Spokane Neighborhoods: Old Chinatown -- Trent Alley -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/30/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8120
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From the 1880s through the 1940s, a bustling Chinatown -- or to be more accurate, an international district -- thrived in downtown Spokane. Three blocks of urban courtyards and alleys were jammed with Chinese and Japanese food markets, laundries, pool halls, hotels, and restaurants. Variously called Trent Alley, Japanese Alley, or simply Chinatown, it began in the 1880s mostly as a stopping point for Chinese and Japanese workers imported to work in railroad camps and mines. In those first decades, the district was a teeming slum, rife with opium dens, gambling dens, and prostitute's "cribs." The city's majority white residents considered Chinatown to be both an exotic attraction and a den of iniquity that required periodic raids. By about 1900, Trent Alley began to become more respectable as more families, especially Japanese families, began to move in. For the next two decades it was filled with numerous Japanese hotels, boarding houses, fish markets, restaurants, barber shops, and billiards halls. The neighborhood was hit hard by the Great Depression, but saw a brief revival during World War II due to an influx of Japanese American families escaping the evacuation zones in Western Washington and Oregon.  After the war, the Asian American population began to disperse to other areas of the city and Trent Alley lost most of its Asian character. Most of the old buildings and courtyards were razed as part of the urban renewal projects for Expo '74, Spokane's World's Fair. Today, the old Chinatown has disappeared, paved over for vast parking lots for Spokane's performing arts and convention centers.

Chinese New Year, 1889

A tour through Spokane's Chinatown in the late 1880s was a wild and foreign experience to most white residents of the fast-growing city. A reporter for The Morning Review newspaper took just such a tour during the Chinese New Year celebration in January 1889.

"Thousands of crackers were fired, bombs exploded and Chinese rockets were sent heavenward," wrote the reporter. "Hundreds of people, attracted by the noise, blocked the streets" (The Morning Review, "The Fusillade of Fun").

He reported that guests, "no matter what race," were invited into the rooms of Chinatown residents and "made welcome with viands and liquors." Roast pig or chicken were the favorite foods; Chinese whiskey, or "Sam Shu" the favored liquors.

"Before the food is eaten it is set out before a picture or image of Joss (an idol)," wrote the correspondent. "Punk or Joss sticks (incense sticks) are lighted and set near. As the pale blue smoke ascends to heaven, each guest breathes a prayer and sends it up in the smoke to the spirits of departed friends and relatives to partake of the feast" (The Morning Review, "The Fusillade of Fun").

In a merchant's store on Front Street, a Chinese band "sawed and hammered away with all their might" on three fiddles, a tom-tom, and a cymbal.

Opium, Fan-Tan, and Prostitution

Chinatown – roughly bordered by Howard Street on the west, Bernard Street on the east, Front Street (later called Trent Avenue, now called Spokane Falls Boulevard) on the north and Main Avenue on the south -- wasn't nearly so lively most days. However, at night the district was teeming with activity, much of it illegal. In 1888, Spokane police staged a midnight "tour" -- that is, raid -- on a string of "joints" on Front Street.

"While one officer entered a wash house by the front door, his associate came in by the rear," wrote a Morning Review reporter. "Thus the pig-tailed artists of the washtub were taken completely by surprise" (The Morning Review, "Police Sweep Down"). A dozen opium smokers were captured while "hitting the pipe," said the reporter.

"Last night's scene would amaze the good people of the city who repose unconscious of the dens of vice that flourish like noxious weeds in the dark noisome alleys and the tangled ravines of the slums," said the paper. "... It is not exaggeration to say that the city swarms with white men who visit these hellish resorts, enslaving body and mind and tumbling to the bottomless abyss of degradation" (The Morning Review, "Police Sweep Down").

The area was indeed rough and lawless. Police routinely raided the fan-tan joints (fan-tan being a Chinese gambling game), but even the police were aware that most of the gambling and opium dens continued to thrive underground.

"The Chinese gamblers have arranged this so that it is nearly impregnable to assaults from officers of the law," said the Spokesman-Review in 1905. "To reach the establishment, one must go up from an entrance on the street. As soon as the front door is opened, a bell is rung upstairs. A lookout sizes up the incoming party, and if they do not pass muster, he can shut a door which is halfway up the stairs" (The Spokesman-Review, "Gambling Rife").

