#619: The Burrowing Chinese

April 11th, 2016

It’s a parking lot now, a fenced-in expanse with a dropping gate arm. East of Three Happiness Restaurant and north of the Nine Dragon Wall and a pagoda, the lot nestles cars under and around the Red Line Chinatown stop.

But in the 1920s, this stretch was another block of shops, grocers, drug stores and the like, with a hidden network of underground tunnels connecting them all.

Maybe. Well, actually probably not.

In 1927, narcotics agents raided a drug store/opium den on that block where, according to the Chicago Tribune, they found a passageway to a network of tunnels, four to six feet under the ground and “wide enough for two men to pass each other.”

The network of tunnels went under the entire block, a warren that also netted five barrels of Chinese wine the narcs to turn over to prohibition agents, the article said.

Stories of secret tunnels under Chinatowns are traded in New York, San Francisco, Fresno, Vancouver, Boise, Los Angeles, El Paso, Bakersfield, Portland, Victoria, Oklahoma City, Tacoma. If a North American city has a Chinatown, it seems someone has told a story about tunnels underneath for opium dens, sex trafficking, shanghaiing sailors — pick your anti-immigrant stereotype.

The “burrowing Chinese” myth is good tourism and a quick story on a slow news day — stating the legend as fact in the more dire era of journalistic integrity and backpedaling “… or is it?” stories in the modern age.

There were tunnels and underground passageways, of course, just like there are tunnels and underground passageways through huge swaths of cities.

But in Chinatowns, the Asian mystique and good old-fashioned racism turn normal service corridors and basements into something mystical and grim.

In Portland, a passageway for hauling dry goods between the docks and nearby hotels became the mysterious, ghost-filled “Shanghai Tunnels.”

In the Doyers Street tunnel in New York, an aggravated office worker put up a sign that said in part “Don’t you feel silly? Duh! You are in the cellar of an office building! Ask for your tour money back!!”

Newspaper accounts aren’t exactly smoking guns either. Newsmen of the day would often make up stories or just repeat others’ fantastical notions, justifying whatever lies or exaggerations might exist through those cleansing words “he said.”

Maybe W. W. Overton was making up the “hundreds of crazed yellow men” fleeing a three-story subterranean city during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but who cares? He said it. We’re not lying, just reporting honest and true that one guy did say a thing.

(And, for the record, since Overton’s account ticks off every Chinese stereotype from opium pipes to what I think’s an allusion to bound feet, I’m willing to go out on a limb and not trust this one.)

I don’t think the newspapers or the police were lying about finding connected basements after a drug raid, but consider the source: narcotics agents trying to stir up some press after a big raid. A network of tunnels constructed, presumably, for druggin’ in mind sounds more sinister, nefarious and heroic-to-uncover than “They ran into the neighbor’s basement when the cops came.”

It’s not without peer. When police in 1914 were trying to close down Feiberg’s, the last brothel left in the notorious Levee red light district a few blocks east of our lot/anthill, they told the press of “a maze of tunnels, secret passages and hiding places” for the police raids.

Freiberg’s closed a month after that article. I have no doubt a brothel had hidey-holes in it, but when law enforcement was trying to shut a place down, the stories became more ominous and dark.

I started researching this believing in the tunnels, but the logic doesn’t bear out, or at least points more toward connected basements and storage spaces than underground cities.

Every old store was a speakeasy once. Everyone’s great-grandma drank with Al Capone. The same star-crossed lovers leapt from every Lover’s Leap from Starved Rock to Baku. If you listen at night, you can still hear the little girl’s laugh and did I mention Lincoln, Washington, Mark Twain and Ringo Starr slept here?

Maybe I’m wrong and there was a secret network, not just narcotics agents hyping up a service hallway, but I don’t think so. There’s enough real and mysterious and odd in the world that I don’t have to imagine hidden cities under a parking lot by the Chinatown Red Line.

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