Salt Lake’s Forgotten Chinatown

In the 1860s, Plum Alley, Utah’s original Chinatown, was founded in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. It was built near today’s Regent Street in between First and Second South. Due to anti-Chinese sentiment in America and the Chinese immigrant mentality of coming to work in America to gain a fortune then to return to China, most Chinese communities in Utah rose and fell in a single generation.

As the transcontinental railroad was being finished in 1869, some Chinese laborers moved south. These railroad workers helped establish the Plum Alley community. Originally just a dirt track, Plum Alley grew to be a narrow road surrounded by a few buildings, mostly tenements. A heavy majority of the Chinese who made up Plum Alley were male. These bachelors came from China to earn money in America through physical labor jobs unwanted by most Americans. Railroad worker, miner, launderer, and household servant were the most commonly held jobs. Rather than start a new life in America, most Chinese immigrants planned on earning money, then taking their fortunes back to China to start a family. Despite the noticeable lack of women, Plum Alley was a tight-knit community that grew and diversified.

Laundries, Asian grocery stores, Chinese restaurants, and tenements popped up along Plum Alley. The two most frequented buildings were the Joss House and the Bing Kong Tong. The Joss House opened in 1895 as a religious hub where a statue of Quon Kong, a god of war, was worshiped. The most prominent celebration took place on New Years, when food offerings were offered to Quon Kong. The Bing Kong Tong was a social institution that offered physical and psychological security, and helped individuals find jobs and access legal services. It also provided social activities for lonely Chinese immigrants.

The Plum Alley Chinese enclave survived mostly on its own without social contact with other ethnic groups. Many Utahns viewed Plum Alley and other “Chinatowns” suspiciously as centers for vice and illegal activity. Gambling, opium dens, and occasional brothels caused Utahns to oppose the growth of Chinese communities in Utah even though the Chinese were known to be reliable workers that did the jobs that nobody else wanted to do. Regular anti-Chinese sentiments resulted in restricting Chinese mobility and opportunity, concentrating their lives in the small community. The 1890 Census enumerated only 269 people of Chinese descent in Salt Lake City with most of them living in Plum Alley. After 1890, the Chinese population waned. Only 194 Chinese were in Salt Lake according to the 1930 Census. After the decline of Plum Alley, the Chinese population in Utah drastically jumped about 50 years later. Because of the repealment of federal Chinese exclusion laws in the 1940s, the number of Chinese immigrants in Utah reached over 1,700 in Salt Lake by 1970.

Despite racial persecution and the Chinese exclusion laws of 1882, Plum Alley’s collapse was caused by the Great Depression. The economic crisis forced Chinese businessmen to close stores and operations and many returned to China without their sought-after fortune. By 1940, many tenements in Plum Alley were vacated and demolished. Then, In 1952, Plum Alley was officially abandoned and razed so that a parking structure could be built in its place. In less than 100 years, Salt Lake City’s first Chinatown was built and destroyed, leaving only the stories of Chinese immigrants in its place.