Mysterious Chinese Tunnels

[Image: The brick-arched entryway to a "mysterious Chinese tunnel" in the Pacific Northwest (via)].

72 years ago, a man named William Zimmerman sat down to tell a story about "mysterious Chinese tunnels" to the U.S. government. That interview was conducted as part of the Federal Writers' Project, and it can be read online in a series of typewritten documents hosted by the Library of Congress.
Zimmerman claims that "mysterious" tunnels honeycombed the ground beneath the city of Tacoma, Washington. These would soon become known as "Shanghai tunnels," because city dwellers were allegedly kidnapped via these underground routes – which always led west to the docks – only to be shipped off to Shanghai, an impossibly other world across the ocean. There, they'd be sold into slavery.

[Image: The cover page for one of many U.S. government documents called "Mysterious Chinese Tunnels"].

Subterranean space here clearly exists within an interesting overlap of projections: fantasies of race, exoticism, and simply subconscious fear of the underworld. White Europeans had expanded west all the way to the Pacific Ocean – only to find themselves standing in a swamp, on earthquake-prone ground, with a "mysterious" race of Chinese dock workers tunneling toward them through the earth, looking for victims... It's like a geography purpose-built for H.P. Lovecraft, or something straight out of the work of Jeff VanderMeer: down in the foundations of your city is a mysterious network of rooms, excavated by another race, through which unidentified strangers move at night, threatening to abduct you.
It's urban historical anthropology by way of Jean Cocteau – or Sigmund Freud.

[Image: Another "mysterious Chinese tunnel" in the Pacific Northwest (via)].

In any case, because "construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad required large numbers of railroad laborers," Zimmerman's tale begins, "many Chinese coolies" had to be smuggled into the "rapidly growing city of Tacoma." They "arrive[d] mysteriously," he says, "smuggled in on ships, and even Indian canoes, from British Columbia."
At that point:
    Several opium joints were known to be operating in Tacoma. And there was no question in the minds of many people that the narcotic was smuggled in through tunnels from their dens to cleverly hidden exits near the waterfront. They were also convinced that the tunnels were dug by Chinese, either as a personal enterprise or at the behest of white men of the underworld, as no white workmen would burrow the devious mole-like passageways and keep their labors secret.
Zimmerman adds that the Chinese "were forcibly expelled from Tacoma in 1885, but ever [sic] so often the story of the Chinese tunnels bobs up whenever workmen come across them in excavation work."
It's even rumored here in the BLDGBLOG offices that a mere 5% of the original tunnels have so far been discovered – until a graduate student in anthropology from the nearby University comes across a clue in an old government document, leading her to a small, bricked-over window near a drain in the downtown fish market... Directed by Gore Verbinski.

[Image: Entries to Tacoma's mysterious Chinese underworld? Photo by Stephen Cysewski (via)].

Meanwhile, that same year – 1936 – a 39-year old man named V.W. Jenkins sat down with a representative of the Federal Writers' Project, and he had this story to tell:
    In the spring of 1935 when the City Light Department was placing electric power conduits under ground, workmen digging a trench in the alley between Pacific Avenue and 'A' Street at a point about 75 feet south of 7th Street, just back of the State Hotel, crosscut an old tunnel about ten feet below the surface of the ground. This tunnel was about three feet wide by five feet high, and tended in a southwesterly direction under the State Hotel, and in the opposite direction southeasterly toward Commencement Bay. I entered the tunnel and walked about 40 or 50 feet in each direction from the opening which we had encountered. There it went under the hotel the tunnel dipped sharply to pass under the concrete footings of the rear wall, proving that the tunnel was dug after the hotel had been built. In the other direction the tunnel had a sharp turn to the left, and after several feet, a gradual curve to the right, so that it was again tending in the same direction as at the opening. About 50 feet from the opening on the Bay side the tunnel began to dip and in another ten feet began to decline very sharply so that it would have been necessary to use a rope to descend safely on the met slippery floor. The brow of the bluff overlooking the waterfront is but a short distance from this point, explaining the need for the rapid downward slope, although it is probable that farther on there is a turn, either right or left, and that the tunnel was dug at an easier grade before emerging at a lower level.
Jenkins then offers this bizarrely wonderful explanation for what else might have formed those tunnels:
    Some persons contend that these openings found in the vicinity of Tacoma were caused by trees buried in the glacial age, and after decaying, left the openings in the glacial drift. If this is the true explanation for the tunnel I have described, then the tree that made it must have been a giant that grow such in the shape of a corkscrew.
Of course, there are also "Shanghai tunnels" beneath Portland, Oregon. "All along the Portland waterfront," we read, "...'Shanghai Tunnels' ran beneath the city, allowing a hidden world to exist. These 'catacombs' connected to the many saloons, brothels, gambling parlors, and opium dens, which drew great numbers of men and became ideal places for the shanghaiers to find their victims. The catacombs, which 'snaked' their way beneath the streets of what we now call Old Town, Skidmore Fountain, and Chinatown, helped to create an infamous history that became 'cloaked' in myth, superstition, and fear."
That same site describes the actual process of Shanghai'ing:
    The victims were held captive in small brick cells or makeshift wood and tin prisons until they were sold to the sea captains. A sea captain who needed additional men to fill his crew notified the shanghaiiers that he was ready to set sail in the early-morning hours, and would purchase the men for $50 to $55 a head. 'Knock-out drops' were then slipped into the confined victim's food or water.

