Butte’s Asian Treasure Trove: The Mai Wah
Once a bustling Chinatown, today only a few crumbling brick buildings sit on the block of Mercury Street between Colorado and Main in Uptown Butte. Two of those, the Mai Wah and Wah Chong Tai, house almost all of the remnants from the street’s Chinese past. Built in 1899, the Wah Chong Tai was the nucleus of Butte’s Chinatown. The building contained a mercantile with imported Chinese goods, an herbal shop and a noodle parlor. In addition, the building served as an unofficial bank, post office, community bulletin board, and meeting space. The Mai Wah, built in 1909, served a similar purpose, with a noodle parlor upstairs and a series of stalls selling various goods on the ground floor. At the time, between 400 and 1,000 Asians lived in Butte, almost all of them in the two blocks that made up the city’s Chinatown. Excluded from the underground mining operations, most Chinese worked on the periphery-laundries, tailors, noodle parlors, and truck gardens. In 1914, Butte contained at least 62 Chinese businesses.
Today, very little remains of this vibrant Asian population. Across China Alley, fronting Main, the Pekin Noodle Parlor continues to serve soupy bowls of noodles. Besides that, the Mai Wah and Wah Chong Tai sit in a largely desolate part of town, mostly overlooked by tourists. Inside, the two buildings contain a treasure trove of artifacts curated by the Mai Wah Society. The Mai Wah building houses a small museum quality display of Butte’s Chinese history, a reproduction of a Chinese doctor’s office, a reproduction of a Chinese shrine, and a small gift shop. In the Wah Chong Tai building, the sunlight filters over precarious stacks of baskets and boxes. Packages tied in brown paper elegantly labeled with Chinese characters fill the display cases. Containers of dried herbs, fireworks, and signs in Chinese fill the walls. The furniture and merchandise in the Wah Chong Tai building are all originals, salvaged from the store in the 1940s. Upstairs, where the noodle parlors used to be, visitors can access three rooms. One contains a museum display of the Chin family, the owners of the buildings. The second contains displays about the Mai Wah Society, including artifacts (mostly porcelain shards) uncovered in Society sponsored excavations, and-the crème de la crème-an elegant silk dragon given to the Society by the people of Taiwan, and used in the annual Chinese New Year parade. The Society has done very little work on the third room, which was the noodle parlor kitchen and still contains the stove, noodle drain, ice box and other implements used until the parlor shut down in the 1940s.
When people think of Butte, they usually think of the underground mining, the Irish, and the scores of other European nationalities that made the city such a colorful place. When people visit Butte today, they often go to the World Museum of Mining, the Mineral Museum, and other such places, but they often overlook the Mai Wah, and the two blocks of the once thriving Chinatown. These other places tell important pieces of Butte’s history, and are definitely worth putting on an itinerary, but don’t make the mistake of overlooking the Mai Wah. These two old brick buildings tell one of the most fascinating and important chapters of Butte’s story, a chapter too often overlooked.
For more information, visit maiwah.org. I also found a really interesting article about the Mai Wah and the New Year parade in the 2012 Winter edition of the Montana Magazine, called “Uptown Chinatown,” but I have been unable to find a copy of that article online.