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How Curious: A Chinatown Underneath Oklahoma City?

Former Oklahoma City mayor George Shirk examines an old stove in the Chinese “city” under Oklahoma City, 1969.
Jim Argo
The Oklahoman
Former Oklahoma City mayor George Shirk examines an old stove in the Chinese “city” under Oklahoma City, 1969.";s:

For decades, Oklahoma residents have circulated rumors about a vast network of tunnels under downtown Oklahoma city where hundreds of Chinese immigrants lived at the turn of the century.


KGOU listener Gypsy Hogan asked “How Curious:” did those tunnels really exist?


Claire Donnelly: So this is where we were originally...on the other side, though. Right?

Gypsy Hogan: No, no. This is the Renaissance Hotel.

Donnelly: Oh different, OK. It's a sunny afternoon and I'm wandering around downtown Oklahoma City with KGOU listener Gypsy Hogan.

Hogan: So it was probably more this area down here, don't you think? But I don't know. But see they're tearing up the street up...Of course, they never really said it went up Broadway.

Donnelly: We're looking for something. We're looking for an answer to a question Gypsy has that she wants KGOU to help her answer.

Hogan: For years, I've heard stories about there being underground tunnels where the Chinese lived at the turn of the century in Oklahoma, in downtown Oklahoma City. I don't know if that's really true or not. I'd like to know.

Donnelly: This is "How Curious" from KGOU, exploring the questions you have about the state we call home. I'm Claire Donnelly. Gypsy first heard the legend about the Oklahoma City tunnels when she was a newspaper reporter in the 1970s.

Hogan: I was working at the Daily Oklahoman when I probably first heard about it from somebody. And it just seemed like, just unbelievable at the time.

Donnelly: And then, she says, the city started working on a project called the Conncourse--that's "conn" with two n's--named after local business and civic leader Jack Conn. The Conncourse was designed to connect different downtown buildings and parking garages through a network of skywalks and tunnels.

Hogan: There were people talking about "well, you know I've heard stories that there used to be other tunnels down there that people lived in," that the Chinese lived in them. And I just always had visions of it but I couldn't really find anyone who'd ever seen them or knew about them.

Donnelly: The Conncourse tunnels were finished in 1974. They still exist today in Oklahoma City's central business district. Now they're called "The Underground." But the "Chinese underground" that Gypsy kept hearing rumors about, where Chinese immigrants supposedly lived in tunnels under Oklahoma City in the early 1900s? Where are those tunnels? Did they exist? Well, Gypsy's not the only one who heard stories about them.

Larry Johnson: The legend, um, depending on who's telling it, is that there were these underground tunnels that ran all under the city.

Donnelly: That's Larry Johnson. He manages the special collections for Oklahoma City's Metropolitan Library system. He says there are lots of different rumors. Some accounts say the tunnels were along South Robinson and West California Avenues and along Main Street and Sheridan Avenue. But others say they went--.

Johnson: All the way up to, um, along Classen up to around where Classen High School is and up around by the Gold Dome.

Donnelly: Johnson says there were also different ideas about what was happening in the tunnels.

Johnson: There was all kinds of mischief that were going on, opium dens and all kinds of illegal trade.

Donnelly: One old newspaper article I found mentions Chinese immigrants gambling underground. Also growing bean sprouts and making tofu. There's even a rumor about a subterranean Buddhist temple and an underground cemetery.

Johnson: What people around the city would do throughout the years is they would, for example, they would threaten their children and say, you know, "If you're not in by dark the Chinese are going to grab you and take you into the tunnels and we'll never see you again.".

Donnelly: The idea of an underground Chinese city has clearly captured a lot of people's imaginations. But are any of these stories true? After hours of wandering around downtown, Gypsy and I can't find any evidence that the tunnels existed: no secret doors, no Chinese characters, not even a plaque commemorating where an underground Chinatown might have been.

Hogan: And then, you know, supposedly there were so many stories about all the entrances into it that if they were all true, that you would've just dropped in holes like, in every sidewalk in town. But I don't know. There couldn't have been...I just don't think there could've been that many because there weren't that many Chinese people in Oklahoma City.

Donnelly: We decided we needed more information about Chinese immigration in Oklahoma. So we went to this guy--

Xiaobing Li: My name is Xiaobing Li, professor at the Department of History and Geography.

Donnelly: Li has worked at the University of Central Oklahoma for more than 20 years. He spent a lot of time researching the state's Chinese population. According to Li, the first Chinese immigrants to Oklahoma came from California. He says they originally came to the U.S. hoping to get rich during the Gold Rush in the mid 1800s.

