Chinese migration to Omaha began, indirectly, during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. The “Old Gold Mountain” (i.e., the Chinese term for California) attracted a flood of unskilled laborers known as coolies. Nationwide, the Chinese population grew by leaps and bounds: from 758 (in 1850) to 35,565 (in 1860) to 104,468 (in 1880), according to U.S. Census data on the country’s foreign-born population.
Facing open hostility in the goldfields, many went to work in agriculture, mining, fisheries, started laundry or restaurant businesses, or joined construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The railway industry dispersed Chinese migrants throughout the American interior. With Union Pacific’s headquarters in Omaha, it’s likely that the railroad helped populate Omaha’s own early Chinatown. But documentation of Union Pacific’s role in attracting the city’s earliest Chinese residents remains scarce.
“We don’t have archival records of Union Pacific bringing Chinese labor to Omaha, but we’ve seen this pattern throughout cities and towns of the American West,” says Patricia LaBounty, curator of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs. LaBounty spoke with Omaha Magazine while preparing a research presentation focused on the contribution of Chinese labor to Union Pacific.
Among the earliest documentation is an illustration of Chinese railroad laborers crossing the frozen Missouri River with Omaha’s sparse skyline in the background—including the old territorial capitol, now the site of Central High School (printed in the Jan. 22, 1870, edition of Harper’s Weekly).
Mounting opposition to Chinese immigrant labor led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted immigration and banned citizenship. Many American Chinatowns dwindled and disappeared in subsequent years, with Chinese-American communities remaining staunchly Cantonese-speaking due to the early immigration from China’s southern regions. Post-World War II waves of Chinese immigrants predominantly spoke Mandarin, the language of mainland China and Taiwan.
The second wave of Chinese immigrants arriving in Omaha—and the U.S. in general—consisted of Chinese Nationalists and their families coming overseas after civil war split the Republic of China (Taiwan) from the communist People’s Republic of China.
A third wave of immigration followed normalization of U.S. diplomatic ties with Beijing during Richard Nixon’s presidency. This group included highly educated professionals, scientists, doctors, and students from the People’s Republic of China.
At the dawn of the 21st century, the number of students coming to U.S. universities (evident at the University of Nebraska system, Creighton, and Bellevue University) has steadily grown. Meanwhile, what could be considered a fourth wave of Chinese migration to North America has taken the form of wealthy Chinese looking to the U.S. for property and stock market investments.
May 10, 1869
Promontory, Utah—The driving of a ceremonial golden spike signals the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Chinese labor played a critical role in completing the eastbound Central Pacific that met with Union Pacific.
Jan. 22, 1870
Harper’s Weekly prints “Chinese Coolies Crossing the Missouri River” with Omaha pictured in the illustration. The article claims 250 Chinese laborers passed through Omaha to build a railroad in Texas.
Early documentation of Chinese labor passing through Omaha
The 1872/1873 Omaha City Directory lists Chinese laundries for the first time. There are two: “Yingalongjingjohn & Yingyang” between Farnam and Harney on 10th Street, and “Hong Lee” on Harney between 14th and 15th streets.
June 4, 1874
The Omaha Daily Bee reports on the burial of “Ting-a-ling” at Prospect Hill Cemetery, noted as the city’s first Chinese burial. His death is attributed to “too much ironing and ice cream.” The article explains that his remains will be exhumed after two years to be returned to China for final burial in accordance with traditional custom. The article also notes that the local Chinese population consists of 12 men and one woman.
Omaha has 14 Chinese residents.*
The Chinese Exclusion Act is passed by Congress and signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur.
May 6, 1892
The national Methodist Episcopal Conference is held in Omaha. A speaker condemns the Chinese Exclusion Act for jeopardizing U.S. missionary work in China, denounces the U.S. president and Congress, and argues “that the Chinese had the same right to be here as other foreigners, notably the Irish” (according to the New York Times on May 7, 1892).
Omaha has 91* or 93 Chinese residents.**
Feb. 15, 1893
Dr. Gee Wo Chan goes to the Supreme Court of Nebraska for practicing medicine without a license. He will lose his case, but his traditional Chinese medicine practice continues. At the peak of his business, he operates storefront clinics in Omaha, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The Omaha Daily Bee frequently publishes full-page ads promoting that Dr. C. Gee Wo “the greatest doctor that China ever produced is in your city.” His 1892 marriage to a Caucasian woman in Chicago was reported in the Omaha Daily Bee. His life story will be featured in a free online book, Chinese Medicine in Post-Frontier America: A Tale of Three Chinese-American Doctors (published in 2016).
