By Aubrey Wieber
Published by Flux Stories on 4/5/13
Relying heavily on a cane adorned with a silver dragon’s head, a hunched over Michael Jones leads a group of tourists through Portland’s “Chinatown” district. Jones, a historian, has spent his life trying to uncover the hidden past of Portland’s North End. He stops outside of Hobo’s Restaurant and Bar and pulls a steel cover-up from the sidewalk to expose a claustrophobia-inducing staircase leading to the damp underground. He descends below street level with a tour of twenty people in tow, crouching down in an effort to not hit his head on the shallow tunnel. The group follows Jones to a place that many have never heard of, but for Jones it’s home: underground Portland.
As of 2013, Jones has spent fifty years underground in what are called the shanghai tunnels. He discovered them as a seven-year-old boy sauntering around the Lenox Hotel in downtown Portland, where his stepfather, Dewey Kirkpatrick, often stayed. Jones hung out in the lobby looking for elderly patrons to question about the tunnels. He hungered to know what they had seen over the years in hopes of uncovering dark secrets of Portland’s past.
“I loved history,” says Jones. “It really captivated me.”
Jones spent years exploring the tunnels alone but it wasn’t until he started teaching a class for instructors at Portland State University through its Continuing Education program that he eventually started taking his students through the tunnels, even going so far as to create a class that studied them.
Word of the tours got out and eventually Jones started commercial tours. Now, Jones gives one to two tours per day. He explains to his visitors that the shanghai tunnels were built for the transportation of drugged men from bars down to the waterfront, where they would be sold to captains as slaves. The “shanghaied” men, as they were called, would serve three to five years aboard a ship in the ocean before being returned to Portland. Jones claims that the tunnels also served as a way to transport prostitutes and drink alcohol during prohibition.
Above ground, Jones appears as a sincere and dedicated historian, but during his tours he seems more like a guide for a roadside attraction—occupied with myths and legends rather than the facts. Though his tours include historical information, ghost stories are the prevailing theme.
“Things are happening there that I can never explain,” Jones says. “It always catches me off-guard and it definitely catches people on the tour. People do sight apparitions (ghosts)—there’s no getting around it.”
Jones says his primary job has been uncovering the “real” history of human trafficking in Portland, but his belief in the supernatural has lost him credibility amongst his peers. Portland historians agree that the city has a dark past and that “shanghaiing” did happen in Portland, but the vast majority do not believe that it actually took place in the tunnels.
“The secret passages of Chinatown were created by Chinese businessmen, mostly the owners of gambling establishments,” says Barney Blalock, member of the Oregon Historical Society. “When the city tried to make secret passages illegal in 1914, the law was opposed by the Chinese as discrimination against them, and them only—a violation of the Bill of Rights injunction against unreasonable search and seizure.”
Articles published between 1904 and 1935 also support Blalock’s claims. These articles, most from The Oregonian, describe underground systems like the shanghai tunnels being found in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver, British Colombia, but never reference the practice of “shanghaiing.” The tunnels were generally in the news for being used for Chinese gambling houses and opium dens.
Blalock says that Jones is not the first person to claim that “shanghaiing” took place underground, but rather the latest.
“Today’s center of the shanghai tunnel story is Hobo’s Restaurant and Bar,” Blalock says. “[Here], Mike Jones gives the naïve and gullible a taste of old Portland ‘shanghaiing’ in the dark recesses of the basement.”
Blalock wrote in his recent book, Portland’s Lost Waterfront: Tall ships, Steam Mills, and Sailor’s Boardinghouses, that “shanghaiing” took place above ground. According to Blalock, drunkards would commonly be coerced into signing a chunk of their lives away to ship captains, who would take the drunkards to sea as slaves. Blalock claims this was common knowledge and lack of law enforcement made it unnecessary to take the crooked behavior underground.
“Most serious historians of Portland history think that the myth of the Shanghai Tunnels is simply that: a myth,” says Geoff Wexler, library director of the Oregon Historical Society.
To combat these skeptics, Jones is working on a series of books containing first-hand accounts that he says support his claims. He hopes the books will be enough to silence critics, at least momentarily. Until then, he’ll continue to pull up the steel cover in front of Hobo’s every day, searching for what he believes to be the truth.
“One of the things that the Oregon Historical Society has done is they’ve made people afraid to talk,” Jones says. “Because then they will be ridiculed. That to me is wrong. That to me is almost like censorship . . . I have had people on our tours tell me ‘We don’t want the Oregon Historical Society to ridicule my relative and say it didn’t happen.’”
Skeptics like Blalock will continue to refute Jones’ claims, but Jones won’t be deterred from his mission. Fifty years of his life have gone toward exploring the tunnels. As long as he is physically able, he will continue to dig for clues. Regardless of what history tells us, the shanghai tunnels will ultimately be what its visitors want them to be: a haunted shelter for criminals and kidnappers, the site of a First Amendment legal battle, a lie, a childhood dream.