Relational Reconstruction of the Portland Chinese Vegetable Gardens

The following is a guest post by Dri Chiu Tattersfield (they/he), an artist and educator from Taipei, Taiwan and Portland, Oregon who loves maps and moss, and the Library’s 2023 Innovator in Residence Jeffrey Yoo Warren. As part of his residency, Warren will publish a toolkit to empower communities to create relational reconstructions of destroyed neighborhoods of color using 3D modeling methods and historic photographs. In the following post, Warren and Tattersfield discuss their work to apply these methodologies to the site of a Chinese American community in Portland, Oregon.

Wide black and white photo of a long slope richly covered in crops and gardens, wooded hills in the background, with small wooden buildings clustered on the hillside. Large homes sit atop the hill in the distance, while a footbridge crosses the creek below.
Image courtesy of the Gholston Collection, 1892. Appears in “The Farmers of Tanner Creek”, Putsata Reang, Oregon Humanities, 2016.


Jeff: Over the past few months of my residency at the Library of Congress, I’ve begun working with Dri Chiu Tattersfield to learn about and try a relational reconstruction of a Chinese American community on the west side of Portland, Oregon: the farms and homes in Tanner Creek Gulch, known as the Chinese Vegetable Gardens, which provided the city (and especially Chinatown) with fresh produce in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As we’ve collected photographs, maps and stories, Dri has begun to create a model of the area.

Dri: The community was enclosed in many ways: by the 35-foot tall bridge that Chinese people were originally contracted to build, the Multnomah Athletic Club fence and poplar trees (built intentionally to separate the elite club from the Chinese Vegetable Gardens and block the view), and the hills. At the same time, there are so many layers of intimate enclosure in the community layout. Sanborn maps show lots of hidden spaces not visible in photographs from the bridge that otherwise provides the public with this birds-eye view of the community.

A Sanborn insurance map showing a dense group of buildings labeled “Chinese Shacks”
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon. Sanborn Map Company, Vol. 1, 1901. Map.


Jeff: There’s definitely have a sense of shared communal space between… almost a circle of buildings. I could imagine kids growing up spending time in this kind of shared yard in the middle. 

Dri: I’ve been thinking lots about perspective and seeing as I reconstruct this – I would position the model to line up with the photograph to get the angles and relative heights right – which made me feel like I was embodying the person who had taken the photo and also made me wonder who might have taken it, and for what purposes. In a similar vein, as I pore over the Sanborn maps, I can’t help but wonder how they were made. They’re fire insurance maps, but did these families have insurance? There’s so much detail there that you could only get by entering the space. Did the inspectors get permission to enter? What was that experience like for the residents? 

I’m thinking about how to respect the intimacy and privacy of the community and also see it lovingly, as opposed to the ways it was simultaneously intentionally hidden from view from its neighbors and hypervisible to passerby on the bridge and surveyors. 

A closeup of the buildings from the first image, firewood stacks and tin roofs visible, with ladders and a white shirt hanging out to dry.
Details such as people’s clothes drying outside can be seen in the close-up of this image, featured previously in the blog post from the Gholston collection.

Jeff: There’s also something moving about seeing people’s clothes drying outside, it’s the kind of detail I think we see differently from the photographer. I mean, I think I have a shirt like that. I feel protective towards these glimpses. I want them to be seen with care, to be appreciated by fellow Asian Americans. And in building this model, we will get to see these homes from different viewpoints than the photo.

As we continue this work, we’ll be sharing more of our process in the coming months. This is a very different kind of place than Providence’s Chinatown and we feel grateful to learn about a space as beautiful as this one, and to be learning from work by Shu-ju Wang, Marie Rose Wong, Tracy J. Prince, and many others. 

Photo from the book Sweet Cakes, Long Journey, by Marie Rose Wong, showing crops in rows on a fenced hillside some distance below a row of large homes.
Wong, Marie Rose. Sweet cakes, long journey: the Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. 


Readers can learn more in this introductory blog post published on the Signal in January 2023. The relational reconstruction toolkit will be made available on the “Seeing Lost Enclaves” experiment page in the fall of 2023.