Li: If you look at the Chinese map, they named San Francisco... That's in Chinese. Translated word by word: "Gold Mountain."

Donnelly: Li says the immigrants were mostly young men who came to California to make money. He says some were single guys who wanted to take the money back to China and get married. And others had families back home in China they were hoping to provide for. But, of course, not everyone found gold during the California Gold Rush. So, Li says, Chinese immigrants ended up doing various manual labor jobs, things like mining and building railroads. But white laborers didn't like having to compete with Chinese workers for jobs. In 1877, anti Chinese riots broke out in California cities, including San Francisco.

TV documentary: July 23, 1877 was the critical day. it came to be known in police annals as "Riot Night."

Donnelly: That's from a 1960s KPIX TV documentary about San Francisco's Chinatown. A few years later, in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It banned Chinese workers from entering the country.

Li: So many of those Chinese all of a sudden became illegal.

Donnelly: That's Xiaobing Li again.

Li: They left California. Very few of them actually returned to China because they borrowed money, they made a promise. So they they pushed out of California and moved to other states where offered some opportunity or some kind of safety.

Donnelly: Remember, Oklahoma wasn't even a state at this point. It wouldn't become one until more than two decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Li says because of that, there was less immigration enforcement here.

Li: Without the statehood, there was no federal agents here. So you were OK; you were safe here. You know, nobody send you home or chase you around.

Donnelly: He says the Chinese population in the area more than quadrupled from 1900 to 1920. But that 1920 number was still relatively small, about 250 people. OK, so back to the tunnels. The first reference Gypsy and I could find to this so-called "Chinese underground" was in a newspaper article from 1921.

Hogan: "Down a steep and winding flight of stairs at 14 South Robinson trailed the seven officers. 'Hey there. Open up,' called out James R. Lee, Inspector. We are state health officers.'"

Donnelly: That's Gypsy reading from it. The article says the state health department sent inspectors to dozens of Oklahoma City restaurants and rooming houses. Here's Larry Johnson from the library again--.

Johnson: They had heard these stories that there were these chambers under the Chinese restaurants. And since they were inspecting laundries and restaurants, they were going down and inspecting these rooms because they heard that people lived down there.

Donnelly: The article describes what the inspectors found underground.

Hogan: "A dozen connected caverns each devoted to a particular instance of the Chinese triumvirate: eating, sleeping or gambling.".

Donnelly: According to the newspaper report, at least 200 people were living in these underground spaces. The paper says the health inspectors issued a clean bill of health.

Hogan: "From the grass mat covered banks which lined the several small sleeping rooms and the one central sleeping and living room to the well-stocked kitchen, all were spick and span. They passed the exacting eye of Inspector Gilbert Harrison, who later Tuesday condemned many a white man's bunk.".

Donnelly: So the inspectors look through these supposed underground rooms for health violations, find nothing and move on. I asked the state health department for the original inspection report from that time, so I could confirm all the stuff written in the article. But the records coordinator couldn't find it. After this 1921 story, the Chinese tunnels more or less disappear from newspaper accounts for a couple of decades. At least, according to the research Gypsy and I did. But the rumors and urban legends keep circling. And then--.

Oklahoma Image project audio: In 1969, George Shirk, historian and past mayor of Oklahoma City led an unusual expedition in search of a long hidden Chinese city beneath downtown Oklahoma City.

Donnelly: That's from a radio history series called The Oklahoma Image project. George Shirk was mayor of Oklahoma City from 1964 to 1967. His nickname was "Mr. Oklahoma History." So when he heard the rumors about the underground Chinese tunnels, he grabbed a flashlight, gathered a small group of people and went looking for them.

Burnis Argo: They had heard that they were down there. And Mayor Shirk wanted to go down and check it out. And they did.

Donnelly: That's Burnis Argo. Her husband Jim actually went on that tunnel search with Shirk to take pictures. He was a photographer for The Oklahoman newspaper. But Jim passed away in September 2017 so we didn't get to talk to him for this story. According to a newspaper article from the time, Jim and Mayor Shirk and the others got underground by using a door at 12 South Robinson Avenue. That's right by where the Myriad Gardens and Cox Convention Center are today. Back then though, neither of those places existed. In the 60s and 70s, Oklahoma City was in the middle of a big redevelopment project. Crews were tearing down lots of old buildings with a plan to basically completely redo the city.

John Dunning: Square blocks of them were being vacated and demoed.

Donnelly: That's John Dunning.

Dunning: It was just kind of an interesting time to be able to have your way with those buildings and go through any part of them you'd want.

