Story by John Emeigh
BUTTE – The Mai Wah was at the heart of Butte’s historic Chinatown neighborhood for more than a century. It’s now competing for a grant that will help preserve its history.
“This grant is absolutely essential to us in order to protect the integrity of this collection. We have to protect the exterior integrity of the building,” said Pat Munday the president of the Mai Wah Museum.
This historic building has been selected among 20 different sites around the country for a $150,000 grant by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Starting next week, the public can vote online for the site they want to win.
“And we’re up against major competition. There will be historic sites in New York City and Los Angeles and we need to compete with them and garner the votes we need,” said Munday.
The grant would pay for much needed exterior work.
“These are the original windows from 1899. We need a roof, we need to rebuild the skylights, some of the exterior architectural features like the sandstone lintels below the windows,” said Munday.
This building was a mercantile store and a popular Chinese restaurant that was run by the Chin family during the first half of the 20th century in Butte.
“The Chin family that founded this establishment was a middle-class Chinese family and they prospered here on the American frontier,” he said.
Butte once had a Chinese community of more than 2,000 people at one time and though they assimilated well in Butte, they did face challenges.
“There was still a lot of racism and discrimination here. Chinese children were teased in the schools, there was an attempted boycott by unions to stop Chinese businesses” said Munday.
The Mai Wah still has some of the original items they sold at the mercantile store. A miner could come in and pick up herbal medicines, everything from rhubarb to shark’s fin, or perhaps they were in need of some centipedes.
“This was a general store. This was the Woolworths or Walmart of its day; you could get everything that you needed and if you couldn’t find it here, you could find it at the various small shop areas that the Chin family rented out,” he said.
People will get a chance to vote for the Mai Wah online at the Main Street Uptown Butte website between Sept. 24 and Oct. 26.