Major R.D. Gwydir, Spokane's former federal "Chinese inspector," led a Spokesman-Review reporter on a tour of Chinatown in 1902. They entered squalid apartments where crowds were gathered around "rattling games of fan-tan." In another dark apartment, men "puffed solidly on long pipes." In some quarters, they saw only shadowy figures scurrying away down narrow passageways.

Prostitution also flourished in the early days, largely with Japanese prostitutes who arrived with -- or were coerced into the trade by -- the gambling men. One shady character kept enticing women over from Japan with a promise to marry. Once they arrived, he went back on his promises and forced them into prostitution.

In 1891, there were only about 60 Japanese residents in Spokane, but the Japanese consulate for the area reported with alarm that 17 of them were prostitutes and 30 were either pimps or gamblers.

More Japanese Than Chinese

However, the nature of the community began to change around 1900 to 1910, as many Japanese men brought over wives and relatives and began to raise families in the district. Vice continued to flourish in Chinatown, but the attitude of the residents began to change. In 1909, the law-abiding residents, probably a majority by this time, actually went up and "applauded" the police after one fan-tan raid. The police chief noted that many of the residents were tired of people in the community losing their wages to fan-tan operators year after year.

The newspapers and the white community tended to focus on the sordid and sensational in Chinatown. Yet by 1900, the area had many thriving legitimate businesses and a social fabric that was becoming more Japanese than Chinese. The alley just west of Trent Alley, between Stevens and Washington streets, came to be known as Japanese Alley (actually, the shorter, cruder version of the name). Trent Alley, an L-shaped courtyard in the block bounded by Main and Front avenues and Bernard and Washington streets, also had a decided Japanese character. The entire area was often lumped together under the name Japanese Alley, although many continued to call it Chinatown.

The Noodle Houses of Spokane

By 1912, a tour of Front Street would take a visitor past a number of Japanese restaurants. At least 16 Japanese restaurants were operating in Spokane. Some of these restaurants were "hash houses," meaning cheap workingmen's restaurants catering mostly to a white clientele. Some were called "chop suey" or "noodle" houses, serving cheap Asian American food to white customers. At least two, right in the heart of Japanese Alley, served Japanese and Chinese food for a mostly Asian clientele.

One thing all of the restaurants had in common: low prices. In 1915 the Japanese Restaurant Keepers Association announced it was raising the price of meals from 10 cents to 15 cents.

The restaurant owner and family usually lived right in the back of the restaurant, or in one of the adjacent hotels and boarding houses. It was customary (and economically necessary) for the proprietors of almost all the shops and businesses to live in or near their shops.

Miya Numatu Koyama, born in 1912, remembers living in a "little house" behind her family's restaurant at Main and Bernard. Surrounding the restaurant was a Japanese tailor, Japanese pool hall, and Japanese barbershop. "It was pretty much a Japanese community in that block," said Koyama (Koyama).

Chinese and Japanese Laundries

The district's hand laundries were originally a Chinese endeavor, but the business was soon taken over by Japanese immigrants. Historian Deborah Ann Gallacci Wilbert noted that the white community was convinced that "Asians excelled in personal service and attention to detail," which meant that the laundries had a large and eager market. Japanese hand laundries were also cheap, thanks to abundant labor, mostly supplied by immigrant families. In 1912, six Japanese laundries were operating in Spokane, mostly in Chinatown.

Tai Gee, a Spokane Chinese pioneer and the unofficial "mayor" of Chinatown, publicly fretted in 1915 that the laundry business was being taken away from his "countrymen" (possibly meaning both Chinese and Japanese) because of a new ordinance forbidding them to work at night, which "takes away their profits" (Chronicle).

He need not have worried. Asian hand laundries continued to thrive for decades.

Hotels and Fish Markets

The Japanese hotel business was especially important in Chinatown, not just for the transient business -- two of the major railroad depots were right across Front Street --but for the many Japanese couples and families who lived full-time in furnished rooms. In this era of de facto racial segregation in the Northwest, these Japanese hotels were also well known for welcoming black travelers. Most of the fancier downtown hotels did not.

The Trent Alley district also had its share of Oriental food markets, including the OK Fish Market and the Golden Fish Market, both on Bernard. These supplied Asian food items to Chinatown residents and also to the Chinese and Japanese railroad labor camps throughout the Inland Northwest.

