On the corner of Montgomery and Commercial Street in Idaho City, Idaho, there is a small inconspicuous, brick house. A sign identifies it as the “Pon Yam House.” The last remaining trace of the once bustling Chinese community in Idaho City, the Pon Yam house gives us a glimpse into the lives of Chinese miners in the Boise Basin area.
Between 1860 and 1875, the Chinese population in Idaho dramatically increased. In fact, at its height, the Chinese accounted for over 30 percent of the state’s population—the highest per capita amount in the entire nation. Following the alluring promise of gold, Chinese miners flocked to Idaho’s mountains. These Chinese miners, just like their white counterparts, bought mining claims and settled into their newfound communities.
While the immigrant Chinese experience varied from individual to individual, the experiences of Chinese miners in Idaho City were relatively positive. Although they faced some discrimination, overall, they were able to fairly purchase land, safely mine, and establish businesses. Pon Yam, a miner and businessman, was arguably the most well-known of the Chinese community in Idaho City. Rumored to have possessed a two-carat diamond ring—the largest in the area—Pon Yam became a successful merchant. Smoothly navigating the American legal and financial system, Pon Yam ran a store in the middle of Idaho City, which locals called the “Pon Yam House.”
Well respected by both whites and Chinese, Pon Yam lived in Idaho City for 20 years before returning to his hometown in China. During his sojourn in Idaho, the Pon Yam House became the heart of the Chinese community. Festivals and other Chinese celebrations were held at the store and for these special occasions, Pon Yam would decorate the store with his own paintings and ornaments. Additionally, Pon Yam and other Chinese participated in local American festivities. One newspaper reported that during a Fourth of July celebration Pon Yam and other prominent white merchants donated money for a new schoolhouse.
Today, the Pon Yam House serves as a reminder of the integral role Chinese played in the early history of Idaho City. Furthermore, Pon Yam’s life demonstrates that Chinese immigrants were both active and effective members of their community.