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Unlocking the secrets of Oklahoma City's mysterious city

By Ken Raymond Modified: June 24, 2007 at 8:24 am •  Published: June 24, 2007
The men gathered in darkness beneath downtown Oklahoma City streets.

In underground Chinatown, flickering bulbs sent shadows skittering across the hand-drawn pictographs on the walls. Amid the click of mah-jongg tiles and the bubbling talk of poker players, opium smokers lay drowsily on the floor, pipes slipping from languid fingers.

Nearby, other men rested on grass mats in cell-like living quarters or made egg rolls, wontons and tofu for the restaurants above them, in the daylight world. The pay was low, the hours long. Few women ventured below.

This wasn't what the men had come here for.

These men, these hidden men, left the famine and rebellion of 19th century China seeking peace and prosperity in America.

Many came to San Francisco — Jiu Jin San, the "Mountain of Gold” — dreaming of wealth, only to find hard labor and persecution. State and federal exclusion laws drove them south and east from California, and some settled in Oklahoma.

"At the very beginning, in the 1890s, we're talking about 50 to 80 (people),” University of Central Oklahoma historian Bing Li said. "At the turn of the century before statehood, we're talking about 200 or 250, mostly in the Oklahoma City area.”

By the time they arrived here, they had learned their lessons: Be discreet. Avoid attention.

Go underground.

Hundreds inhabit caverns
For decades, the existence of the subterranean Chinatown has been debated, despite Li's research and written records that seem to confirm its reality.

In 1921, for example, The Oklahoman reported on an inspection of a 50-room "colony” below 14 S Robinson Ave. An excerpt follows:

Witnesses: Six inspectors of the state health department; one police detective.

They waded into Oklahoma City's Chinatown Wednesday and visited all its nooks ever seen by white man, and came away reporting the 200 or more inhabitants of the submerged quarter in good health and surroundings and as sanitary as all get out.

A resident, Hauan Tsang, led the officials through "a dozen connected caverns.” Then the inspectors "slipped” over to another basement below California Avenue, where they were greeted with open arms and wide grins. The friendly reception made them wonder if word of their earlier visit had spread — and if so, how.

There are no telephones in the apparently unconnected places. ... The old police theory that a second basement beneath the whole raft of Chinese dwellings is connected by a tunnel with the suburbs of the colony was called to mind to explain the unexpected welcome.

The existence of such a tunnel was never confirmed. Nor were rumors of a third level said to contain a temple and cemetery.

In all likelihood, news of the inspection spread in a more prosaic way — by Chinese living and working in the daylight world. The 1922 city directory lists a Chinese library at 210½ W California Ave., not far from the second site visited by the inspectors.

The librarian, D.N. Koo, lived at 12 S Robinson Ave., near the entrance to the first site. A Chinese restaurant occupied the same address — where federal agents discovered 25 men in an opium den beneath the building in August 1922.

"Down a flight of stairs went the officers, tipped off by freight clerks, and through an oaken door which is (entered) by means of a hanging rope,” The Oklahoman reported. "They entered a room where air potent with sunny dreams of sleepers was only so much thick, stifling mist to them. ... Four Chinese lay unconscious when the raid was made.

"Their pipes had clanked to the floor. The opening of the den followed the discovery shortly before noon of narcotics, oriental tobacco and rum in a freight shipment at the Frisco depot.”

The restaurant proprietor, Wong On Chong, was arrested on suspicion of being "the operator of a gigantic smuggling business.”

‘A continual menace'
"There were legal Chinese-Americans, legal owners,” Li said. "They owned businesses above ground. Slideshow: 'The Mysterious City'

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Bob Blackburn
Did an underground Chinatown exist?
Bob Blackburn isn't convinced the underground city ever existed.

And since Blackburn, the director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, is a leading expert on downtown Oklahoma City history, his doubts carry some weight.

"I have never found any proof that it existed,” Blackburn said. "There's a lot of oral tradition and kind of elusive physical evidence. It's folklore. ... Hopefully someone can find some documents or diaries or something, but it was a community that would've been off the books.”

Aside from a few newspaper articles, little was published about the hidden Chinatown before 1969, when former Mayor George Shirk led a group of explorers, reporters and photographers into a large basement containing some Chinese artifacts.

While Shirk's expedition proved some Chinese had occupied basements, Blackburn said, it didn't provide definitive evidence of a larger, interconnected community.

"This is an unsolved mystery that is most intriguing,” Blackburn said. "It obviously has captured the attention of the public ... and I would like it to be true, but I still have not seen anything I would use to put it in one of my (history) books.”


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