Dr. C. Gee Woh ad in June 7, 1891 Omaha Daily Bee
Aug. 31, 1894
An article in the Omaha Daily Bee covers a revolutionary meeting of 150 Chinese “from Denver, Cheyenne, Sioux City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and other surrounding towns within a radius of 200 miles,” who meet to discuss overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. Chinese revolutionaries draw support from overseas Chinese communities around the world. Years later, China’s Revolution of 1911 will overturn the country’s last dynasty and set in motion the establishment of the Republic of China.
The 1895 Omaha City Directory lists at least 21 Chinese-owned laundries (featuring names that appear to be Chinese).
Oct. 23, 1898
The Omaha World-Herald reports that 438 men, women, and children—including artists, performers, and cooks—were brought to the United States from China to help with the Chinese village at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha. The expo allowed them to bypass the Chinese Exclusion Act restrictions. The newspaper alleges human trafficking and claims that women were sold into slavery or prostitution.
Omaha has 94* or 103 residents.**
Aug. 19, 1900
The Illustrated Bee publishes an article titled “Chinese in Omaha—Some Prominent Men,” which claims a Sunday school has offered English language education to Chinese youth since September 1885. Laundry is the chief occupation of local Chinese residents, and cleaners tuck “good luck mottoes” into fresh linens. Opium smoking is on the decline (allegedly the only crime in an otherwise “peaceable, quiet, and law-abiding” community). A sort of Chinese credit union offers loans to the immigrants at exorbitant rates. Joe Wah Lee is named as the community’s best English interpreter, the wealthiest local Chinese person, and the shrewd owner of Bon Ton Restaurant. Leo Mun, head of Quong Wah Co. is named the community’s most educated in Chinese but lacking in English skills.“Henry” Hong Sling is noted as affiliated with the community but based in Chicago where he is a railroad passenger agent.
Omaha has 53 Chinese residents.*
Gin Chin opens the Mandarin Cafe at 1409 Douglas St.
Nov. 22, 1916
The Omaha World-Herald reports on the opening of a “new hall” for the Omaha Chinese Merchants Association at the first known site of the On Leong Tong (111 N. 12th St.). Leo Wing is president and Chue Fing Sue is secretary. The report claims there are 150 Chinese living in Omaha.
The former home of the On Leong Tong, photographed in 2018
Omaha has 126 Chinese residents.*
Sept. 16, 1920
Gin Chin opens the King Fong Cafe near 16th and Harney streets.
Photo from the September/October 2007 edition of Encounter Magazine
Omaha has 147 Chinese residents.*
Following the Stock Market Crash of 1929, a city directory is not printed in 1930. The 1931 Omaha City Directory lists at least eight Chinese laundromats remaining in Omaha (six are included under a “Chinese Laundry” category, two are listed as hand-laundries). Omaha has 147 Chinese residents.* “When the Depression came in, there was no more business,” says Jeanette Chin, wife of Carl Chin (Gin Chin’s son). “If families could save some money, they could go back (to China) and live like royalty.” She came to Omaha in 1942 from a prominent family in New York City’s Chinatown. Local Omaha papers claimed her 1942 marriage to Carl was the city’s “last arranged marriage.”
July 16, 1938
The Omaha World-Herald reports on firecrackers and festivities involved in the dedication of the relocated On Leong Tong at 1518 Cass St. The article notes that the tong is raising funds for China’s fight against Japan in the war effort.
Omaha has 69 Chinese residents (44 native-born and 25 foreign-born).***
The year after the Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed (1943) during World War II, Gen. Albert Wedemeyer takes command of U.S. forces in China, relieving Joseph Stillwell. Wedemeyer was born in Omaha in 1897. He was likely familiar with Omaha’s ethnic Chinese community as he attended Creighton Preparatory School (when the school was located near downtown on the Creighton University). In 1919 he went to West Point Academy. Upon graduation, he was assigned to Tientsin, China, where he learned to speak Mandarin and gained a deeper understanding of China’s turbulent political climate with the consolidation efforts by the Nationalists and the rise of the Communist movement.
The 1946 Omaha City Directory lists one business under the category “Laundries—Chinese” (Louie Chas at 209 S. 13th St.), and the name disappears in the next year’s directory. The Chinese laundry category vanishes from record in subsequent city directories.
