Tag Archives: China

A Revolutionary Meeting

April 3, 2018 by

Down in the old Chinatown, underground tunnels and hidden rooms were just some of the mysteries reported by The Omaha Daily Bee newspaper in August 1894.

For a former frontier community, Omaha’s media was well-attuned to international dispatches on foreign Chinese news; meanwhile, Bee journalists frequently reported on Omaha’s own domestic Chinese community.

In the Bee’s coverage of the “Sixth Annual Convention” of the Douglas County chapter of the Temperance Union in August 1894, Mrs. D. C. Bryant “reported excellent progress in the missionary work among Omaha’s Chinese.” That same month, as the First Sino-Japanese War broke out between China and Japan over control of Korea, the Bee noted that Chinese forces received support from Koreans everywhere their army went.

In the Aug. 31, 1894, edition of the Bee, headlines on page-seven declared that the Chinese community’s “Local Geehing” were “After Toong Chee’s Scalp” as “Omaha Chinamen Swear Allegiance to the Order that Has for Its Object the Removal of the Present Emperor of the Flowery Kingdom.”

That would have been Guangxu Emperor, the 11th emperor of the Qing dynasty, whose reign started in 1875 even though Empress Dowager Cixi remained the real ruler of Imperial China. (The name “Toong Chee” likely refers to the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor, who Guangxu succeeded in 1875.)

“Strange Chinamen” had come to Omaha from “Denver, Cheyenne, Sioux City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City and other surrounding towns within a radius of 200 miles.”

The Bee elaborated that it was “not generally known to the public” but remained “a fact nevertheless that there exists in this city a society that is as determined in its plans and has for its object as deadly a purpose as did the dreaded Mafia of New Orleans.”

Numerous “strange Chinamen” had come to Omaha from “Denver, Cheyenne, Sioux City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City and other surrounding towns within a radius of 200 miles.” It was an “intelligent fellow” named Ling Gee who “tipped off” a Bee reporter about what was going to take place. Ling Gee worked at Hong Kee’s Harney Street laundry and told the Bee reporter of a “very important meeting held in the basement of Ging Loo’s laundry” on 10th Street.

The reason so many Chinese were in the city was “that a number of the Omaha Chinese would be initiated into the mysteries of a new society that was about to be organized.” Ling Gee claimed that “even the walls would not divulge any of the secrets which would be told.”

After that one Bee reporter “who speaks Chinese like a native” was sent to Mr. Gee to “complete arrangements for a report of the meeting.” Gee remained hesitant until a “goodly quantity of coin” were shown. He finally said there was potential “to secrete a man in the room where the meeting was to be held, but intimated if the intruder was discovered his chances for again seeing his relatives would not be worth speaking of.”

Naturally, the Bee reporter was “willing to take all of the chances” and just before sunset he “wended his way down” 10th Street and “obeying instructions, knocked at the back door of a small wooden building.” The reporter was “at once admitted by Ling Gee” who led him “down a stairway that was as dark as a sinner’s heart” to “a long, crooked and dark passage for a distance, finally coming into a brilliantly lighted room, fully fifty feet square.”

There, “Mr. Gee conducted The Bee man to a wall that appeared to be as solid as the eternal hills” but “reaching his hand to the height of his head, Mr. Gee pressed upon one of the boards of which the side of the wall was constructed and instantly a section slipped aside, revealing a room eight feet high and some six feet square.” The unnamed reporter described “his prison for several hours” was “elegantly furnished.”

After an hour, he “heard the sound of voices, and a moment later a couple of celestials entered the room and made a tour of inspection, examining chairs, tables, sofas and walls to see that they harbored neither intruders nor spies.” After that, a variety of “strange Chinamen were escorted into the room by Sing Pong” who was a Webster Street “laundryman.” Those escorted in by Sing Pong were introduced as “Ching Chung, Ah Fong, and Tee You,” all of Deadwood, South Dakota. After that there “was a rapid gathering of the clans” as “almond eyed gentlemen” arrived “singly, in pairs, and in quartets until there were fully 150 present” that came from “about every city between the Pacific coast and Chicago, and from St. Paul on the north to St. Louis on the south.”

The unnamed reporter described “his prison for several hours” was “elegantly furnished.”

When it seemed the “auditors” were all present, Wo Kung of Omaha, “dressed in a robe of the richest material and ornamented with jewels,” went to the platform to introduce “Hi Ooo Pong of San Francisco, who, he said, would fully explain the object of this meeting.” With that, “Mr. Pong advanced to the platform” while “bowing and scraping” as “the entire audience bowed to the floor.” At a “given signal” they all stood and “remained standing until Fo Lee, the sentry at the door, repeated in Chinese the words, ‘All is well.’’” After that, and “without any ceremony”, Pong “explained that the swords hanging over the chairs were the emblems of secrecy and death, and a rapid death, too, would pursue the man who so far forgot himself as to give to the outside world a word of what was to take place.” After Pong asked “Are you content?” every member of the crowd agreed and he then “invited Joe Fow of Denver, and Wo Tong of Kansas City to the chairs to his right and left.”

Hi Ooo Pong then “said that he had come to Omaha for the purpose of establishing a branch of the Geehing, a society for which had its object the disposition of T’oong Chee, the present emperor of China.” After the Omaha organization they would “elect delegates to the Geehing, which is to be held in Chicago on September 9” where “some plan would be developed.” Pong then went through the history of China as “some centuries ago the Chinese were a law-abiding, peaceful race of people, skilled in the arts, prosperous and happy and well supplied with the goods of this world.” Then came 1643 and the invasion of “the Tartars, better known as the Manchoos” (i.e., Manchurians) bent on “killing the peaceful natives, not even sparing the women and children” as they “burned, sacked, and murdered” their way through Peking and continued their “march of devastation until the sea was reached.” They then returned to Peking and “placed T’oong Chee I upon the Chinese throne” although the war continued until 1649.

Then Pong took “from his pocket a copy of the Wah Tsz Yat Po, published at Hong Kong” and “read extracts” that showed Chinese support to “depose Emperor T’oong Chee, and that for that purpose branches of the Geehing were being organized all over China.” He told the gathered crowd that “now was the time to strike” as the “iron was hot” with the Japanese war and “if the loyal subjects of the land of their birth would throw themselves into the breach, they could attack the armies of the emperor from the rear and give them more than they could handle.” Pong assured them that at next month’s meeting in Chicago they would “adopt heroic measures.” The response was much applause with Pong telling them “the necessity of going down in their pockets and contributing to the fund” that would be “appointed at the Geehing” in Chicago. Pong’s pleas were followed by “short speeches” from “Chung Choo of St. Louis, Kee Woo of St. Paul, and Hee Fow of Sioux City” who all supported Pong’s positions.

The oath continued that they would “swear by the blood of Twang Gee Hong, the first ruler of the empire of China, that I will never rest until every Manchoo is driven off the face of this earth.”

It was midnight when Pong asked for any further comment on the proceedings before “he would initiate candidates into the order of the Geehing, he having a special dispensation for the entire territory west of the Mississippi River.” There were 50 people out of the crowd who “arose and expressed a desire to become members, after which they were invited to step to the platform.” With that the “couches and chairs were shoved back to the walls and the wearers of the queue marched to the front, where they were blindfolded by men appointed for the purpose.” After they were blindfolded, the men “repeated the oath” that the Bee reporter loosely translated as “By the bones of Confucius I swear that I will never divulge the workings of the Geehing, and if I do may my body be cut in quarters and be cast to the uttermost parts of the earth, there to rot and to become food for the vultures.” The oath continued that they would “swear by the blood of Twang Gee Hong, the first ruler of the empire of China, that I will never rest until every Manchoo is driven off the face of this earth; that I will kill his first and his last born, sparing neither women nor children; I swear by the blood of Ho Ping Woo, one of our martyred heroes, that I will not rest until the last hated Manchoo is killed; that I will not return to my home until T’oong Chee is driven from the land of China, and this and more do I know forever swear.”

That was followed by other oaths before the “candidates were led about the room three times, each and all humming one of the old-time war songs of China, when the hoodwinks were removed from their eyes.” It was then “the three swords were taken down from where they had been suspended and their edges examined” before they were given to “Gee Fong of Milwaukee, one to Hee Doo of St. Joe, and the other to Yee Lee” of Omaha. Those three were “told to perform the last binding oath and the last act of the initiation” and then “told to bare the left arm to the elbow” and then “proceeding rapidly along the line the sword bearers gave each man a gash about an inch long and deep enough to draw blood, the cutting being done on the front of the forearm, about midway between the wrist and the elbow.”

