2009 Chinese Minnesotan of Note (posthumous)
By the Advisory Committee of the Chinese Heritage Foundation
Walter James was born in 1892 in Olympia, Washington into a family of modest means. His father was an oyster worker and the family lived in a houseboat to be near him.
James' adventurous spirit showed itself very early. As a child he and a friend played hooky from school often until they were finally caught. At the tender age of 9 he went to China with a family friend and stayed in his father's home village of Taishan for two and a half years. When he returned he rejoined his family and spent his teenage years around Tacoma Seattle, and Yakima. He did odd jobs here and there, including managing a Chinese restaurant and working as an interpreter for the US Immigration Service. In the latter role he visited many Chinese steamboats that came into the Tacoma harbor. He got to know many of the Chinese sailors on board and soon was trading with them, buying silk handkerchiefs and other merchandise from them and reselling them. His budding entrepreneurship took a step forward when he was offered a position by a restaurateur from Chicago. He moved there in 1913, but did not like the city. He soon moved to Minneapolis and opened his first Chinese restaurant, Canton, there. In 1919 he opened his second one, Nankin Café, in downtown Minneapolis.
Nankin was a grand operation that featured antique Chinese furniture as well as a western orchestra. James created his signature dish, Nankin Chow Mein, early and it became very popular, well known far beyond Minnesota. The restaurant was highly successful, becoming a magnate for the local Chinese community, as well as a landmark for the city of Minneapolis. Throughout the ensuing decades generations of Chinese immigrants and students worked there. It was a rite of passage that they all wore (and still do) proudly as a badge of honor. Many of the immigrants went on to own and operate their own restaurants successfully. James viewed all who came through his restaurant as his charges and doted on them. When he noticed that the growing families needed social activities he, together with his good friend Stanley Chong, converted part of the Nankin into clubrooms and organized social and cultural activities for them. He also worked with the Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis to offer English and Chinese classes to immigrants and their families. In addition he began holding open houses at his farmstead on Howard Lake. Those gatherings soon achieved a legendary status, attended by seemingly the entire Chinese community in the Twin Cites, families of restaurant owners, waiters, students and graduates of the University of Minnesota among them.
In addition to serving the needs of Chinese families, James also foresaw the need to promote mutual understanding with the greater Twin Cities community. These two goals thus became the mission of the Chinese American Club, which he founded in 1949. These goals remain those of its successor organization, the Chinese American Association of Minnesota (CAAM).
James' charitable activities extended well beyond the Chinese community in Minnesota. He was the first Chinese member of the Twin Cities Rotary Club, and served on the advisory board of the Salvation Army. He was a longtime member and generous donor to the local YMCA. Through his Walter C. James Foundation he gave generously to many charitable organizations in Minnesota, Chicago and Hong Kong. In founding the Chinese American Civic Council of Chicago, he hoped 'to promote better citizenship, to strive for freedom and equality of all persons, to work for the civic and economic development of Chinese communities, and to foster the well-being of citizens and residents of Chinese extraction.'
During WWII he was instrumental in raising large sums of funds for starving families in China. Yet throughout all these activities he preferred to stay in the background. In a wide-ranging interview that he granted to Him Mark Lai et. al. * in 1970, he said, 'What I feel is most important is that you have to be ethical in whatever business you are undertaking. And you must be civic-minded. A person must be broad-minded, not small.'
On the origin of his name, he said, 'People used to call my father James, from his Chinese name Yim Dune. Well, back then everybody was a Jim or James or something. So James became our surname. My Chinese given name was Wah; so I became Walter James.'
James passed away in 1973. The Chinese Heritage Foundation honors him posthumously for his pioneering spirit, foresight, deep caring for the nascent Chinese community in Minnesota, shepherding its growth, and for setting a tall example in philanthropy for all who come after him.
*Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America, volume 9, 1995
See photos from the collections of Leonard James and Peggy Sanders and the Minnesota Historical Society