City Desk

Munday and McCormick on Butte's Chinese Heritage


Saturday, January 25th 2019 is the Chinese New Year. According to the Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar. Lunisolar meaning a calendar whose date indicates both the moon phase and the time of the solar year, says Wikipedia.

Mary McCormick and Pat Munday, photo by Jim Larson

The celebrations for this year’s Chinese New Year in Butte will begin at the Imagine Butte Resource Center (IBRC). They will be “hosting an event beginning about noon so that children and young people can come into IBRC and make noise makers to use during the parade,” said Pat Munday, president of the Mai Wah Society, Inc. Noise makers are used to scare away the evil spirits.


The parade will begin at 3:00 pm at the courthouse with some announcements and thank yous to the participating business sponsors. After this “the dragon will come marching out of the courthouse, thanks to the Butte High History Club,” says Munday.  For several years the Butte High History Club, under the leadership of Chris Fisk, has supplied the dragon dancers that take the dragon through town during the parade.


In December Pat Munday, president of the Mai Wah Society, Inc., and Mary McCormick, Butte’s Historic Preservation Officer, came by to talk with Diane Larson about the history of the Mai Wah and the importance of maintaining and remembering that history.


Larson: The Mai Wah and Wah Chong Tai Co. buildings house a snapshot of an immigrant culture captured in a hostile time. Can you talk about that?


Munday: The Mai Wah and Wah Chong Tai buildings were built at a timeline where Chinatown was thriving in Butte, you know 1899, 1909 right in that window. Even with the serious restrictions under the Exclusion Act of 1882 the Chinese had managed to make a living and by 1900 pretty well integrate into Butte society.  

There were still some rocky race relations during that time, but in terms of the restaurant upstairs, the general mercantile on the ground floor and the many smaller businesses rented out to independent Chinese merchants and apothecaries and so forth they were still doing pretty well.

And just after that time for example, the Chinn’s with their nine kids, sent those kids to public schools here as did many other Chinese families.

So, the building speaks to that history and whether it’s the restaurant environment upstairs or the mercantile that is still stocked with all the original merchandise from when it closed up around 1940, it’s a glimpse into Buttes past and into a time when Butte was really, truly multi-ethnic.


Larson: Pat, you mentioned the Exclusion Act, can you explain further?

Munday: That’s enormously relevant to today’s times because beginning with the California Gold Rush a large influx of Chinese into the United States as gold miners or plaster miners or railroad worker and timber cutters or lumbermen there was always this fear that Chinese were taking jobs of white immigrants. So that triggered a lot of the racist reaction increasing pressure, lots of race riots against the Chinese in the 1870s throughout American West. Although, not in Butte. I can say Butte was an exception compared to places like LA or San Francisco or cities in Washington or Wyoming or Idaho. It was quite the exception.  

Not to say that there still wasn’t prejudice and discrimination, especially with attempts at an economic boycott of Chinese businesses. But as far as we know, we have no historical records that Chinese were dragged out of their businesses and robbed and murdered as they were in places like Rock Springs, Wyoming or San Francisco, California.


Larson: There is such a rich history preserved in the Mai Wah, as Pat said there are items on the shelves that have been there since it closed. Original product, clothing, utensils etcetera. When visitors walk into the Mai Wah what would you like them to understand and learn from their visit?

McCormick: I think it’s really important for them to know and understand the Chinese families that came and settled in Butte. To know about those particular families and what they did and how, mainly the Chinn family, how they assisted other Chinese immigrants into assimilating in the United States. How they provided some very vital services for those new immigrants.

They had a post office there, they provided translating series in the basement. There were apartments that Chinese people, new immigrants could stay at and then later on aged Chinese people could live in. But they provided a place where Chinese could come and get the foodstuffs and the material things they were used to having back home. Then they provided employment; they had the restaurant upstairs. The restaurant, a noodle parlor, was very popular place. It welcomed both Chinese and non-Chinese residents of Butte That could be first generation Americans, second generations Americans and immigrants from elsewhere all over the world.

That is what I really see as a really important function of the Mai Wah, the telling the story of this family and their contributions and then the greater contributions of the Chinese to the economic vitality of Butte in its booming years.


Larson: Mary, could you talk a little bit more about the uniqueness of the architecture of the buildings?

McCormick: I think the architecture is perhaps a little more unique inside than out. I mean, there is an outside character that we are really trying hard to preserve, where I see it is the transom windows, the windows that are above the store front, they’re divided into multi-lights and they painted them vibrant colors. We’re not sure exactly what the original colors were, but we’re trying to maintain that in our rehabilitation efforts.

