Community October 13, 2010

The China Connection

The past, the present, and the party in the Wood River Valley

We had a Chinese population here, once. They came from an area in the south of China, fleeing famine, fires, floods, overpopulation, and poverty. They found work—hard work. Imagine a Chinese laundry in Ketchum, on the corner where the NexStage Theatre is today; and another one, down the street at Formula Sports. The year was 1882 or thereabouts, and there were plenty of miners’ clothes to scrub, as well as camps and restaurants to supply with vegetables grown in the so-called “China Gardens” of Hailey, Ketchum and Bellevue.
By the late 1880s, however, the mood in the Valley had turned increasingly intolerant and ugly. Some non-Asian residents despised the Chinese because of opium fears (indeed, “opium suppression” was among the specified duties of the Bellevue police force); others because of their distinct ethnicity and racial pride. In 1886, The Wood River Times mounted an anti-Chinese campaign notifying the Chinese that they had until May 1 to wind up their affairs and “go.” Harassed and boycotted, they left.

Now, after more than a hundred years, our Chinese population is finally growing again.
Vicki and Ron Browne moved here three years ago with their adopted Chinese daughter, Alexa, now age 9. In doing so, they became part of the small, but expanding community of Wood River Families with Children from Asia. The group, which includes children adopted from China and Korea, as well as families of Asian heritage and those considering adopting in Asia and other parts of the world, meets on the first Friday of every month to discuss everything from basic parenting to providing opportunities for their children to learn about and celebrate their heritage.
The latter, in particular, is a priority for the Brownes. They feel strongly about helping Alexa develop and maintain her cultural identity. “Originally, the first groups of Asian adoptees coming over from Korea were taught to assimilate immediately into American society and, essentially, ignore their Asian-ness,” notes Vicki. “And they ended up, as adults, feeling they’d lost something. We want to learn from that. We want to give our children lots of opportunities to connect to their heritage and feel proud.”
And so, for these 25 families (not to mention millions of people around the world), the biggest party of the year is Chinese New Year . . . now celebrated annually in the Valley.

Chinese New Year begins with the new moon on the first day of the New Year and ends on the full moon fifteen days later. Each day is marked by specific feasts, offerings, prayers, and visits. Food is a tremendously important part of the festivities, with many traditional dishes served. A whole fish, for example, symbolizes abundance and prosperity; uncut noodles represent long life.
Ric Lum, a local chef and caterer, remembers. As a boy growing up in San Francisco, Lum experienced the glorious traditions and tastes of Chinese New Year, and he brings this spirit of authenticity to the elegant feast he prepares for Council Circle Foundation’s annual event. Under a canopy of red paper lanterns and bamboo umbrellas, guests are treated to course after course of magnificent Chinese cuisine, some more conventional, some (such as Tangerine-Steamed Bison) new and imaginative. This signature event raises funds for Council Circle’s educational and emotionally supportive programs in area schools, helping to create stronger, balanced, more compassionate and resilient children. What better way to begin a new year—and welcome back a part of local heritage nearly lost?

The Council Circle Foundation’s third annual Chinese New Year celebration is Saturday, February 11, 2006. For more information, call 208.721.0900. To contact Wood River Families with Children from Asia, call 208.622.7999 or 208.726.9103.




This article appears in the Winter 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.