Teens hunt for heritage in Port Townsend

Mikala Woodward

Mikala Woodward

PORT TOWNSEND — They hiked through potato fields, combed beaches, followed trails through woods and along cliff tops.

They talked with a pioneer family descendant and visited a cemetery, looking at his family plot.

On Friday morning, 13 teenagers of Pacific Asian descent took the ferry from Whidbey Island to Port Townsend, where they continued their quest to find traces of their ancestors’ experience in the New World.

The teenagers are participants in YouthCAN, a program offered by the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle.

A main goal of the trip: to create art installations that make the Chinese immigrant experience in the Northwest more visible.

“This is a history that is largely hidden,” said Mikala Woodward, exhibit developer/YouthCAN manager.

On Whidbey, the teens spent two nights camping at Fort Ebey State Park, where they searched the landscape for sites where Chinese immigrants lived and worked, Woodward said.

They also met with Roger Sherman at the Island County Historical Museum.

Sherman told them about a Chinese immigrant who worked for his family. When the man died in 1925, he was buried in the family plot, which the students visited.

The teens also were able to answer a question Sherman posed: Why did he sometimes find an orange on the grave?

Their answer: It is a Chinese custom to honor ancestors with gifts of food, an orange being a common offering.

In Port Townsend, the students heard Gloria Lung Wakayama, whose great-grandfather, Eng Hock Gem, emigrated from Canton, China, to Canada, then to Port Townsend in 1890.

A merchant, he married Lee Gok Sue, who was from a wealthy Portland family, in Port Townsend in 1895.

It was an arranged marriage.

She was 16. He was in his 40s.

“She said later she was shocked when she first saw him, that he was so old,” Wakayama said.

Wakayama, who lives in Seattle, is a partner in a law firm that has an office in the Baker Block Building in Port Townsend.

It’s two blocks from the location of her great-grandfather’s import/export company,.

Yee Sing Wo Kee Co. was on Adams Street where the Khu Larb Thai restaurant is now.

Another well-known import firm was Zee Tai Co., Wakayama said.

Wakayama told a story about the day a banker, purportedly a Col. Landes, decided to call in a $650 loan he’d made to her great-grandfather.

He gave the merchant until 3 p.m. that same day to raise the money.

Eng Hock Gem went out and called in accounts due in the Chinese community.

The loan was paid by the deadline, Wakayama said,

Her grandmother, Fannie, was the oldest of nine children, five of whom were born in Port Townsend.

When William, the oldest son, was born in 1902, his parents invited the city’s leading citizens to a party celebrating his birth.

The guests included Col. Landes, whose gift was a gold cup, Wakayama said.

Mario Pilapil, a YouthCAN program assistant, had a particular interest in looking at Wakayama’s family photographs — he had read about her Great Uncle William in an old Northwest history book.

“It had a chapter titled “Our Chinese Colony,” Pilapil said.

Bill Tennent, Jefferson County Historical Society director, welcomed the group and gave the young people an overview of Port Townsend, once one of the three busiest ports in the country, and considered the Ellis Island of the Northwest for newcomers from other countries.

Local historian Beverly Brice spoke about the local Chinese community, which in 1880 boasted 500 residents.

A Chinese Masonic Lodge was formed in 1902, with 140 charter members, she said.

But a fire destroyed the Chinese district in the 1900s, Brice said, and by 1920, only 40 people of Chinese descent lived in Port Townsend.

Brice also said that many Chinese immigrants were smuggled into the United States across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They worked as tenant farmers and laborers.

“They were a part of the agricultural economy,” Woodward said.

The group toured the museum and viewed the art collection, which has a large painting by Tom Wilson, “Chinese Gardens,” of the area adjacent to North Beach where immigrant farmers raised vegetables.

This week, the Wing Luke youth will be watching a documentary that was filmed at Chinese Gardens and downtown Port Townsend, Woodward said.

Wakayama, who is interviewed in the documentary, said that when she looks at the historic buildings, she thinks about how her grandmother walked around town when she was young and saw the same structures.

“There is a strong sense of belonging and pride,” Wakayama said. “It’s our responsibility to preserve their stories.”

About 1906, her great-grandparents moved to Seattle, where four of their children were born, Wakayama said.

Her Great-Aunt Della, who is her 90s, is the last surviving sibling.

Jamie Ford, who wrote the best-seller, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is set in Seattle’s International District, is related to Wakayama through her Great-Uncle Jimmy, she said.

Beth Takakawa, director of the Wing Luke Museum, and Stewart Wong, mentor artist, accompanied the youths, who carried sketchbooks and made drawings as they toured the history and art museum.

June Tan, 18, an incoming Roosevelt High School senior, said one idea she had for an art installation on Whidbey Island would be a sculpture of a hand holding up a potato, symbolizing the contribution that Chinese immigrants made to their communities.

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is located in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. For more information, see www.wingluke.org.

Jennifer Jackson is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Townsend. To contact her, email jjackson@olypen.com.

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