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Chinese New Year -- a good day to bust some Montana myths about Chinese history

  1. perro-salchicha614
    HELENA — While fake news has gotten a lot of media attention in recent months because of the contentious presidential election, it turns out that “fake history” has been with us a much longer time.

    In the case of Montana’s and Helena’s Chinese culture, fake history has been prevalent for well over a century.

    Montana Historical Society historian Ellen Baumler would like to set the record straight about some of Montana’s most prevalent myths and misconceptions about the Chinese.

    One common myth Baumler wants to bust is the many tales about Chinese tunnels.

    There’s a prevalent belief that the Chinese lived in underground tunnels in Montana cities, she said.

    In fact, a year ago or so there was a major movement to “save Chinese tunnels” in Livingston.

    “Here in Helena people are fixed on the idea of Chinese tunnels. The tunnels are nothing more than underground storage spaces,” she said.

    Tunnels were just a common architectural feature in the late 1890s, early 1900s, she said.

    “A number of them are steam-heat delivery tunnels. A Chinese person might have used them on occasion for a delivery, but so did everyone else.

    “They’re just like Chinese walls,” she said. “Any time people see a wall of stacked rocks, they say, ‘Oh, those are Chinese walls,’ as if they were the only people who knew how to stack rocks. That’s ridiculous.”

    “You also hear about these underground opium dens,” she added. “That’s another one. Opium dens were not clandestine.

    "Stories have spread that it was so dangerous for the Chinese that they didn’t come out from underground. That’s ridiculous!”

    In Havre, where that myth has been prevalent, a 1903 historic map has “a labeled opium den ... that has no basement. It opens right onto Main Street.

    Said Baumler, “Oftentimes, like here in Helena, opium dens were upstairs, not in basements. Often they were next to jails. Everyone knew what they were. They were not illegal until 1909 when they did become illegal.

    “It is a community misperception that pervades what we think of as Chinese history, and it’s unfortunate.”

    “In railroad camps, ...you often find paraphernalia related to opium smoking,” Baumler added.

    “When you think about it, this was horrible, horrible work. People were just driven to the point of total exhaustion. The diets were terrible. It stands to reason, they had to have something to relieve physical pain. There was no aspirin until 1893, so people did use opium to relieve pain.”

    It was not just the Chinese, but Euro-Americans also smoked opium, she said. “It was just what people did. ... It wasn’t that secret.

    “The only time it would have been underground was if the rent was cheaper, not because it was secret.”

    Prostitution is also a topic prone to a lot of myths and misconceptions.

    A popular one involves Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, which has a series of 19 curtained booths, said Baumler.

    “So much fun to eat in a brothel-turned noodle parlor,” she said, quoting a comment off the Internet.

    Once again, Baumler questions this “history.”

    The booths were not opium dens or cribs for prostitutes, she said.

    “If you look at noodle parlors across the West, those booths are a standard feature. They just offered private dining -- that’s it,” she said.

    “It never was anything more than a restaurant,” she said of the Pekin. “There was a gambling operation in the basement.

    Marga Lincoln
    Billings Gazette

    Author Bio

    Opium fiend, bon vivant, and all-around pain in the ass.

    Annoying others since 1982.


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