Omaha has 106 Chinese residents.*
Omaha has 130 Chinese residents.****
Omaha has 186 Chinese residents.****
Joe Kuo and his wife, Alice, open the Great Wall Restaurant at 72nd and Farnam streets. The restaurant’s success will spawn other Great Wall restaurants downtown (at 11th and Farnam streets), near 84th and Center streets, at Oak View Mall, and in Council Bluffs. Kuo had graduated from Fort Hays State University in Kansas with a mathematics degree in 1972, but with a new family decided against doctoral studies to enter business as a restaurateur in New York City and Chicago before coming to Omaha. The Kuos were founding members of a Christian fellowship of Omaha Chinese (established in 1977), which started as a bible study group (officially renamed the “Omaha Christian Chinese Fellowship” in 1980, and again renamed as “Omaha Chinese Christian Church” in 1986). Kuo’s restaurants host bible study gatherings. The church’s founding minister, Pastor Job Lee, is married to Joe’s elder sister (Grace). The church fellowship serves as a center for Chinese language and culture education. The Kuo family will sponsor local Chinese cultural events, leading to the creation of the Metropolitan Omaha Chinese American Association.
Omaha has 374 Chinese residents.****
The Omaha Chinese Christian Fellowship rents space at First Presbyterian Church. A few years later, in 1983, the fellowship will relocate to First Christian Church on 66th and Dodge streets.
The Metropolitan Omaha Chinese American Association forms with the goal of bringing all Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese together, regardless of regional origins or political affiliation. The organization’s board includes Dennis Chin (a Bellevue Public School educator and Gin Chin’s grandson), his wife Betty Chin (a research organizer at Creighton and UNMC), and UNL engineering professor Bing Chen, among others. The association will eventually discontinue as political tensions mount and the community shifts to a predominantly mainland Chinese orientation.
From left: Dennis Chin, Betty Chin, and Bing Chen (at the Nebraska Chinese Association in 2018)
The Metropolitan Omaha Chinese American Association’s Chinese New Year celebration moves to UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center for a Chinese meal cooked by UNO chefs under the watchful eye of Joe Kuo followed by music, acrobatics, and dance performances at the Strauss Performing Arts Center. During its years of operation, the group also participates in the Omaha Ethnic Festival at the Civic Auditorium and hosts Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and Dragon Boat Festival gatherings.
The Omaha Chinese Christian Church purchases its own building at 81st and Blondo streets.
Omaha has 553 Chinese residents.****
Mainland Chinese in Omaha are believed to organize local community events, including Lunar New Year gatherings. (Individuals known to be involved did not respond to Omaha Magazine’s request for comment.)
Omaha has 1,155 Chinese residents.****
In 2000, UNMC begins a formal faculty exchange program with Shanghai University. It is the first time the Chinese government has “awarded and funded a faculty exchange program between a Chinese medical school and [a] U.S. medical school.” In subsequent years, UNMC’s exchange programs with Chinese medical institutions continue to develop. By the year 2018, UNMC’s Asia Pacific Rim Development Program will have established partnerships with more than a dozen Chinese medical schools.
Creighton philosophy professor Jinmei Yuan begins annual student trips to China, supported by the Rev. John Schlegel (president of the university) and Soong Ching-Ling Foundation in China.
Omaha-born filmmaker Alexander Payne is part of a group that buys King Fong Cafe from the Huey family that has managed the restaurant in the years following Gin Chin’s passing. Also in 2007, the Confucius Institute (which operates around the world teaching Chinese as a second language) opens at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; the institute will become a key sponsor for holiday celebrations with the UNL chapter of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association, Lincoln Chinese Cultural Association, the Asian Community Center in Lincoln, and the Omaha Chinese Cultural Association/Nebraska Chinese Association.
In 2008, Creighton’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions establishes a three-month Rehabilitation International Summer Program. By 2014, the university will establish the China Honors Interprofessional Program for medical students and health care professionals in China. Partner schools will include 10 universities across China (along with universities in five other countries).
The Omaha Chinese Culture Association establishes in the wake of China’s tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquakes. In China, more than 69,000 are confirmed dead and 5 million people are displaced. Bellevue University’s director of global partnerships in Asia, Julie Verebely, was born in the area devastated by the quake. Verebely knew her home was affected, but she didn’t know how badly. She couldn’t contact any friends or family in the province. “She called me up and said, ‘We need to do something. It’s my hometown,’” recalls Linda Steele, who works with Verebely at Bellevue. With a core group of more than 30 Chinese-Americans and Chinese expats, they arrange several fundraisers that accumulate more than $30,000. During their fundraising efforts, Ping Ye (a systems analyst at HDR) suggests to fellow volunteers that they organize as a continuing Chinese association. Ye is the Omaha Chinese Culture Association’s first president, followed by Mae Keith, and then Steele. John Zhang is the association’s first chairman of the board, followed by Hong Zheng.
