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Shanghai Tunnels- Urban Myth or Fact?

Writing historical fiction is often an intriguing blend of fact and fantasy. While researching Soiled Dove Murder– the third book in the Moonshiner Mysteries series, I came across multiple intriguing references to Chinese (or Shanghai) tunnels in communities in America’s West that had large Chinese populations at the turn of the century.

I tried to chase down as many ‘historical’ and archeological references to these Chinese tunnels as possible. However, in many cases, the tunnel stories were like smoke.

“When you try to contain them and see what substance they have, they just curl through your fingers and disappear.”

The tunnels captured my imagination because they were evocative of the ghostly nature of the historical Chinese presence in Montana, where the Moonshiner series is set. Once a significant component in many turn of the century mining and railroad communities; by the 1930s when the gold had ran out, many of the Chinese had pulled up stakes and left Montana. All that remains of these early Chinese in Montana are a handful of artifacts and stories of Chinese tunnels and the opium trade.

Harve, Butte, Helena, Blackfoot City, Bozeman, Big Timber, Missoula, Billings, and even Virginia City have all laid claim to Chinese tunnels.

According to Priscilla Wegars of the University of Idaho, a foremost authority on Asian culture in the West, there is overwhelming evidence that “Chinese tunnels” are nothing more than myths.

Not a single “Chinese tunnel” has ever been identified.

While it is true that Chinese businesses, opium dens, and even living quarters are sometimes found in basement spaces, these in no way can be called “tunnels.”

The Chinese were often targets of discrimination, but they did not live underground because of persecution, as many believe. Basements were simply cheaper to rent than rooms above ground. Further, the basements of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century business blocks frequently had arched doorways leading to sidewalk vaults. These were storage or delivery areas. Lit by glass blocks turned purple with age, these mysterious vaults had nothing to do with the Chinese.

Tunnel systems beneath downtown areas in Helena, Butte, Missoula, Bozeman, and elsewhere do exist; they served as steam-heat delivery systems. While sometimes steam tunnels served clandestine purposes, particularly for alcohol delivery during Prohibition, these passageways cannot be termed “Chinese tunnels.” Finally, in all settlements where mining was extensive, hand-dug tunnels often remain beneath residential neighborhoods and downtown business areas. Miners of all ethnic groups dug tunnels, and there is nothing that makes a tunnel exclusively Chinese.

The myth of Chinese tunnels continues to be perpetuated despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For the most authoritative debunking of this tale, see David Chuenyan Lai, The Forbidden City within Victoria, Victoria, BC: Orca (1991). Chapter 4, “Tunnels of the Forbidden Town,” pp. 34-39, details how the myth became established. Lai’s “Summary,” p. 39, can be applied to any city with reported “Chinese tunnels.”

While archeological evidence is still pending on the origin of these tunnels, I decided to incorporate this urban myth into my story because of its a blend of the mysterious underground, is evocative of many of the myths of death and rebirth, and in many cases the rumours stem from turn of the century suspicion of Chinese culture and Prohibition era crime.

If you ever get the chance, check out Butte’s ornate speakeasy in the tunnels under the Rockwood Hotel or take a tour through Harve’s extensive ‘underground mall’.

Heck, even in Canada (where I live), Moose Jaw has a thriving Al Capone and Chinese tunnel tourism attraction. According to one story, the tunnels were started by Chinese railway workers about 1908, after several members of their group were attacked and killed at the CPR yards. The Chinese moved underground and lived there for years. Later, during Prohibition, bootleggers took over the network of passages. Some stories even claim that Prohibition gangster Al Capone was a frequent visitor to the city, going about his secret business under the streets of Moose Jaw.

Only a handful of archaeological excavations have been done on Chinese sites in Montana, and the only work done by historians in the state has consisted primarily of a few magazine articles.

If you’d like to read more about these intriguing tunnels, check out these websites:

The Chinese Presence in Virginia City Montana: A Historical
Archaeology Perspective, Kristin Bowen, The University of Montana

Big Timber Chinatown

Underneath Montana’s Streets, Joe Shelton, Distinctly Montana

Chinese Tunnels, University of Idaho


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