Urban Archaeologist - 405 Magazine

Urban Archaeologist

Beneath the streets of downtown Oklahoma City, decades-old rumors tell of a labyrinth of secret Chinese tunnels. The gossip of generations implies they were carved out by frontier-era Chinese who migrated into Oklahoma territory while constructing our nation’s early railroads.

Supposedly, these hidden passages were filled with the euphoric haze of opium dens, the sounds of gambling and the everyday workings of an entire, seldom-seen Chinese community. Stories of a Buddhist temple adorned with golden wallpaper and a Chinese cemetery three levels underground circulated, and mothers corrected wayward children by threatening to hand them over to the Chinese to be taken down into the dark.

As fantastical as the reports sound, clues left behind in historical accounts and rare early photographs reveal surprising truths. Through these mostly confirmed anecdotes, we are allowed a brief glimpse into a unique moment from our city’s multi-layered past… a past much more interesting than the version taught to us as schoolchildren.

Fewer than 25 years after its birth, Oklahoma City transformed from a Victorian-era tent city into a thriving metropolis complete with trolleys, traffic jams and its first skyscraper. Throughout this period, the city swelled with new residents, many of them immigrants, including Chinese laborers who began their journey to Oklahoma working on America’s first transcontinental railroad.

During the post-Civil War years, Central Railroad began employing Chinese immigrants who had come to the United States seeking their fortunes in the California Gold Rush. Although some Chinese found treasure in “Gum Shan” (Gold Mountain), many others were forced eastward due to extreme anti-Chinese sentiments arising from fear and misunderstanding of their customs and language. The transcontinental project offered a financial means of escape for thousands of Chinese during its six-year construction. However, nearly 20,000 Chinese workers were left unemployed when the Central and Union Pacific Railroad lines met during the “driving of the last spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

The shops on Grand (now Sheridan) in 1945 included the Kingman Café. Photo courtesy Research Division/Oklahoma Historical SocietyEach hammer blow to that solid gold railroad spike heralded a new age for America. The track’s completion forced immigrants to seek a new means of existence as they fanned out across the frontier. Some chased reports of new gold strikes to the Colorado Rockies while others migrated into the Midwest seeking work on new railroad ventures. Many returned to the west coast, into Oregon and Washington, where they created well-documented Chinatowns. A select few found their way to the opening of new lands in 1889.

When Oklahoma Territory’s two million acres of Unassigned Land was opened to settlement, tens of thousands of homesteaders rushed to stake their claim. On April 22, 1889, the crowds massed along Santa Fe’s Oklahoma Station rail lines were released into the area that would become Oklahoma City when a signal sounded at high noon. From that surge of humanity, Chinese migrants entered Oklahoma history.

Early records and photographs from Oklahoma City show these territory-era Chinese owning businesses that consisted mainly of laundries. This form of Chinese business was often the norm, as other Chinese trades were less accepted up until the mid-20th century. Anti-Chinese sentiments drove the culture underground across the country, including Oklahoma City.

Unknown man - photo courtesy Research Division/Oklahoma Historical SocietyAs early as 1877, Sinophobia in the U.S. led to violent rioting throughout the west, prompting a special congressional committee to investigate Chinese immigration concerns. White workers feared the Chinese labor force, estimated at 63,000 strong, would take away their wages or jobs. The U.S. Supreme Court appears to have agreed and ruled that Chinese were not eligible for naturalized citizenship. Congress further approved 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act, banning future immigration for a period of 10 years, a measure that became permanent in 1902. Chinese immigrants were forced to live a life apart, and to build communities in which they could survive on their own.

It’s during that time the Chinese began hiding their culture and community activities from public view, opting instead for an “underground” existence. According to University of California Professor Min Zhou, such communities became staging areas for new Chinese arrivals in America. In Oklahoma City, this community of homes and businesses, referred to as “China Street” by locals, was centered at the intersection of Robinson and Sheridan (formerly Grand) Avenues. It became a safe haven where new immigrants, helped by their fellow countrymen, could speak their own language, eat native foods at local Chinese restaurants, shop for groceries, practice native customs and traditions and sleep in boarding houses or rooms.

These early immigrants filled all the available space in Chinese-owned homes and businesses over a period of around 20 years, sending later-arriving immigrants into basements and sub-basements of the same buildings. As the number of Chinese arrivals increased, these basements were divided into numerous rooms with wood and wallboard. In some cases it appears that connecting doorways and very short passages were made between adjacent basements, giving an illusion of tunnels.