The Omaha Chinese Christian Church moves to its current location at 4618 S. 139th St.
Omaha has 1,437 Chinese residents.****
Feb. 3, 2009
The first Lunar New Year Gala is hosted by the Omaha Chinese Cultural Association at Christ Community Church. Locations will change in later years: Millard North High School in 2010, Burke High School in 2011-2012, Westside High School in 2013, Westside Middle School in 2015-2017, and Burke again in 2018.
In April, an Omaha delegation visits Yantai (in Shandong province) at the invitation of the mayor of the northeastern Chinese city. In October, Yantai officials will visit Omaha to sign a letter of intent to become “sister cities.” In June 2010, Omaha’s Mayor Jim Suttle will visit Yantai, China, in a trip to establish Omaha and Yantai as “sister cities.”
Oct. 3, 2009
The Omaha Chinese Cultural Association hosts the first annual Mid-Autumn Chinese Cultural Festival at Zorinsky Lake to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.
June 4, 2011
The Omaha Chinese Cultural Association hosts its first annual Dragon Boat Festival on a Missouri River cruise.
Bellevue University establishes a partnership with Guangzhou College of Commerce in 2012. The first group of Chinese students will arrive in 2015. Also in 2012, the UNO College of Business Administration begins annual study trips to China.
During a visit to China, Nebraska’s Gov. Dave Heineman announces the state will open a trade office in China.
The UNO College of Business Administration hosts a China Conference focused on US-China economic relations and business partnerships. The conference continues for a second year in 2014.
March 18, 2013
Ceremonies in Nebraska and Shanghai are held to announce the opening of the Nebraska Center China in Shanghai. Upon taking office in 2015, Gov. Pete Ricketts continues to foster China-Nebraska trade relations with trade trips in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The Omaha Chamber also participates in overseas trips to China on an annual basis.
An estimated 1,000 Chinese investors visit Omaha for the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting. In China, the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffett is known as “the God of Stock Investing.” The number of Chinese visitors to Omaha during the shareholder meeting will continue to grow every year. An estimated 2,000-3,000 Chinese investors will visit Omaha for the shareholder meeting in 2016.
The Nebraska Chinese Association replaces the Omaha Chinese Cultural Association under the leadership of local Omaha businessman Hong Zheng (owner of the Asian Market) and its president Linda Steele (an adjunct professor Bellevue University).
Lion Dancers help the Nebraska Chinese Association celebrate the grand opening of the Nebraska Chinese Center in the site of a former church at 8206 Blondo St. The center offers language classes, cooking classes, a farmers’ market, tai chi exercise programs, and other cultural events.
King Fong Cafe closes “temporarily.”
The annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders’ meeting continues to draw more Chinese visitors every year. Buses take Chinese tour groups to Warren Buffett’s home in Dundee for photographs. In 2017, Linda Steele estimates that there are 3,000-4,000 Chinese visitors. A gala dinner hosted by the Nebraska Chinese Association introduces overseas investors and local businesses. Steele expects 5,000 Chinese visitors for the Berkshire meeting in 2018.
June 14, 2017
Forty boxes of beef arrive in China from Greater Omaha Packing Co. The Omaha-headquartered business has emerged as an industry leader in reopening U.S. beef exports to China. It is the first shipment of U.S. beef to China since 2003 (following a mad cow scare that halted imports).
The National Register of Historic Places recognizes the historic status of the On Leong Tong at 1518 Cass St.
In the 2017/2018 academic year, Bellevue University has 258 overseas Chinese students; UNMC has 96 students from mainland China; UNO has 124 overseas Chinese students; Creighton has 36.
March 3, 2018
The 10th anniversary of the Lunar New Year Gala hosted by the Nebraska Chinese Association/Omaha Chinese Cultural Association takes place at Burke High School. Of the approximately 200 volunteers organizing the gala, 100 are overseas Chinese students. The association’s members include close to 800 people.
Nebraska Chinese Association board members from left: Grant Wu, Hong Zheng, May Yap, Jun White, Linda Steele, Li Li, Sarah Luo, Qiuming Zhu, Ping Ye, Jenny McAtee
*Source: U.S. Census data provided by the Nebraska State Historical Society
**Source: An Almanac of Nebraska: Nationality, Ethnic, and Racial Groups (published in 1975)
***Source: U.S. Census data provided by the Nebraska Library Commission
****Source: U.S. Census data provided by University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.
See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine: