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Mai Wah and Wah Chong Tai

The Wah Chong Tai mercantile building and Mai Wah Noodle Parlor on West Mercury Street in Uptown Butte are shown in 2017. 

After nearly 40 days of what seemed like a social-media blitzkrieg encouraging Butte residents to vote for the Wah Chong Tai mercantile building and Mai Wah Noodle Parlor on West Mercury Street in Uptown Butte, two local organizations can now say the buildings are recipients of a $133,000 grant from the national Partners in Preservation program.

The buildings were among 20 historic sites around the country that were chosen to take part in the program, an annual collaboration between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express that’s been doling out preservation funding for about 12 years.

To earn the award, the Mai Wah buildings had to win votes online and be one of the top vote-earners in a campaign that ran from Sept. 24 to Oct. 29.

The Mai Wah Society and Mainstreet Uptown Butte applied to make the mercantile and noodle parlor eligible for the grant program. When the online polls opened, the two organizations ran a marketing campaign of sorts that included posting on social media and taking out radio, TV, newspaper and Facebook ads to encourage Butte residents to vote for the Mai Wah buildings, which were once the heart of Butte’s Chinatown.

In the end, 11 of the 20 eligible sites earned the top spots and were awarded a combined $1.6 million in grants, including the Mai Wah buildings, which came in at sixth place.

Coming in at number one was the circa-1879 Tabor Opera House in another mining community: Leadville, Colorado.

George Everett, executive director of Mainstreet Uptown Butte, said the credit doesn’t go to his organization. Instead, the credit goes to Butte residents and fans of the Mining City who turned out in droves to vote for the Mai Wah. Some Butte residents even took up the Mai Wah banner themselves, posting regularly on social media to raise awareness about the campaign — individuals that Everett called “people with a soft spot in their hearts for Butte.”

Everett noted the Mai Wah was in good company among the 20 other sites, which boasted some impressive historical and cultural chops, including Los Angeles’ Church of the Epiphany, touted as a birthplace of the Chicano Movement in the 1960s, and the Arch Social Club in Baltimore, one of the oldest continuously operating African American men's social clubs in the U.S.

“Some of the places we were competing with were in some pretty metropolitan places,” he said, adding that it’s exciting to see Butte earn one of the top spots.

Sites that took part in the competitive campaign were selected based on this year’s Partners in Preservation theme: the fight for equality.

According to the campaign, each of the sites featured in the 2018 grant cycle have played a role in the development of a more diverse nation.

Pat Munday, president of the Mai Wah society, could not be immediately reached for comment. However, he said in a press release the Mai Wah will receive around $133,000 from Partners in Preservation. That money will be used for bricks-and-mortar restoration, including repairs to the buildings’ window sills, skylights and parapets.

“Thank you to you and everyone who supported this successful campaign through your voting, and encouraged those in your social network to vote,” Munday wrote.

The Wah Chong Tai mercantile building, which was erected circa 1891, and the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor, which was constructed in 1909, were built by Butte’s Chinn family during a tumultuous time in Chinese-American history that was marked by discriminatory legislation against people of Chinese descent.

One of those pieces of legislation was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which put limits on immigration from China. Meanwhile, Butte in the 1880s and '90s saw union-backed boycotts of Chinese businesses.

Joyce Chinn lived in the Mai Wah buildings with her parents, William Chinn and Gene Wu, until the family moved to the Floral Park neighborhood in the mid- to late-1950s.

“It’s wonderful,” said Chinn when asked how it feels to know that the buildings her family built have been honored with the grant.

At one time, Chinn said, the buildings housed a restaurant, a noodle house, a boarding house, a mercantile, an apothecary and a bank, among other enterprises, making them unique relics from that era of Chinese immigration.

Many Chinese immigrants of the time went to work on railroads and in mines, and for many Americans, these are the enduring images of Chinese immigrants from that period.

But the Mai Wah buildings, Chinn said, show a different side of the Chinese-American story, one that was built on commerce and on familial and cultural ties.

“They were built to be the center of a community,” said Chinn, noting that despite discriminatory laws that sought to keep Chinese immigrants from growing roots in America, the Mai Wah buildings have endured.

“To have (them) still standing is really important,” she said.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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