In response to the brutal turf wars over the control of gambling, opium smuggling, and prostitution in Portland’s Chinatown, powerful Chinese merchants and city authorities establish the Chinese Peace Society to stop future violence. It still exists today as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. Wielding sledge-hammers, axes, and 59 search warrants, District Attorney Stanley Myers raids Chinatown’s illegal lottery and gambling parlors.
The Chinese lottery reigned in Portland long before its American analog, keno. Run by powerful companies with the backing of tongs—Chinese social clubs whose allied gangs’ turf wars often bloodied city streets—the lottery was fed by immigrants hoping for New World riches.
Bruce Wong’s eyes sparkle when he recalls this rough-and-tumble past. His grandfather (owner of Chinatown’s iconic Hung Far Low restaurant) ran a gambling parlor in the 1930s and ’40s out of his dry-goods store on NW Fourth Avenue and Flanders Street—tucked away behind a steel door in the back. Its existence was not a well-kept secret, but the police usually turned a blind eye, Wong says, until they were called, often by a disgruntled loser exacting revenge for lost wagers. As a result, lottery companies maintained elaborate records to catch cheaters and resolve disputes.
The system was simple: players chose 10 or 20 Chinese characters from a grid of 80 and then placed bets—anywhere from 10 cents to $2. (Instead of randomly selecting numbers, players often spelled out wishes or meaningful phrases with their picks: “I will find a good wife” or “I will strike it rich.”) Wong’s wife, Gloria, worked as a lottery runner, carrying winning tickets to gambling rooms twice a day.
Gaming rooms typically raked in around 5 percent of all bets placed and additional 5 percent of all winnings. But Portland voters plugged the piggy bank in 1949 by electing Mayor Dorothy “No Sin” Lee, who quickly shut down lottery operations for good. Wong, now 79 and a retired forensic engineer, says he’s grateful to Lee on behalf of the whole Chinese community. “It was one of the best things that happened to us,” he says. “We were making good money. Why would I want to go to school?” —MP
Portland vice squad reports payoffs of $50,000 per month in the city’s 40 “gambling places.”
Oregon legalizes its first form of gambling: pari-mutuel racetrack betting on horses and dogs. Fifteen years later, Portland Meadows opens as the first thoroughbred track in the nation to have nighttime racing.