Walter James

Walter James, born to the Jim Ah Toone family who settled in Olympia after the Seattle fire of 1889, demonstrated an adventurous spirit from an early age. Raised in Olympia with his five siblings, he moved to Yakima and then Minneapolis, where he opened the renowned Nankin Café in 1919.

At age nine, Walter traveled to China, staying in his father’s village of Taishan for two and a half years. Upon returning to the U.S., he spent his teenage years in Tacoma, Seattle, and Yakima, working various jobs including managing a Chinese restaurant and serving as an interpreter for the U.S. Immigration Service. This role introduced him to Chinese sailors, leading to his early entrepreneurial efforts trading goods.

In 1913, Walter moved to Chicago for a job but soon relocated to Minneapolis, where he opened his first Chinese restaurant, Canton. In 1919, he founded the Nankin Café, which quickly became a Minneapolis landmark known for its Chinese-American dishes and vibrant cultural atmosphere. The Nankin Café, featuring antique Chinese furniture and a western orchestra, became famous for dishes like Nankin Chow Mein and the Wanderers Punch cocktail.

Walter James’s community involvement extended beyond his restaurant. He and Stanley Chong converted part of the Nankin into clubrooms for social and cultural activities and collaborated with Westminster Presbyterian Church to offer language classes to immigrants. His farmstead gatherings at Howard Lake became legendary within the local Chinese community.

In 1949, Walter founded the Chinese American Club, which evolved into the Chinese American Association of Minnesota (CAAM) in 1951. CAAM promotes Chinese cultural heritage and supports the Chinese American community through educational and cultural programs. Walter remained an active supporter until its incorporation in 1967.

Walter’s charitable efforts included joining the Twin Cities Rotary Club, serving on the Salvation Army advisory board, and donating to various organizations through the Walter C. James Foundation. He also played a key role in the Chinese American Civic Council of Chicago and raised funds for China during WWII.

Walter James passed away in 1973, leaving behind a legacy of cultural preservation and community support. He is interred at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Scroll to Top