Portland’s Chinatown is not the bustling Chinatown of San Francisco. But between 1870 and 1900, it was the second-largest in the country. Today the neighborhood, in Portland’s Old Town district, is an eclectic mix of Asian and Western influences. You can zen out in Lan Su Chinese Garden, a haven — including pavilions, a koi-filled lake and tea house — built by artisans from Suzhou, China. Or sip espresso at tiny sneaker-decorated Deadstock Coffee before shopping for high-end street wear. During a recent stay in Chinatown, my daughter and I enjoyed these activities and visited the new Portland Chinatown Museum. We also browsed the neighborhood’s many indie businesses, such as Orox Leather Co. The pungent scent of fresh leather hit us the moment we entered the family-owned workshop, which also sells purses, belts and shoes hand-crafted on-site. We had a hard time prying ourselves away from the contemporary and collectible comic books, art and locally designed toys at Floating World Comics. The tab: $196 per night, including taxes and fees, for a hotel room; about $150 for food; and $33 for museum and garden entrance for two.
We stayed at the Hoxton, a hip new boutique hotel next to the colorful Chinese Gateway, the official entrance to Chinatown. Walnut paneling, midcentury furniture and retro touches such as a rotary phone and a Roberts radio, gave our room a pleasing “Mad Men” vibe. The rate included a bagged continental breakfast delivered to our door. In a city that caters to caffeine connoisseurs, the Hoxton’s small lobby coffee shop holds its own. You’ll also find a rooftop taqueria and a basement speakeasy.
We noshed on pork and vegetable dumplings at Red Robe Tea House & Cafe in the heart of Chinatown. The family-run spot is known for its array of fine teas. We tried a pot of Jasmine Pearls, an aromatic green tea with a hint of fruity sweetness, and Lavender Rose Buds, a light floral brew. When I asked a couple of Portland friends for downtown brunch recommendations within walking distance of our hotel, both suggested the Bijou Cafe. It was solid advice. I tucked into a fluffy frittata stuffed with sausage, roasted red peppers, zucchini, basil and Gouda cheese. My daughter was just as happy with her tofu scramble with fresh heirloom tomatoes.
Checking out the Portland Chinatown Museum was a high point of our trip. Docent Dennis Tong, a third-generation Chinatown native, guided us through “Beyond the Gate,” the excellent permanent exhibit. Tong shared facts about his community’s history and stories about the local Chinese American families featured in displays (he grew up with some of them). Engaging replicas of prominent businesses such as Bow Yuen Dry Goods, a store that sold Chinese merchandise from 1904 until 1929, also help bring Chinatown’s past to life. Another replica depicts the Chinese language school run since 1901 by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn. Like many of his peers, Tong attended classes there as a child. “I wasn’t a very good student,” he said, smiling. Besides its permanent collection, the museum has rotating exhibitions by contemporary Asian American artists as well as lectures and films.
THE LESSON LEARNED
Portland’s Chinatown is a neighborhood in transition. Many longtime Chinese-owned restaurants and other businesses have shuttered in recent years, their faded storefronts and signs the only reminders of their existence. Although you must dig deeper to experience the area’s rich Chinese heritage, it’s still here — and well worth discovering.
The Hoxton, 15 N.W. 4th Ave., Portland; (503) 770-0500. 119 rooms from around $90 off-season. Wheelchair accessible.
Red Robe Tea House, 310 N.W. Davis St., Portland; (503) 227-8855. Open Mondays-Saturdays; check website for hours. Wheelchair accessible.
Bijou Cafe, 132 S.W. 3rd Ave., Portland; (503) 222-3187. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wheelchair accessible.
Lan Su Chinese Garden, 239 N.W. Everett St., Portland; (503) 228-8131. Open daily; check website for hours and admission fees. Wheelchair accessible.
Portland Chinatown Museum, 127 N.W. 3rd Ave., Portland; (503) 224-0008. See website for hours and admission fees. Wheelchair accessible.