Pong “caught the blood in a silver plate about the size of a soup bowl” and had “fully a pint” by the end of it all. Then, “Dr. Gee Hong of Salt Lake” came through to administer a “healing lotion to each of the mutilated arms.” The silver bowl of their blood was then passed around as every “took a small sip” before they were “declared full-fledged members of the Geehing.” After the initiation ceremonies, “Ning Fee of Denver, Tol Ye of Kansas City, Lee Lung of Omaha, Tee Gong of Sioux City, and Ah Han of Dubuque” were selected as delegates to the September meeting in Chicago. At last, “as quietly as they had entered the men departed the hall” and the newspaper reporter was finally let go at 3 in the morning.

It remains somewhat of a mystery why Omaha’s Chinese allowed the Bee reporter a glimpse into their otherwise private world. One can only conclude that it was to announce an organized opposition to the Qing dynasty. One could also speculate just how many American newspapers in 1894 had a reporter who was fluent in Chinese. Likewise, the elaborate ruse of the secret room was surely to keep the reporter informed but otherwise well out of the way.

Three months after the Omaha “Geehing” meeting Sun Yat-Sen organized the Revive China Society while in exile in Honolulu, Hawaii. Eighteen years later in 1912, the goal of removing the Qing dynasty was completed. Imperial China came to an end after 2,000 years with the establishment of the Republic of China and Sun Yat-Sen as the country’s first president.

Potential involvement in the creation of the Republic of China by those who attended that August 1894 meeting in Omaha deserves further investigation. The only modern reference to any “Geehing” is the Gee Hing Chinese Company Charitable Trust, established in 1987, that maintains the Tong Wo Tong Chinese cemetery in Kealakekua, Hawaii.


See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:


Ryan Roenfeld is a local author and historian. He is a fifth-generation resident of Mills County, Iowa, and former president of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County. His most recent book, Wicked Omaha, was published in 2017. Omaha Magazine featured his profile in the May/June 2017 issue. 

Reggie LeFlore’s Street Art

March 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, artwork images provided by Reggie LeFlore

His portraits may share similarities to the vandalism-tarnished genre, but for LeFlore, his art form is all about transforming communities.

“I love working with organizations and community leaders to create a series of work that’s out in the public,” explains LeFlore, who works primarily in portraiture. “My portrayals can help uplift an otherwise drab space with art.”

LeFlore’s mission started from humble beginnings, including art classes at Benson High School where he would meet his friend Gerard Pefung. After high school, LeFlore’s aspirations to illustrate cartoons and comic books led him to pursue graphic design while Pefung went in a different direction. A chance meeting years later would lead to LeFlore’s first foray into street art.

“I go to a party, and I see this massive indoor mural and Pefung is standing in front of it,” LeFlore reminisces. “I find out that he created it, and I’m flabbergasted. At that moment I decided to take my craft and elevate it by jumping into public art.”

Leflore would pick up an aerosol can for the first time at Pefung’s studio, eventually developing a signature style remixing existing images with his hybrid stencil method. He became acquainted with community art organizers—including folks involved with Benson First Friday—and he started to pay more attention to public art and murals around town. With his desire to showcase his art, LeFlore participated in shows at The Union of Contemporary Arts’ Wanda B. Ewing Gallery in North Omaha and exhibited in Chicago (in a gallery and on the street). But he longed for an international platform.

After admiring constant social media posts about Hong Kong’s street art scene from a Nebraska friend (Craig Schuster) living in the Chinese territory, LeFlore became determined to showcase his art there. With income earned from personal commissions and teaching at The Union of Contemporary Arts, he was able to move toward his goal with a trip to the former British colony.

“I did research and found that I didn’t need to know Cantonese or Mandarin to live in Hong Kong,” LeFlore says. “It made it easy for me to adapt, and I utilized my time there to build opportunities and meet my friend, Hughie [Doherty], who owns a screen printing shop in Stanley, Hong Kong.”

During the day, Stanley is a busy seaside marketplace with a labyrinth of shops selling clothing, trinkets, and toys. When the neighborhood shops close for the night, a vibrant street art scene emerges. Artworks reveal themselves, painted on the shutters of local establishments.

Schuster, his Nebraska expat friend, introduced LeFlore to a local arts nonprofit called HK Walls. HK Walls “aims to create opportunities for local and international artists to showcase their talent in Hong Kong.” The nonprofit helped LeFlore with resources in Hong Kong, introducing him to Doherty and a host of local street artists. From there, LeFlore set off to create his masterpiece amongst the shutters.

A collaboration with Schuster led to “Kowloon Influence,” an art piece depicting Tsang Tsou Choi, a legendary Hong Kong graffiti artist (known as the King of Kowloon) who spent decades scrawling his family’s ancestral claims to Kowloon—a large portion of Hong Kong’s land area—in calligraphy that he painted on public walls throughout the bustling city.

In order to pay homage to the King of Kowloon, LeFlore made stencils of Tsang Tsou Choi’s calligraphy and combined them with a friend’s referenced photographs creating a surreal portrait on a city street.

LeFlore’s recent move to the Twin Cities has immersed him in Minnesota’s own thriving visual arts community. While his girlfriend, Heather Peebles, pursued her Master of Fine Arts at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he linked up with a comprehensive group of like-minded creatives.

“I still keep my connections in the Big O,” LeFlore says. “I consider Watie White as a mentor, and my cousin, Joanna LeFlore helped me establish my style. The Union for Contemporary Art has also been amazing.”

LeFlore is in the process of pursuing a collaborative project with Omaha photographer Alicia Davis, but here is where street art clashes with the rebel spirit of graffiti. Their project has run into some unexpected roadblocks.

“The graffiti artist in me says to stop asking for permission, come down, and get some stuff up there,” he says. “North Omaha should have a bigger public art presence. The conversation behind street art is what makes it cool, and I’m sure it could help reinvigorate the community.”

Visit ral86.com for Reggie LeFlore’s personal website.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

Chinatown Lost and Found

March 2, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are only a few remnants of early Chinese-American history left in Omaha. The city’s former Chinatown is almost forgotten.

The building at 1415 Farnam St. (now occupied by Kitchen Table) was for many years the home of the King Joy Oriental Cafe, opened by Leo Wing in 1913. The iconic structure at 315 S. 16th St. (where King Fong Cafe operated for almost a century, from 1920 until 2016 when it closed “for repairs”) remains standing. And there is also the recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places at 1518 Cass St. (added to the federal registry in November 2017), the On Leong Tong House.

Tongs were male-only social organizations for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans. Literally, tong translates to “hall” or “gathering place” in Cantonese (the Chinese language spoken by most early Chinese immigrants to the United States). Not everyone in the local Chinese community would have been a member of Omaha’s On Leong Tong, which was essentially a secret society.

The exact date when On Leong Tong established itself in Omaha remains unclear. City directories suggest that leading members had occupied the site of 111 N. 12th St. as early as 1912 (but some form of the tong might have been present in the city earlier). The tong house moved to the Cass Street location in 1938. Although the tong eventually disbanded in Omaha in 1959, branches of the nationwide organization continue to operate in the form of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association in several U.S. cities with large Chinese populations.

On Leong was one of several tongs operating across the U.S. in Chinatowns at the dawn of the 20th century. The era of tong expansion featured bloody conflict as rival tongs fought to control turf, opium, prostitution, and gambling rackets. Omaha’s Chinese community, for the most part, avoided spillover from the Tong Wars (1880s-1930s) of San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. The local branch of On Leong Tong, however, suffered no shortage of historical intrigue.

For the most part, the local story of the On Leong Tong is a story of people acclimating to, struggling, and thriving in a city that looks very different from the Omaha that residents know today. At the tong house, members could socialize while speaking Chinese, celebrate common holidays, and find community.

Omaha’s Chinese community—more so than most other immigrant communities—was alien to the daily life of the city. They were often victims of prejudice and exploitation, and they had no real political representation. What they had—for what it was worth—was a social organization led by businessmen that would carry on their collective rituals, where they could forge their identity and find their power as a local community.

