Sunday, October 12, 2008

Underground Chinatown in Oklahoma City

I became an independent oil man during the late seventies, just as Oklahoma City began urban renewal of its downtown area. My partner John and I had an office on the eighth floor of the Park Harvey Center and we watched and listened as construction went on across the street. We soon heard rumors that the crews had discovered a maze of underground rooms, halls and passageways dug by former Chinese residents of the city.

The rumors were true. People of Chinese origin began arriving in Oklahoma City shortly after the Land Run. The Daily Oklahoman reported in 1969 that Underground Chinatown extended from the North Canadian River to Northwest 17th and Classen. If this is true, the “City” encompassed an area of several square miles.

According to eyewitness accounts, the tunnel system had a low ceiling and connected both large community rooms to tiny apartments where the residents of the underground city lived. Chinese writing covered the walls, including the words, “come gamble” at the entrance of one of the community rooms.

The underground city lay below restaurants and establishments owned by legal Chinese-Americans that likely took advantage of the cheap labor available from the illegal Chinese immigrants, afraid of deportation. Oklahoma City Fathers elected not to save the underground city and it was bulldozed in the name of Urban Renewal.

Like many of the historic Oklahoma City buildings destroyed during Urban Renewal, Underground Chinatown is now little more than a memory; all that remains are a few eyewitness accounts and the ghostly reek of opium often whiffed late at night in downtown OKC.

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