Early Butte Businesses: Wah Chong Tai Company
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The Wah Chong Tai Company in Butte was opened by Chin Chun Hock in the late 1890s. Today, remnants of the business stand in its original location as a part of the Mai Wah Museum. The Mai Wah Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the historical buildings, artifacts, and culture of the Asian community in the Rocky Mountain West.
The Wah Chong Tai Company housed a mercantile and herbal store on the ground floor, and a restaurant above. These were not its only functions however. According to the Mai Wah Society:
"Just as rural general stores throughout the U.S. provided various services, the mercantile also did much more than just sell goods. Besides its obvious commercial activities, it was also the place to find lodging, social interaction, and job opportunities. The mercantile was a meeting place, a post office, and a bank. It also had political functions, providing translators and spokespersons who represented the Chinese within the larger society."
The Mai Wah Noodle Parlor was designed in 1909 by Butte architect George DeSnell and built next to the Wah Chong Tai building. The two businesses were co-owned by five different Chinese businessmen, two of whom lived in China. The businesses proved successful, managing to stay open and in the black into the 1920s and '30s as other Chinese-run businesses in Butte were forced to close. Albert Chinn was one of the owners who lived in Butte, and he retained ownership into the 1940s. While the majority of other Chinese families were moving out of Butte, Chinn and his family continued to live in and own the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor and Wah Chong Tai Co. buildings.
In 1949 the buildings transferred ownership to Albert's son William. The buildings themselves were rented out, while the cabinets in the store and all their contents were bought by Charlie Bovey, a Montana legislator interested in preserving historical buildings and artifacts. He brought the lot to Nevada City, where it stayed in the Montana Heritage Museum until 2013, when everything was returned on loan to its place in the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile, now a part of the Mai Wah Museum.
June 15, 2013 marked the grand reopening of the Wah Chong Tai Company Mercantile as an exhibit. Ginger and Roger So, children of William Chinn's sister Pearl, came from New Jersey to attend the opening and celebrate the objects being back in their places after 65 years. From the Mai Wong Museum website: "With more than 2,500 original artifacts, the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile is one of the most complete period Chinese stores from the early 20th Century in the United States, and the only one that is in its original setting."
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