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Exploring the Opium Dens and Interracial Marriages of Washington’s Chinatown in the Early 1900s

Take a journey back in time to explore the opium dens and interracial marriages of Washington DC's Chinatown in the early 1900s. Learn more about the people involved in this unique history in this Ghosts of DC article.
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You may be aware of the blight that lined Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1970s with the proliferation of sleezy strip clubs and adult shops, but did you know that over 100 years ago, you could head to the old Chinatown and indulge yourself into a opium-induced stupor? That’s right, our very own city had opium dens, though not nearly as pervasive as San Francisco and New York.

Inside of lodging house and opium den in San Francisco, 1890s (Wikipedia)
Inside of lodging house and opium den in San Francisco, 1890s (Wikipedia)

Below is a wild article I came across in the Washington Post from July 22nd, 1907. Remember that when you’re reading this, it is 1907 and the portrayal of Chinese immigrants was very much a caricature with racist undertones.

Charged by Lee On, a Chinaman in charge of the “hop room” at Moy’s store, 325 Pennsylvania avenue northwest, with having held up at a revolver’s point the attendants in the opium room and demanding a pipeful of the drug, Harry M. Puryear, of Richmond, Va., scion of an old family, was arrested last night.

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Lee On told Sergt. James Connors, of the Sixth precinct, who made the arrest that Puryear entered the little room in the upper part of the building, lined with the smoker’s bunks and lighted by flickering alcohol lamps, and demanded “dope.”

“No smokee here,” Lee replied. “This jus’ flo Chinamans.”

At the Chinaman’s refusal, Puryear, the Celestial alleges, drew a revolver from his pocket and threatened to shoot.

Screaming with fright, the Chinaman dashed down the long flight of steps leading to the street and into the arms of the sergeant. Slowly, Puryear followed and was stopped.

“Lookee out. Him got a gun,” the Chinaman yelled when the policeman started to search the boy.

In none of Puryear’s pockets was the weapon found, and not until the sergeant saw the blue barrel protruding from a coat sleeve did he find its hiding place.

Last night in his cell young Puryear told the story of his arrest.

“I came from Richmond about 5 o’clock,” he said, “and because I used to work for Mr. Moy, who owns the store there, I went to Chinatown to find him and try to borrow a couple of dollars. Moy was not home, and I went upstairs to the smoking room. Lee On was there, but he did not know me. The dope and the pipes were there on a little table, and out of curiosity I handled them and asked some questions.

“I then unwrapped the gun from the paper in which I had it and asked him to loan me a couple of dollars on it. He must have misunderstood me, for he yelled and ran from the room.”

Puryear, it is said, is prominently connected in the Virginia city, and is said to be the nephew of the former Chief of Police Puryear. The local police notified his relatives last night of his arrest.

Naturally, being Ghosts of DC, I’m curious what I can find on the people involved in this story, especially Mr. On. Below is the only record I could find of a Lee On in Washington around that time. The 1900 U.S. Census lists him as single, born in February 1856 and living at 2010 I St. NW. He first arrived in the United States (I’m guessing San Francisco) in 1885 and was listed his employment as laundryman.

Lee On's record in the 1900 U.S. Census (Ancestry.com)
Lee On’s record in the 1900 U.S. Census (Ancestry.com)

I was unable to dig up a census record on Mr. Moy, but I did find a very interesting article on Moy Han Don. The article was from August 20th, 1904 when the Washington Post reported on his marriage to a young woman from Baltimore. As you can suspect, this certainly raised a few eyebrows but within Washington’s Chinatown as well as throughout the rest of the city. Nuptials like this weren’t exactly commonplace in the early 1900s.

Society in Chinatown was agog last night over the disclosure of the remarriage of Moy Han Don and his white American wife of three years. Moy is a member of the firm of Kim Lai Yueng, of 325 Pennsylvania avenue northwest, and the home the Chinaman has fitted up for his American spouse is filled with occidental comforts.

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Mrs. Moy Han Don is the daughter of an artist living on New York avenue. She is a pretty blond of twenty-five years. A good education, a naturally artistic temperament, and money to gratify a taste for becoming clothes, allow her to appear to advantage when she goes out in public, which is but seldom.

Her name was Lillian Carter, and several years ago she married a druggist in Baltimore by the name of Kaspen. They were afterward divorced. Coming to Washington with her sister, Naoma, they met several Chinamen. It wasn’t long until Naoma married one of the Celestials, and she is one of four American wives residing in the single building. Three years ago Moy Han Don disappeared from his usual haunts. A  few days later Lillian Carter went to New York, and when the two came back they announced they had been married. A home was fitted up over the store on Pennsylvania avenue.

View down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol, 1905 (via StreetsOfWashington.com)
View down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol, 1905 (via StreetsOfWashington.com)

The photograph above is from Streets of Washington’s Flickr stream. You can see roughly where 325 Pennsylvania Ave. would be among the group of buildings on the right. Today, it would be roughly where Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues intersect.

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