The exact date when On Leong Tong established itself in Omaha remains unclear. City directories suggest that leading members had occupied the site of 111 N. 12th St. as early as 1912

The On Leong Tong’s first location was a three-story building at 111 N. 12th St. near the corner of 12th and Dodge streets. The structure was presumably built by Anna Wilson—the infamous brothel owner and proprietor of “sin palaces” in Omaha—sometime after acquiring the land in 1884. When the building was being razed, a World-Herald story (from Dec. 3, 1963) suggests that the building remained in the hands of Anna Wilson until her death in 1911. At that time, and for many years, the street level space would be occupied by Chinese grocers, the first owned by Wing Sing. Across the street to the west sat Omaha’s first fire station. Just to the north at 117 N. 12th St. was Q.W. Lee’s grocery, and the Sing Long grocery was at 123 N. 12th St. Across the road toward Capitol Street, at 122 N. 12th St., was a grocery owned by Wing Tang. These addresses typically had private residences on upper floors, and it is likely that the block was densely populated by a poor and often transient population of mostly Chinese men. A block to the east, at 11th and Capitol streets, was the Sam Hai Laundry, while a large, four-story police headquarters occupied the block between 10th, 11th, Capitol, and Dodge streets.

This is an area that would come to be known, at least for history, as Omaha’s Chinatown. Some local newspaper accounts suggest that Omaha’s Chinatown occupied a four-block area northeast of 12th and Dodge streets. In a Dec. 3, 1961, World-Herald article titled “Gay Dragons Once Danced in a Thriving Chinatown,” journalist Robert McMorris paints a picture sourced from secondhand accounts of the “four-block area” where men wore Manchu-style braids (common during the Qing Dynasty in China) and women walked in “short, mincing steps” (a consequence of the now-discontinued practice of binding girls’ feet) at the turn of the century.  Later writing from Edward Morrow on the city’s early Asian community (in a March 5, 1978, Sunday World-Herald Magazine) claims that 200-300 Chinese once resided in “ancient red brick buildings at Eleventh and Dodge” streets.

Old city directories don’t support his claim of Chinatown occupying a four-block area. More likely, Omaha’s Chinatown took up a single block between Dodge and Capitol on 12th Street, with additional concentrations of Chinese restaurants along 14th and Douglas streets and clustered near North 16th Street.

Among the Chinese restaurants grouped together on Douglas Street, the first to open as an upscale establishment—competing for Omaha’s business and night-time entertainment clientele—was the Mandarin Cafe at 1409 Douglas St., with a large “Chop Suey” sign hanging from the front of the building. Opening in January 1912 by Gin Chin (who would later open King Fong Cafe), it was located on the floor above the Budweiser Bar, just at the east end of Omaha’s theater row, which occupied most of Douglas to 16th streets. The Budweiser Bar was run by Billy Nesselhaus, business partner of Tom Dennison, Omaha’s most notorious gangster, who ran a gambling operation out of the bar below the Mandarin Cafe.

The year after the Mandarin opened, in September 1913, Leo Wing opened the King Joy Cafe, at 1415 Farnam St., in a second-story space above the Farnam Theater. Like the Mandarin House, the King Joy offered American dishes along with its Chinese menu, advertising “steaks and chop suey” in particular, as well as live music in the evenings. Opening night at the King Joy did not go off without incident, but it did land a story in the World-Herald (Sept. 19, 1913). Firecrackers were lit on the balcony of the restaurant that somehow started a fire inside. Patrons ran to the street, fire trucks came, crowds gathered, and traffic was stopped for much of the evening.

In the Douglas Street cluster of Chinese restaurants, there was also Louie Ahko’s at 1419 Douglas St. (moving to 1417 Harney St. in 1917), open since at least 1910, the Canton restaurant at 1404 Douglas St., and the Elite Cafe at 209 S. 14th St. run by Sam Joe. Another Chinese restaurant, the Los Angeles Restaurant owned by Sing Yep, was located at 105 S. 13th St. At 1306 Douglas St. was a restaurant run by Charles Sing, and at 1313 Douglas St. was the Nanking Restaurant run by Wong Ching.

Among the Chinese restaurants concentrated in the vicinity of North 16th Street, Sam Sing had been operating a restaurant at 1516 Webster St. since 1901. (It moved to 1520 Webster St. at some point and would close in 1918 upon Sing’s arrest for bootlegging.) The 1914 city directory lists Joseph Wing as proprietor of a restaurant at 304 N. 16th St. (in the Edward Hotel, later run by Sam Huey as Edward Cafe) and Hung Lew at 517 N. 16th St. In 1918, Leo Wing is listed as proprietor at 517 N. 16th St. and Chin Chung as restaurant owner at 606 N. 16th St. The directory also shows Chinese laundries at 509 and 604 N. 16th St.

Leo Wing was arrested for a plot to assassinate two local Chinese merchants. The evidence was allegedly provided by federal agents who claimed to have intercepted a message sent from the On Leong Tong in Chicago

Among the problems facing Chinese merchants in Omaha was a corrupt police department. The police commissioner, John Ryder, would be removed from office in 1914 and forced to switch positions with A.C. Kugel, head of the department of street cleaning and maintenance, for his inability to control the police force. The move came Jan. 19, 1914, three days after the World-Herald criticized Ryder for allowing a “protected house of commercial vice” to remain in operation just a few blocks from police headquarters, at 13th and Dodge streets. The house in question belonged to Hazel McVey of 414 N. 14th St., the sometime romantic partner of Billy Nesselhaus.

On Jan. 31, 1914, Ryder’s last night as police commissioner, a series of secret raids would be made on “every place in town suspect of law violation,” according to the World-Herald. Most were Chinese restaurants, including “All of the lower Douglas Street Chop Suey restaurants.” At the Mandarin, “there were certain evidences that didn’t suit the officers,” so the manager, probably Gin Chin, was arrested and later released on $25 bond. Louie Ahko was also raided and arrested. Across the street at the Canton, two men were arrested and several women were “hustled out of town.” At midnight, the police returned to the Canton, “They didn’t like the looks of the place,” so the proprietor was returned to police headquarters.

The King Joy was also raided, but nothing was found out of order. Louie Ahko and Gin Chin were to appear before a judge Feb. 3. Louie Ahko paid a $25 fine, but Gin Chin did not show up, to the outrage of the city prosecutor, and he forfeited his bond. The charge was “running a disorderly house,” and the evidence was beer found in teapots. But on Feb. 6, Gin was able to show, to the satisfaction of the judge, that the beer was brought in by patrons, which was perfectly legal, and the charges against Gin and Ahko were dropped.

Despite problems, and perhaps because of them, the thriving Chinese-American business community officially organized in 1916 with the founding of the Omaha Chinese Merchants Association. On Nov. 22 of that year, the World-Herald reported, “More than two million firecrackers, yes, two million, were discharged in Omaha last night,” to celebrate the opening of the new hall of the Merchants Association at 111 N. 12th St. There was live music, the Merchants Association band, and a feast to celebrate the event. If there was any symbolism in the event, any message being sent to Omaha, it was delivered by the firecrackers. It took more than a half hour to shoot them all off, on a Tuesday evening, just one block from police headquarters.

The police may have taken offense. Two weeks later the president of the Merchants Association, Leo Wing, was arrested for a plot to assassinate two local Chinese merchants. The evidence was allegedly provided by federal agents who claimed to have intercepted a message sent from the On Leong Tong in Chicago to a newly formed tong in Omaha directing the assassination of the two men who did not belong to the tong or the Merchants Association. Wing denied the accusation, claiming that the issue merely involved a minor dispute over an unpaid debt, and it apparently went no further. However, a month after his arrest, the King Joy caught fire, with firemen finding evidence of arson, gasoline, and kindling in the Farnam Theater below. Two months later a midnight explosion and fire, again in the Farnam Theater below, sent King Joy patrons running into the street. No motive or possible perpetrators are mentioned in the news coverage.

The building at 111 N. 12th was never listed as the Chinese Merchants Association in the city directory. In 1914, its sole occupant listed is Wing Sing Grocers.

By 1918, it is Soon Lee Grocer and the Wa Wing Club. For 1923 and 1925 the directory lists Soon Lee Chinese goods and On Leong Chinese goods. Only in 1934 and then in 1936, just before moving to 1518 Cass St., would it be recognized in the directory as a tong house, listed then as On Leong Tong Hall along with Leo Wing.

The On Leong Tong’s first location was a three-story building at 111 N. 12th St. near the corner of 12th and Dodge streets. The structure was presumably built by Anna Wilson—the infamous brothel owner and proprietor of “sin palaces” in Omaha.

