Boise’s Lost Chinatown

“Hi. You’re with Treasure Valley Transit, right?”

My question was to a trio of Boise’s public bus system employees standing next to a bus stop at 8th and Idaho in Boise’s down town. Their name tags made the question rhetorical, but they all politely answered it anyway. I smiled. “Great! You should know the area then. Can you tell me where Chinatown is?”

“There isn’t one,” came the cheerful reply. “Not in 40 years. There are some Chinese restaurants on Chinden Boulevard in Garden City. I think that was named for the Chinese.”

I was searching for Boise’s Chinatown and I wasn’t having much luck. I’d come to 8th and Idaho, one of the busiest spots for the state capital’s pedestrians to see if anyone could help. It made sense. The principle transit hub for Boise’s bus system was located there on State Street. 8th was full of restaurants, including Chinese food. Most importantly, from 1870 to 1901, it was the primary intersection for Boise’s Chinatown.

The story of the Chinese in Boise was pretty typical for Chinatowns throughout the Western states. Gold had been discovered in Boise Basin, just north of modern day Boise in 1862. As had happened during the California gold rush of the 1850s, Chinese men, mostly from impoverished Guangdong province, flocked to the mining camps. There they served as miners, cooks, or gardeners. They started laundries  and apothecary shops, and sent most of the money home to China to care for the families they had left behind.

By the time of the 1870 census Idaho had 4,269 Chinese in residence, more than ¼ of the territorial population. 3,853 had listed “miner” as their profession, over 1,000 more engaged in the profession than the 2,719 whites listing the same job.

Boise had started out as an army fort at the time of the gold discoveries. It was conveniently located in between the major mining centers of the Boise Basin north of the Snake River and Silver City to the south of the river. It rapidly became a central staging area. By 1871 it was a thriving city and the territorial capital. The U.S. Assay Office had millions of dollars of gold and silver flowing through it creating fortunes, and two blocks away, at the intersection of 8th and Idaho, was a flourishing Chinatown.

Chinatown Map

(image courtesy of Arthur A. Hart)

Chinatown was a somewhat squalid affair. The buildings were ramshackle wooden structures built by people who had no intentions to stay long. Several of the buildings were home to laundries which discharged a near constant effluent of wash water into the streets. The Chinese had dug a ditch to a nearby water channel to dispose of it, but the results did more to fuel rumors of underground tunnels than to effectively drain the water.

Regardless of the conditions that existed in Boise’s Chinatown, it was clearly a place that made money for its inhabitants. On October 5th, 1892 the Idaho Statesman reported the departure of one of Chinatown’s residence. “Sing High, a well known Chinese laundryman, left Boise yesterday on his way to China. He took with him $14,000 in money.” It was sums like this that led to a complaint that might sound familiar to today’s Statesman readers were you to switch ethnicities and nations. “Chinese are taking too much money back to ‘the Flowery Kingdom’.”

By 1886 the situation in Chinatown had become an acute problem. The ramshackle construction had resulted in multiple fires a year and a less than appealing waste treatment issue. In response, in 1882 the city organized a fire district that required all buildings be built of nonflammable brick or stone. Made of wood, Chinatown was in clear violation. Despite this organization, Chinatown would continue to operate as a going concern for another two decades, providing a constant thorn in the side of the City Council. Throughout the 1880s and ‘90s Chinatown continued to be a messy affair, with the laundries spewing dirty water into a makeshift drainage system, opium dens, gambling houses, and prostitution attracting people from across the social strata into dens of iniquity, and money flowing back to China.

In 1901 the city had enough. On September 20th of that year they condemned every single building in Chinatown as a health hazard. By the 28th every resident had been evicted, and Chinatown was being torn down to make way for modern American mercantile business. I hadn’t been able to find Chinatown at 8th and Idaho in September 2014 because it had been erased 113 years earlier.

But that didn’t mean the Chinese were gone. In fact, in some areas they were being heartily praised even as Boise’s Chinatown was being erased. Just west of Boise a number of Chinese received accolades and praises for the skills as gardners.

As the gold had dwindled in the mining towns north and south of Boise, the Chinese had returned not to China, but to their original professions. Many of them had been farmers before crossing the Pacific, and along the Boise River they found fertile ground for their crops. Even as Boise’s white citizens had scathing things to say about Chinatown, they heaped praise on the neighboring Chinese gardens and their keepers. Daily deliveries of crops were keeping many households in Boise fed with a rich variety of vegetables, and the gardens themselves were praised for being singularly tidy and beautiful. By the time Chinatown was being torn down, the gardens were so successful Chinese farmers were shipping their produce as far away as Montana by rail.

