Celebrating the New Year in Salt Lake’s Chinatown

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, January 1996

“When a Chinese host invites you to take a seat at his table, you in a sense become a member of the family,” according to a report in the Deseret Evening News of February 8, 1902. The full-page, illustrated article noted that hundreds of “prominent” Salt Lakers would visit Chinatown during the New Year celebrations, and those who conducted themselves as gentlemen might be fortunate enough to “obtain access to the interior of the Chinese dwellings and ‘joss’ house parties.” The newspaper estimated the population of Salt Lake’s Chinatown at some 400, most of whom were men. The ethnic enclave was centered in Plum Alley, a north-south running street between Main and State streets and First and Second South, and included nearby Commercial Street. Here the Chinese lived in tenement-like structures among their dry goods stores, restaurants, and noodle parlors. Fortunately for historians, some Chinese were willing to admit reporters and photographers into their homes. Despite the use of racial epithets typical of that era (e.g., “slant-eyed sons of the Flowery Kingdom”), these accounts provide valuable information about Utah’s Chinese not available elsewhere.

Key figures in the 1902 Chinese New Year celebrations were Chin Quan Chan (usually referred to by the newspaper as Chin Chin), the “mayor” of Chinatown and a prosperous merchant, and “deputy mayor” Dave Hing, a well-educated man who spoke English fluently, served as a interpreter, and represented his fellow Chinese in diplomatic matters. The newspaper would track the activities of Mayor Chin for at least another decade.

New Year’s was a time of forgiveness, caring for the poor, visiting friends, and celebrating. The News described the elaborate feasts that would be found in many homes, with the richest members of the community offering their guests “deep sea fish from China which retails for $10 a pound,” oysters, snails, and clams, as well as the more common roast pork and chicken. Having filled themselves with the delicacies of the season most Chinese would then visit the Joss House located above Ah Woo’s store for prayers. Music from Chinese stringed instruments and the smell of burning incense would fill the air, as would the almost continuous popping of firecrackers. Some of the Salt Lake Chinese planned to travel to Evanston, Wyoming, to join the Chinese community there for more celebrating.

The following year the News reported, “Next month will see the advent of Chinese New Year’s, but there will be sadness in Chinatown . . . and . . . one familiar figure whose hospitality and kindness to his white visitors is unbounded” would be missing, for Mayor Chin had received news of the death of his wife who, with the couple’s two children, had returned to China for an extended visit. Chin was leaving at once to bring his children back to Salt Lake where they were born. The article provided additional information about Chin. He had come to Salt Lake from Ogden many years earlier and established what was now the largest store in Chinatown. Because of his long residence in the city many countrymen sought his advice in settling disputes or solving problems. On New Year’s, especially, the newspaper continued, “Chin is in all his glory. He it is who heads the contributions for the purchase of fire works, and none entertains so royally as does he. During the week or ten days’ celebration, hundreds of people, well known residents of Salt Lake, visit his place nightly and are treated to wine, fruit, candy and nuts, while he relates to them stories of his native country and endeavors to explain the mysteries of their religious rites. And to say that he will be missed by the crowds of merry makers who will throng Plum Alley this year, is only stating the case mildly. The sympathy of scores of friends goes out to him.”

Chin eventually made his way back to Salt Lake City and resumed his business affairs and influence in the community. But it was not easy. A 1907 newspaper report stated that Chin’s enemies had cast suspicion upon him with U. S. immigration officials, and he had to engage in a long legal battle to confirm his eligibility to remain in this country with his family. Chin subsequently remarried and had several more children. A News reporter spent a half-hour with Chin and his “happy family sipping Oolong tea under the cooling breeze of an up-to-date electric fan” in their flat overlooking Plum Alley. Also on hand were two other women, Mrs. Chung Gung, a native of California and wife of a local restaurant owner. She was well-educated, spoke excellent English, and had written articles for California magazines. The other woman, Mrs. Chin Willie, was the wife of a local interpreter for government. In addition to describing the Chin household and its guests, the reporter noted other Plum Alley residents and some of the activity of the city’s Chinese outside of their enclave: “Scattered about the city are the laundries and in the suburbs are the Chinese gardens, the finest in the county.” Chinese restaurants and stores had spread onto State Street, and owners of such establishments were the most prosperous Chinese.

By 1912 Chin Quan Chan, “for two-score years recognized as mayor of Salt Lake’s Chinatown,” was telling reporters that he was ready to close his Salt Lake store and take his family to Hong Kong where he had already established a business. There, he said, “his children will have the advantage of a good English education as well as proper tutelage in their native tongue.” Perhaps Chin had seen into the future and realized that Plum Alley’s days were numbered. By 1940 the remaining few residents of the tumble-down buildings would be forced to move, but the colorful days of Chinatown and its New Year’s excitement really ended when Mayor Chin left for Hong Kong.

See: Deseret Evening News, February 8, 1902, January 3, 1903, July 13, 1907, June 25, 1912.