    Unconscious, they were then taken through a network of tunnels that 'snaked' their way under the city all the way to the waterfront. They were placed aboard ships and didn't awake until many hours later, after they had 'crossed the bar' into the Pacific Ocean. It took many of these men as long as two full voyages – that's six years – to get back to Portland.
It all sounds like some prehistoric narrative of the afterlife – a shaman's tale: you're blacked out and led through mysterious tunnels inside the earth's surface, only to wake up surrounded by the oceanic, on your way to another world.
This site offers quite a lot of history of the Tacoma tunnels, and ten minutes of Googling will reveal at least a dozen blog posts and assorted minor newspaper articles about the phenomenon; but there's something particularly intriguing about an official oral history, conducted by the U.S. government itself, in which tales of subterranean geography are revealed.
It's like a form of national psychoanalysis, where each session takes the form of geographic speculation.
More practically, such interviews are a fantastic premise for a short novel or film.

[Image: Photo by Michael Cook. "Looking into the bottom of the William B. Rankine G.S. wheelpit from the Rankine tailrace"].

Briefly, though, I'm also reminded of BLDGBLOG's interview with Michael Cook, posted last summer. Cook is an urban explorer based in Toronto.
Toward the end of that interview, I asked Cook "if there's some huge, mythic system out there that you've heard about but haven't visited yet" – some long-rumored underworld that might only be speculation.
Cook replies:
    I guess the most fabled tunnel system in North America is the one that supposedly runs beneath old Victoria, British Columbia. It’s supposedly connected with Satanic activity or Masonic activity in the city, and there’s been a lot of strange stuff written about that. But no one’s found the great big Satanic system where they make all the sacrifices.

    You know, these legends are really... there’s always some sort of fact behind them. How they come about and what sort of meaning they have for the community is what’s really interesting. So while I can poke fun at them, I actually appreciate their value – and, certainly, these sort of things are rumored in a lot of cities, not just Victoria. They’re in the back consciousness of a lot of cities in North America.
(With huge thanks to Alexis Madrigal, who sent me a link to the Tacoma tunnels last summer).

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Blogger J.B. said...

There are tunnels similar to this as a critical part of the super-schlock and oh-so-fun movie 'Big Trouble in Little China.' Even before the whole 'underground world' craziness, there are a set of tunnels with similar brick construction used to escape from a basement to a nearby street in San Francisco Chinatown.

July 23, 2008 2:32 PM  
Blogger KENNETH LOOSLI said...

You might be interested in William T. Vollmann's piece on this subject from Harper's.

July 23, 2008 2:43 PM  
Blogger said...

Tampa, Florida has a tunnel legend as well. I believe it is related to Cubans, though, not the Chinese (local context is important).

July 23, 2008 3:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there is a small system of tunnels underneath of buenos aires that has been renovated and is available for tours call el zanjon that reminds me of these.

