Plum Alley: Salt Lake’s Once Vibrant Chinatown

This episode’s audio file may be found at http://www.utahhumanities.org/BeehiveArchive.htm.
© 2009 Utah Humanities Council

The Story:

Today, if you find yourself in downtown Salt Lake City walking along Second South past the Regent Street Parking Terrace, you’ll notice a modest brown plaque that marks all that remains of Plum Alley, the narrow lane that used to be the nucleus of the city’s bustling Chinatown. The alley, which ran between First and Second South and bisected the block between State and Main streets, was a thickly settled cluster of buildings—primarily restaurants, grocery stores and other shops—perched along what was once a plain dirt track.

White observers tended to see Utah’s Chinatowns, like the one anchored by Plum Alley, primarily as centers of widespread vice and illegality, and attacked the presence of gambling and opium dens in the neighborhood as evidence of a retrograde Chinese civilization. Ironically, however, people from all walks of life, including white middle-class men and women, frequented the alley’s opium and gambling joints. Even a U.S. Marshal, Elias Parsons, landed in court on charges of renting a Plum Alley building to a group of Chinese men for the purposes of establishing an opium den.’

Plum Alley, though, was much more than the terrifying vice district white reformers fretted about. It was an important center of Chinese culture. Two of the most important fixtures of Plum Alley were the joss house and the Bing Kong Tong. The Plum Alley joss house was an informal place of worship located above a store at the intersection of Commercial and Plum. Inside, visitors could make food offerings to Chinese gods. The Bing Kong Tong, on the other hand, functioned primarily to help members find jobs and legal services, as well as to sponsor social activities. Between the joss house, the tong, and the street’s emporiums, Plum Alley was a richly textured community that deserves to be remembered.

Sources:

See the Salt Lake Tribune, January 10, 1886, April 4, 1886, March 8, 1893; Don Conley, “The Pioneer Chinese of Utah,” in The Peoples of Utah, ed. Helen Z, Papanikolas (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1981), 251-277; Dan Liestman, “Utah’s Chinatowns: The Development and Decline of Extinct Ethnic Enclaves,” Utah Historical Quarterly 64 (Winter 1996): 70-95.

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7 responses to “Plum Alley: Salt Lake’s Once Vibrant Chinatown

  1. Cool. You don’t often run into anyone who is familiar with Plum Alley, or even one who knows that Salt Lake ever had a Chinese district. Thanks for spotlighting it.

  2. Does SL still have a Chinese district? I am familiar with areas of SL that have large populations of Hispanic, Vietnamese, Tongan etc.

  3. Whoa. Very cool. I had no idea there ever existed a Chinatown in SLC.

  4. Lisa-

    Salt Lake’s ethnic neighborhoods have mostly gone the way of the world with the rise of suburbanization, though you can still find vestiges of the city’s old Greek and Japanese neighborhoods downtown.

    Plum Alley, however, is different. There are no real traces of the neighborhood left, due to the construction of the parking terrace. And I’m not sure that the alley’s inhabitants picked up en masse and relocated together somewhere else. They simply dispersed.

  5. Fascinating. Do we know for how long, and during what years, the community was active? Were they forced out by the white reformers, or did other circumstances, such as declining immigration due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, contribute to the community’s disappearance?

  6. David-

    Plum Alley’s decline seems to have been the result of “all of the above.” Reformers targeted the neighborhood because of its connection to the opium trade, as well as the perceived (and sometimes real) violence that seemed to emanate from it. Legal strictures, in the form of local ordinances and national laws (like the Chinese Exclusion Act), also played an important role in the disintegration of the community, as did economic competition and urban revitalization efforts.

    In the face of all these forces, it’s amazing that Utah’s Chinatowns lasted as long as they did. Plum Alley really began to coalesce as a distinct Chinese enclave in the 1870s, after the coming of the railroad and as mining rose to become a significant feature of Utah’s economy. It didn’t begin its slide into oblivion until the twentieth century. As Daniel Liestman shows in his Utah Historical Quarterly article on Utah’s Chinatowns, the Great Depression forced many of the neighborhood’s shops to close permanently. When the alley’s buildings were razed in the 1950s to make way for a parking lot, the Chinese flavor of the area had already disappeared.

  7. Pingback: Photos of Plum Alley, Salt Lake’s Chinatown « Beehive Archive

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