A Legacy of Diversity: The Finns, Norwegians and Chinese of Astoria, Oregon

By Neal Moore

ASTORIA, ORE. – It is home to the first permanent U.S., non-native settlement west of the Rockies. Astoria, Oregon, you see, is big on diversity.

In the early 1800s, this Pacific coast town at the mouth of the Columbia River was a mecca for fur trappers and loggers. And thanks to an abundance of salmon, this is where Bumble Bee Seafoods established a foothold in 1899.

The Finns and Norwegians would arrive in their greatest numbers in the early 20th century. But back in the 1880s, had you taken a stroll down one of these storied riverside streets, one in three people you would have encountered would have been Chinese.

Liisa Penner of the Clatsop County Historical Society explains that the Scandinavians could qualify for 160-acre homesteads in exchange for clearing and taming the land, the labor available to Chinese migrant laborers and immigrants was demanding in a different way. “The Chinese were brought here usually by labor contractors to staff the canneries, and unfortunately, once they were here, the work was extremely difficult.”

While the Scandinavians thrived, the population of Chinese laborers would dwindle due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which curtailed immigration, and the advent of the mechanized “iron chink”, which economized fish processing production.  And yet, while Penner explains the population of Chinese in Astoria steadily declined from 2,317 in 1880 to 139 in 1940, there are still remnants of these early settlers, who have stayed on, and are thriving today.

Flora Law, age 91, who was born in this town, represents the third generation of American-born Chinese in her family.  Her grandmother, born in 1870, hailed from Alemeda, California. And her father, Edward Yim Lee, born in 1899, and his two elder brothers, Mike and Fred, came to Astoria from neighboring Portland in the early 20th century.

The Law family, by and large, have stayed on, in Astoria and across Oregon, and as Flora told me, “have assimilated into the community with no problems”.  Her son, Robbie, 64, practices medicine and younger brother Ronnie, 60, is an engineer.  Out of Flora’s six children and seventeen grandchildren, all but one are in an interracial marriage or relationship, and all have gone to college, many with advanced degrees.

“Appropriately, salmon run in schools,” explained Robbie, who attended Stanford University and came back to open a medical practice in Astoria.  “It’s a story of the immigrant process, the immigrant experience, that we’re a part of the fabric of the community here.”

Another long-time Chinese-American family with deep roots in the community is the Lums, who run the local Toyota, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, and Ram auto dealership.

“Where else can Chinese people sell Japanese cars to a Scandinavian community?” Julie Lum quotes her father, David, who established Toyota of Astoria back in 1969 at the site of the family’s long running green-grocery.  “And you can in the United States.”  The family’s forbearer, Lum Sue, first came to the town in 1891.

Today, Julie and her sisters Pam and Lori run the auto dealership.  As I set up for my interview with these sisters, a host of locals, both young and old, came in to chuckle and to say hello, to tell tales of various business successes and to take a picture with the trio.  There is a real sense of community here – a word that would come up again and again as I interviewed various ethnicities around and about the town, all of which went by the title “Astorians.”

Jorgen Madsen, 83, a long-time Astoria resident and immigrant from Denmark, explained, “Everybody is worth something, big or little one, we all are part of the community.”

Where the town was once divided between the Swedes in Downtown, the Finns in Uniontown, the Chinese in Downtown and Uniontown, and the Norwegians in Uppertown, Sari Vedenoia-Hartman, 48, who runs a hair salon and who immigrated here in the early 1970s from Kalajoki, Finland, summed up today’s atmosphere nicely.

“The plumber lives next to the school teacher that lives next to the retired naval officer that lives next to the homemaker,” said Vedenoia-Hartman.  “So, I remember being a little girl here – and we spoke Finnish in the home, and then English in school. They didn’t have ESL programs, so the community came together to teach us English – the neighbor kids.”

When asked how the face of the American experiment was playing out here on the Pacific Coast, Liisa Penner pointed to “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, which was written in 1883 to adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty.  A poem that epitomizes the American dream, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And that the punchline of opportunity in a town like Astoria is alive and well today.

The town is a prime example of e pluribus unum, out of the many, one. There is a strength here where the word “immigration” is an affirmation.

“We have a heart for that,” explained Berit Madsen, 75, who immigrated to the U.S. from Drammen, Norway in 1963. “Because I see the positive.”

 

Interviewed on camera for this story (in order of appearance):

The Law family (left to right): Roger, 61, Flora, 91; Ron, 60, and Robbie, 64. Flora’s three sons are fourth generation Chinese Americans. Flora’s father came to Astoria in the early 20th century.

Jorgen Madsen, 83, immigrated from Denmark in 1958 and his wife, Berit Madsen, 75, immigrated from Finland in 1963.

The Lum sisters (left to right): Julie, 52, Pam, 52, and Lori, 49, are third generation Chinese Americans. Their family’s forebarer, Lum Sue, first came to Astoria in 1891.

Sari Vedenoja-Hartman, 48, immigrated to the U.S. from Kalajoki, Finland. Her family settled in Astoria, Oregon in the early 1970s.

 

This story was made possible by Bob & Pat Yapp.

2 thoughts on “A Legacy of Diversity: The Finns, Norwegians and Chinese of Astoria, Oregon

  1. bobsterry

    Hello, Neal…when I read the words ‘Iron Chink’ it confirmed something John Lee told me a few months back and he actually sung about. And thanks for giving us another perspective of Astoria. When we meet again I can tell you a story about the Astors, or at least their family palace in England; Cliveden.

    1. Brilliant, Bob. Looking forward to returning to Portland and especially the Artichoke Cafe once the journey is complete! Cheers for checking out the story. And all best!

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