A Downtown curb, a silent home and the unsolved mystery of the Chinese medals

Found: Chinese Nationalist medals and buttons, discovered on a Downtown curb, origin unknown.
Photo: Mona Shield Payne
Matt Kelemen

Trash Wednesday draws out the plastic people in the old neighborhoods of Downtown Las Vegas. At daybreak, women who speak English as a second language wheel strollers down narrow streets first paved in the 1940s. They wear blue plastic gloves to retrieve empty plastic bottles from plastic garbage cans, gradually filling plastic bags in the seats of the strollers. They’ll return a greeting or a smile, but mostly they avoid eye contact as they go about their business. It’s understandable. Some of the residents don’t care for their garbage being picked through in a world where identity theft is as much of a concern as home security.

Then again, some take advantage of the plastic people, and of the pickup trucks patrolling the neighborhood to scavenge curbside furniture, pre-flat-screen-era televisions and assorted obsolete appliances. Why drop a toaster off at the thrift store when, twice a week, people will come by to pick up whatever’s left outside?

On this Wednesday morning, we were less than five minutes into our daily acquiescence to the fox-hunting instinct bred into my Jack Russell terrier, a rescue who found me after living on the neighborhood streets, and bundled up against the late-March chill in sweats, a hoodie and a knit hat, I probably didn’t look much different than the transients as endemic to the area as vacant houses.

The dog pretty much walks me, so it’s rare that I would stop to check out random bric-a-brac on the side of the road. But there were several items lined up in a row on the curb in front of a Downtown home—not dropped, not tossed, but placed with deliberate care. Had they been in a pile I might have kept walking; the symmetry caught my eye. Four of the items looked like some kind of costume military decorations, with striped ribbons of different color combinations, badly in need of cleaning. Two others seemed to have Mao’s likeness on them but looked like cheap plastic buttons, perhaps prizes from a box of Cracker Jack.

A car approached from the south as I crouched down to get a closer look, and another from the east-west street that dead-ended into the curb. Suddenly, I got self-conscious, realizing that even with the dog I looked like I was going through trash. I pocketed the medals and resumed our morning hike, leaving the Mao buttons behind.

I didn’t look at the medals again until we returned home. They were old but in good shape, and definitely Chinese Nationalist in origin. Made of a bronze-like base metal, two had photo inlays and all but one had Velcro backings. The two with inlays featured black and white images of distinguished-looking men in uniform; I thought I recognized one as Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.

Each photo was encircled with translucent red embedded with eight gold-colored stars, framed in turn by a blue-and-yellow enameled, star-shaped border. Both medals had crossed flags and Chinese characters on the back, as did another star-shaped medal with a small relief portrait in the center, surrounded by an elaborate outer band with Chinese characters and laurels to the left and right.

The final medallion was large, round and looked like the oldest, with its relief portrait bordered by a blue enamel band decorated with Chinese letters and intricate ornamentation. It also had flags on the back, but the stripes of those flags were enameled and still lustrous, accented by yellow laurels.

The Chinese Medals

Whether they were authentic awards or commemoratives produced by the Taiwanese version of the Franklin Mint was beyond my knowledge, so I did what any average American does in 2014: I took a photo and posted it to Facebook. Before long I wasn’t the only one curious about the medals’ origin, although I had already developed some theories: Maybe they belonged to a Chinese National who no longer saw significant differences in philosophies between Beijing and Taipei, and did not want to keep the ornaments but could not bear to simply discard them. Maybe a plastic patroller fished them out of a garbage can then decided they weren’t worth keeping. Maybe a thief broke into a home nearby but had second thoughts. Or a would-be collector got laughed out of Gold & Silver Pawn. Or someone’s grandfather died.

Within a few hours Downtown resident Bryan McCormick, known for frequent Facebook ruminations on the financial industries and a passion for analog photography, had forwarded my photo to Manhattan’s Museum of Chinese in America, and received an answer before the end of the East Coast workday. By that time I had gone back and retrieved the Mao buttons. They were two different sizes, made of light metal and also in good shape, with writing on the back.