The tong house in Omaha included gambling rooms, mahjong and lotteries, a bunk room where opium smoking could be found, and a shrine room with an altar and a statue of Buddha. No other illegal activities were ever reported by the World-Herald. Nevertheless, individual members would continue to have problems. A spokesperson for the Merchants Association, Gow D. Huie, was arrested in March 1917 for assault with intent to kill, the victim identified as Yen Huie. Gow Huie allegedly “smote him on the head with a cleaver” while the two were working at a Douglas Street restaurant. It seems the two were related and that the charges were dropped. Gow Huie would later open the Mon Yen Lo Cafe at 1508 Howard St. (by 1925), and in 1932 he would take over both the Mandarin Cafe and the Peacock Inn at 1818 Farnam St. He would remain an active community leader until Dec. 7, 1935, when he was arrested on a federal narcotics charge. In the summer of 1936 he was convicted and sentenced to two years in the Leavenworth Penitentiary, but he disappeared immediately after sentencing and was never heard from again.

During the Depression, many Chinese-Americans would leave Omaha. This may explain why key restaurants changed ownership. Early in 1930 it was announced that Sam Joe opened a new chop suey house at 1415 Farnam St., previously Leo Wing’s King Joy. Gin Chin gave up the Mandarin Cafe in 1932, to be reopened by Gow D. Huie that year as Huie’s Cafe. It may simply be that the Chin and Wing families had fewer relatives to employ. A New Year’s notice of the tong celebration in 1933, with Chin Soo Leong named as president, reported that membership once at 220 had dropped to 50, with most leaving in the past year. The restaurant industry in general was hit hard during the Depression, and it had a dramatic effect on Chinese restaurants in Omaha. Those who worked at the restaurants, those who remained in town, were suffering economically. According to the newly elected spokesperson for the tong, Sam Joe, in a 1936 New Year’s notice, the prior year was the first time any members of the colony had to accept outside charity. A dozen or so went on government relief.

One effect of the economic conditions was reported in the World-Herald on Nov. 1, 1937. The day before, Anna Chin, 7-year-old daughter of Jimmy Chin, died of pneumonia. She had 12 siblings; one of which, Phillis (or Lotus Blossom), had been born six weeks earlier. Her mother had remained sick in bed ever since. Two of her siblings, 4-year-old Billy and 1-year-old Jeanette, were also sick. All lived at 1517 Burt St. Jimmy, a World War I veteran, had worked at the “famed restaurant” Mandarin Cafe with his father, Gin Chin. Both then worked at King Fong’s. The story goes on to point out that Jimmy had to support his family on $40 a month—$12.50 in salary and the rest in tips. He had made double that “until a damaging story had circulated about the place where he works.” Evidently, some sort of rumor had spread about King Fong’s that severely curtailed business.

As an example of the general prejudice faced by tong members, consider the entry in the Nov. 26, 1935 World-Herald. Under a large photo with the header “Sam Joe and Soon Lee explain it all,” the two prominent Chinese-Americans are publicly degraded and humiliated. On the important topic of Japanese aggression against China, the reporter chose to parody their lack of facility with English, transcribing mispronounced words in a few broken sentences, and portray them as stupid and ill-informed. The truth is that both men were hard-working and successful leaders of their community.

On July 16, 1938, the World-Herald reported the dedication of the new tong house at 1518 Cass St. On the exterior of the building was placed a sign in Chinese characters identifying it as the On Leong Tong house. The interior was split into two large rooms. One side was devoted to mahjong and the other a meeting room with a Buddhist shrine.

Current Omaha resident Chu Huey, son of Sam Huey and nephew of Soon Lee, is now in his 80s and remembers the old tong house. He says it was very social space with people (adult men) there every day playing mahjong. Chu Huey arrived from China via Hong Kong in 1951, at 17 years old, and attended Tech High while working for his father at the Edward Cafe. He and friends would sneak into the tong house in the morning and play mahjong and be off to work at Chinese restaurants before adults arrived around lunchtime to play. Mahjong would continue through the afternoon and evening, often ending with a trek south on 16th Street to King Fong’s. If there was anything to celebrate, especially Chinese holidays (the Lunar New Year in particular), festivities would take place at the tong house. It was only on these celebratory occasions that women and children would come. Often new arrivals, with no money and nowhere else to go, would stay at the tong house. Extended family members would then have the obligation of finding them jobs and a place to live.

The neighborhood around 16th and Cass streets was popular for immigrants for a reason. It was a downtown, urban neighborhood that bordered large industry.

Exactly why the tong moved remains a matter of speculation, but it is clear that the center of the Chinese-American population in Omaha had shifted to North 16th Street by the late 1930s. The established families, the Chins and Hueys in particular, lived several blocks north and west of Omaha’s former Chinatown. Soon Lee, president of the tong (brother of Sam Huey and Sam Joe’s cousin) lived at 1617 Cass St. Sam Huey lived at 1609 Cass St. while running the Edward Cafe a block away at 304 N. 16th St. Across the street from the Hueys at 1610 Cass St. was the Lee Kune laundry, next door to the Midway Tavern, a dance bar. Another Chinese laundry listed in 1938 was run by Lee Moy at 1514 Webster St. In 1939 Quong Wing Industry was located at 319 N. 15th St., perhaps a laundry as well. The Chin family had a large residence at 1817 Davenport St., Jimmy Chin lived at 16th and Burt St., and a few years later the family would have another home at 19th and Burt streets.

Another feature of the neighborhood where the tong had relocated was Cass Elementary School, between 14th and 15th on the north side of Cass Street. Cass School was attended by virtually all children of Chinese-American immigrants. It was, in fact, the most ethnically diverse school in Omaha, reflecting the diversity of the neighboring population (which also included many Swedes and Jews). Mary Simonds, principal in 1912, responded with indignation to the suggestion that her immigrant students were inferior. “I have the very best students in the city,” she said, quoted in the June 2, 1912, edition of the World-Herald.

The neighborhood around 16th and Cass streets was popular for immigrants for a reason. It was a downtown, urban neighborhood that bordered large industry. Coal-burning smokestacks lined the view to the east. Union Pacific’s shops occupied most of the land from Dodge to Cuming streets, on an angle running from the river to 15th Street. Also included in that area near the river was Asarco (previously Omaha and Grant), Omaha’s now notorious lead smelter and refiner, the world’s largest in the late-19th and early-20th century. This was Omaha’s most noxious business and residential area. Those who would not be welcomed into other areas of the city would end up on near North 16th Street. This was partly exclusion and partly economics. It was also a cheap neighborhood to live in. Numerous inexpensive hotels lined 16th Street and side roads, between Davenport and Cuming: the Edward at 302, the Rex at 605, the Drexel at 618, and the Northwestern at 619 16th St., the California on the southwest corner at California street, and the Park at 1502 Cass St. On Chicago between 15th and 16th streets were the Chicago and the Midland Hotels. On the south end of the neighborhood, Capitol to Davenport on 17th Street was the Flomar Hotel, a block east on 16th Street was the Loyal.

Interspersed between hotels were markets, primarily grocers and hardware stores. And running through the center of neighborhood activity, and responsible for much of it, were streetcars that intersected with the rest of Omaha. It was the liveliest neighborhood business district in the city.

In the post World War II era, as activities in the tong house continued, the World-Herald stopped reporting them. Mahjong was played daily, holidays were celebrated, but membership in the On Leong Tong continued to decline, as did its role for the Chinese-American community in Omaha. Like Gin Chin’s son Carl, who worked as a chemist for the city, the children of tong members would increasingly see themselves as citizens of Omaha, Nebraska, rather than members of an immigrant community. They would speak perfect American English. They would be assimilated, in the sense that they would no longer accept or bear the burden of being treated as aliens in their native land. The function of the tong declined as identity with it became less necessary or useful.

After the death of George Hay in 1959 (who the World-Herald names as one of the last members), the tong disbanded. Chu Huey went on to open his own iconic restaurant, Chu’s Chop Suey House, in 1964, across from Aksarben on Center Street, which remained open until 2002. Chu’s father, Sam Huey died in 1965. Gin Chin died in 1962 at the age of 93, with 36 grandchildren and 49 great-grandchildren. His restaurant, King Fong’s, will be reopening in the near future.

Blue Line Coffee purchased the former tong house at 1518 Cass St. in 2009 to be used as a coffeehouse/diner in anticipation of a planned transit center at 16th and Cass streets. The transit center failed to materialize and plans for the building were put on hold. The building is currently used for storage while under preparations for development. The author of this article, Chris McClellan, is the owner of Blue Line Coffee. McClellan prepared a history of the building (from which this article is excerpted) for Restoration Exchange Omaha’s successful nomination to list the structure with the National Register of Historic Places.