When a flu epidemic swept across Oklahoma City in the early 1920s, health inspectors were quick to descend on the Chinese underground in a general inspection campaign that also included rooming houses, restaurants, provision stores and soda stands. In January of 1921, after initial hesitation from the Chinese “gatekeeper,” an expedition of six inspectors and police detective Jack Thomas (dubbed the official “Chinatown pilot”) gained entry through a worn door behind 14 S. Robinson. According to reports, the inspectors were led through numerous corridors which included approximately 50 rooms for eating, sleeping and gambling. There were well-stocked kitchens, living spaces and bunks throughout. The only health violation found was in a third basement along S. Robinson, where two Chinese men were sleeping with a dirty blanket. Inspectors were quoted as saying the nearly 200 residents were “in good health and surroundings and sanitary as all get out.”

These underground rooms became home to Oklahoma’s Chinese, who found it nearly impossible to work beyond their own community and businesses. They were often depicted as evil and underhanded in print and cartoons. Yet despite such ridicule, Chinese-operated restaurants, laundries, shops and other businesses were frequented by city residents. Perhaps it was a taste for the exotic that drew them to eat the largely vegetable-based Chinese dishes or seek the far Eastern herbal remedies that Chinese doctors like Wu Grayson at 116 1/2 N. Broadway offered.

1936 advertisement - photo courtesy Research Division/Oklahoma Historical SocietyAt 712 W. Grand, in today’s Film Row district, Sam Choi operated a Chinese tea and trade shop, while overseeing his restaurant, the Kingman Café, at 227 W. Grand. The shop only operated a few years, but the café remained open until 1945. According to his son, Robert Eng of Seattle, Choi was “no dummy,” and “would often use attorneys” when it came to business matters, a rarity among the Chinese community. Eng, the youngest of 10 children born to Choi, became a dentist and later served as mayor for the city of Altos, California.

Eng added that his father’s businesses “must have been popular because he became wealthy enough to return to his home village in China, around 1920.” There Choi constructed a large two-story Chinese-Western styled house that Eng says “was referred to as the famous Red Mansion,” since it was constructed with fired red brick. With the outbreak of China’s Civil War, a cannonball struck the mansion and destroyed the roof, and Choi returned to the United States. He settled in Seattle, but remained an owner of the Kingman Café in Oklahoma City.

Other, less-attractive, Eastern imports came in the form of illegal smuggling, Mah-jongg gambling and opium use throughout the early 1900s. These vices were sometimes offered in the basements and backrooms of Chinese shops. Among them was Lee Kie Chong’s tea store at 306 W. Grand, Chong Lee’s Laundry at 128 W. Reno and the large Chinese rooming house at 314 W. California.

Opium, an addictive drug derived from the poppy, was often smuggled in from Mexico. It was considered a “Chinese Curse” by Oklahoma City law enforcement in 1910. During that year, officers found themselves facing an estimated 100-plus opium dens across the city. In July alone, police raids of around 25 locations ended in the arrest of over 100 individuals. The biggest concern by police at that time was the amount of “hop” in the city. Hop was a substitute for opium derived from boiling Japanese sugar, glycerin and laudanum, forming a highly addictive and deadly drug. Hop joints made up the majority of opium dens here.

Law enforcement efforts appear to have brought an end to the opium plague by the mid ’20s. A raid of a dark basement beneath 12 S. Robinson netted narcotics from three large wooden boxes and 12 bottles of rum with a street value of $10,000. In 1922, this haul had the buying power of nearly $137,000 in today’s currency.

Multi-generational photo of unknown family - photo courtesy Research Division/Oklahoma Historical SocietyDespite the actions of a few, the overall Chinese community remained true to their heritage and culture. In a small two-story building at 210 1/2 W. California stood the first Chinese library in Oklahoma City. Locals would gather at the end of the day and read about their homeland in papers from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Canton. Most of the library’s collection was comprised of works on Chinese history, travel, agriculture, romances and a few volumes of poetry. One book printed on rice paper held the history and portraits of China’s early emperors and rulers and was estimated to be between 500 and 1,000 years old. In an adjoining room, members of the Chinese Nationalist Party met on a regular basis to discuss politics in China. At some point the library was relocated to 327 1/2 W. California but disappeared from city records in the 1940s.

The last visage of the Chinese library was operated by Willie Hong, who served as secretary of the Chinese National Salvation Society. Unofficially, Hong was considered the “Mayor of Chinatown” in Oklahoma City. His mastery of the English language and understanding of American law, politics and business made him a valuable asset to the community. The people trusted him and supported all of his efforts to prevent Communism from taking over China at the end of World War II, which is when Hong and other Chinese residents seemed to disappear from the cityscape.

