Row over Chinatown landmark stirs memories
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 21, 2006

Angela Cara Pancrazio

If Mary Lum's Mesa house ever caught fire, she would grab the only thing she cares about: a plastic storage box overflowing with photos and documents, her great-grandmother's green card and a hand-colored photo of herself with her sister Suzie taken in Hong Kong before they came to America, a place the Chinese called Gold Mountain.

These are some of the traces of the earliest Chinese families that are scattered and stacked inside homes across the Valley. A grandfather clock hanging on a wall, yellowed Chinese newspapers folded inside a cigar box, faded photos of family grocery stores crammed into dining room buffets.

Many Chinese-Americans, like Lum, are no longer willing to remain quiet about how their families, the first wave of Chinese immigrants, helped shape Arizona.

Last fall, hundreds rallied to save the last remnant of Phoenix's Chinatown, known as the Sun Mercantile, when developers proposed building an 11-story condo and office tower atop the brick warehouse.

But they weren't just trying to save the Chinatown landmark; they were trying to save their Chinese and Asian-American heritage here. The old grocery warehouse is the perfect place, they say, to tell their story. A place they plan to call the Arizona Asian-American Museum.

And what story do they want to tell?

One of great-grandfathers who built the transcontinental railroad, of sons who followed, opening small grocery stores when no one would hire them. Of persevering through anti-Chinese movements so intense that immigration laws barred Chinese laborers from entering the United States.

Their personal histories are the collective story of the journey from China to Gold Mountain and of the American-born Chinese themselves.

Just in time

Among the dozens of snapshots jammed in her plastic box, Lum pulls out a picture of herself taken on the day she was on her way to America with her great-grandmother.

Her sole memory of the day is of how her new dress was so stiff that it scratched her neck. She journeyed here as a 7-year-old, knowing, she now recalls at 57, that "in Gold Mountain you could have anything you want."

"When I first came to America," she says, "I wanted a pair of high heels and a piano."

There were no high heels waiting for her, but soon after she arrived, she banged at the keys of a toy piano. She lived with her grandparents and her father next to the family's grocery store. Her sister and mother came the next year. Her brother, Barry Wong, was born in Phoenix a few years later.

The family's American roots began long before the 1950s, when Lum made the journey from Hong Kong with her great-grandmother.

Her grandfather had sketched an elaborate family tree in Chinese calligraphy that stretches across several sheets of typing paper.

It traces their beginnings in China through their arrival in Gold Mountain in the late 19th century when their great-great-grandfather followed the course set by Chinese laborers who had first come to trace gold strikes and as cheap labor to build the railroad in the American West.

Lum and Wong's grandfather, N.K. Wong, first arrived in San Francisco in the early 1920s. He returned to China, then landed in Phoenix to help out in his cousin Henry's grocery store. Eventually, he saved enough for his own store and to send for the family in China.

The wooden clock that once measured N.K. Wong's long days hangs in his grandson's house. It doesn't keep time anymore. The clock that stopped at quarter till 3 one day is Barry Wong's reminder.

It is just by a stroke of luck, he says, that he's American-born.

"I could be tending a rice paddy with a water buffalo or tilling a farm," says Wong, 46, a former state representative.

'I was shocked'

A few weeks shy of her 84th birthday, Pearl Tang pulled the mayor of the nation's sixth-largest city aside.

Despite recommendations by the historic preservation office and the Chinese and Asian-American community, the Phoenix City Council had just ruled to allow an 11-story condo and mixed-use office-space tower to be built on top of the Sun Mercantile building. Space should be set aside for the Arizona Asian-American Museum, the council ruled, but the developer would not commit.

It was the tearing off the roof and the developer's reluctance toward the museum that made Tang stop Mayor Phil Gordon in the hallway.

"I told him it was not the right thing to do. I was shocked," Tang recalls. "He offered to help put the museum elsewhere. . . . He missed the point entirely."

Pearl's connection to the low-slung brick warehouse is deep. The parents of her late husband, federal Judge Thomas Tang, owned the grocery warehouse.

Buried in the stacks of papers on her dining room table is a copy of a wedding photo of Shing Tang and Lucy Sing Tang.

It is Shing, a Chinese immigrant, who was the founder of the Sun Mercantile Co. He was a pioneer, she says, but if anything has been lost in the fight over the building, it is Lucy's significance in their history.

Dating May 15, 1896, Lucy Sing is thought to be the first Chinese-American child born in Arizona.

John Tang, 65, no relation to Pearl, isn't looking for everything to be the same. A long time ago, John says, the Chinese wanted to be a part of progress, too.

In that process, most of the physical reminders were scraped away.

"There's a tendency of forgetting where we grew up, " John says.

Sometimes, he drives from his Glendale home to his family's old store near 12th Street and Buckeye Road.

The store is a restaurant now, but miraculously, it still stands.

"Nothing has moved, it's like a tomb," he says.

On his visits, he says, he feels as if he is watching a movie.

When that happens, he watches himself, barely tall enough, working his father's cash register, translating for his mother and father. He watches, too, as his mother, Yee Shee Tang, hangs laundry in the back yard.

And again, he sees himself, tagging along with his dad, Kew Lung Tang, buying produce and canned foods in Phoenix's Chinatown.

Layers of history

During the late 1870s and 1880s, Chinese immigrants, mostly laborers who were brought to the state for the back-breaking job of laying down railroad tracks in the desert, settled around First and Adams streets.

They did laundry, sold vegetables, worked as servants.

They worked at jobs their American counterparts didn't want.

Chinatown moved a little farther east, bounded by Jackson, Jefferson, First and Third streets.

Over the decades, the buildings had been torn down. Chinatown had been lost.

Then, before US Airways Center was built, archaeologists unearthed fragments of the lost Chinatown.

This is the Chinatown that John Tang grew up in.

Ginger in the herbal shops. The dried fish from Hong Kong that you could smell a mile away. The people, mostly men, sipping tea, speaking Chinese; the produce stalls and the Chinese School where John sat inside a room filled with desks where a male teacher wrote Chinese words on a blackboard.

So much time had passed, so much was gone that he, too, wasn't sure if anything from Chinatown remained.

Until he heard of development plans for the Sun Mercantile.

"I remember going there with my dad, John says. "I remember looking in there, the loading docks. It was so huge, he'd get his wholesale canned foods there.

" Everything relates to that building, the first families started from there.

"The story is almost gone."