The inside of the Mai Wah side of the building, on the main level, it was divided into a whole bunch of tiny little stores. It is kind of like a mini mall where they can impact and speak more to all the different services and goods that were offered there. But then we also have the cheater story. It has the appearance of a two-story building from the outside, but when you go in and you go up the stairs, there this intervening little, story between the first and second, it has very low ceilings. We always say that it’s because there was a tax placed on how many stories a building had. It was to reduce the amount of taxes because it appeared as a two-story building, but instead of a three story building.

I haven’t seen that anywhere else in Butte. So that is really unique. But when you go upstairs, and you go into especially on the Mai Wah side were there was a fire over on the Wah Chung side. There were noodle parlors in both sides of the building. First, the Wah Chong was built in 1899 and then they build the Mai Wah as a n addition and there’s a new kitchen in there. But I mean, that really takes you back in time when you can go into that kitchen. The woks are still there the stove where they cooked, you can see the deep ruts in the flooring in from of that. Then there’s the room where the noodle parlor was, where they hand made noodles there and where the noodle machine was. There is some noodle still splattered on the walls.

The noodle machine is at the historical society in Helena. Now that we’re doing some major rehabilitation on our building, we’re hoping to get that back.

It is very authentic; you see a real-life glimpse into what was. It may not be clean and pretty, but it’s authentic, and I think so many people that long for that today. They want to see something real. It’s not make-believe, it’s the real deal.


Larson: Can either of you speak to why it is so important to maintain this history and these stories and why they are still relevant to us today?

Munday: Yes, I was recently at a national Chinese history conference hosted at the Smithsonian and brought a lot of photos of artifacts that we have at the museum. They were doing a special exhibit at the Smithsonian on Chinese restaurants, showing some of the dishes and so forth. Well, all the dishes that they had on display were very heavy-duty utilitarian kind of Chinese restaurant dishes that you would have seen from the 19 teens to the 20s. We have some of the authentic, original hand painted Chinese dishes, very colorful, beautiful, ornate. Probably dishes, restaurant dishes, that predated 1899 because the Chinns’ had been in Butte, operated some other business including I think a restaurant prior to that time. So, it’s a very special collection. To see the Smithsonian curator, look at our photos and just sort of, we don’t have anything like that, I mean he’s right. Then to see our fantastic collection of those mercantile kits including rare herbal medicines that were true, very traditionally part of Chinese medicine. They don’t exist anywhere else in the world now. In part because Chinese mercantile in other places in the United States, as in Helena for example were either torn down and everything discarded, or they stayed in business, in places like Portland or Seattle and they sold everything. But we’re frozen in time. We closed up in 1940. So, it’s a collection unlike anything else in the world. I’ve had elderly Chinese come through on tours when I’m working there, to see some of the everyday things sold in the mercantile, as well as, things like our hand painted wooden sculptures, the happy Buddha that greeted customers at George Wing’s restaurant in Butte for many years. They’ll get tears in their eyes because this stuff doesn’t exist in China anymore either.

McCormick: When you talk about the importance of history, to me historic preservation, it’s just that. We need to learn from the past, so we don’t make the same mistakes. Butte was this place where people came from all over the world to find employment. It was a safety valve. You had all these immigrants running away from very adverse conditions in Ireland, Eastern European countries and in China. They were able to come to the United States and we needed people to do this really dangerous work. Working underground in the mines. It was this safety gap. I think we still need that today. We forget our ancestors came to the United States under very adverse conditions, but were able to come here and make an important contribution to the growth and development of our country. I think that is the story that Butte as a whole tells.

It’s a magnificent story, and they tell it very, very well. If we listen to her history. Like Pat said, certainly there were tensions at times, but if you look underground in some of the underground mines, they had signs in 14 different languages. They accommodated. People came here and they wanted to be a part of the United States and they learned English. They didn’t shut themselves off. I think that’s the same with a lot of immigrant groups today. They want to come here; they want to retain the important aspects of their culture, but they also want to be a part of our country. I certainly think the Chinese family that lived in the Mai Wah, the Chinn’s, and ran it for years is an exemplary example of that. All of their children are very successful. They integrated into this world; they went all over the country and are doctors, lawyers and such.  

Munday: If I could just add a bit to that. The Mai Wah really echoes a sentiment expressed by the recently deceased Butte writer Edwin Dobb. Edwin Dobb has this beautiful line about Butte as that little stage where the history of America played. And the Mai Wah was part of that stage. The Mai Wah continues to share her stories with Butte and all who come to visit this extraordinary city. May we listen and learn.


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