At the Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, history’s on the menu

BUTTE—On a visit to Butte early last fall, I heard two things over and over again. One was that Danny Wong’s hot mustard at the Pekin Noodle Parlor would clear your sinuses.

The other was that the Chinese in early-day Butte had built tunnels under much of the Uptown and used them for a variety of nefarious purposes, including drug-running and kidnapping.

One man I met at the Pekin told me about both. Gary Taylor, a Butte native now living in Whitehall, was having a late supper with Aileen Ast, a lifelong resident of Butte. They’d both been coming to the Pekin all their lives, and on the evening in question they were feasting on fried rice, sweet-and-sour spare ribs, bowls of noodles, sweet-and-sour pork and barbecued pork with the hot mustard.

Taylor said he’s eaten Chinese food all over the country and the Pekin is still his favorite. Also, he said, pointing to the hot mustard, “If you have sinus problems, you won’t after that.”

A few minutes later he started telling me about how, in the old days, “you could walk from the Anaconda Company building (three blocks uphill) to here, all underground.”

Ast, looking very solemn, said she had heard many times how, in the 1920s or ’30s, an 18-year-old girl was eating at the Pekin, excused herself to use the bathroom and was never seen again. She disappeared, Ast said, “into the underground city.”

The assertion about the mustard is true, as I was able to confirm through firsthand experience. That business about the tunnels apparently is not, and at least one tour guide familiar with Butte’s Chinatown wants to bury the myth once and for all.

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John Warner

Pekin owner Danny Wong opens an old herb drawer in what used to be an herb dispensary on the building’s ground floor.

I wish him luck but offer no hope. This is Butte, where the true stories are so good they might as well co-exist with the fables. People like Danny Wong, and places like the Pekin Noodle Parlor, need no embellishment.

The quality of the food, Taylor’s opinion notwithstanding, is probably not the main reason the Pekin has remained enduringly popular. One online restaurant-review site had this priceless assessment: “Haven’t been there for 70 years. It was a always a wonderful experience.” That’s the key: it’s the total experience that entices people in and brings them back. There is no establishment in Montana quite like it.

Entering the building from South Main, you walk up a long flight of stairs to a door on your left. It opens on a long, narrow hallway flanked by little rooms, each with its own table and chairs, separated by beadboard partitions painted a bright orange, with an orange curtain hanging over each entrance. The chairs and tables, with their legs of braided steel, date to 1916, according to Danny Wong, and the cozy little booths have never changed. There are rumors—as persistent as those concerning the tunnels—that the booths are a holdover of the days when the Pekin was a brothel, or an opium den. Nonsense, the historians say; it was simply customary to give diners a bit of privacy.

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Chinese lanterns hang from the ceiling over the narrow hall between the booths, and the waitresses deliver your food on metal carts that trundle noisily down the aisle.

Even the bathrooms are an experience: little side-by-side rooms that you enter through swinging doors, and then a regular door that opens inward, barely missing the toilet. You have to stand alongside the toilet just to close the door, unless you happen to be meth-addict skinny.

And presiding over it all is Danny Wong. He is 82 and has worked at the Pekin since coming to the United States in 1947 at the age of 13. He took over the business in the early 1950s from his Great-Uncle Hum Yow, who had run the Pekin Noodle Parlor since it opened in 1911. But Wong is not just the owner of a business that has been in the same family for 105 years.

He is also the owner of a virtual museum, an accidental museum of a type more likely to be found in Butte than anywhere else in Montana. Butte has lost so much population since its heyday that countless artifacts have been preserved simply because the space they occupy is not needed for anything else.

Sign

John Warner

The Pekin’s classic neon sign still burns bright.

On the ground floor of the Pekin, where Wong’s ancestors ran a gambling hall and an herb dispensary, one wall is covered by a collection of large wooden drawers with Chinese lettering on them. Inside are heaps of desiccated medicinal herbs.

There is also a sizable collection of tin containers, likewise covered in Chinese characters and still full of various kinds of tea. Crammed into a rabbit’s warren of rooms in the vicinity of the tea and herbs, there are other relics of old Chinatown: an ancient brass cash register, hand-woven reed baskets, antique Chinese gambling devices, stacks and stacks of old dishes, lottery sheets with Chinese lettering and kitchen implements that look like they were forged in the Iron Age.

Such scenes presented themselves in every room we entered, with Danny Wong in the lead. One door led out back, into what used to be known as China Alley, when the Pekin was at the heart of a lively Chinese community that might have reached a population of 2,500 people.

