PORTLAND, Maine — The lunar new year is marked in February. It’s often called Chinese New Year and it’s as good an excuse as any to look into the city’s history of Chinese immigration and culture. It goes back further, and is far richer, than most people realize.
“Most people don’t understand how diverse this place is, and just how long it’s been this diverse,” said local historian and attorney Gary Libby.
Libby, 71, started researching Chinese history in Maine two decades ago. Now, there’s nobody that knows more about the subject. All his historical research and oral history interviews are now on file in the Maine Historical Society archives. Libby shares many of his historical stories in the Chinese and American Friendship Association of Maine’s newsletters as well.
“It’s more than just ethnic food and laundry,” said Libby.
Among the fascinating characters Libby has dug up is boxer Harry Wong, who fought 37 bouts in Portland and Lewiston between 1946 and 1948. Wong’s professional record was 17 wins (11 by knockout) six draws and nine losses.
Golden Rule Foundation American Mother of the Year for 1952, Toy Len Goon of Portland, waves as she parades through New York’s Chinatown. Courtesy of Maine Memory Network
He was the son of Charles Tuck Wong, who opened one of Portland’s first upscale Chinese restaurants. His Oriental Restaurant opened in Monument Square in 1917. The Public Market House occupies the site now.
During his boxing career, Harry lived with his mother at 64 Brown Street. He was listed in the Portland city directory through 1949. After that, he vanished from city records.
Another Chinese-American Portland tale Libby unearthed is that of Ar Foo Fong. A tea merchant by trade, Fong came to Portland around 1860. He worked in George Shaw’s shop on Middle Street, helping customers select teas. Shaw later founded the Shaw’s supermarket chain. Fong wore traditional clothes and often worked by the front window to attract attention.
According to Libby, Fong quickly became the talk of the town. By 1871, Fong opened his own shop on Congress Street. If it still stood, it would be in the grassy strip between Franklin Street’s two lanes.
An 1874 advertisement for his store read, “A good assortment of canned fruits, groceries. Quick sales and small profits.”
Perhaps Libby’s most most stirring story from Portland’s Chinese community is the Golden Rule Foundation’s American Mother of the Year for 1952: Toy Len Goon.
An advertisement in the Portland city directory entices customers to Ar Foo Fong’s tea shop sometime after 1871. Courtesy of Maine Memory Network
Widowed in 1940, Goon ran a laundry with her eight children on Forest Avenue. The laundry was the family’s only means of support. To keep it going, her oldest son, Edward, dropped out of Deering High School at age 16. When he was 18, and the next oldest boy was 16, he went back to high school and got his diploma. Edward then went on to Bowdoin College and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
All the Goon children went on to higher education, said Libby. Two of them earned degrees in electrical engineering. There was also a Ph.D., a lawyer, a court reporter, a bookkeeper, and a social scientist.
As mother of the year, Goon was given a New York parade and got to meet First Lady Bess Truman.
She lived to be 101.
“It’s important to remember how these people pursued their American dream,” said Libby. “They’re not coming here for food stamps.”
Libby cannot claim any Chinese heritage himself. His Libby clan arrived in Maine in 1636 from Cornwall. Other branches of his family tree lead back to the Mayflower. He’s lived in Portland his whole life.
“I was born at Mercy Hospital,” he said.
A long-time researcher and member of the Maine Historical Society, Libby became interested in Portland’s Chinese history when he met then-University of Southern Maine Professor Fenggang Yang in 2001. Yang was new to Maine and wondered if there was any Chinese history here. Libby was interested in the same question. They hit it off over lunch at local watering hole Forest Gardens and decided to do some research together.
“When I got the job offer in Portland, I looked for the local Chinese community. The closest anyone could point me to was the Vietnamese community,” said Yang, who left Maine in 2002 for a job at Purdue University.
“I asked, ‘What do we know? What’s the history of Chinese in Maine,’” said Yang. “Gary is the one who really did a lot of the digging and meeting with people. The more we found out, the more interesting it got.”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most Chinese immigrants to Maine were self-employed in the food and laundry businesses. Federal Chinese exclusion laws, first enacted in 1882 and mostly in place until the mid-1960s, barred new immigration and naturalization for 70 years. Nowadays, most new Chinese arrivals in Maine are professionals and students.
Ah-Kau Ng landed in Portland about 30 years ago after growing up in Malaysia and attending college in Taiwan. A professor’s job at the University of Southern Maine, in applied medical science, brought him to Maine.
“There were not many Chinese families in Maine 30 years ago. Now, there must be a couple hundred in the Portland area,” said Ng. “There are some 300 Chinese high school students in Maine and I think the Chinese Gospel Church in Cumberland has over a hundred members.”
Ng is is deeply involved in the Chinese and American Friendship Association of Maine. It works promoting awareness of and appreciation of Chinese culture in Maine and runs a school for children teaching the Mandarin language, calligraphy, art, song, and dance.
Though he’s been at it for two decades, Libby said he isn’t done looking into the state’s Chinese history. It’s too interesting to stop now.
“I’m particularly interested in immigrants of color that have been here for a long time — who have done well and contributed to the community,” said Libby “Maine’s history is the richer for the inclusion. That’s why I keep doing it.”