Do honeycombs of Chinese tunnels lie beneath Boise? Historians say no. But ask any junior high kid, any lover of Boise folklore, any late-night denizen of Downtown, any conspiracy theorist, and you'll probably get a different answer.
Historians believe that the persistent urban tunnel legend had something to do with opium.
Large numbers of Chinese immigrants arrived in Idaho in the 1850s and 1860s to work on the railroads. Some smoked opium. The Daily Statesman reported frequent police raids of opium dens throughout Boise's thriving Chinatown, the area once bordered by 9th, Main and Grove streets and Capitol Boulevard.
After the Idaho Legislature passed a law in 1881 "to prohibit the keeping of places of resort for smoking opium or frequenting same," opium dens moved underground - literally - into hidden basement rooms around the neighborhood.
Historian Arthur Hart wrote that the occasional discovery of these dens in later years gave birth to the idea that Boise's underground was a vast network of chambers and passageways.
Historians and folklorists have investigated stories of underground tunnels across the Western United States. Historians are unanimous, said Hart, in their belief that Chinese tunnels never existed in Boise. In the 1970s, when city leaders razed what remained of Boise's Chinatown, they found not a single tunnel.
Still, the story lives. Chinese tunnels are a Boise icon - if a fictional one.
"The lack of verification in no way diminishes the appeal that urban legends have for us," wrote Jan Harold Brunvand in his book, "The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings." In Boise, the story of Chinese tunnels has hung on as strongly as stories of ghostly hitchhikers, Kentucky-fried rodents and beehive hairdos infested with spiders have hung on in other parts of the country.
Urban legends can arise out of societal beliefs and anxieties of a given era, Brunvand wrote. Chinese immigrants were no strangers to violent prejudice in Boise's early days. Tunnels fit a certain narrative of the Chinese as "the foreign 'other' burrowing beneath the streets engaging in nefarious activities," said Kurt Zwolfer, education specialist at the Idaho State Historical Museum.
As one story had it, Asian gangsters were known to pop up out of manholes, mug passersby, then slip back down into the city's dark underground to escape forever.
On the other hand, one could say that the legend of Chinese tunnels persists because it has real allure in a world that can be all too explicit and illuminated. Who hasn't passed a dark alley in Downtown Boise on a late night and hoped that one of those bricked-up walls was hiding something?
Who doesn't want to think that there's more to one's buttoned-up hometown than meets the eye? That goes a long ways toward explaining the popularity of David Lynch movies.
Some years ago, the Statesman interviewed Alan Virta, then-archivist at Boise State University. We asked him what lost city relic he would most like to add to his collection. His answer: The secret map to the so-called Chinese tunnels.
"The tunnels are really a myth," said Virta, "but people contact us all the time about them. They want the maps. They want to believe."
Anna Webb: 377-6431