A storyteller, everyday explorer, and veteran of a solo canoe trip down the length of the Mississippi, Neal's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Der Spiegel and on CNN International. He is the author of "Down the Mississippi" (Mark Twain Museum Press) and is currently gearing up for a solo transcontinental canoe journey across the United States.
When Jon Lee and his band Slimeline kicked into “Roll On Columbia” the tightly packed crowd at Astoria Brewing Company joined in. It was FisherPoets weekend at the mouth of the Columbia River, an annual gathering of grizzled fisher folk from Alaska to California who come to celebrate their craft with prose and poetry and song. Old and young here know Guthrie’s ditty by heart, and Lee, a descendant of over a century of Chinese cannery workers in Astoria, sang it with gusto.
But the Columbia no longer rolls – thanks in colossal part to the Grand Coulee Dam for which “Roll on Columbia” was penned – and this was Lee’s point: to encourage debate.
Lee had asked his friend Scott McAallister, a commercial fisherman from Juneau, Alaska, to interrupt him half way through. And so he did. The duo yelled back and forth for some time in pre-scripted fashion. McAllister arguing that Guthrie was a tool of the Corp of Engineers who never cared for the Columbia or the men and women who worked her. And Lee, that Guthrie, who could do no wrong, was being ironic.
“Ha, that would be the ultimate,” Robbie Law, Lee’s cousin and member of Slimeline, later told me. “To have the Bonneville Power Administration pay for you writing subversive lyrics.”
As big a boon as Alaska is for fishermen today, the Columbia River was once bigger. “It was just a wealth of big trees and salmon and water,” Lee said. “It should have sustained us. But we squandered it. It should have lasted forever.”
Lee’s friend, the writer Victoria Stooppiello, was born and raised in the Lower Columbia region. Her father, grandfather, and great-uncle were commercial fishermen their whole lives. In an essay titled “Denial is Not a River” she conjured the folly of over-logging and the damned dams and renewable energy through the lens of an economic enterprise zone.
Many of the professional fisher folk had a streak of activist in them. For they rhymed not only about the joys of the salmon runs of Bristol Bay, a region of Southwest Alaska, but the need for the EPA to reverse its recent verdict to allow the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process to consider mining it.
To once and for all disallow Pebble Mine, a porphyry copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposit project that will replace the sanctity of the salmon and these waters for the bounty that lies underneath.
Closer to Astoria, the presenters here assembled were passionate about the Columbia River, reflecting on the over-fishing that led to smaller fish and lessened runs, along with other obstacles the salmon now face.
As one fisher poet concluded at the gathering’s farewell event on Astoria’s fabled Pier 39, referring to the dams and the engineers who built them, “Sometimes it seems instead of one apple, we’ll devour the whole damned tree … So, it’s time to step back and take a long sober look, and conclude, Mama Mia. Let’s go back to the software, and try to come up with what’s really a good idea.”
Journalist and voyager Neal Moore is used to the strange looks and skeptical questions when he tells people he is paddling the Columbia River on the first stage of a solo canoe expedition overland to New York City.
“Why would you want to go to New York City?” a Montana rancher once disbelievingly asked Moore. In Hood River this week, he got similar reactions.
“I tell people, it’s not New York City itself — that’s the destination, It’s what I find along the way. I’m on the lookout for stories that connect and unite us, not divide us,” said Moore, who embarked aboard his fully-laden 16-foot canoe from Astoria on Feb. 9.
Moore chronicles his adventure on 22Rivers.com — a reference to the number of rivers he plans to follow, along with some overland portaging, to reach Astoria, Queens, New York in about two years. Moore said his timeline is open-ended, due to encounters with weather and water conditions he must prepare for, and the range of human contact he relishes.
With “22 Rivers, 22 States and 7,500 Miles Across America By Canoe,” Moore was en route east this week from Hood River after spending four days here. He planned stops in the Memaloose and The Dalles areas, and then to Rufus, where he will connect with friend Bud Herrera, a Umatilla tribal member who serves on the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission.
The new cross-country paddle is his second attempt; in April 2018 he traveled through Hood River and by autumn 2018 made it as far as North Dakota before his second boat and second set of portaging wheels gave out and he decided to regroup.
This year, he considered returning to the same location in the Dakotas and picking up where he left off, but preferred to do the entire route uninterrupted — more or less. Moore did break up his journey three weeks in by getting a ride from Cascade Locks back to Astoria in order to attend the annual Fisherpoets gathering there. He had friends reading at Fisherpoets, and learning about peoples’ lives and experiences on the river is part of Moore’s ongoing journey as a freelance journalist, film-maker and explorer.
“I know the recipe I found in Hood River County is that of collaboration and people trying to connect with each other, and in this part of the world, all up the Columbia, I’m finding that the salmon and all that it means is the central defining point,” Moore said.
He has also traveled the length of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers solo by canoe and has written extensively on the experiences, including the book “Down the Mississippi.”
Moore, 48, is a California native who has lived and worked in Cape Town and a total of about 16 years in Taipei, Taiwan, as a teacher and journalist. He returned to Taipei in autumn 2018.
Back on the Columbia and with 21 more rivers to touch, north and east, Moore plans to assemble new stories along the way, as well as circle back with people from Hood River County that he met and blogged about two years ago, including Gladys Rivera, who he met in 2018 and has since been appointed to Hood River City Council, the first Hispanic woman ever to serve on council.
Frequently asked if he plans a book or other compilation of his journey, Moore said he is open to the prospect but “I’m mainly in this for the experience.” He enjoys reconnecting with friends he made on the first third of the intended trans-continental route, and meeting new people and telling their stories.
His 22 Rivers route will take him to Trail, B.C. via the Columbia, and then south again via the Pend Oreille River, connecting later with the Missouri and Mississippi, then through a maze of southeast U.S. and Appalachian rivers back up through the Ohio River system, the Great Lakes, and down the Hudson — to Astoria, Queens.
Hi, my name is Neal, and in these polarized times, I’m going to re-attempt to paddle from sea to shining sea, taking journalism slow and low down from the view of a canoe, to listen, curate, and re-discover the threads that bind Americans together.
The re-launch will take place this Sunday, February 9th, 2020 along the storied banks of the Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. And the journey to New York – encompassing 22 rivers, 22 states, and 7,500 miles – will take two years.
Together, we’ll go behind the stereotypes and observe and absorb and question. To take up the fight for the sacred Columbia River salmon, step in stride with an ex-offender upon release from the big house, and crouch down low with a hobo on the tracks, train in sight, that whistle bell a’blowin’.
In 2018, I attempted a similar sojourn, making it from Astoria, Oregon on the Pacific to Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River, North Dakota – about 1,800 miles in total.
This time around, from early 2020 until New Year’s Day, 2022, I intend to go the distance in a continuous storytelling expedition from Astoria, Oregon, to New York City.
Part One: To the Great Divide: We’re heading for the Continental Divide (yet again) during a time when our nation is truly divided. It’s up the Columbia all the way to British Columbia, up the Pend Oreille, and the Clark Fork to MacDonald Pass in Montana – all upstream and uphill, 1,111 miles. It’s going to be a struggle, but I hope to do it 5 months.
Part Two: To the Big Easy: It’s likely to take at least a week to haul that canoe (plus 300 pounds of gear) over the Continental Divide for 55 miles, but it’ll be worth it to get to Helena, to get back in the water again. Once there, it’s 3,249 river miles down the Missouri and the Mississippi, dodging acres of barges, 1,000 foot tankers, swirling eddies, and the Chain of Rocks to the French Quarter, New Orleans. I believe I can do this stretch in 8 months, partly because I can’t wait to get back to the Preservation Jazz Club in New Orleans.
Part Three: To Lady Liberty: It’s a long, tortuous route of 3,127 river and portage miles to Lady Liberty at the edge of the Atlantic, which I reckon will take 12 months. We’ve got to skirt the Gulf Coast in open, often treacherous water, paddle up the Mobile, Tombigbee, Tombigbee-Tennessee and Tennessee rivers, down the New River, the Cumberland, the Dix and the Kentucky rivers. Up the Ohio, up and down the Kanawha, and up the Allegheny rivers. From Lake Chautauqua, it’ll be uphill and downhill for days over Portage Road to Lake Erie. Then from Buffalo, it’s the Erie Canal, the Mohawk, and down the Hudson to see and know what has always made America great[!]
More than ever, we need to highlight, understand, and celebrate America’s incredible diversity, to tap into her collective experience.
So, let’s get to it – roll up our sleeves, get our feet wet, and in the spirit of Mark Twain, Light out for the territory.
Note: As I’m taking a respite from the rivers, a dispatch from the Far East…
By Neal Moore
TAINAN – Li JiaBao wasn’t born when automatic weapons fire rang out on Tiananmen Square in 1989, when “Tank Man” brought a convoy of People’s Liberation Army tanks to a halt on the street of Beijing, or even when the Brits handed Hong Kong to Mainland China nearly a decade later. A post-’97 youth, Li, a twenty-year-old who hails from Shandong, is a pharmacy student in Taiwan who calls Xi Jinping “Emperor Xi” in a startling pro-democracy video entitled “I Oppose!”
As the world pauses to remember the students lost at Tiananmen thirty years ago June 4, we can see the unquestionable resolve of those they’ve inspired, like young Chinese exchange student Li JiaBao, and veteran dissident-in-exile Cai Lujun.
Cai, now age 50, was one of China’s first cyber-dissidents. He was a curious and sympathetic bystander at the protest at Tiananmen Square before the massacre. Only later, when a friend, a young lady, was detained for penning an essay critical of the state, did he find his own voice of dissent. The government gave him every out possible: “Just sign this confession,” they said. The secret police visited his parents and his wife. His family pleaded for him to sign. But he would not.
Cai went to prison in his home province of Hebei in 2003 for “incitement to subvert state power”, serving a three-year sentence for an online Radio Free Asia essay, in which he argued “all of us are people” … “we should do our best to get our freedom, our human rights.”
Soon after his release in 2006, Cai smuggled his way onto a Chinese fishing boat headed for Taiwan. Ten years later, safe with Taiwan ID card and passport, Cai looks out for his fellow Chinese dissidents here on Taiwan. He claims rightly that most desperately want to stay, but the Taiwan authorities are likely to send most of them back to China.
“What does that feel like? What fate awaits them?” I asked in a joint interview with Li and Cai on Li’s campus of Chia Nan University of Pharmacy and Science in Tainan.
“I know about thirty people that the Taiwan government sent back to China,” Cai said. “They call me on the way out when I couldn’t help them.” Cai explained this with a nervous laugh, fighting back tears. Li, the student dissident by his side, looked on in shock. “Nobody knows what will happen.”
Li is not a child of wealth. But both his parents are teachers back in his hometown of ZiBo City, a small city by Chinese standards, in Shandong’s ZiChuan District. His dad teaches English and Math. His mother teaches English.
Although Li says he knows full well what he’s up against, Cai understands the reality of “the hard road”. Cai gave forceful advice. “You need to speak loud, loud and loud, let more people know those things.”
IT FEELS LIKE STANDING IN FRONT OF A TANK
In his essay “I Oppose!” live streamed on Periscope back in March, Li says, “I have the courage to declare that I am prepared to stand up, just like … those fellow students who were crushed under the tanks and massacred in their youth by the bullets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Tiananmen Square that June 4th night. Those fellow students never got to go home.”
But Li seems likely to be forced to face that regime, certainly not by choice. He’s a vocal critic of China’s decision to scrap presidential term limits, railing against President Xi, and the direction he’s taking the country.
The denouement will come when his exchange student status ends on July 2. Although he applied for political asylum in Taiwan on April 28, he most likely will be forced to board a plane returning him to face Chinese retribution.
“After you did the livestream, what did you think would happen when you go back to China?” Cai asked Li.
Li replied, “Nobody will know what will happen the next second. But the only thing I’m sure of is your life will start changing the moment you stand up.”
“Li is on the road from which he cannot return,” Cai told us. “I think China is predictable. Nothing will change. Because most Chinese people don’t change. Also, the Chinese Communist Party won’t change. Like I said, if you give China 5,000 more years, will they change? I’m not sure.”
Li interjected, “I have to say, as a Chinese student, that everyone got brainwashed when they were very young. But when you graduate from school and enter society, you will discover the real world is totally different from what the Communist Party told you. Everybody, so everybody, don’t just listen to the teachers. Don’t listen to your parents. And don’t listen to the Communist Party. Walk boldly. Walk bravely. Be yourself boldly. Just be yourself.”
Cai smiled at Li, and with his fist in the air, he saluted “jiā yóu, jiā yóu,” keep going. To which Li pumped his own fist, and smiled right back, responding, “jiā yóu.”
A TICKING CLOCK
Unless he’s awarded asylum in Taiwan, or can find another government willing to help him, Li will be forced to fly back to China when his visa runs out on July 2. He probably will be charged with the same crime as Cai, “incitement to subvert state power.”
“If I’m able to stay in Taiwan, to continue my studies, I’d like to finish,” Li said. “And devote myself to the democracy and freedom movement. But I’m really worried that the Taiwan government will … not let me stay in Taiwan. I hope other countries can help. America and Europe.”
When Li self-recorded his speech denouncing Xi back in March, all communication with his family was cut off within three hours.
“He doesn’t know it,” Cai told me in confidence, “but the police would have visited his home directly after. They would have definitely shut down all communication between him and his family,” including (as it turned out) his parents’ financial assistance.
As a result, when Li ran out of money a short time later, friends in Taiwan assisted. To help him stay on as a student, even as the date of a forced departure looms.
True to Cai’s prediction, Li has not heard from his parents since.
When asked if he’ll have the courage to board the plane, to pay the consequences for speaking out against the most powerful man in China, Li said, “I think I’ll have courage to face anything that happens but when that day arrives, I will feel sadness.”
And then Li linked his personal struggle to his homeland. “We still need somebody, the young people, to speak out. When the seed of the revolution is snuffed out, I think that will be a sad ending.”
ECHOES OF TIANANMEN
Thirty years ago this week, the crackdown on civilian and student protestors at Tiananmen Square, also known as the June 4 Massacre, would leave hundreds, if not thousands dead. The government’s response against unarmed activists was beyond brutal, and it played out on television screens and newspaper front pages worldwide.
Wang Dan was the most visible leader of the Tiananmen Square protest. You might remember him. He was the one with the big glasses, slight build, and the bullhorn. After the massacre, Wang was No. 1 on the Chinese government’s “most wanted” student list. He was captured, and served four years in jail before going into exile – first in America, where he earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, and then to Taiwan, where he taught cross-strait history at National Chengchi University and National Tsing Hua University.
I caught up with Wang Dan for the twenty-fifth anniversary, and asked if he could remind people of the message he was trying to deliver to the Chinese Communist Party at Tiananmen Square.
“We had two appeals,” Wang told me. “No. 1: Dialogue directly with the government, and No. 2: To modify the April 26 editorial of the People’s Daily.”
The April 26 editorial, titled “The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil,” was broadcast on national radio and television in China, and appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily, a Beijing-based mouthpiece of the Communist Party. The editorial, penned by deputy chief of propaganda Zeng Jianhui on behalf of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, deemed the protestors part of “a well-planned plot … to confuse the people and throw the country into turmoil.” The piece effectively changed the party’s attitude toward the protestors, based on misinformation. The students had not called on the government to step down, as alleged in Jianhui’s editorial, but for a dialogue of reform and openness first initiated by Deng in 1978.
Tiananmen Square remains a pivotal, game-changing event in the history of modern-day China. Although the students lost their bid for freedom, their argument for a voice carried weight with the rest of the world, and shaped how the world would view China, as well as themselves, in the foreseeable future.
In retrospect, I asked Wang what lessons he believes China, and the world, have taken away from the Tiananmen Square protest?
“The world needs to believe that from 1989, even Chinese people look forward to democratization,” he explained. “Anytime they think they have a chance, like in 1989, they will not hesitate to stand up.”
My final question was what he would like to say to the leadership in Beijing today, and his answer, I believe, could apply to himself, to all those who stood up at Tiananmen, along with the next generation of dissent, like Li JiaBao.
“Think about the party’s future,” Wang replied. “There will be only two choices: Democracy, or die.”
(GREAT FALLS) Neal Moore is a writer and a freelance journalist, but he also gives himself the title of “explorer.”
From the Pacific Coast all the way to the Atlantic Coast, Neal is working his way across 22 rivers in 22 states, totaling 7,500 miles, both paddling and walking his canoe.
He has been an expatriate for years, spending time in both Asia and Africa. But he realized the greatest adventure of all might be in his own home country.
His goal for this trip is to see the different cultures that make up the United States and highlight who we are as Americans.
He started his journey in Astoria, Oregon, where he came up the Columbia River, up the Spokane River, to the Clark Fork River, then finally had to walk his canoe over the Continental Divide.
Now, he’s right here in Great Falls, where he will be going with the current on the Missouri River.
Neal says, “To come across the country in a natural way with nature all around you and then to be able to connect and listen to folks all across the country is just a really exciting idea.”
Neal previously canoed the Mississippi River in 2009 during the great recession and wrote a book of his travels. The book is called: Down the Mississippi. He will have a book reading in Fort Benton on Friday, July 13th at the Public Library from 3:30-5:00 PM.
Neal actually got the inspiration to do this trip from a gentleman from Bozeman that he met during his trip on the Mississippi in 2009. He taught Neal a lot of things, including slow down and enjoy the adventure. He taught him how to connect rivers on a journey, and if two rivers do not connect, you have land wheels on your canoe to haul it to the next water source.
ELLISTON, MT — I entered the half-empty bar and ordered a Bud in a bottle. There were a number of Bigfoot posters inside and when I gestured at them with my thumb the barkeep said something about an annual Bigfoot hunt and how it attracted folklorists from several counties.
A full color banner of the illusive Sasquatch was staring me down with the caption, Reigning Hide and Seek World Champion. It was all a bit weird, and the day was just too pretty, so I stepped back outside to take in the vista.
Across from U.S. 12 was a set of railroad tracks and a series of undulating green mountains that stretched right up to the Continental Divide, each dotted with larkspur and Douglas firs and lodgepole pines. There were huge rolling clouds and a bright blue sky and a succession-play of light and shadows as the clouds scuttled by along the road.
I was in Big Sky country.
Here in the parking lot was a lineup of Harley Davidsons, American flags, 4×4 ATVs and just up from where I stood, a glistening “Lawdog’s Saloon” commercial sign with a bulldog and placard lettering that spelled out Gopher Hunt.
I was wondering what that could be about when, as if on cue, a slew of laughing kids arrived. Their pickups skidded to a halt and swaggering through the dust kicked up from the road they emerged with gopher tails in hand, hauling them in through the front swinging saloon doors by the armful, in great heaps up and onto the bar.
I came back inside and in time asked one of the lads about his haul.
“Hunting is who I am,”18-year-old Cameron Johnson told me. The kid was big on smiles but you could tell that he meant it, that he meant more than the pursuit of gopher.
Cameron was soon joined by friends Bridger and Tristan. An inseparable trio — you can tell when boys complete each other’s sentences — I would soon learn had taken second place.
I asked if we could step outside for an interview, if they could tell me what the hell a gopher hunt was?
“We come to the bar to sign up,” started Cameron. “And shoot gophers all day long until five and then…”
“…Make sure you cut the tails off…” added Bridger.
“…And then, yeah, you gotta cut the tails off – that’s how they get the count,” completed Tristan.
But the boys readily admitted they’d been late on the draw.
Cameron shrugged when they brought this up. “Well, we got here at twelve and it started at eight.”
