A Ken Raymond classic: the hunt for OKC's underground Chinese city
One of my favorite writers at The Oklahoman, Ken Raymond, was among three laid off on Friday as the newspaper industry is struggling through turmoil and pain due to the pandemic.
The following is one that sticks out, simply because I was so jealous that Ken got around to writing this story first and he did as good if not better a job at it than myself.
This is one of those stories that will long remain of interest to anyone intrigued by our city's colorful history.
BY KEN RAYMOND
Published: Sun, June 24, 2007 12:00 AM
Unlocking the secrets of Oklahoma City's (mysterious city)
By the time they arrived here, they had learned their lessons: Be discreet. Avoid attention. Go underground.
BY KEN RAYMOND
Published: Sun, June 24, 2007 12:00 AM
The men gathered in darkness beneath downtown Oklahoma City streets.
In underground Chinatown, flickering bulbs sent shadows skittering across the hand-drawn pictographs on the walls. Amid the click of mah-jongg tiles and the bubbling talk of poker players, opium smokers lay drowsily on the floor, pipes slipping from languid fingers.
Nearby, other men rested on grass mats in cell-like living quarters or made egg rolls, wontons and tofu for the restaurants above them, in the daylight world. The pay was low, the hours long. Few women ventured below.
This wasn't what the men had come here for.
These men, these hidden men, left the famine and rebellion of 19th century China seeking peace and prosperity in America.
Many came to San Francisco — Jiu Jin San, the "Mountain of Gold” — dreaming of wealth, only to find hard labor and persecution. State and federal exclusion laws drove them south and east from California, and some settled in Oklahoma.
"At the very beginning, in the 1890s, we're talking about 50 to 80 (people),” University of Central Oklahoma historian Bing Li said. "At the turn of the century before statehood, we're talking about 200 or 250, mostly in the Oklahoma City area.”
By the time they arrived here, they had learned their lessons: Be discreet. Avoid attention.
Hundreds inhabit caverns
For decades, the existence of the subterranean Chinatown has been debated, despite Li's research and written records that seem to confirm its reality.
In 1921, for example, The Oklahoman reported on an inspection of a 50-room "colony” below 14 S Robinson Ave. An excerpt follows:
Witnesses: Six inspectors of the state health department; one police detective.
They waded into Oklahoma City's Chinatown Wednesday and visited all its nooks ever seen by white man, and came away reporting the 200 or more inhabitants of the submerged quarter in good health and surroundings and as sanitary as all get out.
A resident, Hauan Tsang, led the officials through "a dozen connected caverns.” Then the inspectors "slipped” over to another basement below California Avenue, where they were greeted with open arms and wide grins. The friendly reception made them wonder if word of their earlier visit had spread — and if so, how.
There are no telephones in the apparently unconnected places. ... The old police theory that a second basement beneath the whole raft of Chinese dwellings is connected by a tunnel with the suburbs of the colony was called to mind to explain the unexpected welcome.
The existence of such a tunnel was never confirmed. Nor were rumors of a third level said to contain a temple and cemetery.
In all likelihood, news of the inspection spread in a more prosaic way — by Chinese living and working in the daylight world. The 1922 city directory lists a Chinese library at 210½ W California Ave., not far from the second site visited by the inspectors.
The librarian, D.N. Koo, lived at 12 S Robinson Ave., near the entrance to the first site. A Chinese restaurant occupied the same address — where federal agents discovered 25 men in an opium den beneath the building in August 1922.
"Down a flight of stairs went the officers, tipped off by freight clerks, and through an oaken door which is (entered) by means of a hanging rope,” The Oklahoman reported. "They entered a room where air potent with sunny dreams of sleepers was only so much thick, stifling mist to them. ... Four Chinese lay unconscious when the raid was made.
"Their pipes had clanked to the floor. The opening of the den followed the discovery shortly before noon of narcotics, oriental tobacco and rum in a freight shipment at the Frisco depot.”
The restaurant proprietor, Wong On Chong, was arrested on suspicion of being "the operator of a gigantic smuggling business.”
‘A continual menace'
"There were legal Chinese-Americans, legal owners,” Li said. "They owned businesses above ground. You'd better believe they took advantage of the cheap labor” provided by illegal Chinese workers.