Editor’s Note on Chinese Names

Chinese names traditionally feature family/surname first, followed by given names. In Chinese, Gin Chin’s full name would be presented “Chin Ah Gin.” Gin Chin is an Americanized presentation. Chinese around the world also often take an English first name. In addition, some of the Chinese names featured in Omaha Magazine’s in-depth look at the city’s historic Chinese community are based on early archival accounts (where names might have been distorted due to language barriers, reporting errors, or outright racism).

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:

Omaha’s Forgotten Chinatown

February 23, 2018 by
Photography by Nebraska Chinese Association
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Lion dancers leap into the air. Traditional Chinese instruments evoke tunes of a distant land. Dancing troupes perform in multi-colored costumes. There are even contemporary Chinese pop songs and, of course, plenty of Chinese food for guests.

It’s the Omaha’s Chinese Lunar New Year Gala. The festivities—March 3 at Burke High School—bring together the diverse segments of Omaha’s Chinese community: recent immigrants to the United States, overseas students, American-born Chinese, mixed-race families, along with friends and families who don’t have any personal claim to being Chinese (other than their possible interest in Chinese culture). Everyone is welcome.

The 2018 gala welcomes the Year of the Dog (the latest zodiac animal represented in the Chinese lunar calendar’s 12-year cycle). It’s also the 10th anniversary of consecutive festivities hosted by the Nebraska Chinese Association (formerly known as the Omaha Chinese Community Association).

But the history of Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations goes back much further than 10 years in Omaha. In fact, back when Qing Dynasty emperors still ruled “the Middle Kingdom,” Omaha had its very own (albeit small) Chinatown.

Although Omaha’s Chinese population is thriving in the early 21st century, the city’s historic Chinatown has been largely forgotten. This edition of Omaha Magazine tells the story of Omaha’s Chinatown leading up to the city’s current Chinese community.

Visit omahachinese.net to learn more or to purchase tickets for the Lunar New Year Gala. Tickets can also be purchased at the Asian Market (321 N. 76th St.). Advanced ticket purchase is required.

Catch glimpses of past NCA/OCCA Lunar New Year Galas:

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:

Year of the Dog

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Bow. Wow. Holy cow.

2018 is a major milestone for Omaha Magazine. The current issue marks the first edition in our 36th volume—the completion of 35 years of local magazine publishing. 

Publisher Todd Lemke started in local magazine publishing with City Slicker in March 1983. After City Slicker, he merged with Our City Magazine. When he realized the copyright for Omaha Magazine had become available, he snapped up the brand. Omaha Magazine has been his flagship publication ever since. However, that doesn’t mean it’s his only title. Omaha Magazine staff (and the website
omahamagazine.com) produce a host of titles that include Encounter, B2B Magazine, Family Guide, OmahaHome, and many more that have come and gone over the years.

2018 is also Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac. The lunar zodiac features a 12-year cycle with 12 corresponding animals. Legend has it that the animals are ordered according to their finish in a mythological race across a river. Rat finished first because he rode on top of Ox’s head and jumped onto the opposite shore (followed by Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig). 

The Lunar New year officially began on Friday, Feb. 16. Traditionally, the holiday is the year’s most important occasion for Chinese families all over the world. It’s like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter all rolled together. After celebrating the occasion with loved ones, many Chinese families residing in the Omaha metro will celebrate again on March 3 with the Nebraska Chinese Association’s Lunar New Year Gala at Burke High School. More than 30 percent of the attendance, organizers say, comes from local folks who are not Chinese.

Everyone is welcome. But tickets must be purchased in advance. Find out more details in this issue’s Calendar of Events. The occasion is the 10th consecutive Lunar New Year gala hosted by the Nebraska Chinese Association (formerly the Omaha Chinese Culture Association).

But of course, the local Chinese community dates back much longer than 10 years. There has been a Chinese demographic segment of Omaha’s population since the mid-1800s. The March/April issue of Omaha Magazine explores that history with a series of connected stories that probe the forgotten history of Omaha’s Chinatown, a Chinese community timeline leading up to today, and the story of two buildings that provide a tangible link to the past: King Fong Cafe (currently under renovation) and the last site of the local branch of the On Leong Tong (recognized in late 2017 on the National Register of Historic Places).

This in-depth package of stories on Omaha’s Chinese community is also special for me on a personal level. I lived in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong for five years, and my wife is Chinese from the former British colony. Our daughter was born in Omaha in 2017 (the Year of the Chicken), and her biracial heritage means that the ongoing story of Omaha’s Chinese-American narrative is our story, too. 

I was born in Omaha (in the Year of the Ox) and I can trace my American lineage back through generations of immigrants to North America since before the American Revolutionary War. Although my wife is a more recent immigrant, our daughter is nothing but American. She has the exact same birthright that I enjoy, as outlined in the U.S. Constitution. 

It is my hope that she—and anyone else with ties to Omaha’s Chinese community, or anyone simply interested in the history of our city—finds this issue to be a keepsake addition to the family library.

Of course, this edition also offers all the great arts and culture stories, dining features, profiles, and so much more that our readers have come to expect. Every issue of Omaha Magazine is a unique record of a point in time for our shared city. In recent years, the company has embraced the motto, “It’s about all of us.” This is truly our mission. Follow us on social media (@omahamagazine on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) for updates, and subscribe to the magazine at omahamagazine.com/subscribe.

Thanks for reading!

Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.

This letter was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Nebraska’s State Fossil and the Sesquicentennial

January 1, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs, Bill Sitzmann

The new year marks the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. The January/February issue of Omaha Magazine touches on that milestone. But we don’t stop there. We take you even deeper into prehistoric times…15,000 years ago, back when mammoths roamed what would eventually become our great state…and 15 million years ago, around the time ancient elephants were en route to North America.

Growing up in Nebraska, I always marveled at the fossils of mammoths found in museums across the state. Ever since childhood, I have been intrigued by the ancient giants—remains of Ice Age creatures that have been unearthed from all but three of Nebraska’s counties.

When I was living and working as a journalist in Hong Kong, I was surprised to discover shops selling traditional Chinese ivory carvings made from mammoth tusks. The prehistoric ivory allows Chinese craftsmen to carve exquisite works of art. Unfortunately, traditional Chinese ivory carving has decades of association with the tragic killing of African elephant populations.

A global ban on elephant ivory has been in place since 1989, but the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora does not regulate extinct animals or fossils.

The strange dynamics involving my state’s official fossil seized my interest. Mammoth ivory is legal, and prehistoric tusks are offering an alternative to living elephants’ ivory.

I began research and writing about China’s mammoth ivory trade for a story published in China Daily’s HK Edition, where I was a staff feature writer. After two years of working at the newspaper, I received sad news. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was heading home.

But before leaving Asia, I took a month-long reporting trip across mainland China to explore the mammoth ivory supply chain for my former employer’s magazine, China Daily Asia Weekly. The reporting trip took me to Beijing, Fujian, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, and Guangdong before I returned to Omaha.

My travels preceded the first mammoth ivory bans in the U.S. Since then, four states have outlawed the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory. More recently, China (the world’s largest market for black market ivory) has partnered with the U.S. (the world’s second largest market for black market ivory) to tighten restrictions on the ivory trade. China’s increasing regulatory pressure would likely result in growing demand for the mammoth tusks locked in Arctic permafrost.

Before I joined Omaha Magazine, a follow-up mammoth ivory research trip was in order. I returned to Asia with my favorite translator—i.e., my wife (who has written an introduction to Omaha’s most authentic Chinese cuisine in this issue)—and refreshed my research with ivory traders in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Funding for the reporting trip came from The Andy Award, an international reporting grant from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (named after Harold W. Anderson, former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald).

This issue’s cover story is a byproduct of that Andy Award. The trip also provided the basis for a paper that I presented at a panel during the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in November.

I hope you enjoy the story and this issue of Omaha Magazine. Happy New Year!

Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.

Ice Age Tusks vs. Blood Ivory

December 22, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Doug Meigs

The buried remains of Ice Age mammoths hold secrets to the story of climate change and the rise of mankind.

Mammoths vanished from Earth some 11,000 years ago at the end of the geological epoch known as the Pleistocene, but their story grows increasingly significant today with contemporary discussions of global warming and the alarming rate of wildlife species extinctions worldwide.

As the United States and China crack down on legal channels for buying and selling African elephant ivory— due to a quirk of international treaty regulations—Chinese ivory traders have begun turning to tusks from prehistoric woolly mammoths.

Traditional Chinese ivory craftsmanship has a history dating back thousands of years. Ironically, the continuation of the ancient Chinese art form could become dependent on supplies of ivory from extinct woolly mammoths.