One of the most famous of Boise’s Chinese families were among these farmers. Louie Ah Su had been mining in the Boise Basin when the gold began running out. He began a farm along the river in the Boise area and prospered. Like most of the Chinese to come to America, once he’d made his fortune, he returned to China a rich man, right around the time that Chinatown was being torn down. This wasn’t the end of the Louie presence in Boise, however, but the beginning. Very shortly after arriving in China, Ah Su sent his son, Louie Do Gee to continue the work he’d started in Boise.

Louie Do Gee

(Louie Do Gee)

Do Gee soon expanded the business on land he leased along the river just northwest of Boise. The gardens flourished, and in the early 1920s he returned to China and had his sons William and Tong make the trip to Boise to take over. The family would continue to run the farms until 1946.

In 1946, however, these farms, too, would come to an end. A new city had sprung up amongst the vegetables northwest of Boise. It would incorporate that year, drawing boundary lines that included the Louie Gee Garden. The gardens would have to be shut down. However, the new city would pay due honor to the Loiue family that had made the location so prosperous. The city would take the name “Garden City”, and its main street would be “Chinden Boulevard”, a shortening of the term “Chinese Garden.”

Though the gardens were now gone, the Louies would remain. William’s son Andy would come to Boise from China in 1949. Unlike the previous generations, Andy would be neither a farmer nor return to China. Instead he became a pharmacist and lives in Boise to this day.

Back in Boise, the destruction of Chinatown in 1901 had been a short lived affair. The Chinese residents had taken up temporary residence in other locations, and by 1902 a new Chinatown had been built with money from two Chinese communal groups, the Hip Sing Tong and the Hop Sing Tong. This new Chinatown would center on the intersection of Front and 7th street (which would be renamed “Capitol Boulevard” in the 1930s).

Unlike its predecessor, this new Chinatown would be up to code. The building would be made of brick, and often include multiple stories. Both of the Tongs that financed the buildings would have buildings of their own to host meetings, house indigent Chinese laborers, and provide for religious ceremonies for those Chinese that had not converted to Christianity.

Arthur Hart is a Boise area historian. He literally wrote the book on Boise’s Chinatown. He describes the geography of this second Chinatown during its heyday in his book.

“A stroll through Boise’s Chinatown in the 1930s, going west from the corner of Sixth and Front, would take you past the home of Gen Fong at 610; Jimmy Fong lived upstairs at 610½. Next on Front Street came the Chinese Nationalist Party and Temple at 612, followed by Mon Wo Ching & Co., Quong On Chong Co., Hong Yick Jan & Co., the Soo Yuen family association, and the Chinese Joss House on the corner of Capitol Boulevard. Across the street was the Hai Yuen & Co., Chinese Merchandise, and upstairs, the Hop Sing Tong. If you turned up Capitol and headed north you would come to the locally popular Shang Hai Low Restaurant and the Hip Song Tong headquarters. Next door was the Wing Hop Wo Co., Chinese Merchandise, and upstairs the herbal medicine store of Herbart Ah Fong. Harry Fong ran the Kwon Hip Yuen & Co. Chinese store. Harry’s Bamboo Garden Restaurant was at 108 Capitol Boulevard, just south of Main Street.”

By this point the face of the Chinese presence had changed as much as the buildings. In the early days of Boise’s existence the Chinese were almost exclusively male, temporary workers sending money back to their wives and children in China. In the 20th century there was an increasing number of Chinese women showing up in Boise.

One such woman was the wife of the Harry Fong mentioned by Arthur Hart. In 1927 Harry returned to Guangdong province and married. He brought his new wife, Gretta, back to Boise. The 18 year old girl would prove to be a hit in her new home town, running the Bamboo Garden and being celebrated as “the first lady of Chinatown.” A symbol of how important Chinatown and its residence had become for Boise by the ‘30s would be the guest list of the feast the Fongs threw to present Harry’s new bride to the city. Included on this guest list would be both Mayor Walter F. Hansen and the Chief of Police, Andy Robinson.

Gretta Fong

(Gretta Fong)

As with the previous Chinatown, this one was not to last. In the 1960s the U.S. government was giving out large grants to cities throughout the nation to be spent on urban renewal and modernization. Idaho, always known for being a decade behind the times, would get around to it in 1972. The Boise Redevelopment Agency would buy up the properties of Chinatown to level them in preparation for the creation of a new mall. Reluctantly the Chinese began to leave, some for other parts of Boise, others for other cities.

