The Chinese Gardens of Salt Lake City

Written by  Chris Dunsmore

The snowball that grazed Ah Tom's head shortly before 4 o'clock on February 3, 1895, loosed a feeling his tormentors had been provoking for a while. The youths of Salt Lake's Sixteenth Ward had looted his strawberry beds, they had broken his fences, they had shattered the windows of his cabin. Finally, that Sunday, when a boy threw a snowball at him, Ah Tom retaliated by firing two bullets from his small revolver, with which he had previously threatened the neighborhood boys. One bullet took a piece of a pedestrian's ear; the other stopped itself inside a tree. Ah Tom, a Chinese gardener who grew vegetables on 500 North between 100 West (now West Temple) and 200 West, was charged with assault with intent to commit murder. "Bullets for Snowballs," the February 4 Salt Lake Tribune article that recounts the incident, reports nothing about the boy being punished.

Chinese gardens were common in Salt Lake between about 1877 and 1911. There were gardens at 400 South between State and Main across the street from the current city hall, on 200 East and 400 South three blocks from Plum Alley, and as far south as 2100 South. Most of the gardens were concentrated along the west side railroad corridor near where West High School is now located, with recorded sites at 300 North and 600 West, and between 400 North and 500 North facing 200 West. The gardens in the Eight Ward featured "ditches that led to collection pools, fruit trees, and means for spreading manure." [See Footnote i.] Because these gardens were so prevalent and the gardeners so prolific, interaction between white residents and the Chinese immigrants who peddled their vegetables in several Salt Lake neighborhoods was frequent, and for the most part it was friendly. Despite strong racial prejudice, locals seemed to admire the gardeners' skill and prudence. An April 28, 1878 article in the Salt Lake Herald praises the gardeners' ability to "produce as much as twice or thrice the same of amount of land will do in the hands of the ordinary American," and a July 1882 article in The Juvenile Instructor lauds the gardeners for their ability to "compete with their more enlightened neighbors... not only in the quantity and quality of vegetables, but also in shrewdness in disposing of their products."

The Chinese gardeners may have been admired, but it seems they were far from embraced as the integral members of the community they were. Though their white neighbors tolerated their residency in Salt Lake, the altercation between Ah Tom and the young locals exemplifies an antagonistic attitude that frequently threatened the Chinese gardeners. In a 1983 case, a seventeen-year-old killed a Chinese vegetable peddler by crushing his skull with a large stone, while in another case, a burglar broke into a Chinese resident's dwelling to rob and beat him. A 1900 Deseret News article reports, "Tom Loung, a Chinese vendor of vegetables, was the victim of a brutal assault at the hands of a masked robber ... who shot him through the arm and robbed him of $20." The Chinese gardeners of Salt Lake, laborers whose hard work and skill should have aligned them with the busy bee image of the Beehive State, were often alienated from the very community they inhabited and served. No wonder, then, that Ah Tom "fired the last of five shots into the crowd that began to gather with the report of the first shot" – the community he had been working to feed, his community, had suddenly become a crowd.


The majority of the source material in this piece was found in and with the help of a paper written by Walter Jones called "Chinese in Salt Lake City from the Late 1860s to the Early 1900s."

  • Salt Lake Tribune, Monday, February 4, 1895, Bullets for Snowballs, Ah Tom Goes Gunning for the Bad Boys.
  • Utah Historical Quarterly, Winter 1996 \ Volume 64 \ Number 1, Utah's Chinatowns: The Development and Decline of Extinct Ethnic Enclaves by Daniel Liestman (page 87 quoted) 


i Utah Historical Quarterly, Winter 1996 \ Volume 64 \ Number 1, Utah's Chinatowns: The Development and Decline of Extinct Ethnic Enclaves, by Daniel Liestman, Page 87

Additional Info

  • Location: West Temple and 500 N., Salt Lake City, Utah