Minnesota has a long history of Asian-American communities, despite peoples’ common perception of the state as a homogeneous white Scandinavian snowscape.
Long before the second-largest Hmong community in the country immigrated to the metropolitan area, Chinese immigrants laid down roots. People who had come to the United States to perform some of the most grueling construction of the Pacific Railway faced strong anti-immigrant sentiment beginning in the mid-19th-century, and many laws were passed that not only restricted immigration, but restricted the rights of immigrants already living throughout the West Coast. In the Midwest, there were still many challenges and hurdles for immigrants, but the anti-immigrant sentiment was far less rampant. Between 1850 and 1950, more missionaries were sent to China from Minnesota than any other state, and would sometimes help Chinese citizens skirt anti-immigration laws so that they could come to Minnesota. Though over 100 Chinese men lived in tiny towns in the Iron Range, operating small businesses to service the miners, the majority settled in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. Their laundries and restaurants were seen as a benefit to communities instead of a hindrance, and after flourishing business for many years, the now-established immigrants realized that they would not be driven out of town for their ancestry, and began to start families.
This is Mr. and Mrs. Woo Yee Sing in 1893, on their wedding day. Woo arrived in Minneapolis in 1880 and set up his laundry. While continuing his laundry business, he and his brother, Woo Du Sing, set up a restaurant, also in Minneapolis. Canton Cafe, later known as Yuen Faung Low (or, if you were local, John’s Place), was the first Chinese restaurant established in Minnesota. Known for its exquisite cuisine and decor (complete with imported mother-of-pearl inlaid teak tables, tapestries, and wall panels, direct from China), the restaurant thrived until 1967, when zoning laws changed, and the restaurant lost its lease in favor of a parking lot.