As we left the Copper King Mansion and headed for supper, it began to rain. What could be more wonderful than a hot bowl of soup and traditional foods served in a very historical restaurant, the Pekin Noodle Parlour.
I enjoyed reading the article written about the restaurant and will include a bit of of the content, here. Ed Best of the Last Best News is the writer. This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of the Montana Quarterly.
“Entering the building from South Main, you walk up a long flight of stairs to a door on your left. It opens on a long, narrow hallway flanked by little rooms, each with its own table and chairs, separated by bead board partitions painted a bright orange, with an orange curtain hanging over each entrance. The chairs and tables, with their legs of braided steel, date to 1916, according to Danny Wong, and the cozy little booths have never changed. There are rumors—as persistent as those concerning the tunnels—that the booths are a holdover of the days when the Pekin was a brothel, or an opium den. Nonsense, the historians say; it was simply customary to give diners a bit of privacy.
Even the bathrooms are an experience: little side-by-side rooms that you enter through swinging doors, and then a regular door that opens inward, barely missing the toilet. You have to stand alongside the toilet just to close the door, unless you happen to be meth-addict skinny.
And presiding over it all is Danny Wong. He is 82 and has worked at the Pekin since coming to the United States in 1947 at the age of 13. He took over the business in the early 1950s from his Great-Uncle Hum Yow, who had run the Pekin Noodle Parlor since it opened in 1911. But Wong is not just the owner of a business that has been in the same family for 105 years.
He is also the owner of a virtual museum, an accidental museum of a type more likely to be found in Butte than anywhere else in Montana. Butte has lost so much population since its heyday that countless artifacts have been preserved simply because the space they occupy is not needed for anything else.
On the ground floor of the Pekin, where Wong’s ancestors ran a gambling hall and an herb dispensary, one wall is covered by a collection of large wooden drawers with Chinese lettering on them. Inside are heaps of desiccated medicinal herbs.
There is also a sizable collection of tin containers, likewise covered in Chinese characters and still full of various kinds of tea. Crammed into a rabbit’s warren of rooms in the vicinity of the tea and herbs, there are other relics of old Chinatown: an ancient brass cash register, hand-woven reed baskets, antique Chinese gambling devices, stacks and stacks of old dishes, lottery sheets with Chinese lettering and kitchen implements that look like they were forged in the Iron Age.
Such scenes presented themselves in every room we entered, with Danny Wong in the lead. One door led out back, into what used to be known as China Alley, when the Pekin was at the heart of a lively Chinese community that might have reached a population of 2,500 people.
Dick Gibson is the treasurer of the Mai Wah Society, which works to collect and preserve Asian history in the Rocky Mountain West and which runs the Mai Wah Museum, just down China Alley from the Pekin. It was Gibson who vehemently dismissed rumors of mysterious tunnels or an underground city. There were simply vaulted sidewalks, he said, empty spaces under the sidewalk that gave property owners a bit more room in their basements. There is no evidence that any subterranean chamber was attached to any others, Gibson said.
It was also Gibson who said the Chinese population of Butte has been estimated to have approached 2,500, though official census figures topped out at 400. The Chinese were subjected to much discrimination in the West, Gibson said, and were the target of occasional boycotts and discriminatory laws. But even the big boycotts of the late 1890s were more successful in Helena than in Butte.
That has certainly been true of the Pekin, which has long been popular among regular folk, bigwigs and politicians. In 2011, when the Pekin celebrated its centennial, then-Sen. Max Baucus entered a lengthy, tribute-filled history of the restaurant into the Congressional Record. It was also much loved by Butte’s one bona fide celebrity, the late Evel Knievel. He used to bring his family to the Pekin on a regular basis, and he would often have Wong down to his place in Las Vegas. And when Knievel died in 2007, family and friends gathered at the Pekin—after one of the larger funerals in the city’s history—to mourn, reminisce and carouse.
Wong’s ancestors have been in Butte almost from the city’s beginnings. One, whose name has been forgotten, came to the United States in the 1860s and used to deliver supplies to Chinese in camps and communities throughout the West, including Butte. That man’s sons came to Butte in the late 1890s and ran a laundry that remained in business until the mid-1950s.
When Danny Wong came to Butte in 1947, he still used his given name, Ding K. Tam. He adopted the more familiar “Wong” from his aunt Bessie Wong, while “Danny” was bestowed on him by a school classmate.
Wong married Sharon Chu in 1963 and she was soon as much a fixture at the Pekin as her husband. Their son, Jerry Tam, said that through the years, his father brought over hundreds of relations to work at the Pekin and get a foothold in the United States. And in 1980, after years of delicate negotiations with Chinese authorities, Wong was finally able to bring over his parents, whom he cared for until their deaths.
You get the feeling that Wong couldn’t be much happier with how things have turned out. He seems perpetually serene and happy, even while working busily in the kitchen, rubbing spices into a pork loin or chopping up a slab of meat. In the Pekin bar—a later add-on, comfortable but lacking in history and quirkiness—just off the banquet room at the front of the restaurant, there is a plaque with a sketch of the Pekin on it. Underneath are the words: “Given as a token of our appreciation for being a wonderful friend and boss. Always working with us, side by side through good times and bad and much laughter. From all the old-time workers.”
I didn’t speak to him, but while back near the kitchen, I had the chance to see Danny Wong, hard at work. When asked, the waitress denied any connection of the restaurant to past opium dens, just as the text of this article attests. She did say, however, that there have been recent discoveries of things below neighbouring buildings, so that is interesting. I enjoyed the hot food and relaxing with my friend. We were on our feet lots that afternoon. Outside, the weather was coming in.
Ramona’s photos. (thank you, buddy) I haven’t included the one of ‘moi’ taking in the sight of my food because I look exhausted! lol Click each image, to make larger. I’m glad you got one of the neon sign! After dinner, back out onto the I-15 and Boulder Hot Springs.