Entryway into the Shanghai Tunnels
Photo: Dmae Roberts
Shanghai-ed In Portland
By Dmae Roberts 11/08/2002
I'm a long-time "X-Files" fan, and going into an underground tunnel conjures up images of cold, smelly, skanky sewers filled with monsters ready to jump out and devour your liver -- or something. So, with some dread and anxiety, I venture to old Chinatown in downtown Portland to go underground.
(sound: rave pop music in a bar)I arrive at the appointed meeting place: Hobo's Restaurant, an upscale restaurant with a really full and fantastic looking bar. I order a virgin sea breeze just in time to see a lovely transvestite stroll by. God, I'd kill for those hips. Then, I turn to see middle-aged -- obviously straight -- couples in parkas and sneakers, entering bewildered. A short man with shoulder-length hair starts rounding up people. I assume that's Michael Jones, our tour guide from the Cascades Geographical Society. We're about to find out how men were snatched from saloons and held underground before being thrown on boats to work for free, until they ended up in Shanghai.
(sound: outside street traffic)A group of seven of us follows Michael outside to hover around a metal door in the sidewalk. Michael opens it up and tells us to walk in.
(sound: clanging of doors opening, walking down stairs)Everyone decides to let the woman with the mic -- that's me -- walk down the wooden steps first. I'm really wishing my sea breeze had been real. It's dark, but i venture forth, one shaky step at a time....
Michael: "You go right to that curtain and stop."A woman behind me, Mickey, can't see the curtain either. Smells funny down here. More than a dusty basement smell, and moldy, hot -- not cold. I hear water dripping. Could there really be flesh-eating creatures down here? Tour guide Michael closes the doors to the outside world. We are plunged into total blackness.
(sound: door closes)Everyone grabs the flashlights. Michael steers us through a cramped basement of stone, mortar and brick. Overhead, huge wooden beams -- close enough even for five-foot-four me to bump my head.
We walk through a tunnel, skirting around huge pipes. Above us, we hear people walking and talking in Hobo's Restaurant.
Water drips into a bucket, but the ground is still muddy. Claustrophobia starts to set in. God, I hope there aren't any rats or bats in here. I tell myself the tour is only an hour, so keep breathing -- then, Michael tells us to turn off our flashlights! Is he nuts?!
Michael turns on his fluorescent lamp to reveal a small cell where "shanghai-ed" men were held before being forced to work on ships for no pay. shangahai-ing started in 1850 and fizzled out by 1941, the start of World War II.
I look at 20 or 30 pairs of old boots strewn on the floor. I imagine Having a drink at Hobo's Bar and then suddenly falling through a trap Door -- yes, there really were trap doors -- and ending up a prisoner in this dark dirty hole.
Portland -- my Portland -- was the shanghai capitol of the world! I'm stunned to find there were other underground tunnels in parts of Oregon, now upper-class suburban towns. City officials knew but turned a blind eye because it was a moneymaker. Never mind that men were dying from the knockout drops used to kidnap them. One time, a group of sailors thought they found a stash of whiskey barrels hidden in a basement of snug harbor bar.
Mickey and her friend are drawn to a Victorian baby buggy amidst hundreds of wooden chairs piled in from past saloons and brothels.
Michael says the buggy is a reminder that babies born to prostitute mothers were sold or given away.
I turn to Mickey, standing next to me. We look at all the shadows around us: no woman crying out for her baby here. But there's a different kind of ghost: a feeling of suffering and tragedy from long ago. The walls start closing in...Micky says it all in one word:
We're all starting to feel weighed down with the stories. It's unbelievably hot. We hear footsteps and laughter above us, the sound of a dishwasher -- all that life above us, and we're quiet down here in the underground. We ascend into bright sunny Portland. Another group awaits the next tour. Michael says people are curious about the history, but many are actually trying to find long-lost family members who were shanghaied.
Portland is beautiful up here, but how little I knew of my own city's seamy past. And, I wonder, how many other cities have undergrounds where the only real monster is its horrible history.
I'm Dmae Roberts for The Savvy Traveler.
Search Savvy Traveler