July 23, 2008 5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seattle has a similar system going back to a large-scale street-regrading project before the turn of the last century. It followed a catastrophic fire that burned dozens of city blocks. The now-below-grade spaces have been open for public tours for over 30 years. Seattle, Vancouver, and San Francisco are all built on hilly sites, which have all undergone large-scale cutting and filling over the years. I don't know if Portland's underlying topography is similar, but it sounds like there may be parallels.

July 23, 2008 8:42 PM  
Blogger Y.E. Vulva said...

don't forget the invisible sky tunnels

July 24, 2008 12:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan has tunnels as well, which were used for such things as the otherwise hidden Chinese laundry back-end and Prohibition bootleggers. They have tours running through each. If I recall correctly, the tunnels between buildings there were originally build to facilitate heating system maintenance.

July 24, 2008 4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chicago had a set of freight tunnels about 50 ft down, under the loop. They were built about 1900, and abandoned about 1960. In 1992 a piling was driven into one under the Chicago River, producing a flood that filled the basements and subways. Downtown Chicago was closed for a week while the tunnel was plugged and the water pumped out.

July 24, 2008 4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

William T Vollman had a great investigative piece in Harpers a few years ago on Chinese tunnels underneath Mexicali, MX. Though I couldnt find any reference to it online. What really amazes is how widespread these communities are. I've seen remnants of this in downtown Oklahoma City and as far north as Butte and Helena MT, and according to the first commenter even in Argentina.

July 24, 2008 6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

doesn't portland, oregon boast of a similar tunnel system? i seem to remember hearing that, also built by chinese immigrants, and also used to kidnap unsuspected people and force-labor them aboard ships.

July 25, 2008 5:34 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Anonymous, most of the second-third of this post is about the tunnels under Portland, Oregon.

July 26, 2008 12:16 AM  
Blogger Urban Garlic said...

This must be quite widespread. I second the previous recommendations of Vollmann's Harper's Magazine piece, and can contribute my own data point -- growing up in Calgary in the 1970s, it was "well known" that there were cut-outs under the street in Chinatown, where opium and gambling operations were hidden. There's an additional detail, it was said that from time to time, large trucks would crash through the street surface and into one of these things.
As far as I know, this never actually happened.

July 26, 2008 8:41 AM  
Blogger Writer said...

Awesome article! Thank you for the introduction to Michael Cook and The Vanishing Point!

July 28, 2008 11:46 AM  
Blogger Writer said...

Also. Are you interested in the Cappadocia area of Turkey? In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman talks about the cities carved out of the ground with extensive tunnels and "fairy chimneys."

And also. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere: a story about London Below.

July 28, 2008 11:53 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Writer, you might like BLDGBLOG's older posts Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city and London Topological. Let me know what you think...!

July 28, 2008 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pretty creepy, must have been built in the event of an emergency - sorta a fail safe transportation method. They have a whole lot of those in Japan, they were used for hiding civilians and transporting soldiers across cities.

July 28, 2008 2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may have been how they got rid of non-paying drug addicts or long-standing gambling debtors. Detox on the open ocean...

July 28, 2008 2:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

".. a fantastic premise for a short novel or film."

Yeah, seen it before. Try the classic Doctor Who episode "The Talons of Weng Chiang."

July 28, 2008 2:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tunnels tunnels everywhere. There is an old underground railroad tunnel crossing under the Susquehanna River just outside Owego NY. When I lived there in 1974 there were still iron implements and shackles within the tunnel.

July 28, 2008 4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That these tunnels are on the seaboard and international borders is not a coincidence. They were almost certainly not used to "Shanghai" people out of the country (unless those individuals were escaping the long arm of the law).

These tunnels were (and still are) used almost exclusively to smuggle contraband into the country - illegal aliens, drugs, liquor, high-tariff items, etc. Smuggling via tunnels has been done for centuries.

July 28, 2008 4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brett, although it was not common for a person to be Shanghaied, it most certainly did happen.

Astoria, Oregon is legendary for it's underground tunnels. "Shanghaied in Astoria" is a broadway-style musical you can catch if you ever go into town. Type "Astor street opry company" into google and you can find info about the show.

