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Wednesday, June 21, 2006


The Shanghai Tunnels- just an urban myth?

Earlier tonight this anonymous message popped up below a comment on this old post about the Shanghai Tunnel tours beneath Portland's Chinatown:

The only references that I can find to the storied "Shanghai tunnels" and the supposed trade are those that have come to light by way of the Cascade Historical Foundation, it is almost as if they are making it up as they go. It is simply the basement of an old building that is probably 100ft by 100ft in area... I did not see any tunnels... Makes you want to learn more, but the disappointing thing is when you try to, all references come back to the company that runs the tours.

This blogger is also skeptical. Further mixed reviews can be found here. Here's what I know, annoymous poster person:

I took the same Cascade Geographic Society tour in the November of 2004 and, indeed, it only covered the basement area below Hobo's Bar and the surrounding block in Chinatown. I haven't seen the tunnels with my own eyes but I've heard plenty of stories over the past few years from multiple sources, including a freaky account by Chuck Palahniuk in his book Fugitives and Refugees that told of a tour that began in basement of the Matador up on West Burnside. From what I've heard, a good portion of the tunnels down there has collapsed over the past century and there's been no real reason to fully excavate them. There's no doubt that they're down there but what about the legends surrounding them?

I've lived in Portland for the better part of my life and, honestly, the first time I heard the tales of all those Shanghai'd sailors, opium dens and ghost-clogged tunnels under Chinatown was sometime in the late '90s. As the poster claims, a lot of what's on the internet leads back to the CGS and tour leader Michael Jones. The top twenty searches on Google either mention him or the society.

Admittedly, all of my information on the tunnels comes from the tour and internet sources all dating back to the late '90s. Does anyone have any more solid info on the tunnels' sordid past or at least something that dates back a few decades? Obviously, this was a shadowy criminal network and not something that's going to be well-covered in Portland's history books. A quick search on powells.com turned up nothing on the topic. Surely, there's something out there. An old, first-hand account of a sailor that was kidnapped or a few turn-of-the-century Oregonian articles, something. This article dives a bit into the history of shanghaiing but comes up with few answers. An excerpt, complete with a revealing quote from Jones:

Michael Jones, my affable guide, freely admits that there's still a lot we don't know about the history of shanghaiing in Portland. "I'm always probing, always searching. Nothing is nailed down for me." He also admits that the tours are meant as entertainment. But when I bullied him about his sources, I discovered I had underestimated how much of the tour is based on fact.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines shanghai as "to drug or otherwise render insensible, and ship on board a vessel wanting hands" and cites an 1871 New York Tribune article for the first published use. I found documented cases of shanghaiing on the West Coast, including Jack Black's 1926 memoir, You Can’t Win, and a printed sermon from 1855 in which the minister warned, "Hence to get ‘crews’ for Shanghae . . . [captains] depended, almost exclusively, on drugging the men."

The Shanghai Tunnels could be fact, folklore, 100% fabrications or, more likely, some combination of all of the above. If much of what we know is just myths and legends passed down to or made up by Jones, then how to explain the ancient cell in the basement of Hobo's, with the bars too small for captives to put their fingers through? Or the pile of century-old dusty shoes? The tour also leads to a tiny closet with what look like fingernail scratch marks in the woodwork. According to Jones, it was used to break the spirits of kidnapped women being forced into a life of prostitution. There's also an alleged opium den in that basement but, honestly, what right-minded group of naredowells would plop an opium den next to a torture closet and a cell full of kidnapped sailors?

When I went on the tour, Jones told stores ranging from shanghaiers sprinkling broken glass through the tunnels to sway would-be escapees to a highly implausible anecdote about a recent excavator that reached into her pocket and found it full of ectoplasm ("ghost pee," as he described it). Included above is a photo of an Native American statue that supposedly moves around by itself and is haunted by a shadowy specter. Jones also told stories of guests on the tour seeing figures in historical garb out of the corner of their eyes only to turn around and have them vanish. The "spirits" also allegedly make a habit of tugging on hair and like to play with the clothing of guests on the tour.

This photo is of a haunted baby carriage known to attract the spirit of a mournful mother. It was stolen a few years ago but was returned shortly thereafter. The tunnels recently made a list of the top ten most haunted places in America (sorry, couldn't find the link), at least partially due to the Society's year-round tours but how much of it is true and how much of it is bunk from Jones' imagination? Or mere hogwash that's been handed down by generations of Portlanders? I wouldn't bet on the ghost stories but surely the shanghaiing is grounded in some level of truth, however embellished.

I signed a waiver on the tour promising not to print stories or photos. If you're out there reading this, sorry, Mr. Jones. I mean no ill-will and I'm not out to disrupt your lively-hood but my curiousity has gotten the better of me.

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