Mammoths are the ancient relatives of modern elephants. Although their closest living relative is the Asian elephant, they also share the biological family “Elephantidae” with African elephants. Paleontologists have excavated their long-nosed (i.e., proboscidean) kin on nearly every continent, except for Antarctica and Australia.

Nebraska has an especially rich history of elephants. In fact, the mammoth is Nebraska’s official state fossil. Mammoths or mastodons have been uncovered in all but three of Nebraska’s 93 counties (every one except Grant, Arthur, and Wayne counties).

“Our elephants first come over about 14 million years ago into North America, and Nebraska is probably the only place in the country where you can find a complete sequence until their demise in the late Ice Age, 10-12,000 years ago. Nebraska is probably one of the few places where you can document the entire history of the Proboscidea in North America,” says George Corner, collection manager at Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

mammoth2

Nebraska’s State Fossil

Mammoths were mythical creatures to the young Corner. As a kid growing up in rural Blue Hill, his family would travel to the capital every year for the state basketball tournament. Across from the Nebraska Coliseum (the tournament’s home prior to the Devaney Center’s construction) was Morrill Hall.

He would resort to temper tantrums if his father wouldn’t let him “go look at the elephants” during their Lincoln visits, Corner says with a laugh.

The paleontologist (who turned 69 in January) stands in the middle of “Elephant Hall,” where gigantic specimens of the state’s rich proboscidean history loom overhead. He has spent 47 years working for the museum—starting with field studies as an undergraduate student of geology, and with the museum’s highway salvage project during and after his master’s in geology.

Corner, who jokes about being as old as the creatures on display, credits the bulk of the collection to Erwin H. Barbour. In 1891, the Ohio-raised Barbour came to the University of Nebraska to head its geology department. Within a year of landing in Lincoln, Barbour had taken charge of curating the museum; he served as its director for roughly 50 years.

The crown jewel of the museum’s Elephant Hall goes by the nickname Archie. That’s short for Archidiskodon imperator maibeni. Archie is a Columbian mammoth (a southern branch of the mammoth genus, which may have lacked the shaggy-coat of its northern woolly mammoth relatives). Both Columbian and woolly mammoths once roamed the grasslands of Nebraska.

“We like to claim that Archie is the largest mounted mammoth in the world, but I’ll show you one thing that Barbour did,” Corner says. “Look at his toes. He’s mounted on his tippy-toes. Now, you can’t tell me that an elephant of that size could stand on his tippy-toes.” (Archie would have likely weighed in the realm of 8,400 kilograms, the size of a large bull African elephant plus 20 percent.) “But Barbour wanted as much height as possible.”

Archie stands in a semi-circle of proboscidean specimens that stretch from prehistoric non-elephants into modern-day varieties—from long-jawed mastodons, to stegomastodons, to mastodons, to the elephant family: mammoths (though a woolly mammoth is not on display at the museum) and culminating in modern Asian and African elephants.

“Some of these critters came over to North America as they were, so there wasn’t a lot of evolution in place. Most of the evolution probably took place in the Old World and then migrated over in the late Miocene,” Corner says, explaining how elephants traveled to Nebraska via the Bering land bridge that once linked northeastern Russia to Alaska.

Asian and African elephants have only recently ventured into Nebraska with help from modern man.

The museum’s Asian elephant specimens came from two that died when a Campbell Brothers Circus train caught fire at Pawnee City in 1904 (only to be excavated by Barbour’s graduate student two years later). The museum’s African elephants on display include the skeleton of an African elephant that had died in a German zoo—acquired before the construction of Morrill Hall in 1927—and taxidermy mounts shot during a 1920s safari by Adam Breede, the publisher of the Hastings Tribune (who contributed most of the museum’s collection of African taxidermy).

“In Nebraska, mammoths became extinct along with 85 percent of all animals larger than the size of a jackrabbit 10-12,000 years ago. And I can’t tell you why,” Corner says, who speculates that climate change, disease, maybe an asteroid, or any combination of such factors, could have driven Nebraska’s mammoths to extinction at approximately the same time that mammoths went extinct worldwide.

Early humans lived alongside mammoths in the landscape that would eventually become the state of Nebraska. But Corner doubts that mankind could have been entirely responsible for the demise of mammoths: “Early Nebraskans witnessed the extinction of these animals, and they were opportunists; they hunted them—but I do not think they were the final cause.”

On remote islands, isolated pockets of woolly mammoths lingered past the species’ mass die-off. The last known living woolly mammoths went extinct on Wrangel Island (a secluded Russian territory in the Arctic Ocean) as recently as 3,700 years ago.

Why did mammoths go extinct? “That’s the big question in paleontology,” Corner says. “Go to the African savannah—we had analogs in the New World to all these animals. In Nebraska, we had elephants, rhinoceros, and camels. Why did all those big game animals become extinct here when they managed to survive in Africa—where there were more humans hunting them? Why? We don’t know.”

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
Remains of more than 10,000 extinct elephants have been found in Nebraska, but far less than 1 percent of the state has been carefully explored for fossils.

Elephant and Mammoth Ivory

Modern elephants in Africa face persistent pressure from poachers and conflict with human settlements that encroach on an evermore limited range of habitat.

To address the poaching crisis, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (which went into effect in 1975) banned the ivory trade in 1989. But African elephant populations had already collapsed during the decade leading up to the ban, falling from roughly 1.3 million to 600,000 elephants.

mammoth4Despite decades of coordinated international efforts to protect African elephants, grim statistics remain a reality today: “An elephant is killed every 15 minutes,” according to The Ivory Game, Netflix’s original documentary released in November 2016. The vast majority of that blood ivory is destined for China.

The CITES ban has allowed several technical loopholes for African elephant ivory. For example: pre-Convention and pre-ban (antique) ivory could be bought or sold, as could ivory harvested from African safari hunts.

After Beijing declared traditional Chinese ivory carving to be an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2006, China participated in a one-off purchase of 108 tons of ivory sourced from naturally deceased elephants in 2008. The sale raised $15 million for African conservation, and the Chinese government has been slowly allocating the stockpile to licensed factories for sale only in the domestic Chinese market. Many environmentalists view the sale as a failure for stimulating demand and providing a front for the laundering of “blood ivory.”

Mammoth ivory is an entirely different beast. CITES does not regulate the trade in fossils or extinct animals. Prehistoric ivory is a way around the global regulation of elephant ivory.

Most of the world’s untouched mammoth ivory remains locked in the frozen permafrost of Siberia. When snows melt during the brief Arctic summer (from mid-July to mid-September), riverbanks often reveal prehistoric remains. Warmer summers means the permafrost is thawed longer every year. That means more and more mammoth tusks are protruding from the ground every year.

Indigenous locals, seasonal tusk hunters, and Russian gangs aggregate the raw tusks in Siberia. Officially, the tusks must be approved for export by the government authorities, but traders (and smugglers) are increasingly taking their purchases directly into mainland China over the land border with Russia, Mongolia, or neighboring countries.

Chinese demand for mammoth ivory has pros and cons. The trade is potentially beneficial for identification of excavation sites—hunting of tusks is incentivized, so tusks are saved that would otherwise be destroyed from exposure to the elements after millennia underground; however, the trade destroys the integrity of excavation sites disrupted by tusk hunters.

According to John E. Scanlon, the Secretary-General of CITES, more than 90 percent of Russian mammoth ivory exports went to China (including Hong Kong) in the past 10 years, with total Chinese imports surpassing 80 tons annually from 2010 to 2015 according to the official trade database of the United Nations.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
Nebraska’s state fossil is not just ancient history. The mammoth is an important player in the global ivory trade today.

Changing Regulatory Landscapes

Today, on the crowded streets of Hong Kong’s tourist districts, there are roughly half a dozen storefronts that advertise mammoth ivory products for sale. Signs visible outside the mammoth shops promote the legality of prehistoric ivory—tusks of extinct woolly mammoths harvested from the frozen permafrost of Russian Siberia.

Hong Kong played a crucial role in developing China’s niche mammoth ivory market. Before and after the CITES ban, the former-British colony (which became a special administrative region of China in 1997) also served as a key transit hub for elephant ivory—legal and illegal—entering the mainland Chinese market.

Implementation of the 1989 elephant ivory ban brought about major declines in Hong Kong’s ivory carving industry. During the same time period, however, the mainland Chinese economy enjoyed rapid economic growth—boosting demand for luxurious ivory products among the nation’s nouveau riche.

