Curator and volunteers work to restore mercantile
If only Janna Norby could speak Mandarin.
More than 2,500 Chinese artifacts are finally returned to the former Wah Chong Tai Co. mercantile on Mercury Street, and volunteers with the Mai Wah Museum are working to restock its shelves.
Norby, hired on in May as curator and funded through a donation by Janet Sperry, already has a few displays filled with old noodles and spices. But some carefully wrapped herbal medicines remain a mystery; nobody knows how to read the labels.
“It’s such an odd conglomeration of stuff,” Norby said.
Items include everything that made up Wah Chong Tai’s inventory when the mercantile first closed in 1943. After 69 years, the shark fins still smell faintly like fish.
The nonprofit Mai Wah Society recently brought back the collection on loan from the Montana Heritage Commission, and Norby hopes to recreate the store just as it looked decades ago.
Given enough time and help, Norby would also like to organize an exhibit upstairs in what was the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor kitchen.
All together, this meticulous preservation will offer residents a new visual interpretation of Butte’s historic Chinatown, Norby said.
“They will be able to walk through part of the Chinese experience,” she said. “I don’t think you can get that anywhere else.”
Norby, of Ennis, spent seven years as curator of collections at the state Heritage Center in Virginia City. She actually oversaw the original loan of Chinese artifacts to the Mai Wah Society in 2010.
Now she gets to help unpack everything again.
“It was irresistible to me, to see this through,” Norby said.
Boxes upon boxes are stacked in rooms around the building, waiting to find their place. Norby figures they might finish by the end of the year.
Wealthy preservationist Charles Bovey first bought what he could from the Wah Chong Tai and Mai Wah buildings in 1946 as part of his own impressive collection of Montana historical culture.
The state then bought these items from Bovey’s holdings in 1997. Its loan to Mai Wah Society is intended to shed fresh perspective on the Chinese immigration and culture in Butte.
“There were so many people here of all nationalities,” Norby said. “But it’s new to me to put myself in the situation of not only being an immigrant, but being an immigrant that really looked different.”