Butte’s historic Chinatown district may have diminished since its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but one old business is coming back to life beginning this weekend.
The Wah Chong Tai Mercantile, located next to the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor Museum at 17 W. Mercury St., is celebrating a “grand reopening” of sorts on Saturday.
It’s a reopening because all of the contents were previously located in the mercantile before it closed in the mid-1940s. Right after the mercantile closed, Charles Bovey acquired the contents and stored them in Nevada City along with similar artifacts from across the state.
The roughly 2,500 artifacts, including string-tied packages, ceramics, hats and baskets, languished in Nevada City for more than 65 years before being acquired by the Montana Heritage Commission.
Now, the Mai Wah Society has the items on loan from the commission, which is where they fit in historically, according to Dick Gibson, Mai Wah Society board treasurer and vice president.
“This is the stuff for an urban Chinatown, not Nevada City,” Gibson said.
It’s been several years since the items were returned to the old Chinese mercantile, but only this year are the pieces ready for the public to experience.
Janna Norby curated the collection after Si Wen Liu, a recent Butte High School graduate, translated all the information into English. From his translations, Norby and others researched the items. Information on a few unique artifacts, including Chinese mugwort root and a box of scales collected from spiny anteaters, can be found at the Mai Wah Society’s blog at www.maiwah.org.
Not only have all the relics been restored to their home for the time being, but the cases and items have been returned to the places they sat in a 1905 photograph, which sits on a plaque at the front of the building. Even the sign that hangs on the back wall was returned to its rightful spot.
The original Wah Chong Tai Mercantile was located on Galena Street, but the Mercury Street building was built in 1899. The company was actually a chain from a Seattle-based company, but by the 1920s it was locally owned and operated. From that time it was run by the Chinn family, a historically notable Butte family, until it closed in 1946. The Mai Wah Society acquired the buildings in the early 1990s.
Though xenophobia was prevalent throughout Butte’s early history, and immigration rules made it difficult for people from China to make new lives in the United States, merchant-class Chinese people fared well in the city. In addition, Chinatown wasn’t only utilized by immigrants. Gibson said Euro-Americans frequented noodle parlors, mercantiles and brothels and utilized laundry and other services.
Look around the exhibit, and you’ll find shark fins, intact packages of imported tea, cigar boxes with bizarre contents and old crates, each of them more than half a century old.
Without a lot of hardworking volunteers and the set of circumstances that led to negotiations with the Montana Heritage Commission, the reopening of the mercantile would have been impossible.
“All of those things have come together in a very nice way,” Gibson said.