Presentation to pay tribute to Juneau pioneer

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2008

It might seem like Mark Whitman is trying to bury a ghost.

Courtesy Of Alaska State Library Early Prints Of Alaska Photograph Collection
Courtesy Of Alaska State Library Early Prints Of Alaska Photograph Collection

What he's really doing is finding a way to make peace.

Whitman's fascination with Juneau pioneer Chew Chung Thui, also known as China Joe, started in a bar.

Well, really it started back in childhood, with a jar his mother took to be made into an electric lamp.

It was a clay jar that belonged to a Chinese woman who worked as a cook for Whitman's great-aunt in California in the late 1800s. It was sealed and made of clay. His mother wanted to make a lamp base out of it, so she took it and had it drilled. But on their way out of the shop, Whitman remembers that a man ran after his mother to tell her it was a funerary jar.

"I grew up knowing the lamp in the study had a dead Chinese man inside," Whitman said. "I always imagined talking with him, imagined he would say, 'Just send me home. Send me back.'"

Years later, sitting in the former Billiken bar on Douglas Island in 1979, Whitman made a connection between his childhood memory and a photograph on the wall. China Joe, the man in the picture, was grinning at him.

"Maybe I'd had a drink or two and saw that expression on his face," Whitman said. "Something clicked in my mind; I remembered the man in the jar."

And so began a long study of China Joe's life. He became the only Chinese left in Juneau in 1887, after a group of miners rounded up every other person from China in the area and sent them down the channel in two boats.

How Joe remained - and why - will be the focus of a presentation by Whitman at 10 a.m. Saturday at the downtown Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

Many locals already know that China Joe was the city's first baker. He is said to have been generous and kind in the way that has an old man passing out sweets to children.

But for Whitman, China Joe is not just a historic figure. He has come to be a mentor that describes to Whitman how to live well in a small, remote community.

China Joe lived in Juneau for 36 years. He never left the city, and in fact, hardly ever left a few-block radius downtown where he owned a log cabin and ran the bakery.

"To find the ability to live within such a tight circle and do it with such dignity and balance and with such generosity is remarkable," Whitman said. "Imagine not getting out in 36 years."

China Joe never got out. He is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery, and while Whitman visits his grave once a year, the fact he's still here could be an issue. That's where Whitman is making his peace, and it involves Saturday's presentation.

Traditional Chinese beliefs say that if one is not properly buried and honored at death, there's a risk of hauntings by a restless ghost. Whitman believes that Joe wished to be interred in China. He found papers indicating that Joe made arrangements for that.

Through his research and sharing Joe's story - something he calls a "lifting up of the light" - Whitman thinks perhaps he can provide a kind of veneration for one of the city's pioneers.

"Sometimes I feel like living in Juneau is like being in Italy," Whitman said. "Three stories down, below the Catholic Church is an Etruscan temple. Right where the city museum stands now, people I talk about Saturday died on that property. Layer over layer, like sedimentary rock, history has happened.

"But unless someone remembers, it will be buried and it will be forgotten," he said.

Saturday's free event at the museum is a fundraiser for the Southeast Alaska Food Bank. Since China Joe was known for providing food during tough times in Juneau, event organizers thought the nonprofit a fitting recipient, museum volunteer Connie Munro said.

Munro said people of Chinese descent are expected to attend Saturday's presentation. Tea and Chinese pastries will be served, and guests will be entertained by a quartet of high school-aged musicians from the Juneau String Ensembles. Musicians Lindsay Clark, Pauline Zheng, Denali Wentz and Daniel Piorkowski have all visited China to perform.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or by e-mail at

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