Friday, May 13, 2011

Flashback Friday the 13th Special: The Shanghai Tunnels

For the only Friday the 13th this year, I'm flashing back to last Saturday, when I joined the group from the World Affairs Council - Oregon to take a tour of the infamous Shanghai Tunnels of Portland, Oregon. A disclaimer first: none of the pictures you see in this post was taken by me. I lifted them from a Google image search. However, they are images of what I saw on the tour. Unfortunately, my digital camera is a worthless piece of equipment, so nothing I took came out.

Since moving to Portland in 2006, I've heard much about this ancient history. The Shanghai Tunnels Tour is one of Portland's most popular tours. The company offers three different versions: the regular one, the ethnic cultural history one, and the ghost one. Since this was sponsored by the World Affairs Council, this was the ethnic cultural one. The turn out was great. In fact, we had so many people that we had to divide into two groups. A few people from the Young Professionals Discussion group were there, but it was mostly older people, whom I'm not sure how they are connected to the World Affairs Council.

The tour began at Hobo's in Old Town / Chinatown. We started in the courtyard of the restaurant to hear an intro, before walking around the building to a step staircase on the sidewalk out front. Everyone grabbed a flashlight at the entrance and we walked through a tunnel to the first major room. It was dark, dusty, and reminded me of the salt mine my family had toured in Bertesgarten, Germany (I'm certain I've misspelled that).

The first item of interest is the photo you see above. It was known as an "Opium Den", where men would come to get high. This was directly below a bar / saloon. The point was to get men drunk or drugged out so that they could be kidnapped and sold to sea captains to man the ships that headed to the Orient. The term "Shanghai" was supposedly coined in Portland, because this city was one of the major cities where this trade prospered (San Francisco was the other city). Hearing the background on this made me think of how dangerous the vices of strong drink and drugs were, back in the day. The practice was in vogue from the 1850s through to just before World War II broke out. I was stunned by that bit of history. I can't believe that it went on for so long.

At one point in the tour, when the guide had everyone huddled close together, he asked us all to turn off our flashlight as he dimmed the lantern hanging from the overhead. It was pitch black, to the point where I could not see people standing next to me. He said that when men were captured, they were put in these holding cells until sea captains needed a crew. Some were there for days, with no light. Imagine how scary that is! Pitch black with no idea of there are rats, snakes, spiders, or other critters crawling around. Also, the people who participated in this trade made their captives give up their shoes. They placed broken glass everywhere, just as a security measure in case any men tried to escape. Not only would they endure the pain of walking on broken glass, but if they did manage to make it above ground, the blood from their feet would provide a trail for which to capture them (and also make it difficult for them to get very far). Ingenious!

In another part of the tunnel, the guide demonstrated a trap door, in which a dummy fell onto a mattress on the floor (like above picture). The bars above this tunnel had trap doors in which to capture a drunken patron. If they were lucky, two men might fall at once. The reason why no one at the bar notices that two guys fell through the floor is because bartenders waited until the bars were packed and the men were drunk before the pulled the lever to unleash the trap door.

According to the tour guide, many ships had a crew, but the shanghaied men filled the manpower requirements. Because they were considered the lowest of any crew, when the men required meat for their meal, it was a shanghaied man who became dinner. Ew. As we walked around the tunnel into the various rooms, shining our flashlights into dark crevices and hoping not to encounter any ghosts, I kept thinking how unbelievable that such a practice happened in our country. Conservatives like to say that our country is getting worse (from their ideal of the 1950s), but I think in some areas, it actually has gotten better. Progress is a constant trade-off, full of challenges. It simply was dangerous to be a single male in a port-town back in the 1800s. Especially if you're prone to drinking and drugging. The guide said that if a person did not frequent this part of Portland, they didn't have to worry about being shanghaied. It was only a risk for those who patronized the bars and saloons.

In the tunnel is a cool Indian statue that has a fantastical tale attached to it. I'm not going to tell you what that tale is, though. If you really want to know, you're just going to have to come to Portland for a visit and take the tour yourself! It is a tour that has haunted me for the past week. There are moments in the day when my thoughts keep coming back to the darkness of the tunnels and the darkness of the hearts of those who engaged in this trade. Its certainly one of the more interesting tours I've ever taken and I'm really glad that I went. I learned a lot and also had one more reason to be grateful for living now, in a more civilized era where I don't have to worry about those things.

After the 90-minute tour was finished, we returned our flashlights at the entrance to the tunnel, climbed the steep stairs back to the street and were free to go about the rest of our day. Since this was part of the ethnic heritage tour, I decided to eat at the main Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, House of Louie. I've never eaten at a Chinese restaurant in Portland's Chinatown. Unfortunately, Portland's Chinatown is a joke, especially when compared to the ones in San Francisco, Vancouver BC, and New York City. Basically, our Chinatown consists of an entrance gate, street lamps, a couple Chinese restaurants, a couple Chinese stores, and a Chinese Garden (which is actually better than the one in Vancouver BC). If I was the Mayor of Portland, I would do something about Chinatown. Right now, its mostly abandoned buildings and a bunch of homeless people.

I was not impressed with House of Louie, though I only had the fried rice. I was curious to try the lemon chicken, which is my standard bearer regarding how I rate Chinese restaurants. The best lemon chicken dish I've ever had was at a Chinese restaurant in the neighbourhood of Buckhead in Atlanta. When I was on vacation in San Francisco last October / November, I ate at a cool Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. I loved that one. Of course, the Chinatown in San Francisco had so many cool shops that I could easily spend an entire day there (I actually only had time to spend a morning there, followed by an afternoon in neighbouring North Beach, known for its Beat Generation / Jack Kerouac associations).

So, if you're one of those people who are afraid of Friday the 13th, just think...it could be a lot worse. You could be some shanghaied drunk on your way to the Orient or dinner for the ship's crew. Count your blessings. I know that I am!

1 comment:

Kelley said...

This was an awesome entry, thank you for posting your Portland tunnel adventures! My beau visited Portland this past February, and when he came back he instantly wanted to just pick up everything and move right to Portland LOL We will be moving there this time next year. I cant wait to visit these tunnels!