Located in Butte, Montana, the Mai Wah Museum is the premier archive in the state to preserve and document the history of Asian people in the Rocky Mountains.
Home to the Mai Wah Society, the museum occupies one of the most historic buildings in Butte’s Chinatown.
What is the Mai Wah Society?
The Mai Wah Society is a non-profit organization established to conduct research and public education about the culture, history, and living conditions of the West Rocky Mountain’s Asian populations.
Asian immigrants have a long history in Butte, dating back to the early days of the region’s mining era. However, when the town’s mining industry collapsed, much of the local Chinese community was relegated to roles working in domestic services, noodle parlors, and laundries.
Built in 1899, the Mai Wah Museum’s original purpose was to operate as a mercantile business. Today, the building houses Montana’s premier collection of exhibits and artifacts that preserve the Asian history of the Western Rocky Mountains.
What is there to see and do at the Mai Wah Museum?
The building the Mai Wah Museum occupies is itself a historic destination worthy of a visit. However, the contents of the exhibits the museum preserves inside its storied walls make it one of the most immersive experiences in exploring Montana’s rich Asian history.
While guests are welcome to peruse the museum’s artifacts freely, the best way to fully engage in the history of the building is through a Mai Wah Society Tour.
Tours are available upon arrival, but the museum suggests providing a three- or four-day notice to ensure your trip can be accommodated.
The Wah Chong Tai Mercantile
Built in 1899, the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile remained in operation until the mid-1940s. By its closure, the mercantile had become an influential business amongst Butte’s Chinatown community and had garnered the attention of Charlie Bovey, a Montana Legislature.
To preserve the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile, Bovey purchased the contents of the building and had them moved to Nevada City, where they remained for over 60 years.
It wasn’t until the Mai Wah Society formed in 1991 that an effort began to restore the contents of the original building. And in 2010, the society finally succeeded in its goal.
By 2012, 2500 artifacts had been returned, and the building was officially converted into the Mai Wah Museum.
Through the collective efforts of the Mai Wah Society, Curator Janna Norby, and Butte High School Student Si Wen Liu, visitors to the museum can now explore the historic building and its 2,500+ artifacts, all of which are labeled and translated for public analysis.
The Mai Wah Noodle Parlor
While the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile may be the oldest building construction that makes up the Mai Wah Museum, the noodle shop that was built adjacent to the mercantile gives the museum its name.
Constructed in 1909, the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor was owned by the Chinn family, who also owned the Wah Chong Tai Co. buildings.
The building remained in operation until 1986, at which point the previous tenant had passed away, and the building remained unoccupied.
Then, realizing the historical significance of the building, Butte resident, Hal Waldrup, organized a group of citizens to help preserve and restore the building’s legacy.
Hal Waldrup and the Mai Wah Society’s efforts can still be seen today. Visitors to the museum are welcomed to admire the traditional stylings of the historical building as they explore the many artifacts within its walls.
Butte Chinese Artifacts
Around the turn of the 19th century, the Chinese communities of Montana were heavily neglected. Even official censuses were taken that failed to recognize the real identities of the people that made up these populations.
There is a common frustration present in EuroAmerican records that indicate the record keepers themselves struggled to keep track of Chinese individuals.
For example, instead of referring to people by name, records would indicate people by simply declaring them “Chinaman.”
As a result, much of these individuals’ presence in Butte and other Montana towns was never fully recorded. Through their museum, the Mai Wah Society has worked to acquire knowledge of these people’s true identities and has worked to preserve their stories through historical artifacts.
For the first time, visitors to the museum can explore the stories of Butte’s Chinese citizens and can even put a name to the faces that have long remained unknown.
Chinese New Year Celebrations
While the museum is open for guided tours year-round, the best time to experience the Mai Wah Society’s efforts to preserve the Asian cultures of Montana is during the Chinese New Year.
Each year, the Mai Wah Society hosts a parade that starts at the Butte-Silver Bow Courthouse, winds its way through the uptown business district, and ends at the Mai Wah Museum.
The real party begins once the parade reaches the Mai Wah buildings. Guests are welcomed for tea, coffee, and cookies, and the day is capped off with a 10,000-firecracker celebration.
How to visit the Mai Wah Museum
The Mai Wah Museum’s main season begins in early June and lasts Until late September. During this time, the museum welcomes visitors from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays.
The museum welcomes guests at other times of the year, but those visiting out of season must contact the society ahead of time so they can arrange to open.
During the off-season, the Mai Wah Society will open its doors for any interested visitors ranging from individual guests to large groups.
General admission is $8.00 for adults and $5.00 for kids, students, and seniors.
For more information or to book your visit in the off-season, call 406-565-1826. Otherwise, guests can drop by the museum at 17 W Mercury Street Butte, MT 59701, for their journey through Montana’s Asian history.
The mission of the Mai Wah Museum is to preserve the culture, history, and identities of all the Asian peoples that have at one point called the Western Rocky Mountains home.
Occupying a 120+-year-old building, the museum is one of the oldest monuments in Butte and is an icon of the city’s old Chinatown district.
Guests to the museum are invited to explore the traditional stylings of the building and the artifacts that retell the story of the community that played a quiet but essential role in the development of the state.