July 28, 2008 9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember hearing stories in Olympia, Washington of a tunnel between "the Glass House" and the Governor's Mansion.

The Glass House was a residence in town that supposedly used to be a brothel, but most recently was run down squat or cheap place to rent. It is said that back in its boom years the state bigwigs would secretly make their way through the tunnel.

I never heard any real evidence of the place being a brothel or it having a tunnel being true. Tunnels definitely capture the mythological imagination, especially when combined with deviant sex!

Incidentally, most of the common student oriented rental houses in Olympia have nicknames. There is the Lucky 7 House, the ABC House, the Crack House, etc.

July 28, 2008 9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While many cities have an "Underground" Portland is unique in that the tunnels were under "CHINA TOWN" and they're actually called "SHANGHAI TUNNELS". Portland was well documented as the most dangerous Port city of that era with the highest level of white slavery on the Pacific side of the country.

July 29, 2008 7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These comments are all very exciting. Makes me think of the 'fishing in the manhattan tenement basement' post. We, humans, have a fetish for all things subterranean. For anyone interested, I am working on a project about underground spaces: check out the site here: My site

July 30, 2008 1:18 PM  
Blogger Professor Estevez said...

This mythology was alive in Salt Lake City, Utah during my childhood (late 50's early 60's) and I have no idea how far it goes back. It must connect originally to the Chinese workers who came through (some staying) during the building of the transcontinental railroad: they were a clearly distinguishable "racial other." I think it probably got a boost in the late 40's with the rampant anti-Japanese fervor of WWII (still the same "yellow peril" in the public's eye).

Anyway, yes, it was "well known" that there were secret "Chinese" tunnels through which all manner of skullduggery took place, chiefly though the horror of traffic in white women!

August 01, 2008 4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that Seattle and Chicago were regraded, as was the town of Port Angeles. The general practice was to leave a lot of the understreet hollow, hence we have underground Seattle and Port Angeles tours. It also makes road repair interesting since there are these structurally unsound hollows.

Not all urban undergrounds are man-made. There was an article in Science about the underground limestone caves beneath the Temple Mound in Jerusalem. Apparently many of the passageways were natural, though many have been expanded over the millenia.

Of course, hollow spaces underground, no matter how they were created are open for a variety of uses.

August 09, 2008 11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Battle Beneath the Earth, a rather cheap sf film from 1967 concerning Red Chinese digging tunnels under California.

September 07, 2008 10:58 AM  
Blogger Martino said...

When I was little, my Dad was going to take me on the "Shanghai Tunnels" tour in either Pt. Townsend or Pt. Angeles, but my Mom wouldn't let him. Most cities I've seen with tunnels(like Seattle, SF, Portland, and PA are due to regrading & raising of streets.
However, my personal faves are the Williamson Tunnels in Liverpool as well as those at Welbeck Abbey, seat of the Earls Of Portland

January 17, 2011 4:41 AM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

Liverpool Tunnels

June 29, 2011 4:59 PM  
Anonymous L. Clark said...

April 9, 2011
The Tacoma Tunnel

I would like to share some of my thoughts regarding the tunnel.

I am a graduate of Stadium High the class of 1961
I remember my father talking about the tunnel that was used to bring in more Chinese for cheap labor and mining, etc. Over the years I have talked to many people who share this same interest.
My theory is this… That indeed there was a tunnel dug from the Stadium bowl to the cliffs by Nalleys (Nalleys valley).
First the Stadium Bowl: If you compare all the hills and gulley’s along the water front, (from Ruston to the Eleventh Street Bridge) only two of them has any sign of earth movement where the land has been filled in. I believe that the Stadium Bowl was filled in by whoever dug the tunnel. (Possibly Chinese) I have never seen this but two reliable source have told me about a large door which is blocked under the bleacher seat at the south end of Bowl.
Second: I have never heard for sure where the exit is, but as the story goes it came out somewhere in South Tacoma. I think maybe between South Tyler St. and South Union Ave.
Larry Clark

August 31, 2011 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Chuck Schedowski said...

Cleveland has a system of tunnels that runs from the near west side and extend under Lake Erie. They were used by Polish immgirants to store kielbasa.

September 01, 2011 2:20 PM  

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