The underground city of Portland? Shanghai tunnels say “yes”

History shows that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. It certainly fits the picture in history that Prague and the Vatican are underpinned by catacombs. But it may come as a surprise to discover that there is an intricate network of underground tunnels beneath modern travelers’ favorite city, Portland, Oregon.

The stories associated with these so-called “Shanghai Tunnels” are varied, vivid and deeply disturbing, and there is heated debate over the validity of the outrageous claims. Maybe one day soon, someone will descend into the tunnels under Portland and settle the matter once and for all.

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Historic Portland gave birth to the Shanghai Tunnels

Two phenomena happened at the same time, all related to the history of Shanghai’s tunnels.

In the 1800s, Portland was a bustling port city. Like all port towns, the streets were lined with bars and saloons and the shady alleys were full of vice.

Sailors, dockworkers and merchants worked long hours in extreme conditions, and since the world was largely ungoverned, there was little protection in labor laws and human rights.

If a ship was to sail the world, finding workers to join the voyage was an ever-present challenge as the wages did not, for many, justify the hardship and time commitment.

At the same time, in this older, simpler world, sailors and dockworkers were infamous for their drunken appetites, including a fondness for lavish intoxication of illicit substances.

After a long lonely journey, a young man with blistered hands and no responsibilities would have had no trouble finding cheap and satisfying vices and pleasures of the highest and most depraved kind.

As a result, the illicit economy was thriving and generally accepted as an inescapable part of Portland.

In the 1850s, as with most port towns, enormous wealth was generated.

Portland’s new class of good, decent, family-oriented residents grew in population and influence. One of the demands they made to the government was to clean up the streets so that the city would be a safer place for children.

Fortunately for the men of vice, the politicians were like rivers in that they chose the path of least resistance. Instead of ending the lucrative underground economy, an ‘out of sight out of mind’ policy was put in place.

Brothels, drug dens, casinos and trafficking routes have moved underground – literally.

The tunnels supported Portland’s economy

The many bars, restaurants, barbers and laundry services in downtown Portland (now considered the old Chinatown) were complicit in the operation of Shanghai’s tunnels.

The basements of the various establishments were connected by crudely constructed tunnels. What emerged was an intricate network of rooms and passageways hidden beneath the city.

While one use of the tunnels was for illicit vices, there was another much more important use; namely, connecting downtown Portland to the waterfront.

The tunnels filled several gaps in the economy. The aforementioned labor shortage on freighters was solved by forced labor, and Shanghai’s tunnels allowed this practice to occur in the shadows.

Drunk sailors who refused to work were kidnapped from bars and saloons around the city. They were seen entering an establishment but not exiting it. They were dragged through dark cellars and stairwells and taken on ships on the other side of the tunnels.

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Many of these freighters have traveled to places as far away as China, where the Shanghai Tunnels got their name.

In the jerky collage of drunken memory, a man remembered having a good time in a Portland saloon and waking up to find himself on a rat-infested dump cargo ship that was traveling the world.

Related: 10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Things to Do in Portland, Oregon

What a strange hand fate has reserved for these men.

Arriving freighters would also bring contraband by the ton. With increasing inspection and customs bureaucracy, the tunnels have become a reliable way to unload and transport illegal goods without raising a flag.

To some extent, the old Chinatown was populated by trafficked migrants, and for many of these refugees, their first impressions of the New World were made from inside the tunnels. Many of their early occupations were also in the tunnels as merchants of vice.

Explore the Shanghai Tunnels

Unfortunately, there is no legal means by which visitors can access the tunnels. There were guided tours, but due to restaurants closing in 2020, access was limited.

SinCityPortland continues to offer walking tours of Old Chinatown, which is also the largest Chinatown in the United States.

However, the tours are conducted above ground and the stories of the tunnels are told through artifacts and recordings recovered instead of submersion.

Bonny J. Streater