Best Ancient Chinese Secret (2011)

Opium dens in Downtown Phoenix

The next time you walk around US Airways Center, consider this: An underground neighborhood — Chinatown or "China Alley," as it was once referred to — was centered right at Madison and First streets.

Census figures from 1890 put the number of Chinese people residing in Phoenix at 200, though given that many were single men living in boarding houses, the number may have been under-reported. Certainly not all Chinese residents lived in this neighborhood bounded by Jackson, Jefferson, First and Third streets, but the majority did at what may have been the height of Phoenix's Chinatown community.

There were Chinese-owned businesses such as grocery stores, vegetable stands, laundries, and restaurants. By 1899, there was a joss house, boarding houses, and another business, Dr. Ah Yim's Chinese Tea and Herb Sanitarium on First Street just north of Madison. In 1910, the three largest restaurants in Phoenix were Chinese-owned.

But this being our "underground" issue, we have to mention there were some pretty persistent and salacious rumors, too — mainly that a system of subterranean tunnels criss-crossed underneath Phoenix's old Chinatown, connecting dens of inequity.

This was such a long-held piece of gossip that a man recalling his Phoenix childhood in 1982 in an article in the Arizona Capitol Times says there was "conviction among the youth of Phoenix that Chinatown lay over a sinister maze of tunnels and underground rooms put to god-knows-what use. Stories about mysterious goings-on were common."

Okay — vegetable vendors, sure, but gambling tunnels?

While it is true that after 1909, gambling and opium smoking were illegal in Arizona, both were still available in Chinatown, and opium joints and gambling dens, visited by both Chinese and white residents, were raided occasionally by law enforcement. We found this gem from the Arizona Republican (March 9, 1910): "Four opium dens were discovered, all in full blast, and packed to the doors with hop-smoking Chinks."

And a Republican article from March 17, 1923, said officers involved in a narcotics raid "made human rats of themselves in exploring the underground tunnels which played an important part in the narcotics activities of the men taken into custody. A majority of the dope taken in the raid was discovered in these subterranean passages."

So there were definitely sensationalized reports in Anglo newspapers, but was there any real evidence to support the rumor that a vast network of underground tunnels existed?

In 1989, archaeologists undertook a survey of the site around the arena prior to its construction and published a report of their findings. Their dig did unearth evidence of narcotics use and gambling (through fragments such as opium cans; see other artifacts, pictured above) found in basements of formerly Chinese-operated buildings, but there was no mention of a system of tunnels.

The terms Chinatown and "China Alley" were used by Phoenix newspapers and on maps up until the 1940s, to describe the area. But by that time, local Chinese populations had chosen consciously to integrate and scattered throughout the city.


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