One more bit of evidence has been unearthed in the quest to solve an enduring Boise mystery: Is the modern city built atop a network of tunnels dug by Chinatown residents more than a century ago?
The clue is a dark green film canister with a peeling label. Angie Davis, a library assistant with the Idaho State Archives, unearthed the canister last July, deep inside a secure, climate-controlled double vault where it had been tucked away with 5,000 or so other fragile artifacts.
Davis was auditing the Idaho State Historical Society’s collection of audio and video recordings to figure out how much it would cost to digitize the lot in an effort to preserve their contents for future research. Old film and tape degrade; at some point, if the recordings are not reformatted, they will be lost forever.
Inside the canister is 15 or so minutes of aging 16 mm film wound on a 10-inch bronze-colored reel whose masking-tape label bears a single word: “Chinese.”
No one at the archives knows who donated the film or when – or even how – it came to be locked away in the research center.
The title of item #MI0007-00, as cataloged by the historical society, is enough to make the hearts of local history buffs race: “[Chinese Tunnels in Boise].” The film's creator, according to the archives, is unknown. Its date, simply the “1960s.”
Mystery reporter, mystery interviewees
The official description reads like a teaser from an old movie poster: “An unidentified reporter tries to prove the existence of underground tunnels in Boise that were presumably built by Chinese immigrants during the late nineteenth century.”
The problem is that the historical society does not have the $400,000 or $500,000 needed to digitize its holdings. Archive staff members plan to apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to cover the cost. The application is due in about three months.
The film just sat there until Bryan Lee Mckee came along. Mckee founded a Facebook group called “Boise & the Treasure Valley History.” The closed group has amassed more than 35,000 members in its nearly four years of existence.
None is more passionate than Mckee himself. And he is most passionate about the existence of the so-called Chinese tunnels. He knows in his heart that they are real. He says he saw city workers stumble upon one in 1978. Historians, however, are far more skeptical.
Still, the tunnel question is a regular conversation thread on the Facebook page. “I find it interesting that two of the places in downtown Boise that are known to be haunted are connected via the mystical tunnels,” wrote one member. “Does any one remember being able to see a portion of the tunnels when the Eastman building burned down,” wrote another.
One member referenced the original play — staged in 2012 by Empty Boat Theater and reprised in 2017 for Treefort — called “There’s Chinese Tunnels Under Boise!”
Library assistant shares her discovery
Davis belongs to Mckee’s Facebook group and knows about his tunnel fascination. So, when he visited the archives not long after she stumbled upon the film canister, Davis told him about her discovery.
“He got very excited,” Davis recounted. “Bryan sat and told me the day we talked about the film how he saw them with his own eyes when he was riding his banana-seat bike past the Egyptian [Theatre]. They were doing road construction, and he says that he saw people loading stuff out of a basement room and they were obviously Chinese tunnels.”
So she made him a proposition. “I said, ‘Why don’t we raise some money, Bryan, and get this thing digitized?’ I told him we could do a little crowdsourcing, and we could get the film digitized. I never heard back from him.”
Mckee said there is another chapter to the story. He said he talked to a woman he referred to as “Angie’s boss” and offered to help raise money. But she never called him back, he said. The historical society refutes that version of events.
Either way, the film was locked back in the vault, where it stayed until earlier this year.
Mckee and his wife moved to Austria to care for her ailing mother. In late January, he posted a lengthy note, rich with exclamation points, to the Facebook group. He talked about the film. He accused the historical society of hiding it. He insisted that it be released to the public.
“It’s time to get the truth out!,” he wrote. “Demand it! I’m tired of all the cover-ups going on in Boise. This is our history! Release the truth! So tired of waiting for the truth to come to you all. This will make the news worldwide.”
Administrator didn't know of the film
A Statesman inquiry to the historical society about whether such a film existed resulted in a quick invitation to meet with David Matte, the state archives administrator.
On Jan. 30, an amazed Matte displayed the green canister. He had never heard about the film’s existence, although he was well versed in tunnel lore. He said there was no record in the archives’ computer system that McKee had made an official inquiry about the film.
“Of course we’re not as he alleged, that we’re holding it or hiding it,” Matte said. “We collect material. We do what we can to preserve it. We make it accessible.”
But the balance between access and preservation is complicated when it comes to delicate, one-of-a-kind-material. Sure, the archives have a wealth of old projectors, but you can’t just throw 50-year-old film on a 50-year-old projector and expect things to end well.
The plan, he said, was to drive the film to a local media lab and have it professionally digitized.
“We’ll learn together,” he said, “what’s on here.”
A 'popular and persistent' myth
The historical society footed the $212 digitizing bill. After all, the tunnels have fascinated Boiseans for a century. Listening to Arthur Hart, the 97-year-old emeritus director of the Idaho State Historical Society, it’s not hard to understand why.
“I think the Chinese tunnel myth is popular and persistent, because it makes part of Boise where people live today seem exotic as it isn’t any more,” said Hart, author of “Chinatown Boise, Idaho, 1870-1970.” “They’ve heard all their lives fairy tales about Chinese opium dens and Chinese prostitution ... I think people want to believe any stories that are really exotic. It adds a little spice to life, whether true or not.”
After decades of research and a multitude of interviews, Hart discounts the existence of such tunnels. Yes, Boise is honeycombed with tunnels, he said, but after 40 years he has not been able to find “any evidence that they were built by Chinese. They could conceivably have been used by Chinese, but they were not Chinese tunnels the way people want to believe they are.”
Two weeks ago, Davis, Matte and others at the state archives saw the mystery film for the first time.
A still-unidentified reporter with Buddy Holly glasses and a big, clunky microphone stands on the ornate wrought-iron balcony of the Hip Sing Assn., a Chinese fraternal organization. The brick structure, on what is now Capitol Boulevard, was built in the early 1900s and torn down in 1971.
There he is in a dank stone area — seemingly underground — with a metal hand rail that comes down above his head. A while later, he crouches in what could be a basement, a crawlspace, or even a tunnel, laced through with what looks like plumbing of all kinds.
He interviews two other unidentified men. He shows textless map grids with dark boxes that probably indicate buildings and various dotted lines that could be tunnels connecting them. He talks and talks.
But there is no sound.
The silent film is posted now
The local lab was able to digitize the images but could not tease the sound off of the magnetic strip on its brittle edge. Archives officials are vetting labs in Seattle and Los Angeles with more sophisticated equipment, investigating how much it would cost to bring the sound to life, wondering whether the film has degraded too much to do so.
They’ll decide soon whether this final step is possible and figure out how to get the priceless artifact to a different lab. If it can be done, they’ll send it off.
They’ve posted the full, silent film on YouTube. They hope someone will come forward and identify the reporter and his two interview subjects. They’re hoping at least one of them is still alive and can fill in the blanks.
For now, though, they’re waiting.