Digging Jacksonville – October 2017

October marks four years since we excavated the burned dwelling along Main Street in Jacksonville’s Chinese Quarter. October also marks my favorite holiday, and in honor of both, I am going to tell you a ghost story.

Our story is set in the late nineteenth century and features a young man named Wong Goon. Wong was an immigrant from southern China and a prominent resident of early Jacksonville. Wong owned and operated a laundry, which not only provided an important service to the city, and economic opportunity for his family, it also functioned as an important community hub. Wong served as a labor broker for mining and railroad interests and was well known both within the Chinese Quarter and in the wider Jacksonville community. The local newspaper celebrated the arrival of his son in 1885 and wrote with regret about his death of consumption in 1887.

Less than one year after his death, a catastrophic fire broke out and burned the northern part of the Chinese Quarter to the ground. This fire not only destroyed the house excavated by the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology in 2013, but it also burned Wong’s former laundry. Properties damaged by the fire were listed in an article in the Democratic Times, including “the wash-house formerly occupied by Wong Goon, and haunted by his spirit since his death.”

While a haunted laundry certainly grabs our attention today (especially in the season of pumpkin patches and haunted houses), ghosts in traditional Chinese culture are quite different from the spooks and ghouls of Halloween. Ghosts are a common part of everyday life and can be both good and evil. Festivals and rituals often include firecrackers, torches, bonfires, and other elements meant to scare away the spirits, and cities and roadways are also constructed with ghosts in mind. As ghosts are believed to travel in a straight line, curves, short walls, and other architectural elements are added to keep unwanted spirits away.

If an individual suffered a bad death, an improper burial, or if there are no descendants to perform the necessary rituals, the spirit can become unhappy. Families often burn incense, paper money, or other offerings to satisfy the spirits and bring the surviving family luck. It is unclear why Wong’s spirit was restless, nor do we know what happened to his family after his death. As to the haunted laundry, perhaps the remaining Chinese Quarter residents thought it wise to heed the ancient words of Confucius: “Respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them.”