Yue Ma, the museum’s associate director of collections, responded to McCormick. “The first two medals in the image are not clear enough to recognize the Chinese characters on them,” he wrote. “What I can tell for the second one is that it was made/used to memorize a battle led by Zongren Li.”

Li was a Nationalist general who had a contentious relationship with Chiang Kai-shek—who held various high-level political and military positions from 1928-’75—and defected to Communist China in the mid-’60s to live out his final years.

Ma thought he could make out “October 10” on one medal—the date of the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, which is observed in Taiwan—and likenesses of Manchurian warlord Zhang Zoulin and Nationalist general Yuan Shikai on the other medals. I sent him sharper images to see if he could interpret the characters, but I’d have to look elsewhere to learn how rare of a find the medals were on the streets of Downtown Las Vegas.

Jim Rogers has been collecting Vegas treasures for decades at his own, steady pace. He falls far short of being a hoarder and keeps much of his collection under glass, bathed in blue light. His matchbooks are most noticeable. They’ve been picked up from the Stardust, the Horseshoe, Bali Hai and the Whiskey a Go Go in Hollywood. Cattleman’s Steak House, the James Cashman Company (seller of Buicks, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles) and the BPOE Lodge No. 1468 at “900 Las Vegas Bl. No.” are represented. El Jardin Mexican Restaurant, Lucky Pierre’s of Maryland and Sahara, Hank Electric Motor Service, Bonanza Steakhouse, New Town Tavern, the MGM Grand Hotel and the Railroad Pass Casino all produced promotional matchbooks that are now preserved in Rogers’ home, a few blocks away from where the Chinese medals were laid out on the curb.

Jim Rogers Collection

Rogers isn’t the only collector in the vintage Vegas neighborhoods, but he’s a bit more idiosyncratic than residents Heidi and Scott Swank. An April Facebook post about a pink toilet in front of a vacant house on 17th Street, led them to investigate, and within an hour the Swanks were back on Facebook, documenting their score. “We’ll make sure this is used to restore the basic integrity of one of the home[s] Downtown,” Scott wrote.

The Swanks have rescued art deco dressers, mid-century sinks, light fixtures and anything else worth preserving. They have rental properties where they stash new-old items, and like-minded friends who they’ve surprised with gifts.

“We think that mid-century furniture and architecture is misunderstood,” says Heidi, director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation. “If it’s a new-old thing, we’re big on trying to save it because people keep pitching it. We run around and bring it back. … We don’t want to see it go into a landfill.”

Rogers would prefer not to see his collection in a landfill, either. His brother Bill was into street scavenging before him. “The biggest find we ever had was when a person died and they just threw everything out, ’85 maybe,” Rogers recalls. “That person was old. It was all original from that house, just tons of stuff—those little license plates, old driver’s license pictures, jewelry … They took the whole house and threw it on the street.”

Rogers’ current inventory includes a powder-blue 1958 Ford wagon and a 1952 Chevy short bus; signs rescued from places like Odyssey Records, the record store at Oakey and the Strip that closed in 2004; a small cage from a fair that spins its strapped-in occupant around; and a phone booth. Indoors, the matchbooks share space with vintage toy versions of a pink Cadillac, a yellow ’60s surf taxi and a fleet of Matchbox-brand buses. Another case is a blue-lit menagerie of collectables: matchbooks, ashtrays, cars, key chains, business cards, badges, bottles, buttons, a PEZ dispenser with a head that resembles an early ’70s Planet of the Apes astronaut action figure.

There’s an old-school Sands slot machine and a one-armed bandit from the International that, according to Rogers, “a 20-year executive” from the hotel claimed came from Elvis Presley’s suite. The tray is full of change. Vintage signs and retro-looking posters adorn walls, while shelves support cans that once contained cookies, coffee, baking powder, household oil and Hershey’s cocoa mix. He has Rat Fink hot rod trading cards that he used to buy from the Huntridge Pharmacy, and a yellowed Yellow Cab card with a phone number that matches his current mobile digits.

