Walter James, 2009 Chinese Minnesotan of Note (posthumous)

By the Advisory Committee of the Chinese Heritage Foundation

2009-7 12 20131107 1128081763Walter 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 2009-7 7 20131107 1255231905created 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).

2009-7 15 20131107 1157388511James’ 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 (copyrights by Peggy Sanders) and the Minnesota Historical Society


« of 2 »

Visit Photo Gallery 1

Visit Photo Gallery 2

Return to Chinese Minnesotans of Note page


2019 Ruth Stricker Dayton
Ruth Stricker Dayton comes from a family of Presbyterian ministers and grew up in the small town of Windom (current population 4,600) with a strong desire for learning and a passion for helping others...
2018 David Fong
David Fong is descended from a long line of hardworking Chinese men who were U.S. citizens. These men, originally from Taishan, China, had spent their entire lives working in the U.S. But, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act...
2012 Patricia Puffer
Promoting mutual understanding between Chinese and American citizens has been an abiding passion for Patricia Puffer, a lifelong volunteer at the Minnesota International Center...
2011 WWII Chinese American Veterans
When the Japanese Imperial Army invaded China in 1937, sentiments among Chinese Americans in the U.S. ran high and efforts to raise funds and to send aid to China took place nationally. In Minnesota events were organized in both Duluth and the Twin Cities. The Bowl of Rice dinner...
2010 Jane Wilson
For many years following World War II, Jane Wilson was the superintendent of the Chinese Sunday School at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. Westminster had a long history of involvement with Chinese immigrants in the Twin Cities...
2009 Walter James
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...
2008 Fred Hsiao
Fred Hsiao was born in a small village in Shaanxi Province in China. He graduated from the National Wuhan University in 1944 and came to the United States for graduate training in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Minnesota...
2007 Bruce Dayton
Recently, Bruce B. Dayton marked his sixty-fifth year as a trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. During his long tenure he has donated two thousand gifts of art to the Museum. Since the 1990s these gifts have centered on Chinese art...
2007 Stanley Chong
Stanley Chong was born on February 14, 1912, in Yakima, Washington. He grew up on his father’s hops farm, working every spring to build trellises for the hops vines, and later on in the season harvesting the flowers to be shipped to breweries in Chicago. The strong work ethic that he developed in those early years remained with Chong throughout his life...
2006 Shen Pei
Shen Pei, a native of Nanjing, China, immigrated to Minnesota in 1993, at the invitation of the Chinese American Association of Minnesota Chinese Dance Theater (CAAM CDT) to assume the role of its artistic director. She brought with her decades of experience and an international reputation as a dancer, choreographer, theater artist, theorist and educator. Many of her award-winning choreographed works, such as Plum Blossom Triolet, have been performed throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia...