For the Chinn family, the debut of an exhibit about their family in Butte is more than just a museum piece. The family came together from at least eight states to reconnect in the Mining City this weekend.
The permanent exhibit is housed in the Mai Wah Museum at 17 W. Mercury St., a non-profit established to preserve and interpret the Asian heritage of southwest Montana. The building is where Joyce Chinn and Yvonne Chinn Oliger lived as young children.
Photos and historical documents like immigration records tell the story of the Chinn family, which owned the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor, Wah Chong Tai Mercantile and a laundry in Butte. Patriarch Chinn Yee Fong, who went by Albert, and his wife, Liu Fong Loon, had 10 children. Their son William is the father of Joyce and Yvonne.
“It’s an immigrant story,” said Jana Faught, a Mai Wah board member, of the new exhibit. “It’s an American story. It’s about our community, our neighborhood. Chinatown is a significant part of this city.”
It’s also a story that brought the far-flung family back together for a reunion during the Butte Chinese Heritage Week.
“We thought it was time we tell each other the story of our parents,” Oliger said. “The neatest thing about this reunion is a chance to reconnect.”
Oliger, who lives in Nashville, Ind., said the family has spent time at the Butte-Silver Bow Archives as well as visiting the graves of William Chinn, Liu Fong Loon and several aunts and uncles.
Standing in the place where she lived until she was 8 years old, Yvonne recalled memories she has of the building. The family lived in what is now the gallery space on the first floor.
“I remember watching from the window downstairs as my dad was going away to the Korean War,” she said.
When William Chinn returned from the war, the family put his GI Bill money toward the purchase of a house on Floral Park Boulevard. Yvonne and Joyce attended Hawthorne School and both graduated from Butte High School.
“I think Yvonne and I have incredibly deep roots in Butte Chinese-wise,” Joyce said. “Every time I talk about my family, people say, ‘You should write a book.’ This is my book, this place, this house. I’m really happy the family is anchored in this building. They have a touchstone to their history here.”
Joyce, who lives in Portland, Ore., hopes the exhibit sheds light on her family in the modern day.
“I want people to understand that the Chinese in America are more than chop suey and egg foo young,” she said. “We were a community here. People got married and had babies. We’re not frozen in time.”
She also noted that many people assume the Chinese came to the U.S. only after World War II. The Chinn family, however, is part of the fabric of Butte back to the city’s infancy.
“(My family) came in the 1800s,” she said. “I have more generations in America than my white husband.”