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Monday, July 28, 2008

Underworld Tacoma

posted by on July 28 at 13:46 PM

Tacoma has no Chinatown. Why?

[In 2000,] the Tacoma News Tribune published an article titled “Tacoma faces up to its darkest hour,” which stated that Tacoma might have turned out differently had it not booted out its Chinese population. “First, it is the only [city on the West Coast] that doesn’t have a large Chinese American population, [and the last] census figures suggest there are fewer people of Chinese descent in the city now than there were in 1885.”

Tacoma, however, does have “mysterious Chinese tunnels”:


72 years ago, a man named William Zimmerman sat down to tell a story about “mysterious Chinese tunnels” to the U.S. government. That interview was conducted as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, and it can be read online in a series of typewritten documents hosted by the Library of Congress.
Zimmerman claims that “mysterious” tunnels honeycombed the ground beneath the city of Tacoma, Washington. These would soon become known as “Shanghai tunnels,” because city dwellers were allegedly kidnapped via these underground routes which always led west to the docks only to be shipped off to Shanghai, an impossibly other world across the ocean. There, they’d be sold into slavery.

The whole mysterious business reminds me of a passage from a letter Goethe wrote to Lavater:

Like a big city, our moral and political world is undermined with subterranean roads, cellars, and sewers, about whose connection and dwelling conditions nobody seems to reflect or think; but those who know something of this will find it much more understandable if here or there, now or then, the earth crumbles away, smoke rises out of a crack, and strange voices are heard.

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Doesn't Portland have these "Shanghai tunnels" as well?

Posted by hohoho green giant | July 28, 2008 2:27 PM

Portland, Seattle, Port Townsend and I believe Astoria all had "Shanghai tunnels" build under their cities near the docks. These had little or nothing to do with Chinese residents or Chinatowns, however. They were so named because people kidnapped through these tunnels would be conscripted to work on a ship as crew, and Shanghai was the furthest port that the Northwest shipping routes served. As far as I've read (or heard on Portland's Shanghai tunnel tour - go see it next time you're in PDX) the usual victims of the kidnappings were either seamen from other ships on leave, or loggers in town for their monthly get-drunk-and-get-laid trips.

The tunnels in Portland run underneath some of the oldest bars and businesses in the old part of town. You can look up and see trap doors that dropped down into the tunnels - and when above-ground in the bars, see the trap doors in the floor that would drop down into the tunnels. There is a pile of shoes and broken glass - the means of keeping the kidnapping victims down under until a ship was leaving port and needed a few extra hands.

I understand that Seattle's tunnels ran under Pioneer Square, but the fire and rebuild left them unaccessible -- the Underground Tour shows the first floors of the old buildings, and the tunnels would be underneath them.

Posted by Lucky | July 28, 2008 2:40 PM

Every city has legends of "trap doors" and "secret tunnels" that were used to carry off the unsuspecting to a life of slavery in the press gangs. Portland's practically made an industry out of theirs.

Call me skeptical. The only evidence that's ever presented, on the rare occasions when any evidence is, comes from elderly cranks like this guy. To me, it just rings out "urban legend".

I'm willing to believe that the tunnels were USED at times for this purpose, but they certainly were not built for it. Warehousing, longshoring -- Legitimate, legal businesses are the kinds that carry out large-scale building projects in the industrial heart of the city.

Posted by Fnarf | July 28, 2008 2:41 PM

Not sure about the existence of the tunnels, but to commemorate/make up Tacoma's injustice to its 19th century Chinese residents, it's about to open a new park on the Sound. See

Posted by maggie | July 28, 2008 2:51 PM

why does that bldgblog post come off as not just skeptical of the purported uses of the tunnels, but of their actual existence?

i was waiting for the snarky, "it's even been rumored that seattle has some sort of 'underground,'--some say there was a 'fire' in the late 19th century that may have resulted in the regrading of the early pioneer square neighborhood, leaving the fabled 'original' streets and storefronts below ground. as if..."

Posted by chops | July 28, 2008 2:54 PM

uh, why go to all the trouble and money to build tunnels specifically for this purpose? Seems a little unlikely.

And, WHY doesn't Tacoma have a Chinatown? What's the real story?

I'm expecting it to be sordid and full of bigotry and lynchings.

Posted by michael strangeways | July 28, 2008 3:15 PM

what #6 said. a tunnel like that would have been built by the city, not pirates.

Posted by max solomon | July 28, 2008 3:23 PM

Man . . . just couldn't resist gratuitously busting out the Goethe, could you?

Posted by shub-negrorath | July 28, 2008 3:29 PM

@6: I dunno, good old American racism?

What came to be known as "Tacoma method" was used in November 1885 to expel several thousand Chinese peaceably living in the city. As described by the account prepared by the Chinese Reconciliation Project, on the morning of November 3, 1885, "several hundred men, led by the mayor and other city officials, evicted the Chinese from their homes, corralled them at 7th Street and Pacific Avenue, marched them to the railway station at Lakeview and forced them aboard the morning train to Portland, Oregon. The next day two Chinese settlements were burned to the ground."


Posted by K | July 28, 2008 4:17 PM

uh, try going to 38th between pacific and the mall and tell me thats not china town, chineese laterns on the poles, grocery mart and resteraunts. looks like a chinatown to me

Posted by chrisroxx | July 28, 2008 4:35 PM

yep, by cracky, i'll be headin' down to that neck of the woods to takes me a gander at them there "chineese laterns" and mebbe gits me a bite to eat at some "resteraunts" before burnin' down a chineetown or two...

Posted by michael strangeways | July 28, 2008 4:47 PM

You should check out the Shanghai Tunnels in Boise. Those are some long tunnels!

Posted by elswinger | July 28, 2008 4:56 PM

Forget it, Charles. It's Chinatown.

Posted by Greg | July 28, 2008 5:24 PM

michael strangeways, report to your shrink asap.

Posted by elko | July 28, 2008 9:47 PM

There's a PacNW blogger who has no shortage of info about things like this, anti-Asian racism, sundown towns, etc etc.

Posted by CP | July 29, 2008 6:45 PM

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