The Wah Chong Tai Mercantile and Mai Wah Noodle Parlor, which have stood in Butte, Montana for over a century, are now the Mai Wah Museum showcasing the history of Chinese immigration to the American West. The two buildings, run by the charitable Mai Wah Society and housing world class collections of Chinese artifacts, will undergo renovation this year.
The Uptown district of the town in Silver Bow County received $31,950 in October 2019 from the city’s Revitalization Board to renovate crumbling vaulted sidewalks on West Mercury Street. Rumored to have covered underground tunnels used by the Chinatown population in the 20th century, the sidewalks cover basement spaces. In the previous year, the Partners in Preservation Program granted $133,000 to repair window sills and parapets of the two buildings, the only Asian history site to win the prize as an example of the country’s diverse foundations. The “last best piece of Butte’s Chinatown” showcases Chinese immigrants’ struggles to gain footing in the United States. In other grants, the Mai Wah Society has raised $200,000 to renovate two-story brick storefronts and the Mercantile’s roof.
With a lineage dating back more than 1,000 years in China, Chin Hin Doon of the Chinn family relocated to America amidst famines and unrest in Guangdong province to start a new life in America. Chinn settled in Butte as a merchant in the Wah Chong Tai Company by 1894. By the 1930s, his son Albert Chinn who attended public schools in Butte ran the business out of the present Wah Chong Tai Mercantile and Mai Wah Noodle Parlor buildings, providing services and lodging to the local Chinese population as a de facto town center. Butte hosted a population of an estimated 2,500 Chinese immigrants — mostly miners — at its peak before declining in the 1940s; Rosa Hum Lee, sociologist of Chinese womens’ roles in America, and Hum Fay, an activist against a 1986 boycott of Chinese businesses also found their homes in Butte. Now the total Chinese population in Montana is 2,551 or 20% of the Asian population.
The Wah Chong Tai Mercantile, moved into the present building in 1899, now stands as the country’s only original Chinese store from the early 20th century. Butte’s Chinatown was once the largest between Minneapolis and Seattle. Now, the mercantile and adjoined Mai Wah Noodle Parlor exhibit 2,500 artifacts dating back to as early as 1905.
Down the street from the Mai Wah buildings, Danny Wong runs the family-owned Pekin Noodle House that has served the town since 1911. Hauling deliveries using a manual rope-and-pulley system, Wong and others continue the work and legacy of Chinese Americans in Butte.
Amanda Mei is a research intern in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in environmental studies in 2018.