Mark Whitman has an annual tradition on May 18, the day a prominent former Wrangell man died. He goes down to Juneau’s Evergreen Cemetery, finds a specific grave marker, and smokes a cigar. He’s remembering how the generosity of a person known as China Joe had such a huge impact in historic Southeast.
Whitman has lived in Juneau for much of the last 37 years. He’s researched China Joe for about 20 years, and is largely responsible for the State Library, Archives and Museum’s small collection on him.
His interest began in the former Biliken Bar on Douglas when he found a photo of a Chinese man smiling. Fair warning: Whitman uses term considered offensive when he recalls Joe’s life.
“I probably had one drink too many and I looked over and I saw that photo of and felt like there was a Chinaman smiling at me,” Whitman said.
China Joe lived a life of generosity during his time in America. That generosity endeared him in the hearts of Juneau’s early pioneers enough to save him from a rabid, anti-Chinese mob.
Whitman’s take on Joe is based off of old newspaper clippings and legal documents. He said Joe was part of a larger immigration wave of Chinese workers that came to America in the 1800s. Many were fleeing turmoil and rebellion in their home lands, and came to America to make a better life with the hopes of returning one day or sending money back to their families.
Whitman said the American West was expanding. Railroads needed labor to expand, and an influx of Chinese provided plenty of it.
“There weren’t a lot of people who were willing to climb into a straw basket and be hung over a cliff of black granite with dynamite to blow the passage for the railroad to get through,” he said. “The Chinese did that and did the work that no other person would do.”
Whitman said China Joe came to North America in 1864, arriving in Victoria, British Columbia. Joe later moved to Boise, Idaho, where he learned Western cooking and baking.
In 1874, Whitman said, China Joe was working in a mining camp at Dease Lake during the Cassiar gold rush, when tragedy struck. The river froze and no steamboats were unable to deliver supplies.
“A horrible winter hit, … 60 below zero, no food is going to make it up there. The men knew they were probably going to starve.”
Whitman said China Joe called a meeting in the camp.
“He told every man, ‘You can have flour, all you need till spring. I’m not marking the price up, when you get the money in the spring you can pay me back then.’ Everyone was all the same to him, he basically made sure that they made it through that winter.”
Whitman said in 1878, he moved to Wrangell. He had a riverboat named Hope on which he built a boarding house. He later moved to Sitka and ran a bakery.
“That’s the same pattern he followed when he got here,” Whitman said.
In 1881, Joe moved to Juneau, where he opened the city’s first bakery on the corner of 3rd and Main streets.
“He knew Western cooking,” Whitman said. “He’d fit right in with artisan baking today. He had a brick oven built, he was baking sourdough bread on a three-day cycle in that oven which was connected to his log cabin there.”
And the tales of Joe’s generosity grew.
“I think what’s important to see is that China Joe associated himself with the first circle of Juneau. … Every Chinese New Year, China Joe would open up his log cabin for three days. He would have food laid out in a buffet, everything from roast beef to chicken to special candied ginger from China. He’d also lay out Cuban cigars, and it didn’t matter if you were man or woman, you could come in.”
Whitman said Joe loved to give the schoolchildren cookies.
“In a way over the years, China Joe truly has belonged to us. I’m not saying as a possession, but the generosity,” Whitman said. “It’s the idea that when you have something and people are suffering, you share with them. He learned that from China forward.”
Joe’s generosity and adherence to the Golden Rule very well could have saved his life. During the expansion in the American West, the sentiment toward Chinese immigration soured.
“After the railroads were built we went into an economic panic or depression. An easy scapegoat was to say it was the Chinese. So they passed the Exclusion Act of 1882 and they started to cut their pigtails off and shoot them and do all kinds of horrible things after they had built the railroads for us.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act was the culmination of the anti-Chinese attitude that swept through the Lower 48 and into Alaska. The act prevented Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. Riots such as one in Rocksprings, Wyoming, turned violent.
“Lots of Chinese were killed,” Whitman said. “A lot of conflict between the Irish railroad workers and the Chinese, and that spilled over with the miners here. Every Chinaman who was in Juneau in 1886 was shoehorned on to two schooners at gunpoint, and told to leave or be killed,” he said. “But there was one Chinaman, China Joe, who members of the community said, ‘You leave Joe alone, he belongs to us.'”
And so friends and family stood up for Joe, who became the only Chinese person in Juneau.
China Joe went on to live in Juneau until his death May 18, 1917. Whitman says police officers found him lying in bed on a blanket with his arms folded over his chest. He died of heart failure.
“In a land of treasure seekers, China Joe’s life remained a compass of true fortune, a generous heart that outweighs a mountain of gold,” Whitman said.
Whitman and local author Brett Dillingham had kept China Joe’s story alive in the past, performing a play about him they’d written. That play’s come and gone, but Whitman said now, Dillingham is working on a book about China Joe.
Whitman says China Joe had several different names during his lifetime. The one on the bronze grave marker where Whitman will be smoking his cigar is Hi Chung. It’s in the pioneer section of the cemetery.
Editor’s note: This report comes from Tripp J. Crouse of KTOO in Juneau.