By Ann Felton
Haberdasher Bill Simons learned about many of Boise’s old buildings from the corner of 9th and Main, where Moses Alexander built Idaho’s grandest men’s store. Simons, Alexander’s great-grandson, saw the value of buildings that many Boiseans wanted destroyed and took special interest in the Chinese storefronts slated for destruction by urban renewal to make way for a shopping mall. His photographs from the 1960s show the final days of Boise’s second Chinatown, a laundry and restaurant district founded in 1901.
The story begins with immigrant miners from China’s Guangdong Province who cross through Boise soon after gold was discovered near Idaho City in 1862. By the 1880s, many had settled in Boise along Idaho Street, creating the largest Chinatown in the intermountain area. In 1901, after the city condemned many fire-prone wooden buildings, a second Chinatown spread east from 8th Street along Front and Grove.
7th Street Chinatown Boise’s second Chinatown provided services and connections for the Chinese of the area, as well as planted memories of a distinctively different culture in the minds of many other residents. This set of buildings on 7th St. (current day Capitol Blvd.) earlier housed Chinese restaurants and merchandise stores, as well as the Hip Sing Tong Association headquarters.
Hip Sing Tong Two national Tongs found their way to Boise, the Hip Sing and Hop Sing associations. Tongs, (“hall” or “meeting place” in the Cantonese dialect) originally provided benevolent or protective aid. The associations not only gave aid to current resident, but also proved an important resource for new, non-English speaking arrivals. Nationally, these larger associations eventually formed connections with organized crime, involving their members in Tong Wars. The Boise Tongs tried hard to stay away from these elements but the murder of several isolated Chinese were associated with these wars. Pictured is the Hip Sing building in 1938.
Tong House The Chinese organized their neighborhoods in a multi-use manner, intermingling stores, residents and benevolent associations. In the 1930s the bottom floor of this Front Street building housed a Chinese merchandise store, Hai Yuen & Co., and the Hop Sing Tong headquarters on the top.
Cemetery Boise newspapers spoke often of the Chinese celebration of Ching Ming, a traditional spring festival dating back to 3700 BC China. The celebration symbolized the renewal of life after the death of winter, and involved tidying up ancestor’s gravesites and leaving offerings of food, sometimes as elaborate as roasted pig. During the festival, worshippers used this shrine like furnace in the Chinese section of Morris Hill Cemetery to burn small offerings of paper in reverence to their ancestors. A new furnace has been built at the cemetery and the Chinese still celebrate this important tradition oftentimes traveling from out of state to observe the rituals.
Ah Fong Boise’s Chinese brought their cultural influences to Boise in many ways including the practice of Chinese herbal medicine. Traces of three generations of Ah-Fong herbal doctors can be found in Boise’s second Chinatown. The Patriarch of the family, C.K. Ah-Fong settled in Boise in 1889. By 1893 he had established a shop on Idaho Street, in the first Chinatown. When Idaho adopted the American Medical Association standards it excluded Chinese herbalists from getting medical licenses and in 1899 refused Dr. Ah-Fong’s request for one. This soon changed when Judge Stewart reversed the Idaho Board’s decision. According to a story told by the doctor’s great grandson Richard, the license came as a result of the Doctors ability to heal the wife of a governmental official. It is not known whether the story is true or not, but it is certain that Dr. Ah-Fong was one of only a few Chinese Herbalist in the United States to obtain a license. He and his wife were thought of highly by many in Boise as evidenced by Mrs. Ah-Fong’s funeral procession, which reportedly turned out the largest number of people in the history of the city.
Ah Fong Office Sometime prior to 1910 Herbert Ah-Fong joined his father C.K. in the practice of Chinese medicine, first in the original Chinatown location on Idaho street and then in the Hip Sing Building at 215 S. 7th St. The Ah-Fong’s came from a long line of Chinese medical practitioners and like his father, Herbert received his training in China. The Doctors also imported Chinese medicinals from their homeland and conducted a mail order trade that reached areas all over the United States. Herbert’s son Gerald joined the practice between 1915 and 1917 making three generations of practicing Ah-Fong’s in Boise’s second Chinatown. In 1928, C.K. Ah-Fong died and later Herbert retired and returned to China leaving Gerald to carry on the family tradition in Boise.
Herbs & Remedies Gerald Ah-Fong became the third generation in his family to practice Chinese medicine in Idaho’s capital city. Following family tradition he returned to China for his formal medical training. Details of his education are not known but his medical writings and mastery of calligraphy suggest that he was well educated. Gerald practiced in Boise’s Chinatown until 1964. With the Communist take over of China, the import of Chinese herbs became almost impossible. He could no longer take care of his Boise patients nor conduct his mail order business so Dr Ah-Fong left the majority of his apothecary materials to the care of the Hip Sing Tong and moved to Redwood City, California.
Billy Fong By the 1960s, many of Boise’s Chinese had migrated out of the cities core area. Some had moved to larger towns on the Pacific Coast or back to China, while others migrated to open lands west of the city taking up another traditional Chinese occupation, gardening. The Tong’s had slowly lost membership, making it hard to maintain the buildings or do their business. For thirty years, Billy Fong had lived in an upstairs apartment of the Hop Sing Tong Building and over those years had held every administrative office of the Tong. Billy had lived there for decades and worked at the Golden Wok restaurant as a cook. At the age of 84 he became Chinatowns last resident.
Wrecking Ball The 1960’s brought in an age of redevelopment and Federal funds were used to buy up large sections of old buildings, demolishing them to make way for the new. This became the fate of most of the old buildings in Boise’s second Chinatown. Billy Fong made a gallant stand, remaining in his home for months after the Boise Redevelopment Agency had bought the building and told him he would have to leave. As the wrecking ball finally approached his building, Billy threw out the white flag of surrender and left his longtime home.