“In the morning,” said Tristan.
“Yeah, eight in the morning,” continued Cameron. “So, we were a little bit behind, but we still got second.”
I had already overheard them. The boys had won $50 plus the promotional Coors and SKYY shirts they were now wearing. But I asked them anyway. “How many did you shoot? Did I hear fifty?”
“Yeah,” confirmed Cameron. “We shot fifty.”
“And then you bring the tails back, onto the bar?”
“Yeah, you bring them back,” continued Cameron. “And Mike, the owner, counts them. And he tells you what kind of place you get.”
“So, fifty gophers – 2nd place. Do you think if you’d have been here on time, you could have got 1st?”
All three nodded.
“Yeah, we would’ve,” settled Cameron. “’Cause he dropped his gun on a rock, too.”
Cameron and Tristan motioned to Bridger.
As if to explain, Bridger said, “Yeah, that’s what happens.”
“He knocked his scope off,” reported Tristan. “So, we had to – it was pretty much two shooters there.”
By this time, I was desensitized to the wholesale slaughter of the local gopher population, weighing it out in my mind that here in Montana, this must be a rite of Spring. And I found myself feeling bad for the kid with the wispy beard and the aw-shucks grin. So I tried to shift the blame to the weather.
“I overheard somebody talk about the tall grass. That we’d had a lot of rain here. Tall grass,” I motioned with my hands to Bridger, demonstrating growing grass. “That interfered with the gopher hunting, right?”
“Oh yeah, definitely.”
“You couldn’t really see them too much,” said Cameron. “They ain’t much taller than the grass, so.”
“Yeah, you’re out in the field tryin’ to kill gopher, and they’re layin’ in the grass after you kill them, and you can’t see them.”
“What do you shoot gophers with?”
“Me and Tristan here, we’re shootin’ .17s and Bridger’s shootin’ a .22.”
I nodded as if I concurred, as if I knew exactly what they were talking about.
“Okay – lessons learned for next year? What would you do differently?”
The three boys hung their heads.
“Ah, show up on time,” said Cameron.
“Yeah, we’d show up on time for sure,” said Tristan.
Bridger brought his head up. “Don’t drop your gun.”
“And make sure you have plenty of ammo,” said Tristan.
“About hunting in general,” I shifted. “It’s sort of like, from what I’ve been told, a spiritual experience. What would you say about hunting in general?”
“Hunting,” offered Cameron. “Well, it’s a great time. It’s who we are,” the boy said, bringing his me to a we. “You do it for a pastime. Well, I almost failed school because of hunting. Like, it’s what I love to do.”
And Tristan was nodding. “It’s something you hear about, and you think, yeah, that’s cool. But then you go out and do it and it’s a totally different experience.”
“Yeah,” said Cameron. “No one really knows until they’re out there. With a bow and elk.”
Bridger was looking left out of the conversation, so I prompted him back in.
“Okay, Bridger, what would you say?”
“Well, I don’t hunt much. I rifle hunt. I’ve never been bow huntin’. Bow huntin’s a lot different. I don’t know, I don’t hunt a lot.”
“Okay, but today you did?”
“Yeah, I shot some gophers.”
I brought my final question back out to the group. “How would you explain how you feel when you’re out there?”
“It feels a lot different,” Cameron said, referring to his beloved elk. “They’re a lot bigger than you. There’s way more out there than just yourself. There’s just so much more to experience. And you see the views of stuff, you know, on the internet. You see pictures of animals. But you go out there, and it’s just so much more surreal.”
“You see people in the city talkin’ about it,” said Tristan. “And they’re, you know, surrounded by concrete and steel, and once they come out here, they just can’t describe how beautiful it is.”
For Cameron, for all three of these boys, hunting and the great outdoors was their freedom, their release, their adrenaline rush.
“Until they’ve got an elk sniffin’ on their back they just don’t know what it’s like,” Cameron told me. “When you’re bow huntin’ and they’re all around you at twenty yards. It’s a little crazy. It’s intense. It gets your blood pumpin’ for sure.”
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.