As demand for ivory intensified in China, the government implemented an extensive licensing system, mandatory certification cards for legal elephant ivory products, stiff penalties, and a crackdown on smuggling. Despite the risks, black market ivory dealers continued to cash in on Chinese market conditions to maintain the country’s status as the world’s primary destination for black market elephant ivory (followed next by the United States).

mammoth5Destructions of seized ivory stockpiles followed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crushed more than 6 tons of confiscated ivory in Denver, Colorado, in November 2013. Then, two months later, Chinese authorities crushed more than 6 tons of its own seized ivory in Guangzhou province. Over the course of 2014-2016, Hong Kong’s government followed suit with the incineration of 28.86 tons, nearly all of its seizure stockpile—the world’s largest ivory burn until Kenya torched 105 tons ($172 million worth) of ivory in 2016.

During a September 2015 meeting in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to enact “nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.”

In the U.S., tightened elephant ivory laws went into effect in July of 2016 to close loopholes for pre-ban ivory, antiques, and hunting trophies.

Cheryl Lo, a senior wildlife crime officer with the World Wildlife Fund in Hong Kong told Omaha Magazine in late November that she expected Beijing to reveal China’s implementation plan sometime in December. No status update had been released as of the magazine’s press deadline. Hong Kong officials had already announced the implementation plan for the territory’s more stringent ivory regulation in June 2016.

Lo says her research for the WWF found that Hong Kong’s registered elephant ivory stockpile has remained level for many years, indicating that traders were likely replenishing with black market stocks.

She says more research on mammoth ivory in Hong Kong is needed. At this moment, she says there is no evidence to prove systematic laundering or smuggling of African elephant ivory into China under the guise of mammoth tusks. “The current concern is probably at the individual store level—shops that intentionally or accidentally misrepresent or mislabel to consumers that elephant ivory is mammoth,” Lo says, noting that the potential for wrongdoing should still be monitored.

In the future, China’s implementation of stricter ivory regulations will likely increase market pressure on the prehistoric ivory stocks. Being able to tell the difference, then, becomes paramount. Sometimes the difference can be difficult to identify—especially in tusks that are heavily processed or scrimshawed with ink.

Mammoth tusks sometimes exhibit a rocky/mineralized exterior, discoloration from being underground, with denser consistency than elephant tusks. But this generalization does not always apply to high quality tusks gathered from the permafrost.

Likewise, tusks from adult male mammoths are generally larger with greater spiral curvature than African elephant tusks. “But this is not true of all mammoth tusks. Some very much resemble tusks of elephants,” says University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher, one of the world’s foremost experts on mammoths and mammoth tusks. “There are, of course, juvenile mammoths whose tusks are not large at all, and female mammoths whose tusks do not show much spiral curvature.”

While forensic methods can certify a tusk as belonging to a mammoth, the procedures could damage the specimen or require specialized lab equipment. The most certain means of verification requires a polished cross-section of the tusk. Close inspection of such a surface reveals intersecting spiral curves called “Schreger lines.” Elephant tusks exhibit Schreger lines that intersect with an angle greater than 115 degrees, while mammoth tusks exhibit an angle of less than 90 degrees.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA Paleontologists estimate that at least 3,000 elephant fossils remain buried in the average square mile of Nebraska countryside.

Chinese Mammoth Ivory Dealers

Daniel Chan—the owner of Lise Carving & Jewellery in Hong Kong—claims to have first introduced mammoth ivory to the market.

“I began buying mammoth tusks from suppliers in Alaska and Canada in 1983. That was a very busy time for [elephant] ivory. In 1983, nobody wanted to use the prehistoric material, only me. I bought and kept it,” Chan says. “In the early ’90s, nobody was using this material. I was the first Hong Kong person to visit Moscow looking for mammoth tusks.”

In his Hong Kong factory/warehouse, several craftsmen are working at a long carving table. Whirring electrical tools spit ivory dust in the air as they carve Buddhist figures and trinkets from ancient material. There is even a baby mammoth skeleton in the corner of the room. It faces a mountain of mammoth tusks stored in shelves and piled on the floor. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chan pioneered the supply chain from Siberia to Hong Kong via Moscow. Competition followed. Other ivory dealers moved into his market niche and demand for mammoth ivory steadily grew. Mainland Chinese smugglers buying direct from Siberia and transporting their stocks over the land border with Russia became a major annoyance, undercutting his business.

mammoth3-2One of Chan’s peers, carving master Chu Chung-shing says, “I can carve on any materials. I don’t need to break the law to make a living.” Chu owns two upscale shops that exclusively sell mammoth tusk artwork in Hong Kong’s most popular tourist districts.

Chu’s Prestige Crafts storefronts glisten with ostentatious carvings, which stretch up and around gigantic, spiraling mammoth tusks. His work was exhibited at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and he has had large exhibitions promoted by committees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Chan and Chu shared similar experiences in their search for elephant ivory alternatives.

“The ban was a huge blow to me. I even carved out of ox bone, but only for a short time. Everybody was trying something new after the ban,” Chu says, who eventually found an ideal substitute in mammoth ivory, even though the prehistoric tusks are denser and more prone to cracking than contemporary elephant tusks.

Both ivory insiders emphasize that any new ivory ban from the government should not impact the mammoth ivory trade because of the fundamental difference between the two products.

In Beijing, the China Association of Mammoth Ivory Art Research issues cards to authenticate mammoth ivory products, similar to the system mandated by the Chinese government for elephant ivory carvings. However, use of the mammoth registration cards is voluntary.

Chen Shu, the president of the association, maintains an extensive showroom of mammoth carving arts at his home. Large polished mammoth tusks join examples of historic schools of traditional Chinese ivory carving—from Canton ivory balls carved with impossibly intricate concentric spheres, to Beijing-style painted ivory carvings, and even delicate modern jewelry designs.

Many domestic buyers consider mammoth ivory to be a commodity investment, while others have used the expensive carvings to bribe or otherwise buy influence.

Chen watched prices skyrocket for prehistoric ivory in the past decade. The growth far outpaced changes in elephant ivory prices. He says raw elephant ivory increased from roughly 1,000-2,000 yuan per kilogram in 2003 to 8,000-12,000 yuan per kilogram in 2013; over the same timespan, raw mammoth tusks that once sold for hundreds of yuan rose in price to 30,000-40,000 yuan per raw kilogram.

In the summer of 2016, Chen says that the mammoth ivory market was experiencing a downturn following the central government’s anti-corruption campaign, a slowing Chinese economy, and the Sino-U.S. agreement to strengthen regulation of the world’s two largest markets for black market ivory.

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA

One mastodon is discovered for every 10 mammoths in the state.

Regulation of Mammoth Ivory

Mammoth tusks occupy an awkward place between opposing views on the global ivory trade. In the view of Chinese traders, mammoth ivory is an alternative to African elephant ivory that sustains their traditional craftsmanship.


Many environmental activists, on the other hand, view the mammoth ivory trade as a means of sustaining a hated industry.

Currently, India is the only country to have banned the sale of mammoth ivory. In the United States, four states have bans on the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory: New York, New Jersey, California, and Hawaii.

Nevertheless, Esmond Martin, one of the world’s leading elephant conservationists has cited mammoth ivory as a possible beneficial alternative to elephant ivory (so long as mammoth carvings are produced on a large enough scale that they can be easily differentiated from elephant carvings). Unfortunately for mammoth traders who buy bulk quantities that often include fragments and lower-grade tusks, such scale is not always financially viable.

Mammoth ivory was recently addressed at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in South Africa from Sept. 24 through Oct. 5, when national representatives gathered to discuss the state of global wildlife regulations.

In response to the “indirect threat” to elephant populations through the potential for laundering, a draft resolution from Israel urged monitoring of specimens and new mammoth ivory regulations. But the CITES secretariat ruled against the resolution, in part, due to the anecdotal nature of evidence.

Evidence published during the prior year included a 10-month undercover investigation by the Elephant Action League in Hong Kong and Beijing. The undercover report claimed that the Beijing-based Beijing Mammoth Art Co. Ltd had manipulated its connections in Hong Kong to avoid Chinese ivory regulations.

Hong Kong’s environmental groups have mounted a vocal campaign against the territory’s ivory traders. A coalition of local school children protested the Chinese state-owned retail chain Chinese Arts & Crafts (which has outlets across the mainland and Hong Kong), and in 2014, the retailer responded with an announcement that it would sell only mammoth ivory. The commitment did not apply across mainland China, however; the Beijing arm of the company—an enormous shopping mall located near the historic city center—continued to sell both elephant and mammoth ivory products in summer of 2016.

