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A film about Boise's "Chinese tunnels" was tantalizing but had no sound. Until now.

The mysterious film purporting to prove that Boise’s so-called Chinese tunnels actually existed is a little less cryptic this week.

The 15 minutes of black-and-white footage was unearthed last July in a climate-controlled double vault deep within the Idaho State Archives. But the 1960s-era film was too fragile to just throw on an equally vintage projector, and months passed before it was digitized.

When archivists finally viewed the film in late April, they were in for a surprise – and not a good one. The visuals were crystal clear: a reporter in Buddy Holly glasses, the ornate Chinatown home of the Hip Sing Assn., a crawlspace filled with a multitude of pipes.

But there was no sound. Which, for a documentary heavy on voice-overs, was a disaster.

After the Statesman wrote about the discovery and the archives posted the film on YouTube, calls, emails and online comments began to flow. The mystery reporter was identified as Sam Donaldson (no, not that one), according to his son and former colleagues at KBOI. The film broadcast in 1967.

“I was in shock when I saw the Idaho Statesman news story,” said Brian Donaldson, who serves as curator for the Tularosa Village (New Mexico) Historical Society. “It’s like, oh, my gosh, that’s my father. … He was a very debonair gentleman. He was very well spoken. He did a lot of public speaking. He was very comfortable in front of a camera and people.”

Brian Donaldson is 49. The 1967 tunnels documentary was filmed before he was born. His father, who started out in radio and television in Montana, worked for KBOI in Boise and later became head of public relations for Boise Cascade, died of a heart attack in 1993.

Donaldson’s interview subjects were identified as Raymond Fong, a Boise resident whose family spanned generations in the city’s now defunct Chinatown, and Joe Robinson Sr., whose father served three separate terms as Boise police chief between 1911 and 1933.

Fong was one of nine children born to Harry Fong, “the informal mayor of Boise’s Chinatown,” said Katheryn Fong, one of Raymond’s younger sisters. The family lived on the bottom floor of the Hip Sing Assn. building, which plays such a big part in the recently unearthed documentary.

“It’s very difficult to describe the living conditions in that building,” said Katheryn Fong, 72, who lives in Sebastopol, California, and retired as vice president of customer service for Pacific Gas & Electric. “We had no running hot water. We did not have a bathroom. We had a toilet off the area we called the kitchen. When we needed to bathe, we’d boil cold water on the stove and pour it into a round, galvanized tub.”

The building was heated with coal, which was delivered into the basement via an alley. In addition to the coal room door, the basement had two other doors, Katheryn Fong said. “We were told not to go beyond a couple of those. … They were doors that led to we-don’t-know-where. As little kids we had heard there were tunnels.”

Then Jessica Solberg, social media producer at Idaho Public Television, reached out to the state archives. The station, she said, had found a six-minute section of the original film that had been digitized.

And it had sound.

Suddenly, there was a chance that Boise’s enduring puzzle could be solved once and for all: Were the tunnels that captivated generations of Idahoans an urban myth or actual structures that once snaked beneath the young city in the Rocky Mountain foothills?

IPTV staff had first unearthed the black and white footage 30 years ago, while researching 13, one-hour documentaries for Idaho’s centennial. The series was called “Proceeding on Through a Beautiful Country: A Television History of Idaho.”

Jeff Tucker was 22 years old at the time and directed the series. He recalls traveling Idaho, “stem to stern, top to bottom, interviewing people, finding stories, looking at history” and working with the state historical society and its archives.

Today, Tucker is the station’s director of content services. He’s pretty sure, he said, that he dubbed the six-minute segment of Sam Donaldson’s documentary. But he doesn’t remember it, doesn’t remember using it in the centennial effort and figures it just sat for the last three decades in the station’s own archives.

Until a few months ago, when Solberg was doing research for a new series called Idaho Experience in concert with the Idaho State Historical Society. The July 19 segment, produced by Melissa Davlin, chronicles the life of one Idaho family affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The six minutes taken from Donaldson’s longer piece are a choppy compilation of the documentary’s high points. Donaldson is often cut off mid-sentence. Raymond Fong, who has since died, has been excised completely. No primary sources are named, except for the late Joe Robinson Sr.

David Matte, state archives administrator, was mostly agnostic about the value of the now-not-silent film segment.

“I found the piece a very interesting part of the debate of whether there were or were not Chinese tunnels in Boise at one time,” he said in an email Thursday after watching it. “It’s not the proof enough for me to be persuaded completely, but I would not rule out the possibility if new evidence was ever gathered and verified.”

Arthur Hart, the 97-year-old emeritus director of the Idaho State Historical Society, was unmoved. Before watching the piece, he did not believe that Boise’s Chinatown residents dug a network of tunnels beneath the city. After watching it, he stuck to his guns.

“The story is so persuasive, and people want to believe it,” said Hart, who has dedicated decades to researching the subject. “I’m not saying it’s impossible that we had Chinese tunnels, but I have no evidence that’s persuasive. You can put it in the area of legend. That’s the word I’d apply to it.”

But for all you diehard tunnel believers, the film segment will warm your hearts.

It seems to have been prompted by the pending sale of the Hip Sing Assn. building, which Donaldson called “one of the few remaining authentic Chinese buildings in Boise” and warned “will also go the way of man’s progress.” The problem? Taxes and expensive upkeep.

At one point, the KBOI reporter says he is standing in the basement of the Boise Chamber of Commerce building. There’s a dank-looking stone wall behind him and a metal hand rail that ends just above his head.

“In this coal room was the start of the Chinese tunnels,” he intones. “In fact, the start was right here, at this concrete patch. The patch is here today, but the tunnels are gone. Or at least they’re gone for the most part.”

He shows a grid of unnamed streets with black rectangles that represent the chamber of commerce building, a former Chinese laundry and the Mode Department Store, which he said was located at 8th and Bannock streets.

There are dotted lines that he says represent so-called Chinese tunnels, like the one that ran from the chamber down to the Joss House across the street from the Hip Sing Building. “This was the major tunnel of the tunnel system in Boise. However, there were others. This was not the only one.”

The only primary source he cites in this short segment is Joe Robinson Sr. The elderly man with jowls and a bald spot sits in a rocking chair and recalls his youth. His father was Andy Robinson, a three-time Boise police chief who served between 1911 and 1912, in 1915 and again from 1927 to 1933.

Robinson said he was 14 when he went down into the tunnel system with his father and a group of guests. They were invited, he said, by “the head Chinaman of all the Chinese colony.”

“We went into the downstairs, and you came first into a large room, an open room, where they had about two platforms or places to sleep or lie on, and that was the place where they were smoking their opium,” Robinson said.

“And at that time, there were two of those and there were Chinamen on both of them having their opium smokes with their cats, as you always hear about, but they were there,” he continued. “From then on, you could see many, many little doors. And that’s where the Chinamen lived individually. They were much smaller than the doors of a room of a home. There were hundreds and hundreds of them."

Donaldson only refers to the man as “Joe,” but Robinson’s daughter-in-law, Dottie Robinson, emailed to identify him. She wrote about how Robinson would regale them with tales of trips into the tunnels, of the cats and opium smokers he saw down in the darkness.

“Arthur Hart has never believed those tunnels were there…BUT THEY WERE,” Dottie Robinson wrote. “Don’t mean to bore you, but I get tired of defending the ‘tunnels.’”

Maria L. La Ganga: 208-377-6431, @marialaganga
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