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Stereograph looking down on the city with houses and one large building that looks to be a church to the right
Seattle as seen from the Hotel Washington, Keystone View Company.

A Seattle Tea Merchant in Chinatown

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I dipped my toe into Asian American history in the Pacific Northwest when I wrote about the Filipino Forum, but was inspired to revisit the topic by the Library’s Innovator in Residence, Jeffrey Yoo Warren, and his project, Seeing Lost Enclaves (for more information read the blog post from The Signal).

There is a history of significant Chinese settlement in the Seattle area, and I wanted to find a particular business to highlight. After reading an article, I found a good candidate–Wa Chong & Co., a general merchandise/dry goods store. This business looked promising; it was prominent in the community, and had been around for long enough that I hoped it left enough of a footprint that would be possible to find more about it using Library resources.

the lower left shows a small bit of land with a few streets and houses that is connected to the other side of Elliot bay by a railroad bridge; the bay is filled with masted ships moving towards the port piers that are center of the image and the rest of the city with streets and houses; a railroad come into to the port and off to right of he image where there is a small collection of streets and houses.; a third railroad moves toward the bottom right of the image
Birds-eye-view of Seattle and environs King County, Washington, 1891.

In the Doing Historical Company Research webinar, I emphasized the role of directories in business research, so my first stop was the 1892 Seattle City Business Directory. The alphabetical list entry had Chin Ching Hock as the owner of Wa Chong & Co. The business was in the Wa Chong building on 5th Ave. between Washington and Main Streets, and was listed as a dry goods business selling teas, silks, and groceries. The classified section was also helpful. There wasn’t much else about them in their entry under Dry Goods. However, the entry under Teas, Coffee, and Spices provided a bit more information including the names of his competitors. There were twelve businesses listed including two others that were clearly within the local Asian community:

  • Wa Chong: ws. S 5th between Washington & Main. Chin Ching Hock – dry goods, teas, silks, groceries. Chin Chem Wah a bookkeeper (also spelled Chun Ching Hock)
  • Chin Ton & Co: es. S 5th between Main & Washington. (Chin Ton was listed as manager of this business) Commission merchants, teas and silks, employment agents
  • Gee Lee & Co: 311 Jackson. Chin Quong Fouk & Chin You Lung – Chinese groceries, importers of teas and silks (there was also a Gee Lee Laundry at 9th cor. Fir.) A Chin Mon Tong was a bookkeeper
  • Others: Webb & Co, Crescent Manufacturing Co, G Davies & Co, F. L. Fuert & Co, Great American Tea Importing Co, J. W. Hughes, Charles H. Moreford, and North Star Tea Co, and RB Robertson

Local newspapers can usually be helpful for some information, but searching is tricky when it comes to non-western names, so it is likely that several different searches will be needed. For example, in Chronicling America,* I searched Chun Ching Hock, Chin Ching Hock, Ching Chong Hock, and Wa Chong. I didn’t find as many articles as I had hoped on his business, but I did find some interesting things in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Chun Ching Hock. One story reported on how he had traveled to New York on business, but other stories were more personal, including several on bids for citizenship in 1891 and 1892 and even one that mentions the connection of state laws to Chinese naturalization and property ownership.

ad says china tea store with tea direct from China, the purest and best. Also a dealer in rice, opium and all kind of China goods with a a small drawing of a small in Chinese costume sanding on a box with a upper case T and surrounding boxes
Advertisement for Wa Chong Co. Daily Intelligencer, 01 Dec. 1880.

Once I expanded the search beyond his name, I found a few more items including a nice piece on Seattle in 1897 that provides a bit more color about Seattle generally. Another one had some juicy gossip about a competitor Gee Lee, who seems to have run afoul of the law in 1891 when the business was raided, but who was still able to build his own building in 1893. One story from 1910 reported that the central area for the Chinese community was moving from Washington Street to King Street, and this seems to be when Wa Chong’s business moved to 719 King St. which was at the corner of 7th and King. This article led me to another gentleman, Quong Tuck, and a search using his name yielded two articles that provide a window into the Chinese community of Seattle. One, from 1895, had a small drawing of the building and mentioned a connection to Wa Chong, while another from 1905, talked about a census of Chinese people in America taken by the Quong Tuck Company.

detail from the map with Washington across the top and Main at the bottom and fifth running from top to bottom; the block on the left includes a number of dwellings and include Wa Chong on the right side of the street are two blocks of buildings one just says Chinese the other is the Gilbert Block marked lodging above a grown floor business but Yokohama Ho (Japanese) and dining room
Seattle, Washington. Sanborn Map Company, vol. 1, 1893.

Beyond the articles are the advertisements. I found a few advertisements in Seattle newspapers, including one from 1879 that seems to be the earliest regular ad for Wa Chong & Company. Later advertisements show how the business grew. From the earliest ads, through at least 1889, the ads emphasized selling tea with the business located at 3rd & Washington. A small ad in the 1892 paper shows a change – a different location on S. 5th and the addition of firecrackers as a product they sold. They were still selling firecrackers – Chinese and American made – in 1898, but their address was 215-217 4th Avenue South. One of their advertisements in 1899 even explained where they got their American made fireworks.

Even though I didn’t find as much as I might have liked, I still found enough to provide a window into Seattle’s Chinese community. Each small story added more to the history of the city itself.

If you want other examples of researching older local businesses, I have done other posts on Aunt Sally baking powder and Janes, Fowler & Kirtland. We also have research guides that can help, including one on researching older companies and one on finding older Census publications, if you need statistics. You can also submit a question to the Library of Congress via Ask a Librarian. If you are researching your community, look at what your local public library and historical societies have as well. In Seattle, the public library and historical society are great resources for knowledge and material. So if you are researching your community, look at what your local public library and historical societies have as well.

If you are interested in more Business and Science topics, then subscribe to Inside Adams — it’s free!

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Comments (3)

  1. The National Trust for Historic Preservation just put Seattle’s Chinatown on its endangered places list.

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