The First Chinese Restaurant in America Has a Savory—and Unsavory—History

Venture into the Montana eatery, once a gambling den and opium repository, that still draws a crowd

a street in a rural town with mountains in the backgroud
The Pekin Noodle Parlor in Butte, Montana, serves what owner Jerry Tam calls “Chinese American comfort food.” Rebecca Stumpf

The oldest continuously operated Chinese restaurant in America is not in San Francisco or New York, but in Butte, Montana, where 47-year-old Jerry Tam, the great-great-grandson of the original owner, presides over the Pekin Noodle Parlor. Standing on South Main Street outside the weathered two-story brick building, with its display window of antique Chinese cooking equipment, Tam describes the Pekin as a “walk back in time”—one that illuminates the often-overlooked history of the Chinese population in Montana.

a man stands in a storefront
Jerry Tamin July 2022 outside the restaurant that his family has run for five generations. Rebecca Stumpf

The first Chinese immigrants came to Montana in the 1860s, working in the territory’s gold fields and helping build the railroads. Following close behind them were Chinese businessmen and their families, many of whom settled in Butte, the economic hub for mining activity. They established a thriving six-block Chinatown adjacent to downtown, with laundries, tailors, general stores, herbal medicine shops, noodle parlors, gambling parlors and opium dens. It was the primary source of supplies and entertainment for the Chinese miners who lived in nearby camps. The 1870 census counted nearly 2,000 Chinese residents in Montana, or 10 percent of the territory’s population. By comparison, the same census counted a mere 500 or so Chinese immigrants in New York City.

Tam’s great-great-grandfather, Tam Kwong Yee, who founded the restaurant, was born in Guangzhou, China, and immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s via San Francisco. He moved to Butte in 1909 with a business partner named Hum Yow and Yow’s wife, Bessie. “They were well-to-do people with family ties in the same village in China,” Tam says, and they came to Butte because by then it was a booming city of 100,000 people, ripe with economic opportunity. A gigantic deposit of copper was being mined right outside the city limits, in what locals called the “Richest Hill on Earth.”

Yee and the Yows arrived to find a town riven by anti-Chinese prejudice. Chinese people were barred from working in the copper mines, and there had even been campaigns to evict them from Butte, including an aggressive union-organized boycott of Chinese American businesses in 1896 and 1897. A group of Chinese businessmen won a court injunction against the boycott, so Butte remained attractive to Chinese entrepreneurs, despite such obstacles as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—the first race-based immigration law in U.S. history, which suspended Chinese immigration and made Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. The law was not repealed until 1943.

Yee and Yow used their capital in 1909 to build the two-story brick building that still houses the Pekin today. Next door, they opened a successful general store and tobacco shop, and two years later, in 1911, they added an upstairs noodle parlor. It served the newly invented Chinese American dishes of chop suey, chow mein and lo mein to Butte’s predominantly white mining community, along with beer and liquor. The restaurant was open 24 hours a day—but the real action, Tam says, took place in the basement.

an old slot machines in a basement
Old slot machines in the basement are vestiges of the Pekin’s more shadowy past as an oasis for miners who enjoyed a bit of gambling with their chow mein. Rebecca Stumpf

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This article is a selection from the September issue of Smithsonian magazine

He walks downstairs into the dark, dusty rooms and flicks on a light switch. “This was the epicenter of the Pekin,” he says. He walks through three rooms that served as an illegal gambling parlor. Using the flashlight on his phone, he points out dusty poker tables, slot machines, an old roulette wheel, keno tickets with Chinese characters translated into English numerals and a metal casino cage that protected the cashier and the money. “Millions and millions of dollars passed through here, from around 1911 until the 1950s,” Tam says. There were occasional police raids, during which the proprietors would kill the lights and usher gamblers into a network of tunnels that connected speakeasies, brothels and restaurants. Tourists can still explore these tunnels today.

Gambling was not the only vice on offer. In the 1980s, the FBI removed three sealed barrels of opium from the basement, with an approximate street value of $100,000; Tam says they were imported from China before the Vietnam War, and reserved as a treat for visiting family or other guests. “There were no prosecutions,” Tam says. “The local FBI just hauled it out.”

a table of patrons eating in a restaurant
Though gambling is no longer on offer, the Pekin keeps business humming today, its dining area often packed with folks eager to sample his- tory as well as chop suey. Rebecca Stumpf

Climbing out of the basement, Tam walks into the kitchen, which still features the original wood-lined walk-in cooler and a working 1914 refrigerator, while an old-fashioned rope-and-pulley system hoists the food up to the second-story dining area. In the 1980s, Tam’s father, Danny Wong, who had taken over the business in the 1950s and would run the restaurant for six decades, painted the dining room a bright salmon after reading in Bon Appétit that the color would stimulate diners’ appetites. (The walls, recently touched up, are now more orange than before.) The seating arrangements in the dining area are unusual, and have long fed rumors that the Pekin operated as a bordello: Seventeen of the tables are completely enclosed within curtained booths separated from each other by orange beadboard partitions—compartments offering welcome privacy in this city of schemes and opportunities. (The curtains have been removed as a Covid precaution.) But prostitution, Tam says, was not on the menu: “Loan-sharking, drug deals and sexual acts took place in these booths, but it wasn’t a brothel like people say.” It could be a rough place. “One guy pulled a gun on his wife, shot and missed,” Tam recounts. A divot in the wall marks the spot where the bullet hit.