“After the Hong Kong government bans elephant ivory in the new year, Hong Kong’s trade in mammoth ivory will also need a closer look,” says Alex Hofford, an environmental activist and WildAid wildlife campaigner, who alleges that prehistoric ivory trade is a “cynical laundering mechanism for freshly poached elephant ivory.”

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA
The sale or purchase of mammoth ivory is not regulated in the state of Nebraska.

A Precious Scientific Commodity

University of Michigan professor Daniel Fisher says that China’s mammoth ivory supply chain is cutting into a precious scientific resource.

“Tusks hold the history of a mammoth’s life,” Fisher says. “Tusks are highly specialized incisor teeth, and they grow by adding thin layers of material, only 10-20 microns thick, for every day of the animal’s life. The composition and density of new tusk material varies with the seasons, in an annual cycle, so that a tusk also ends up showing annual layers that are, in principle, something like the rings of a tree.”

Cross-sections of tusks analyzed under a microscope can reveal the mammoth’s reproductive cycles, daily behavior, and might even offer clues into the secrets of global warming through changes in the creature’s diet. “We’re also looking at how they responded to human expansion into the Arctic, so this is also a story of our history,” he says.

For the past 18 years, Fisher has made annual trips to study mammoth excavation sites in Siberia. While exploring the most desolate corners of the Russian tundra, he has traveled by helicopter, boat, reindeer sled, and even hovercraft. But most of his fieldwork is done on foot.

“In many cases, I was following in the footsteps of the ivory hunters, and they are getting all they can. Even if some ivory doesn’t fetch a prime price, it might be worth something, and they don’t leave much behind,” he says.

Sometimes the modern mammoth hunters discover tusks from places where ancient human hunters stored carcass parts. Removing specimens from these sites destroys the archeological context, which scientists could otherwise study. Sometimes, he says the Russian Academy of Sciences will flag tusks for scientific retention. But that’s still rare, and by the time they do, site-specific data is already lost.

Fisher’s research has taken him all over the world. Even Nebraska. In 2006, he examined the Crawford mammoths (then-housed at Morrill Hall in Lincoln). The fighting mammoths, locked in eternal battle, are now on display at Fort Robinson’s Trailside Museum in the northwestern corner of the state.

George Corner remembers Fisher’s visit, and he laments that most of the tusks recovered with Nebraska’s mammoths are in no suitable shape for carving.

“You don’t hear a lot about fossil ivory in Nebraska. Special conditions preserve the tusks, like the frozen permafrost of Alaska or Siberia,” Corner says. “If you were to pick up a tusk from the loess soil around Omaha, you would just have a pile of tusk fragments.”

NEBRASKA MAMMOTH TRIVIA “We find elephant remains all the time in Nebraska. But it’s rare to find a skeleton or even a partial skeleton anymore. That’s because of a change in road construction practice. Instead of letting road cuts lay open, the Roads Department will immediately grass them over or seed them with hay. So, we don’t have a lot of time anymore to look at road cuts.”

– George Corner

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Art is Life

September 4, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine.

When Laura Vranes and John McIntyre celebrated their first wedding anniversary in October 2008, they wanted to do something special. Not only was it a year since they exchanged vows, they also both had birthdays that month. They didn’t go out to dinner. Nor did they exchange gifts. Instead, they bought one piece of art. It was something they saw as the beginning of an annual tradition: they would buy one piece of art for every year spent together.

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Except it didn’t pan out that way. The next day, they purchased another artwork. Yet another quickly followed after that. Seven years later, their collection numbers over 300 pieces, and there are no signs the couple will quit acquiring anytime soon. Collecting art—street art in particular—has become more than a hobby. It’s their passion.

Vranes has always been attracted to street art, which, loosely described, is a blend of graffiti and pop culture. “When I was six my family went to New York City, where I saw graffiti,” she recalls. “It just stayed with me. I thought it was beautiful. People are intimidated by it and don’t give it a chance, but lots of stories can be told through street art.”

McIntyre was more than willing to give street art a chance. “My interest began with Laura,” he says. “We like the same things. I had no problem jumping on board. I had liked street art for years but was too busy to look into it. Laura pushed us in that direction.”

Pushed she did. Their collection includes mostly emerging artists as well as some of the genre’s most famous names, including Banksy, Mr. Brainwash, and Shepard Fairey, who created President Obama’s iconic “Hope” campaign poster.

But for the couple, collecting big names isn’t what their passion is about. Through their collecting, Vranes and McIntyre have gotten to know artists all over the world in countries as far afield as China, Russia, Norway, and Ireland. “I’ve communicated with just about each of them,” remarks Vranes. “I’ve had conversations. I’ve emailed, I’ve phoned.”

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While most people might be intimidated at the thought of contacting artists out of the blue—particularly ones with such names as Zombie, Zeus, and Polar Bear—Vranes is unperturbed. “I just say, ‘I love your work.’” she explains. “I’m interested in collecting your work. I’d like to inquire about a piece.”

“She just goes after it,” McIntyre laughs. “It’s quite interesting to see!”

This is what makes their collection so much more than the works that comprise it. It’s the people behind each and every acquisition. “We’ve made so many friends,” comments Vranes. “For almost all of the pieces, there is a personal relationship.”

When the couple purchased a work by Kansas City artist Ryan Haralson, for example, they did so on a payment plan. McIntyre communicated with him over seven months, and the two established a rapport, so much so that the artist visited the couple. While in Omaha, he created a painting of Alice in Wonderland, a character Vranes loves, and presented it to her. “We didn’t know it was going to be a gift,” recounts McIntyre. “Not only did we get a fabulous piece of art, we got a friendship.”

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Still, if one were to choose any of the 300-plus works that best sum up the couple’s often quirky passion, it would perhaps be one by Paris-based street artist Polar Bear. It features a little girl in pigtails scrawling graffiti on a wall.

And what is it that she is writing? “Art is life.”

For Vranes and McIntyre, nothing could be closer to the truth.

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Retirement on the Road

July 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in 60-Plus June/July 2015 edition.

Fritz Sampson says he likes to travel slowly, but the words “travel” and “slowly” can conjure up thoughts of lounging over three hour-long dinners in Italy, or spending an entire afternoon wandering through a village in France.

For 65-year-old Fritz, “traveling slowly” means moving about 200 miles a day across Europe and Asia by motorcycle.

Last March, Fritz undertook a 115-day motorcycle journey through southern Europe, the former Soviet bloc, and Mongolia; but his plans were cut short by more than three weeks after an accident
in Mongolia.

It’s an itinerary that sounds crazy, but, when explained calmly by Fritz, seems perfectly reasonable.

“Whether it’s breaking a shoulder, or getting stopped by police, or running out of food, things are going to happen,” Fritz says. “And that’s why you take the trip, because it’s an adventure.”

According to Sampson and his wife of 40 years, Mary, he always had a daring spirit.

“That’s what I loved him for, was his sense of adventure,” Mary says. “No one is comparable to Fritz—he’s all out for the experience.

The couple met on the Model United Nations Team at Creighton University and married in 1975, right out of college. They, and their two children, moved to Germany in 1998 while Fritz pursued a degree in international tax law. His career took him everywhere from China to Belize; but he still craved different ways to see the world.

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A long-distance cyclist, he rode for years all over the United States. But as he aged, he turned to a new mode of transportation: motorcycling.

He bought a new Harley Davidson in 2007, and in 2008 rode with his son, Marty, from Omaha to Tierra del Fuego, an island chain off the southernmost point of South America.

“One of the reasons I do this—I like meeting people on the road,” Fritz says.

After his South American excursion, Fritz was itching to do a similar trip elsewhere. He read about two motorcycle adventures on travel blogs that looked really interesting—one to the Russian far east, another in outer Mongolia—and decided to combine the two by retiring and traveling to 17 countries. He planned to begin in Ireland, meet Mary in Turkey, and eventually end up in Mongolia and Russia, but had no other itinerary.

That meant he spent a week in Bulgaria because he felt like it. He chose to go to Kazakhstan instead of Turkmenistan because he met a fellow motorcyclist who was headed there. And when he told local policemen in Turkey the name of the hostel where he was staying, they told him he shouldn’t sleep there and took him to a friend’s house, where they hosted a barbecue for him.

He also had a run-in with corrupt police in Azerbaijan, lost 22 pounds, and experienced that fateful fall in Mongolia that cut his trip short and left him with a broken shoulder.

There’s only one thing he’s cutting out of his routine: off-roading on his motorcycle, which led to his accident. But he still wants to ride on motorcycle trips across the continental United States, Alaska, and Mexico.

After all, he says, those are “easy” rides.

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