- Associated Press - Thursday, September 8, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - For Raymond Wong, the metal banners are the last straw.

Already, the city contributed to Old Town Chinatown’s decline, Wong said, by allowing homeless shelters and social services agencies to congregate there. Then there were the parking meters and the end of fareless square.

Now, a group tasked with revitalizing the neighborhood has launched a rebranding effort that Wong fears will rename the district. The Old Town Chinatown Community Association plans to hang banners on some Northwest Portland avenues, adding another name to the neighborhood’s existing monikers: Japantown.

Wong and 100 other Chinese residents protested the association’s Wednesday night meeting.

They are fighting, Wong said, against more than banners. As boutique hotels go up and Asian Americans move to East Portland’s Jade District, Wong worries the rebranding could be the move that erases Portland’s Chinatown once and for all.

“This is not good for us,” Wong said. “This is our Chinatown. We have businesses here. A lot of Chinese people are still here. We own buildings here. Why would you make our identity lost?”

Helen Ying, the president of the volunteer board and a Chinese American herself, said her group doesn’t want to diminish Chinatown. Instead, it wants to recognize the other groups who once lived there.

“If you look at the history of the neighborhood, the Japanese had many properties here,” Ying said. “But that part of the history hasn’t been highlighted in the neighborhood. We want to connect people, to make this one of the best neighborhoods in Portland. Together, stronger.”

Portland’s original Chinatown was south of the one people know today. Chinese immigrants created the city’s first Asian American center in 1850 along the Willamette River. But as the riverfront property became more valuable, landlords and city officials pushed Chinese residents out.

Portland’s current Chinatown, just north of West Burnside Street, was home to other groups before the Chinese arrived in 1910. In the early 1900s, African Americans lived and socialized there. And Japanese immigrants spent nearly 50 years running hotels, barber shops and bathhouses in the neighborhood then known as Nihonmachi, or Japantown.

When government officials sent Portland’s Japanese residents to internment camps in 1942, Chinese business owners took over their abandoned properties.

In time, Portlanders forgot about Japantown and the Old Chinatown. The red-and-gold streets bound by Northwest 4th and 2nd Avenues became known as Chinatown.

Officially, “Japantown” has been a part of the neighborhood’s name since 1989, when the U.S. Historic Register of Places listed the neighborhood as New Chinatown/Japantown.

“But that name was never, ever, actually used,” Wong said.

At its peak, Portland’s Chinatown was the nation’s second largest, behind San Francisco’s. But the glory days didn’t last long. Chinese business owners began calling for revitalization efforts as early as 1963.

In the 1980s, they tried again. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and others raised $300,000 for a new Chinatown gate at Burnside and 4th. When they erected the gate, bronze lion sculptures and red-and-gold street lamps in late 1986, business owners believed the cosmetic touches would finally turn the neighborhood around.

They didn’t. In the 1990s, grocers filed for bankruptcy. Business owners complained about homeless people, drug use and litter. City decisions to add homeless shelters and light rail contributed to the decline, they argued.

Still, a neighborhood association group kept meeting. And business owners and nonprofit workers created a business association there in 2007 with plans to turn the neighborhood around.

But by 2012, “neither were functioning really well,” Ying said.

A group of volunteers, only some of them Chinese, began working on a new revitalization plan.

The association’s website emphasizes Old Town, with Chinatown relegated to a list of five districts below. Its logo - a white O set against a multi-colored background - is not noticeably Chinese, Wong notes. The group recently moved its website from oldtownchinatown.org to pdxoldtown.org.

The association’s long-term goals include a plan to “enhance and celebrate the multi-ethnic history and culture” of the neighborhood.

Eventually, that could mean a museum that tells the stories of all who lived there, including African Americans and Greeks. For now, it means rolling out the metal banners.

An artist created five logos, one each for the Waterfront, Skidmore, Japantown, Chinatown and Ankeny Plaza. Using grant money from the Portland Development Commission, the association plans to hang the banners throughout Northwest Portland.

“The neighborhood is bigger than 3rd and 4th avenues,” Ying said. “The brand has to speak to the entire area, not just one part of the neighborhood. Chinatown will remain Chinatown. We intend to work with all the groups.”

Wong doesn’t believe the banners will help Chinatown. Further, he worries the banners will confuse tourists searching for the Lan Su Chinese Garden, at Northwest 2nd Avenue and Everett Street.

“People know the Chinese garden is in Chinatown,” Wong said. “But is this Old Town? Chinatown? Japantown? Three names is a little too much.”

Calling the rebranding “insensitive to the cultural heritage of Chinese,” Wong and others began planning the protest last week.

Wong said he has not spoken to any Japanese people about the protest.

“It’s possible they will be upset,” Wong said.

The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center is nearby, and the Naito Parkway is named after Bill Naito, a Japanese business owner who helped revitalize the area in the 1960s and 1970s and who coined the name Old Town.

Beyond that, Wong said, “we don’t see much of a footprint for the Japanese community here.”

Wednesday night, protesters carrying hand-painted signs said they didn’t view their protests as anti-Japanese. But as hotels and high-rise buildings come to Old Town, Chinese residents worry their history will fade away.

The turnout shows Chinese people aren’t ready to cede the neighborhood, said Hongcheng Zhao, one of the organizers.

Portland’s Chinese residents are working together in ways they haven’t in years, Zhao said. Young Chinese people drove in from Beaverton and elders came from East Portland for the protest.

A petition Wong created last week to protest the rebranding has more than 200 signatures.

“We want to show we have a voice,” Wong said. “I’m pretty sure we could get some new blood to get involved in the community.”

___

Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, https://www.oregonlive.com

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