About 1893, Chin Chun Hock, the founder of Seattles earliest and most successful Chinese mercantile business, the Wa Chong Company, opened a branch store in Butte on West Galena Street. Chin visited Butte in October 1898, and announced plans to construct a new building for the company on China Alley.
By 1899, the company had moved into a new, two-story brick building at 15 West Mercury. Architecturally, the Wah Chong Tai (literally announcing beautiful old China) Companys new building was no different than the other business blocks being constructed in other parts of Butte City. The mercantile operated from a large room on the first floor, stocking items imported from China to sell to Asians and to others. Merchandise included fine Chinese and Japanese porcelain, bulk containers of dried herbs and tonics, and string-tied packages of Chinese-style clothing.
An herbal store at the back of the mercantile was named hung fuk hong or together happiness meeting place. An open mezzanine around three sides of the mercantile provided additional display space and an area for two offices. A restaurant was located on the second floor. Restaurant customers, mostly Chinese, entered by a door on China Alley.
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.
For several decades, the Wah Chong Tai Company remained a thriving mercantile. By 1931, ownership of the building and business had passed from control of the Seattle company and the real property had been divided into 1/20th shares under eight different owners, and the Wah Chong Tai Company was a partnership divided into 1/15th shares with five different owners. Three of the owners, Chin On, Chin Yee Fong (Albert Chinn), and Lou Dick You lived in Butte while Chin Quon Dai and Kong Sing Fong lived in China. A Report of the Partnership filed with the District Court on the death of Chin On showed the company in sound financial condition at a time when many other Chinese businesses in Butte were being forced to close. The partnership listed assets of almost $10,000 -- three quarters of the amount was in cash. The report also verifies the Wah Chong Tai Companys function as a bank for local Chinese. It listed over $12,000 in a safe deposit box at the First National Bank being held in trust for 15 individuals.
Today, the buildings are maintained by the Mai Wah Society, Inc., a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes, including research and public education about the history, culture, and conditions of Asian people in the Rocky Mountain West.
These goals are achieved through the collection and preservation of artifacts, the preservation of historic buildings and sites, the presentation of public exhibits, and the support of research and publications of materials of scholarly and general interest. Among other projects, the Society is rehabilitating and restoring the Wah Chong Tai Co. and the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor buildings to hold permanent and temporary public exhibits to interpret the Asian history of Butte, Montana, and the Rocky Mountain West.
For more information, visit their web site at: