Fact or Fiction?

Numerous folkloric tales of Chinese tunnels in Tacoma have been told for decades, but it’s uncertain whether they truly existed.

Imagine this: You’re in your favorite Pacific Avenue watering hole, drinking a pint of your favorite brew, when you start to feel a little off. The next moment, you wake with your face pressed against wooden floorboards. You sit up with a start (and a headache) and quickly realize you’re not in Tacoma anymore.

Hours (even days) have passed since that night in the bar, and you find yourself in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. Your captors have probably paid a tidy sum to add you to the ship’s roster, or perhaps you’ll be sold into slavery once you reach the distant shore.

You have been shanghaied.

Though the contemporary use of the word “shanghai” fits this scenario quite nicely, the historical definition — to “force (someone) to join a ship lacking a full crew by drugging them or using other underhanded means” — is an apt description of the events that led you to this hypothetical conscription.

This is just one of many varied tales that surround the fabled Chinese Tunnels — or Shanghai Tunnels — that purportedly snake throughout Tacoma’s formerly shady underground. Other theories include the smuggling of opium into underground dens and the smuggling of Chinese immigrants and their families into Tacoma during the Chinese Exclusion Act — which, beginning in 1882, outlawed the immigration of Chinese individuals to the area.

Phyllis Harrison remembers the latter theory from her childhood growing up in Fircrest in the 1950s.

“(Fircrest) was one of the places where there was some kind of opening that was reported to be the entrance to one of these tunnels,” said Harrison. “The story we grew up with was that (the tunnels) had been built by railroaders to smuggle in Chinese laborers to work on the railroads.”

Though reports of various tunnels abound — with locations including Pacific Avenue and the Stadium District, as well as Harrison’s Fircrest neighborhood — not much physical evidence can be shown to verify they ever existed, with the exception of the channels created by a steam plant that piped steam to downtown Tacoma buildings around the turn of the century.

Even the basement of Harrison’s own business, The Art Space on Broadway in downtown Tacoma, still has a vent that once led to the nearby plant, and not to awaiting ships on the waterfront.

Phyllis Harrison

Phyllis Harrison. Photo by Jeff Hobson.

Harrison also recalls children from her elementary school excitedly whispering about the tunnels. Even Harrison’s father was enamored with the idea of locating one. “My dad was absolutely certain he had been in one of them — it was just sort of one of the things you did on a Saturday afternoon in those days was go look for Chinese Tunnels,” she said.

Though some of Harrison’s classmates may have grown out of their fascination of the tunnels, the stories surrounding their existence stuck with her into adulthood. Harrison went on to earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in English, but as a self-described perpetual student, she found herself wanting more.

In the late 1970s, Harrison began to study folklore for a doctoral degree at Indiana University, and it wasn’t long before she found herself wanting to analyze the folklore of her own hometown.

“I came back and did this over the course of the summer vacation, and I would look for references of the tunnels and I would talk to people about the tunnels,” she said. One of the artifacts Harrison’s research unearthed was a Library of Congress document from the Federal Writers’ Project manuscripts.

The document, dated Dec. 19, 1958, and mailed to the state office by Carl E. Dupuis of Tacoma, outlines how Chinese laborers helped to build out the railroad but were released upon completion of the project, leaving them to saturate the work pool in the local area with many more arriving, despite the aforementioned Exclusion Act, which outlawed Chinese immigration.

The document goes on to state that many individuals of Chinese descent opened their own “nefarious” businesses, including opium joints.

“… (T)here was no question in the minds of many people that the narcotic was smuggled in through tunnels from their dens to cleverly hidden exits near the waterfront. They also were convinced that the tunnels were dug by Chinese, either as a personal enterprise or at the behest of white men of the underworld, as no white workmen would burrow the devious mole-like passageways to keep their labors secret,” the document reads.

Though the prestige of the library, which houses this document, cannot be argued, the actual existence of the tunnels can be disputed by Harrison with some confidence. For one thing, she said, the narrative seems to change from generation to generation.

“One of the things that I found in my research was not only did the story change over time, but the story changed as popular culture stereotypes of Asian and Chinese (people) changed,” Harrison said.

Harrison said she went back to her old grade school and asked a teacher to poll her students about their knowledge of the “Chinese tunnels.” The responses she got from the late-1970s classroom varied widely. The stories the children had associated with the tunnels had to do with people of Vietnamese descent — this possibly was due in part to the ending of the Vietnam War in 1975.

The wild variations in the stories associated with the tunnels and the lack of physical evidence leads many to question the tunnels’ existence and leads us to wonder whether it is the people of Tacoma who have been shanghaied — not by actual kidnappers or drug smugglers, but by the fable itself.

is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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