Donnelly: Dunning owns a record shop in Oklahoma City. He was a teenager when all of this was going on. He says all the empty buildings created a kind of urban playground.

Dunning: I went through the old Huckins Hotel, the old Herskowitz building, the cotton exchange building, the old city hall building. I'd get up in attics and crevices and basements. I remember we'd take girls down there after dark and go through these buildings and scare them maybe, you know. And just had fun, just kids' stuff.

Donnelly: Dunning says he read a story in the paper about what Mayor Shirk's group found.

Oklahoma Image Project audio: What the explorers found was a very strange underground labyrinth of many rooms of various sizes, connected by narrow passageways. Some of the brick walls had Chinese writing on them and newspaper editorial cartoons about China were displayed in what appeared to have been a living area. Other walls bore tabulations in Chinese and some even had coat hooks. And in the corner of a large L-shaped room were a sink and an old stove, apparently used in connection with a laundry.

Donnelly: The newspaper article said the rooms were about 25 feet wide. They'd been separated into smaller areas with pieces of wood and wallboard. Dunning says he wanted to see what all of it was about. So he went down there himself.

Dunning: Of course, there's no electricity in the building and so it was dark and spooky, scary situation for a kid. But I couldn't find tunnels per se but but there were, you know, like, rooms and rooms and maybe some would go into other buildings. And I would see a lot of Chinese writing on the walls.

Donnelly: He says finding these connected underground rooms was definitely interesting. But he feels like it didn't quite live up to the hype.

Dunning: Kind of overexaggerated, really. But it was, like I say, more of basements and parts of basements. Not tunnels, you know, they weren't tunneling around.

Donnelly: Burnis Argo agrees. She says her husband Jim, the one who went down to take pictures, never acted like he and Mayor Shirk had made some huge, historically important discovery when they went underground.

Argo: They weren't quite sure what to make of it. Was it really a Chinese laundry? Was it a place where they lived? And they couldn't find any evidence of, you know, any huge, gigantic like, Chinese city being underneath the streets of Oklahoma City.

Donnelly: That probably explains why Shirk, AKA "Mr. Oklahoma History," didn't write anything about the expedition in his journals from that year. And why he didn't make more of an effort to preserve or protect these tunnels in all of the city developments. The rooms Shirk found were reportedly demolished. So Gypsy and I wanted to know: what happened to those people who were supposedly living underground in the early 1900s? Xiaobing Li, the history professor, says there are several reasons some Chinese immigrants might have left Oklahoma. Some probably went to other states looking for better jobs. He says others went back to China to fight in the country's nationalist revolution. And then there was the family reason. Most of the immigrants were male and some records show as few as 18 females in 1920.

Li: Very hard to find a girlfriend.

Donnelly: Li says some of the men left to find girlfriends or wives and those that stayed often didn't have families or children. I reached out to the Asia Society of Oklahoma and several other groups to try to find someone who had a connection to the underground. But everyone I talked to had either only heard rumors or didn't know anything about it. So after all of this research, I called Gypsy and asked her how she felt about the answer to her question. She says it's a sadder story than she was expecting.

Hogan: If I had started out as a young man, and had gone to a foreign country with the idea that I would make a lot of money and be able to help my family back in China and return or either have family members come and join me and we would have a great new life. I don't see that having happened for them.

Donnelly: Gypsy says she originally thought of the story in a more romantic way, imagining the underground with lots of drinking and gambling.

Hogan: I think we're all sort of drawn to the wild side that, sort of that whole forbidden fruit idea kind of thing. Where it sort of conjures up these people having these ancestors of long ago having this great party life, what we'd call party life today.

Donnelly: And maybe that's why the story about a bustling underground Chinese city under Oklahoma City is still around. Jim, the photographer who went into the tunnels with Mayor Shirk, used to get annoyed when reporters called to ask him about it. His widow Burnis says he'd ask "Why do people still care about this?"

Argo: It's just kind of one of those things that that's out there, you know. Like I say, an urban legend. And that as people talked about it, it just grew more fanciful. And it was kind of exciting to think about, I guess.

Donnelly: Like most urban legends, she says, people added to and changed the story over time. So we'll probably never know exactly how extensive the tunnels were, or how the Chinese immigrants felt about living in Oklahoma. But, who knows, maybe a future downtown construction project will uncover some hidden piece of history. Or someone will listen to this and share their story.

Claire has previously worked at KGOU, where she helped create a podcast, How Curious, and hosted local news during Morning Edition. Previously, she was an intern on the city desk at WBEZ in Chicago. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School. Claire has reported on street performers, temp workers, criminal court cases, police dogs, Christmas tree recycling and more.
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