The Wah Chong Tai Company and Mai Wah Noodle Parlor buildings are the most important and least altered physical remnants of Butte's Chinese Heritage.
The buildings are artifacts in themselves, perhaps the most significant historical resources associated with the ethnic heritage of Montanas Asian population.
About 1893, Chin Chun Hock, the founder of Seattles earliest and most successful Chinese mercantile business, the Wa Chong Company, opened a branch store in Butte on West Galena Street. Chin visited Butte in October 1898, and announced plans to construct a new building for the company on China Alley.
By 1899, the company had moved into a new, two-story brick building at 15 West Mercury. Architecturally, the Wah Chong Tai (literally announcing beautiful old China) Companys new building was no different than the other business blocks being constructed in other parts of Butte City. The mercantile operated from a large room on the first floor, stocking items imported from China to sell to Asians and to others. Merchandise included fine Chinese and Japanese porcelain, bulk containers of dried herbs and tonics, and string-tied packages of Chinese-style clothing. The photo above, circa 1905, shows the corner of Colorado and Mercury Streets after the Wah Chong Tai building was constructed (second building from right) and before the Mai Wah went up in 1909.
An herbal store at the back of the mercantile was named hung fuk hong or together happiness meeting place. An open mezzanine around three sides of the mercantile provided additional display space and an area for two offices. A restaurant was located on the second floor. Restaurant customers, both Chinese and Euro-American, entered by a door on China Alley. The image at right below is from a 1901 Butte newspaper.
rural general stores throughout the U.S. provided various services,
the mercantile also did much more than just sell goods. Besides
its obvious commercial activities, it was also the place to find
lodging, social interaction,and job opportunities. The mercantile
was a meeting place, a post office, and a bank. It also had political
functions, providing translators and spokespersons who represented
the Chinese within the larger society.
At least one of the storefronts was divided from front to back into a series of small stores accessed off an interior side aisle -- a small version of todays shopping mall. An unusual feature of this building, but one that is common in Victoria, British Columbia's Chinatown, is a "cheater story," a floor sandwiched between the first and second stories. Divided into a number of small rooms and with only about six feet of headroom, it apparently accommodated lodgers.
By the mid-1940s, only a few Chinese families remained in Butte, among them the Chinn family who owned and lived in the Mai Wah Noodle Parlors and Wah Chong Tai Co. buildings. By 1949, William Chinn (left front in this photo), Albert Chinns son, owned the building. He rented the building to Paul Eno who ran a fix-it shop and second-hand store from the ground level until his death in 1986.
Hal Waldrup, a friend of Eno, recognized the historical significance of the buildings and was crucial in organizing citizens to help preserve and restore the buildings. Waldrup arranged for many Chinese artifacts and photographs from the building to be transferred to the Montana Historical Society in Helena.