In 1943, the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by Congress, although it would continue to be somewhat enforced in Oklahoma for a short time. The repeal meant underground citizens could live freely in the society that once shunned them. By war’s end, the underground was abandoned and its former residents spread out across Oklahoma, where census records show nearly 400 Chinese were living by 1950, gradually increasing every year since.
By the time urban renewal crews began tearing into the 1960s downtown landscape, the Chinese underground was all but a myth. The entire community was gone; a strange dream, only recalled at parties. That would change on April 8, 1969.

Excavation for the Myriad Convention Center in April of 1969 led to the discovery of abandoned underground tunnels. George Shirk, the former mayor and director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, led an expedition to explore the tunnels and in this photo, examines an old stove left behind.

Historian and former mayor George Shirk, with a small band of intrepid adventurers, was led through a scarred white door in an alley behind the Commerce Exchange building at Robinson and Sheridan where construction crews were clearing the area for the future Myriad (Cox) Convention Center. With dim flashlights, his party wound through numerous rooms and corridors. Jim Argo, a photographer for The Oklahoman who accompanied the group, recalled the setting was “very dark and slightly disconcerting. The only light came from flashlights.”

During the 1969 exploration, papers covered in Chinese notations, including these attached to walls of two cubicles in a basement or tunnel, were found under vacant shops just south of the Commerce Exchange Building at the corner of Grand and Robinson in Oklahoma City. Photo by Jim Argo, Copyright, The OklahomanThe urban explorers quickly discovered the remains of a stove, possibly tied to a former Chinese laundry, and various gambling remnants. There were numerous cubicles, rooms and corridors. According to Argo, the area Shirk explored was believed to be “about 140 feet in length and about 50 feet wide.” Shirk believed there was much more to see and that the entire complex they explored probably extended to the end of the block. It was real. It always had been.

Shortly after the Shirk expedition, interest in the discovery grew tremendously. Classes were suddenly offered in Chinese culture and cooking. Rumors abounded, some with claims that the underground extended as far as Classen Boulevard and the Northwest Expressway. During this time stories of a Chinese cemetery and lost Buddhist temple beneath the streets surfaced. Neither seems probable, according to Sam Choi’s son Robert Eng, as any such temple in that environment would most likely have been a small adorned room that was cleared when the community it served vacated the area. As for a cemetery, Chinese tradition calls for remains to be returned to China to lie with their ancestors. Unfortunately, due to the Exclusion Act and China’s civil war, this was not possible. Fairlawn Cemetery, just north of downtown Oklahoma City, has many graves bearing Chinese names from this time period. Construction crews digging out the basements of buildings along S.Robinson were forewarned of the possibility of remains, but none were found.

When city leaders were called into a special meeting about the find and asked to consider its historical preservation, the request was denied. Within a week, the Commerce building was razed and the surrounding area dug up to begin construction of the convention center and its underground parking garage.

Today, all that remains of the Chinese underground are tales, rumors, rare images, the flotsam of old articles and the gossip of generations. A difficult story to tell, let alone prove, and yet, ironically, an amazing memorial stands over that former community. It is in the guise of the Myriad Botanical Gardens, where deep within its hundreds of plant species, visitors will find a few from China, marking the underground’s grave below.

A Collection of Chinese Businesses in the Area 1915-1945

17 N. Broadway Joy Boy Café & Chinese Laundry
102 N. Broadway Imperial Café
115 N. Broadway Entrance to Chinese Tunnels
116 1/2 N. Broadway Dr. Wu Grayson’s Office
119 N. Broadway Imperial Café
210 1/2 W. California Chinese Library
218 W. California Sam Choi & Company Chinese Merchandise
314 W. California Sam Lee’s Place (Opium Den)
327 W. California Chinese Laundry
130 W. Grand Commerce Exchange Building (alley behind yielded 1969 tunnel entrance discovery)
131 W. Grand American Café
212 W. Grand Grand Café
225 W. Grand Chinese Kitchen
227 W. Grand Kingman Café
306 W. Grand Lee Kie Chong Tea Shop (Opium Den)
406 W. Grand Lee Kie Chong (Opium Den)
107 S. Harvey Ching Bing’s Laundry
36 N. Harvey Yee Lee Laundry
300 N. Harvey Wah Hop’s Laundry
510 N. Hudson John Ching Wah’s Laundry
126 W. Reno Wah Wah Laundry
128 W. Reno Chong Lee’s Laundry
12-18 S. Robinson Various Chinese Businesses and Restaurants
14 S. Robinson Entry to tunnels used by health inspectors in early 1920s
16 1/2 S. Robinson Sam Lee and Jake John’s Place (Gambling Hall)
18 S. Robinson Wing Shing Café
509 N. Robinson Lung Joy Laundry