China Joe: Man of the golden rule

When racist sentiments swept the U.S., Joe was the only Chinese not thrown out of Juneau

Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2004

Mark Whitman knelt next to a grave at the Evergreen Cemetery. He gently removed wet leaves, and the plaque revealed:

"Hi Chung. China Joe. Friend and benefactor of the prospector during the early days of the gold rush to the northland. He lived by the golden rule. 1834-1917."

Whitman, a Juneau library technician, said Joe used to clean his friends' graves.

"He would like someone to do that for him, too," Whitman said. "Do what you would like others do to you - that was the golden rule he lived by."

Whitman, 50, isn't related to Joe. He doesn't know Joe. But like many people, he was fascinated by Joe's story.

China Joe, also known as "Joe the Baker," was the only Chinese who wasn't deported from Juneau in 1886 when anti-Chinese sentiments swept through the United States. When Juneau miners shouted "Chinese must go," some pioneers armed themselves to defend Joe. In a sign of the racial attitudes of the time, an 1897 article "Alaska Search Light" said Joe, "though his skin is yellow has a heart all white."

"China Joe was honored and loved, not because of high birth or great wealth, but because of his goodness and constant readiness to divide his last with a needy neighbor," Ed Beattie wrote in a 1949 article devoted to Joe in The Alaska Sportsman.

Joe was born in China as Chew Chung Thui, Chew being his family name.

Many documents suggested that Joe first landed in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1864. In the same year, he went to a Boise, Idaho, mine camp.

The gold rush in the Cassiar brought Joe to Alaska in 1874. He opened a bakery at one of the camps around Dease Lake.

One winter, the upper Stikine River froze earlier than usual. Steamers couldn't make it upriver with provisions for the miners. Before the winter ended, everyone was out of flour, except Joe.

Sensing this would be a great opportunity to make a fortune, two gamblers went to Joe's camp and offered to buy his entire outfit. Joe declined. They doubled their offer and redoubled. Each offer was met with a polite but firm refusal from Joe. They threatened to hurt Joe.

At Joe's suggestion, a camp meeting was called. He divided his provisions evenly to all the people in the camp, including the two gamblers who threatened him.

"Who is there to know whether it came from his heart or his brain?" asked Brett Dillingham, who wrote a play about Joe with Whitman. "I think that came from both."

Joe later moved to Wrangell, where he opened a small eatery. He later bought the abandoned sternwheeler Hope and turned it into Wrangell's first hotel. "The Founding of Juneau" by R. N DeArmond, states that Joe fitted up a restaurant and bakery in the hull and rented out the staterooms for sleeping quarters.

When the discovery of gold in Gold Creek basin in 1881 started the rush to Juneau, Joe joined the crowd. On July 18 of 1881, he bought half of a town lot at the corner of Third and Main streets. He put up a log cabin and a bakery.

Joe often kept a lighted lamp in his cabin window for travelers at night. He gave out ginger cakes and cookies to children walking home from school. Because of his kindness to children, he was one of the few merchants whose property went unmolested at Halloween.

His generosity not only won him friends and business but also spared him the fate of being deported from the United States.

In late 1870s, anti-Chinese movements rattled through the continent.

Historian Ted Hinckley said in his article "Prospectors, Profits and Prejudice," that Chinese laborers were popular because they were industrious and willing to be paid less.

But as the economy turned sour, the Chinese provided a convenient scapegoat.

"Much of the West Coast became inflamed in racial hate," Hinckley wrote. "From California to Seattle, Washington, there were instances of Chinese quarters being burned and the survivors forcefully expelled."

Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, suspending Chinese immigration for 10 years.

The anti-Chinese agitation spread to Juneau. Archives show that in 1885 there were two attempts to blow up houses where Chinese laborers stayed.

On Aug. 6 of 1886, about 100 men herded 86 Chinese miners to the beach on Douglas Island, put them in two schooners and set them adrift with instructions never to return.

Rioters who marched to collar Joe found a rope line on the ground across the road to his cabin. A man appeared from one of the stumps around Joe's bakery and told them how Joe had looked after early pioneers. While he was talking, according to Beattie, other men appeared one by one from the stumps.

"From every vantage point - doorways, windows, behind logs and stumps - riflemen appeared, each ready to lay down his life if necessary in defense of China Joe," Beattie wrote.

None of the rioters approached the line. Joe was allowed to stay and enjoyed the many privileges of a white man.

For more than 20 years, he was the only Chinese in Juneau.

Joe was well-respected among the pioneers and often acted as the chief honorary pallbearer. He carried out the mission in his Chinese silk jacket.

"A stranger once commented upon the oddity of the picture and was told that an old-timer could not die happy unless assured that Joe would be one of the pallbearers," Beattie said. "It is said that the last request of Joe Juneau, in whose honor the town was named, as he lay dying in Dawson, was that his body be returned to Juneau for burial and China Joe be one of the pallbearers."

Although living in a foreign land, Joe didn't forget his roots.

Joe played a Chinese stringed instrument called a ruan. His membership picture for the 1887 Pioneers Association showed that he still kept his pigtail and wound the braided tail above his forehead. He signed his wills with Chinese characters.

Joe celebrated the Chinese New Year in the traditional way. He burned incense, scattered Chinese paper about and shot off firecrackers. But Beattie noticed there was something sad about the picture.

"This grand, old man, far up in the North away from kin and countrymen, observing the forms of the day that mean happiness and good cheer," Beattie said. "Yet not a soul with him or near him capable of understanding the deep significance of it all. No one with whom he could speak his mother tongue."

During his declining years, Joe only baked for a few old-timers and Natives. He spent most of his time tending his little garden outside the cabin. He died of heart failure on May 18, 1917, at age 87. He was buried in the pioneer section of Evergreen Cemetery.

But people didn't forget Joe.

In 1960, Charles W. Cater made a memorial plaque for Joe. The former Juneau mayor wrote the epitaph that honored Joe as the man who lived by the golden rule.

Whitman, who visits Joe's grave on the anniversary of his death, first learned of Joe about 21 years ago. He saw Joe's picture at an old bar called the Biliken in Douglas. The bar no longer exists.

Whitman said he was obsessed with Joe's story because Joe reminded him of a Chinese cook who worked for his great-aunt.

A few years ago Whitman took his family to Joe's grave for a picnic and even went to Joe's hometown in China to look for his relatives. He didn't find any but adopted Joe as his family.

"In order for Joe to be remembered, it would be ideal to have a lamp to be lighted at night at the corner of Third and Main, where his log cabin and bakery used to be. That will be good feng shui for the whole community," Whitman said.

Whitman once threw bronze coins to get insight into Joe's life from I Ching, the Chinese book of changes. The book told him that the reading for his coin toss meant "wanderer."

The book's judgment said, "circumstances often cause a man to seek a home in foreign parts. If he knows how to meet the situation, how to introduce himself in the right way, he may find a circle of friends and a sphere of activity even in a strange country."

•I-Chun Che can be reached at

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