“I’ve gotten rid of stuff,” Rogers says. “I sort of trade stuff here and there. Somebody wants it, and wants to trade. That’s the best deal.”

Would he have made the Chinese medals part of his collection if he had stumbled upon them? “Oh, of course I would. I wouldn’t leave them there, I mean, unless I thought they were somebody’s or something.”

After the initial exchange with Ma, I searched for information on the medals’ value, but the results of my research were inconclusive. Auction sites mostly listed bid requests that were unrealistic, or medals in bulk for whatever chump change the seller could get. One site, the Medieval and Modern Coin Search Engine, had entries for the medals I possessed depicting Guangxi warlords Huang Shaohong (1895-1966) and Zongren Li (1890-1969) in relief. Both were described as “very fine and rare,” with Baldwin’s Auctions Ltd. provided as the “source” and Hong Kong Coin Auction as the executor. Although they had been withdrawn from auction, the value of each was listed as $150-$200.

While their worth was indeterminate, the historical significance of the medals was not. Mao Zedong’s Red Army forced Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists to flee to Taiwan at the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, which claimed anywhere from nearly 2 million to 6 million lives since clashes began in 1927. The medals were touched by hands in Asia and—like so many wayward souls, fresh-start foundlings and aspiring masters of the universe—went on a journey that brought them to Las Vegas. The world in which the warlords depicted in the medals reigned was gone, with the differences (economic, at least) between the mainland People’s Republic of China and island nation Republic of China contrasting less as time marches on.

Ma’s insights breathed life into the enamel portraits. “The first one was saying that this is a memorial medal for the 2nd President Xu Shichang’s inauguration on October 10th, 1918,” wrote Ma of the medal with a yellow, green and white ribbon. “The second one was saying that it was given by Zongren Li to Shaohong Huang, in memory of Anti-Communism, and the portrait in the center seemed Chiang Kai-shek.”

Xu was president of the post-imperial Republic of China until 1922, during an era when warlords ruled. He was forced from office and died in 1939, two years into the Sino-Japanese War. Huang was a warlord who became a military and government leader after Xu’s term. At the close of the final campaign of the Chinese Civil War between 1945 and ’50, he helped negotiate treaty terms on behalf of the Nationalists, but defected to the People’s Republic after cease-fire negotiations fell apart. He became a target of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and committed suicide in 1966. A year earlier, Li had returned to mainland China from Taiwan. The former Nationalist general and politician clashed with Chiang during his career. His defection was celebrated by the Communists while the Nationalists decried him as a traitor.

Ma was also able to tell that the more colorfully enameled medals inlayed with photos were made by the mint of the Chinese Nationalist Party Kuomintang. One depicted Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China after Emperor Puyi abdicated in 1912. The other showed pro-imperial Manchurian warlord Zhang Zoulin, who was defeated by Chiang’s rival forces during the warlord era and killed by a bomb in 1928.

The Mao buttons were likely manufactured during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. The larger one reads: “Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Commander, Great Helmsman” on the front and “Loyalty” on the back.

“During the Cultural Revolution, Mao was worshiped as the ‘Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Commander and Great Helmsman (Four Greats),’” wrote Ma. “And the slogan of the Four Greats was first time shown on People’s Daily on August 20th, 1966.” The second, smaller button contained the second half of a sentence from Mao’s poem, “The Long March.” Ma provided two translations, from 1936 and 1993:

The Red Army, never fearing the challenging Long March

Looked lightly on the many peaks and rivers.

The Red Army regards the Long March as nothing but a game,

Ten thousand mountains and rivers are easy for them to tame.

While Ma could speak to the historical significance of the artifacts, he couldn’t determine whether they were authentic or commemorative, a question I brought to Cindy Funkhouser, owner of Arts District antique shop the Funk House. She couldn’t help with the authentic-versus-commemorative question either, but she did have a theory about their life before the curb.

“There’s no way they were laid out neatly after somebody tried to sell them and couldn’t,” Funkhouser said. “There’s no way, not with this backing. They were Velcro’d up to something for display. They had to be for display, not a uniform.”

