On the second floor of what was once a mercantile, a noodle parlor, a boarding house and a family’s home — and of what is now the Mai Wah Museum — Pat Munday gingerly removes a pair of “priceless” ornate silk screens made in 19th-century China and places them in the grooves of their “inlaid mother-of-pearl, all handmade, probably teak” frames.
“These are extremely rare,” says Munday, president of the museum’s board of directors.
Then he unpacks and displays what he calls a “deeply, deeply meaningful” teapot engraved with a canonical Tang Dynasty poem and accompanied by a matching set of cups. Then he brings out an elaborately decorated vase and a sampling of hand-painted dishes.
While these objects sound exotic, Joyce Chinn, who spent the first six years of her life living in the buildings that house the museum, says their recent arrival in Butte was a homecoming.
“I think the point about the artifacts is that there is a direct line from the people who built the building through me to the Mai Wah,” Chinn says.
The silk screens, the tea set and the vase belonged to her grandmother, who brought them from her native China to the Mining City around the turn of the 20th century. The noodle dishes were used in the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor that was a staple of Butte’s Chinatown during the first half of the 20th century. As a child, she grew up eating from the dishes.
And Chinn says those personal and historical intersections motivated her and her sister Yvonne Oliger to send the objects to the museum in June on a 5-year loan.
“I think I wanted people to see the Mai Wah as a place where real people lived and worked and not just as a storehouse of a bunch of things carted over from China,” Chinn says.
That, she says, can help people see the true diversity of the Chinese not only in Butte throughout the West: “I want people to understand that the Chinese who lived in western cities like Butte weren’t all living in dug-out hillsides wearing funny hats and doing laundry in pots, which is kind of the impression that people think, when you tell people that your family was Chinese.”
Chinn traces her family’s origins in Butte to the late 1880s, when she says her great-grandfather and grandfather came to the then-nascent Mining City, despite anti-Chinese exclusion laws that made their immigration unlikely. Also unlikely, Chinn says, was that her ancestors came not to mine, like many of their countrymen, but to set up as merchants who would provide goods to those Chinese miners. They did so first on Galena Street before moving to Mercury Street in 1899, when the first of the two existing and adjoining buildings was completed.
“The idea was that those Chinese who were laborers needed services, so they built first the Wah Chong Tai side of the building,” Chinn says. “The one (building) on the left was added on later, but not too much later.”
In those two brick buildings, there was a restaurant, a noodle house, a boarding house, a mercantile, an apothecary, a bank and various other “unregistered activities,” according to Chinn.
“It was a like a town center,” she says. “But it was there to serve the Chinese community, which was around 2,000 people in the 1920s. It was a big community. It was one of the largest—if not the largest—between Seattle and Chicago.”
While Butte’s Chinese community largely dispersed as a result of World War II, during which many local Chinese men served and after which many of them did not return to Montana, Chinn’s family remained. When her father came back from the war, Joyce Chinn says he did his best to help the lingering members of the local Chinatown, nearly all of whom were “stranded” single men—a result of discriminatory immigration laws that made it difficult for Chinese families to come to the United States.
At the time of her birth in 1952, the businesses that had been housed in her family’s two buildings had “pretty much closed,” Chinn says, but the structures served as her family’s home and the home to some of those single and elderly Chinese men, some of whom lived in a kind of “flop house” in the basement.
The atypical living conditions led the Chinn family to move out of the buildings in the mid-to-late 1950s to a house in Butte’s Floral Park neighborhood.
After Chinn’s parents divorced, she and her sister remained in the Mining City with their father, who had difficulty holding a job due to a war injury, and who rented out the buildings to a man who ran a second-hand store in them. When her father was unable to pay property taxes on the buildings, Chinn says the tenant, Paul Eno, did. In exchange, she says her father gave Eno the buildings. And after Eno’s death, Chinn says his family gave away much of the contents of the buildings to the Montana Historical Society in Helena—“things that weren’t theirs to give.”
Later, however, Chinn discovered that Eno had never filed the paperwork that would have made the property transfer official. As a result, ownership eventually reverted to her and her sister—as did the obligation to pay unpaid tax bills that had been piling up.
But Chinn, who worked as a nonprofit consultant, knew that if the buildings could become the home of a nonprofit organization, the owners could petition to have those unpaid taxes set aside. So that’s what she and a group of others did: created the Mai Wah Society, a 501(c)(3) housed in the Mai Wah Museum, in 1992.
“That was the solution to not having the building totally torn down and that whole history erased,” Chinn says.
And with many of the artifacts connected to the building now housed in Helena and otherwise “scattered,” Chinn says there’s a need to populate the museum with artifacts that have so far remained in her family—artifacts like those she and her sister lent to the museum in June.
According to Munday, the museum will display these items at a public fundraising event on an as yet undetermined date in September, sometime after the museum closes for the season. The event will be called, fittingly, “Tea with the Chinn Family.”
“But we won’t fully display them until we have a new, custom display case built, because we want to make sure they’re secure,” Munday says.