to such "tunnels." Instead, the arched openings actually lead to passageways under the sidewalk (today either in use as storage areas, or blocked up) that were once used for delivery access, or to admit light. The architectural term for these passageways is "sidewalk vaults."

Although the sidewalk openings (metal doors) or glass blocks to allow light (round or rectangular; eventually colored purple by the sun), no longer exist in the sidewalk around Erb's, they can be seen in the sidewalks of many towns and cities throughout the West. The passageways underneath them are simply access channels, and have no connection with early Chinese residents. The same can be said for the so-called "Chinese tunnels" rumored to exist in Boise and Pocatello, Idaho; Baker City and Pendleton, Oregon; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington; Victoria, BC, and many other places.

Wegars would appreciate receiving information about other communities with rumored "Chinese tunnels" and would especially welcome descriptive information from anyone who has visited what they were told was a "Chinese tunnel." Chinese tunnel myths are often perpetuated through tourism and mass media. In Pendleton, Oregon, for example, the "Pendleton Underground" tour takes visitors into basements that some guides call "Chinese tunnels." Although there was apparently once a Chinese laundry in one basement, there is no convincing evidence to indicate that any other Chinese people once lived "underground" there. See the Oregon Encyclopedia for a debunking of this particular myth.

For more information on this topic, please see Priscilla Wegars's article, "Exposing Negative Chinese Terminology and Stereotypes," Chapter 4 in Chinese Diaspora Archaeology in North America, ed. Chelsea Rose and J. Ryan Kennedy, pp. 83-108 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2020).

Asian American Comparative Collection

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Asian American Comparative Collection
University of Idaho
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