One persistent problem the family faced during the 1980s and ’90s was customers running out of the restaurant without paying their bills. The solution was  “Pekin jail.” When the servers heard rapid footsteps, they would race to lock the front door at the foot of the stairs. Finding the door locked, the bolting diners would run back up the stairs, where they encountered Wong holding a bayonet. “He would give them a choice: Wash dishes or pay the bill,” Tam says, adding that his father never had to use the blade. “He didn’t get mad at them, and he never called the cops.”

a tabletop with food dishes seen from above
Though gambling is no longer on offer, the Pekin keeps business humming today, its dining area often packed with folks eager to sample history as well as chop suey. Rebecca Stumpf

Wong was a generous, charismatic man with a winning smile, much loved in Butte, and a 2020 semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Hospitality Award. He was also a longtime friend of Evel Knievel, the daredevil stunt rider and Butte native, and was close with Senator Max Baucus and other Montana politicians. “My dad was known for his kindness,” Jerry Tam says. “If you were hungry and had no money, he would always feed you.” Danny Wong died in 2020 at 86, and soon after the alley behind the Pekin was officially renamed Danny Wong Way.

Apart from the Mai Wah Museum of Chinese-Montana culture around the corner, the Pekin is all that remains of the city’s once-bustling Chinatown. The copper mines have closed, the Richest Hill on Earth is now a toxic Superfund site, Butte’s population has shrunk to 34,000, and vacant lots and boarded-up buildings surround the Pekin. But the restaurant is going strong, with a line of people extending into the street on most weekend nights.

“I’d like to turn the basement into a walking tour museum, but otherwise I want to keep everything the same,” Tam says.

Next to the dining area is a small lounge with a bar and slot machines—drinking and gambling remain popular among customers, and the atmosphere can get very lively on a busy Saturday night. The menu is still dominated by chow mein and chop suey but also contains Szechuan and Cantonese specialties. “We still cook everything from scratch with fresh ingredients, just like always,” says Tam. The Pekin’s signature dish, encapsulating its bi-cultural history, is the tomato beef chow mein. “It’s stir-fried beef with green peppers and tomatoes in a sweet sauce over chow mein noodles,” says Tam. “Chinese American comfort food.”

Dynastic Dishes

Dipping into the origins of some of our favorite Chinese meals

—By Sonya Maynard

Qing Dynasty — Dezhou Braised Chicken

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Dezhou Braised Chicken has its roots in the 17th century, when the Han Chinese used a new mix of spices, possibly including cardamom, cloves and fennel, to braise chicken. Emperor Qianlong fell in love with the meal in the 18th century, calling it “a miracle of all dishes,” and it became a royal tribute. By the early 20th century, the Deshunzhai Restaurant in the eastern city of Dezhou was serving the dish to delighted locals. But the meal remained a favorite of elites, including Chairman Mao Zedong.

Yuan Dynasty — Peking Duck

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Peking Duck is said to have originated in the 13th century in Hangzhou, in eastern China, when street vendors began selling roast duck door-to-door, and it soon became a specialty in nearby Nanjing, too. The dish evolved over time and grew in popularity: By the 1800s, Beijing (formerly known in the West as Peking) was home to several restaurants where roasted duck was the signature dish. In the 1970s, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai served it to President Richard Nixon. It has since become a favorite at Chinese restaurants around the world.

Tang Dynasty — Hubing

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China began cultivating wheat widely by the seventh century A.D., leading to the popularity of bing breads, which citizens everywhere began pairing with vege- tables and meats. A popular variety to emerge was hubing (similar to Indian naan), which is baked in a clay oven, topped with sesame seeds and often stuffed with mutton. These days, bing serves as shorthand for a host of round, flat breads used for dipping, and in sandwiches. One of the most popular bing breads in the U.S. today? Scallion pancakes.

Song Dynasty — Dongpo Pork

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Dongpo Pork is made by braising a square of pork belly in soy sauce and sweet yellow wine. Legend says it was created at the end of the 11th century A.D. by Su Dongpo, a poet, politician and gourmand, after he was exiled to Hangzhou over accusations of having criticized the emperor. Dongpo reportedly taught local peasants to build dams and irrigate fields. The locals honored the poet by slaughtering pigs and giving him the choicest cuts plus flasks of wine, which he cooked together into what is now one of Hangzhou’s signature dishes.