Pool Halls and Barber Shops

The barbershops served a mixed clientele. They competed for white customers with the Italian immigrants who also ran many downtown barbershops. Yet they also catered to Japanese workingmen who lived in the hotels. Several barbershops had public baths in back rooms to serve the many single men who had no bath facilities in their hotel rooms. One shop boasted six tubs.

Barbershops were often connected with billiards halls, which were a nationwide craze in the first decades of the twentieth century. Billiards seemed to be especially popular in Trent Alley and Japanese Alley, which had at least four pool halls. One explanation for their popularity may have been that billiards halls often doubled as gambling halls, with various card games to be found in the back rooms. In this respect, Japanese pool halls were no different than the many white-run pool halls, which, along with cigar shops, were often fronts for gambling. When Prohibition arrived, pool halls and cigar shops also became fronts for liquor sales.

Gambling continued as a Chinatown industry through 1920s and 1930s, although fan-tan games were gradually replaced with the more modern games of slot machines and lotteries.

Decline of Spokane's Chinatown

Chinatown began its slow decline in the 1920s when Japanese immigration was curtailed and then banned. Many Japanese immigrants went back to Japan, after losing hope that their families would ever be able to join them. With no new influx of immigrants, Trent Alley began to lose its Asian identity. Mii Tai, who grew up in Trent Alley in the 1930s, recalled that there was an Italian restaurant right in the heart of the alley.

The Great Depression hit Trent Alley particularly hard. In 1931, an importer of shark's fins and bird's nests had to close up shop and leave Spokane because of a collapsed market. Tai Gee, still called the "mayor of Chinatown," was arrested for narcotics possession ("they say Tai Gee had hop," he was quoted as lamenting), and went back to China in 1930.

In 1933, there was little rejoicing during the Chinese New Year. The new "mayor," Bong Que, said times were hard, there was no work and nobody had any money. There would be no fireworks that year.

After Pearl Harbor

Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, and on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) signed Executive Order 9066, setting in motion the expulsion of 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast to 10 inland prison camps. Trent Alley had an influx of new residents largely because Spokane was the closest city of refuge for Japanese American families from Seattle, Portland, and other areas inside the West Coast evacuation zone.  Spokane was just outside the line, meaning that Spokane's Japanese American residents were never forced into relocation camps. Spokane's Japanese American population at least tripled, and many lived in the Japanese hotels and boarding houses around Trent Alley. Many went back to Western Washington and Oregon after the war, but a significant number stayed.

Yet the Asian American community had largely dispersed into the city's more affluent neighborhoods and suburbs. After the war, the term "Chinatown" was rarely used. Trent Alley had taken on the character of a generic, run-down Skid Row.

From Chinatown to Parking Lot

Because of its blighted nature, Trent Alley was razed in the early 1970s as part of the massive urban renewal project for Expo '74, Spokane's World's Fair. These shadowy courtyards and alleys are now paved over for parking lots serving the Spokane Convention Center and INB Performing Arts Center (formerly the Spokane Opera House).

Visitors, shoving bills into the payment slots, have no way of knowing they are standing on a historic spot: A place where joss sticks scented the air and Chinese rockets streaked into the sky.

Sources: "Police Swoop Down Upon Opium Joints," The Morning Review, August 1, 1888; "John Chinaman's Day,"  Ibid., January 30, 1889; "A Fusillade of Fun," January. 31. 1889; "New Faces in Town," The Spokesman-Review, Jan. 1, 1902; "Gambling Rife Among Chinese," Ibid., March 27, 1905; "Fan-Tan Killed In Local Joints," Ibid., May 26, 1909; Spokane Chronicle, April 23, 1915; "Cops 'Too Much Jerkee," The Spokesman-Review, February 2, 1930; "Times Cut Scale of Shark's Fins," Ibid.,, November 27, 1931; "Chinese Curb Festivities," The Spokesman-Review, January 26, 1933; Deborah Ann Gallacci Wilbert, "A History of the Formation of  the Japanese-American Community in Spokane, 1890-1941," Master's Thesis, Washington State University History Department, 1982, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) archives; Rose Sliger Krause, "Beyond the Evacuation Zone: Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement in Spokane," Master's Thesis, Eastern Washington University History Department, 2006, MAC archives; Miya Numatu Koyama, transcribed interview with Rose Sliger Krause, MAC archives; Jim Kershner, "City Has a Lusty Youth," The Spokesman-Review, August 14, 2000; Jim Kershner, "When Dragons Roamed Trent," Ibid., August 14, 2005.

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