In part, cheap labor is what funneled the Chinese workers to Oklahoma in the first place.
The men sailed to America seeking gold but soon found themselves in a sweat economy, earning a meager wage amid the clank and clang of the railroad industry, Li said in a 2006 scholarly paper. By 1860, at least 10,000 Chinese worked for the Central Pacific Railroad.
But when completed railway projects resulted in mass lay-offs, sentiment toward the Chinese soured, Li wrote. In 1877, white workers rioted in California, and the U.S. Congress was told that Chinese laborers had driven wages so low that they were "a continual menace” threatening to "degrade all white working-people to the abject condition of a servant class.”
In 1878, the federal court ruled that Chinese people could not become citizens. Four years later, Chinese immigration was banned.
Unwelcome, illegal and unable to bring their families from China to America, many Chinese left the West Coast, beginning a decades-long migration inland to try to escape racial violence and persecution, Li wrote.
Some found a home along Robinson Avenue, lingering until about 1929 before drifting away from the area. Their time downtown prompted rumors and wild stories that lasted for years.
Story grows in telling
White families warned unruly children to behave lest the Chinese took them into their subterranean lair, never to be seen again. One account claimed the Chinese fled the basements after a man committed suicide there. The extent of the tunnels grew with each person who told the story.
"If recollections by some residents are correct,” The Oklahoman reported in 1969, "an underground ‘Chinese city' once extended from the North Canadian River to NW 17 and Classen — quite a distance for digging tunnels.
"And (if) everyone's memory is to be believed, there were so many tunnel entrances to this underground city that it was nearly impossible to walk a downtown sidewalk without falling into one.”
Abandoned ‘city' found
In April 1969, wrecking crews demolishing unused buildings in the downtown area discovered a set of "expertly handcrafted stone stairs” in an alley behind the Commerce Exchange Building at Robinson and Sheridan avenues, Li said.
The steep steps ended at a scarred, wooden door sealed with an intricate Chinese padlock.
Underground Chinatown, it seemed, had just been found again.
As the city council debated whether to declare the discovery a historic site, former Mayor George Shirk — the director of the Oklahoma Historical Society — led an expedition into the long-abandoned ruins. Among those with him was Jim Argo, then a photographer for The Oklahoman.
"Shirk took us down there to see this place,” Argo said recently. "He told us it was a Chinese laundry and opium place. ... We went down that narrow flight of stairs until we were down in the basement. They had little individual rooms where people lived, about the size of a prison cell. I don't think there was any outside light coming in.”
Flashlight beams zigzagged around the low-ceilinged structure, picking out an old stove and tattered papers bearing Chinese symbols, apparently some sort of accounting system.
Yellowed editorial cartoons about China and a faded American map clung to a wall in a large living area, and a dozen coat hooks hung in a neighboring room.
Some of the walls were brick. The floors were composed of damp cement. A sign attached to a small cubicle bore two words: "Come Gamble.”
In all, the chambers occupied a space about 50 feet wide by 140 feet long; Shirk's explorers found a second Robinson Avenue entrance.
"Shirk guessed that similar rooms exist under the remainder of the block,” The Oklahoman reported, "but no access to them were found.”
City council members elected not to save the site. It was destroyed in the name of urban renewal, and what once was underground now is buried. The Cox Convention Center marks its grave.
Did an underground Chinatown exist?
Bob Blackburn isn't convinced the underground city ever existed.
And since Blackburn, the director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, is a leading expert on downtown Oklahoma City history, his doubts carry some weight.
"I have never found any proof that it existed,” Blackburn said. "There's a lot of oral tradition and kind of elusive physical evidence. It's folklore. ... Hopefully someone can find some documents or diaries or something, but it was a community that would've been off the books.”
Aside from a few newspaper articles, little was published about the hidden Chinatown before 1969, when former Mayor George Shirk led a group of explorers, reporters and photographers into a large basement containing some Chinese artifacts.
While Shirk's expedition proved some Chinese had occupied basements, Blackburn said, it didn't provide definitive evidence of a larger, interconnected community.
"This is an unsolved mystery that is most intriguing,” Blackburn said. "It obviously has captured the attention of the public ... and I would like it to be true, but I still have not seen anything I would use to put it in one of my (history) books.”