I wasn’t the first to bring old military medals to the Funk House. “I always tell them I don’t give free appraisals. I try to be nice about it. I wish I had time to do that,” she said, the enamel on the back of the Xu medal stopping her mid-sentence. “Oh, this is lovely. They are definitely old images. That’s the first thing to check, to make sure they’re not computer done. … Yeah, these are old. They’re very cool.

“There’s no way somebody tried to sell these and then went, ‘Nobody’s going to buy them. Let me lay them out neatly like this.’ That’s just not … I don’t believe that even happened.”

So I was back to square one: hypotheses. Was it a thief who discarded the medals in the pre-dawn hours of Trash Wednesday? Did a Chinese Nationalist expatriate living in the 10th Street home leave them on the curb after a lifetime of watching the Communists gradually embrace market-driven approaches that drove Taiwan’s tiger economy during the previous century? Would a landlord lay them out so carefully after a tenant passed away?

The home that the medals were displayed in front of appeared to be sealed, separated from the sidewalk by a white picket fence in need of paint. A sedan parked on the street didn’t seem to ever move from its position blocking the gate in front of the driveway, where a pickup truck was parked. I kicked a pebble near the sedan’s tire while passing by during a dog walk one day, but the rock was gone the next time I saw the car.

Window shades in the front and sides of the house never rolled up. A child’s play set and an empty plastic pool indicated someone with kids had once lived there, and a fellow dog walker said she met a nice family in the front yard one time a few years ago.

In April, winds blew the pool upside down, on top of the play set, and it stayed that way for weeks. No one seemed to live there day to day. There are many vacant properties in the neighborhood, so a sealed, unoccupied house wasn’t that unusual. Clark Country records indicated it was purchased by the current owner in 2005. Last year Clark County Treasurer Laura Fitzpatrick executed and delivered a deed on the home (to herself) due to unpaid property taxes, but by January the owner had paid the taxes off.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering if there was someone inside. I slipped a pizza flier beneath the rear tire of the sedan while walking the dog on a Saturday morning. The next day it was gone, and the car had moved. The pickup truck was also gone. Activity. That night while driving past I noticed lights on. Now the truck was there and the sedan was gone. Tuesday morning I noticed someone had trimmed the grass in the yard.

The owner listed a Seattle address on the most recent county document, and further searching indicated a match for the name in Seattle, a place of employment, another Vegas residence in the Southwest part of the Valley and a 702 phone number. I called it and left a voicemail after the generic outgoing message. The other address seemed familiar, and I realized a friend lived across the street. The night the pickup was gone, a similarly colored one was parked in front of the Southwest Valley address.

Finally I worked up the nerve to go through the forbidding gate and knock on the door, hoping the house wasn’t sealed for reasons the law might be interested in, or an armed and paranoid shut-in wasn’t the current resident. What if the owner wanted the medals back and offered no explanation? I would feel obligated to hand them over. Then there would be no resolution to the mystery, as is the case with much of the trash that people like Jim Rogers see as treasure—no real answer as to how items that once meant something to someone wind up discarded, left to an uncertain fate in a desert oasis with only 100 years of official history as a city.

I knocked, no longer anxious about disturbing the occupants of the house. No one answered. No one had returned the call. I left a note. The next day I interrupted my mailman’s Bluetooth call to see if he knew whether the house was occupied.

“Yeah, someone lives there,” he said. “They pick up the mail. Sure looks like no one lives there, though. Crazy, huh?”

The true history of the medals might never be known, but today it doesn’t matter much. They’re loosely bubble-wrapped and placed in a green Rolex gift box that once held a promotional item, sitting on a shelf in a closet on top of a stack of magazines. Maybe they’ll find their way to the Museum of Chinese in America some time after this account is published, but for now, like every Vegas resident who’s come from somewhere else and become disconnected from the past, they’re part of the story of this international city—rather than lost and forgotten artifacts buried in a landfill.

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