Dick Gibson is the treasurer of the Mai Wah Society, which works to collect and preserve Asian history in the Rocky Mountain West and which runs the Mai Wah Museum, just down China Alley from the Pekin. It was Gibson who vehemently dismissed rumors of mysterious tunnels or an underground city. There were simply vaulted sidewalks, he said, empty spaces under the sidewalk that gave property owners a bit more room in their basements. There is no evidence that any subterranean chamber was attached to any others, Gibson said.

It was also Gibson who said the Chinese population of Butte has been estimated to have approached 2,500, though official census figures topped out at 400. The Chinese were subjected to much discrimination in the West, Gibson said, and were the target of occasional boycotts and discriminatory laws. But even the big boycotts of the late 1890s were more successful in Helena than in Butte.

“The non-Chinese population of Butte really did support the Chinese,” he said.

That has certainly been true of the Pekin, which has long been popular among regular folk, bigwigs and politicians. In 2011, when the Pekin celebrated its centennial, then-Sen. Max Baucus entered a lengthy, tribute-filled history of the restaurant into the Congressional Record. It was also much loved by Butte’s one bona fide celebrity, the late Evel Knievel. He used to bring his family to the Pekin on a regular basis, and he would often have Wong down to his place in Las Vegas. And when Knievel died in 2007, family and friends gathered at the Pekin—after one of the larger funerals in the city’s history—to mourn, reminisce and carouse.

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John Warner

Sysco driver Dennis Gotcher helps Jerry Tam, on the porch outside the Pekin kitchen, hoist up a delivery of food.

Wong’s ancestors have been in Butte almost from the city’s beginnings. One, whose name has been forgotten, came to the United States in the 1860s and used to deliver supplies to Chinese in camps and communities throughout the West, including Butte. That man’s sons came to Butte in the late 1890s and ran a laundry that remained in business until the mid-1950s.

When Danny Wong came to Butte in 1947, he still used his given name, Ding K. Tam. He adopted the more familiar “Wong” from his aunt Bessie Wong, while “Danny” was bestowed on him by a school classmate.

Wong married Sharon Chu in 1963 and she was soon as much a fixture at the Pekin as her husband. Their son, Jerry Tam, said that through the years, his father brought over hundreds of relations to work at the Pekin and get a foothold in the United States. And in 1980, after years of delicate negotiations with Chinese authorities, Wong was finally able to bring over his parents, whom he cared for until their deaths.

You get the feeling that Wong couldn’t be much happier with how things have turned out. He seems perpetually serene and happy, even while working busily in the kitchen, rubbing spices into a pork loin or chopping up a slab of meat. In the Pekin bar—a later add-on, comfortable but lacking in history and quirkiness—just off the banquet room at the front of the restaurant, there is a plaque with a sketch of the Pekin on it. Underneath are the words: “Given as a token of our appreciation for being a wonderful friend and boss. Always working with us, side by side through good times and bad and much laughter. From all the old-time workers.”

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John Warner

Wong with his son Tam, at right, in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, back in China Alley, on our tour of the Pekin, it was hard to remember what era we were in. There was a Sysco truck parked in the alley, from which Dennis Gotcher was unloading boxes and sacks of food. Up on the second floor, standing on an open porch behind the Pekin kitchen, stood Jerry Tam. Using a rope-and-pulley system and working in tandem with Gotcher, Tam quickly hauled that day’s deliveries from the alley to the porch.

Wong just laughed at the manual operation, which is as old as the restaurant.

“I got the electric hoist, but they don’t like it,” he said. “What the hell do I do?”

“The machines are just too damned slow,” his son said. “Sometimes the old technology’s best. That’s the best part of this restaurant.”

When we returned to the Pekin on the evening of our visit, the kitchen was, crowded with workers gathered around stoves, sinks, prep tables, a couple of enormous butcher-block tables and four huge, coal-black woks.

Wong was chopping up a pork loin and his son was working over a wok. Tam was a successful fashion designer in New York who came home to help care for his ailing mother six years ago. She died just before Christmas 2014, and Tam stayed on to help his father at the Pekin.

“The best part about Butte is, nothing changes,” Tam said. “So I came home to familiar faces and friends.”

He and his four sisters, who are scattered across the country now, all worked in the Pekin as children, where their parents taught them the value of hard work. Tam deflected questions about the future of the Pekin, about whether it would remain in the family after his father’s passing.

“I’m going to do it for as long as he wants to keep it going,” he said. “It’s his legacy.”

Then he paused to watch his father, still cutting meat and talking and laughing with other people in the kitchen. Tam turned back and smiled.

“But he’s not going anywhere,” he said.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of the Montana Quarterly. If you’re not already a subscriber, you really should be. Check it out.

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