There have been Chinese people living in Maine since before the Civil War, but very few Mainers know that.

The early settlers included successful business people who started stores, restaurants and hand laundry businesses in communities from Saco to Bangor. They were also the victims of race-based violence and harassment.

With anti-Asian violence in the news again, it’s worth taking a look at the difficulties the first Asian immigrants faced when they came to Maine more than a century ago.

Chinese people began arriving in California in great numbers shortly after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. They came along with many other people from around the globe, but the Chinese faced unique discrimination right from the beginning.

The dominant attitude of white Californians was summed up in the 1854 California Supreme Court ruling in People v. Hall, which reversed a white man’s murder conviction because Chinese witnesses had been allowed to testify against him.

In the court’s opinion, the Chinese were a people “whose mendacity is proverbial; a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point, as their history has shown; differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation; between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference.”


Discriminatory state laws, including a $2.50 (equal to about $65 today) monthly “police tax” that applied only to Chinese people, made it impossible for the new immigrants to work in the gold mines, causing them to fan out across the continent.

Daniel Cough is Maine’s first-known Chinese resident. He stowed away on a Maine ship that had docked on China’s Amoy Island in 1857. By the time the crew found him they were not about to turn back to bring him back to China. Daniel arrived in Maine in October of that year and settled in Bernard, a town on Mt. Desert Island. He eventually married a local woman, started a family and opened a successful general store.

Portland’s first known Chinese resident was Ar Tee Lam, who came to Portland from Cuba in 1858. He was a cigar maker, opened his own tobacco shop in 1873. He then opened what is believed to be Maine’s first Chinese restaurant, at 1 Custom House Wharf, in 1880.

Sam Lee, a 14-year-old boy, opened Maine’s first Chinese hand laundry in 1877 at 522 Congress St. in Portland, now the site of the Maine College of Art.

Newspaper reports from the Portland Eastern Argus and the Kennebec Journal relate numerous examples of race-based violence, and not always critically.

In 1879, less than two years after the first Chinese laundry opened in Portland, a writer made reference to Denis Kearney, a California labor leader who started the “Chinese must go” movement, while describing one such incident. The story related that “young disciples of Kearney went into the Chinese laundry on Center Street and assaulted one of the ‘moon-eyed lepers’ as the gentle Denis calls them.”


In 1873, the Portland Argus that reported an assault without provocation against a “much respected” Jewish merchant by a group of three “roughs.” That article said that Portland’s “Hebrew population” had complained of persecution and went on to say that Portland’s Chinese community had also made similar complaints and that the Portland Police Department had been “ordered to protect them to the best of their ability.” The article concluded with the statement: “The police intend to treat all races and classes equally.”

In August 1887, Sam Lung was entertaining some of his Chinese friends at his shop on Federal Street in Portland when a group of rowdy boys threw a rock through his shop’s window. He and his friends gave chase but a policeman stopped Mr. Lung, who was brandishing a steel tool used to pleat fabric, before he could catch the boys who escaped. Three years later, three hoodlums assaulted Mr. Lung without provocation kicking and beating him.

There are many more incidents in the newspaper files. Here are just a few:

• In November 1892, Charlie Ying, who owned a laundry on Portland’s Portland Street, became angry with a boy who had been tormenting him. Mr. Ying confronted the boy and was, in turn, confronted by the boy’s mother. Mr. Ying responded by chasing the mother out of his shop with a broomstick. Patrolman Morse arrived and arrested everyone.

• In May 1904, a 16-year-old boy broke the back window of a laundry. The laundryman, Chin Hung, complained to his landlord, who reported the incident to the police. The boy was brought into the municipal court. At trial, the boy denied the charge. Chin Hung testified that he was within 10 feet of the boy and saw him break the window. The judge believed Mr. Hung’s testimony and placed the boy on probation after he agreed to “fix up” the matter with the landlord.

• In December 1916, there was an attack on a Chinese restaurant on Free Street in Portland. Two soldiers from Fort McKinley entered the restaurant and assaulted a waiter. The restaurant staff responded by chasing the soldiers out with red-hot irons and baseball bats. During the scuffle two windows and many dishes were broken. The soldiers were convicted of assault and sentenced to 30 days in the county jail and fined $5 each. They also had to make restitution for the damages caused.


There are many more such incidents, and not all in the past.

On Oct. 13, 1996, Anthony Ng, a Bates College graduate who was back in Lewiston to attend the homecoming weekend activities, was confronted by a local man who yelled racial epithets, made threats and then punched him twice in the head.

Just this year, Navii Chhay, who is of Asian descent, said she and her 12-year-old daughter were inside their vehicle on Forest Avenue in Portland waiting for an oil change when they were accosted by a man who kicked the car hard enough to break a side mirror and yelled at them to “go back to your country.” Troy Sprague, 47, was arrested and charged with criminal mischief. He also faces a state complaint alleging a civil rights violation.

These incidents don’t tell the whole story about the Asian presence in Maine. But while the state has been, for the most part, accepting of its Chinese and other Asian communities, there has been plenty of discrimination and violence against them right from the start.

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