The final holdout in Chinatown was the aging Billy Fong. He stubbornly insisted in hanging on as long as possible, much to the frustration of the BRA. Billy was living in the Hop Sing Building and, along with other Hop Sings fought the demolition in the courts. Their fight won considerable sympathy among the community, but it was a losing battle. He would be evicted in June, the last resident to leave. Though the mall project would eventually be moved elsewhere, Chinatown was gone.

Or was it? It turns out that urban renewal missed one of the buildings in Chinatown. It wasn’t just any old building, either. These days it doesn’t look like much to anyone who isn’t already studied up on it, but it turns out that at 616 Front Street the Hip Sing Tong building still stands. There is nothing marking it in any way, and it languishes under an aging set of signs for the American Cleaning Service Co. I decided to go take a look at this loan remnant.

When I arrived it looked less like a landmark of Chinese involvement in the history of Boise, and more like a derelict. All of the doors were locked and no one was present inside. The laundry service was unoccupied, and had no signs up advertising hours or rates. It was a lifeless, dusty pile of bricks alongside a road full of cars hurriedly trying to be somewhere, anywhere else.

I’d finally found the last remnant. I hadn’t been able to get inside, but it was still there, the unprepossessing building front a mute testament to the Chinese presence in Boise. I glanced across Front Street, looking at the newly built Panda Express that had been designed, built, and which was now staffed by people who had probably never even heard of Boise’s Chinese past. On a whim, I decided to run across the street and snap a photo, one of a real Chinese artifact taken from a faux-Chinese stand in.

As I stood there trying to snap the shot from my camera, a little girl about eight years old suddenly realized and ducked under a table to make sure she wasn’t in the way. I laughed a little and took the photo, then nodded to her as she came back out from under the table. “Where are you from?” I asked, a strange, grey bearded old man whose own children had long passed her age.

The girl glanced over to her mother, who smiled and nodded. “China,” she answered with a shy smile.

“We adopted her as a baby,” her mother added.

“Really?” I smiled. I looked down at the girl. “Well, let me tell you why I was taking a photo of that building.”

I’d found Chinatown.

James Hinton is a native Idahoan with an interest in the little known history of the Northwest. He is always attempting to provide his four daughters with a little history education, much to their chagrin.

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11 thoughts on “Boise’s Lost Chinatown

  1. Jan Hove

    Were his relatives the owners of Fong’s Restaurant? I went their often in the 70’s, and I think it was on Capital blvd??. We always heard it had a secret passage to the Chinese underground tunnels.

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  2. Richard A. Fong

    The names of the children by Harry Fong’s 2nd wife, Alice, are Richard, Gilbert, Robert, Gladys, Kathryn, and Jeannie Fong….
    Information provided by Richard Fong, Boise High School, class of 1957, University of Idaho, class of 1961, MBA, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio class of 1971

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  3. Richard A. Fong

    Edmond Fong is my older brother and Kathryn Fong my younger sister. Both have been contributors to the Treasure Valley posts on Boise’s Chinatown. When our dad passed away, the family moved to San Francisco but Kathryn stayed in Boise with older brother Raymond, to finish her senior year at Boise High School and concurrently won first place in the VFW’s Voice of Democracy speech contest and a $5,000.00 scholarship. Edmond earned his accounting degree from the College of Idaho through the G.I. bill……

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  4. Katheryn Fong

    Hi Robin!
    I remember your visits to my dad Harry Fong’s Bamboo Gardens restaurant. Harry and his second wife Alice had six children: Richard, Gilbert, Robert, Gladys, Katheryn and Claudia. I stay in touch with your sister, author Ruthanne Lum McCunn who wrote the story of Polly Bemis.
    Best,
    Kathy Fong

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  5. jamiemhinton Post author

    Thank you both for taking the time to reply to Robin and fill in some additional details. I greatly appreciate your taking the time to add a little more to the understanding of the contribution the Chinese provided to the Treasure Valley’s history.

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  6. Robert D Austin Jr

    For those who visit this site, there are 20 installments of Boise China Town History on Boise and the Treasure Valley History Group FB. The author is Edmond Fong–Kathy Fong’s older brother.

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  7. Rob Fisher

    I remember well the battle of Billy Fong as he tried in vain to save the Hop Sing building. At the end, the area around his building had been leveled. Overnight, right next to the Hop Sing building sat a large crane fitted with a menacing wrecking ball. As the sun rose the next morning, attached to the door frame for all to see was a white flag. Billing Fong was gone. And I cried.

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