Arizona's Chinese Pioneers

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Description

Chinese immigrants first came to Arizona as railroad workers in the 1870s. Overcoming strict immigration laws, they created a sense of community in their new country based on familial relationships and hard work.

Transcript

Chinese first came to Arizona to help build the railroads in the 1870s.

Barry Wong:
My great-great-grandfather was also involved in building the western leg of the US Transcontinental Railroad along with hundreds of -- probably thousands of other Chinese laborers.

Leung Eng:
Even though they were smaller in stature, and so on, and perhaps not as strong, the railroad preferred them over the Irish workers because what they said was the Irish were very rowdy. Once they got paid, they got drunk, they don't come to work the following day, and they cannot be relied on. Whereas the Chinese people are very steady, very hardworking, and they organize themselves into the work gangs that got the job done.

Narrator:
The early pioneer families in Arizona came primarily from one area in Southern China .

Leung Eng:
Actually, many of the Chinese in Phoenix now were from the same -- descended from the same village. There were, I think, five men from the same village who came over here to try and make better lives for their families.

Fred Ong:
Well, my father originally in China is in Southern part in China , which is in Canton -- Guangdong -- so a little north of Hong Kong . And it's a village -- at that time is poverty. Nothing to do, not much -- people are starving, so they have to find some work, and they all heard about United States -- “Kum San” -- which is “ Golden Mountain ”. They all want a part of this Gold Mountain .

Sing Yee, Jr.:
Like most of our pioneer Chinese families here, we're all from the Southern part of China , from the province of Guangzhou , and actually in a village close to Canton , China . Our area was a rural area, is a -- like a farming area, it's like a dead end, and so therefore, the -- all the male population there says, "We got to go someplace to make a living," and that's why they all emigrated.

Fred Ong:
My father is Henry Ong, Sr. My father came into Phoenix around 1908 before statehood. There was very few Chinese here in that time. He was first in -- set up in San Francisco to work, but didn't find no work that suit him, so they say, "We are going to Phoenix . That's where all the Ongs are." so he came in here because the Ong cousin was here. So he came in, and from there on, the Ong had a stronghold in Phoenix at that time.

Sing Yee, Jr.:
Well, my father was here probably in the early 1900s, and then when he went back to China to remarry for the second time -- he lost his first wife -- he married my mother, and she emigrated to the United States in 1921. And I was born in 1923 at the house that we had on 517 North Fifth Street .

Violet Toy:
My parents came before Statehood, and then my dad was drafted in the First World War. And I think he told us he was a first member to be drafted in the First World War. He had left my mother in China .

Shirley Toy Tung:
Went to the War, fought in France , came back, and then he went back to China to pick up my mother and my oldest sister in 1917 and brought them back.

Violet Toy:
He settled here in Phoenix because Mr. Sing Yee that ran the American kitchen gave him a job as a waiter.

Narrator:
The United States had strict limits on the number of Chinese allowed to come into the country. Many arrived with papers naming them sons of men who were already here. They were called "Paper Sons."

Fred Ong:
You remember the San Francisco Earthquake. All the immigrant paper was destroyed. So, boy, these Chinese people, they all have sons; all of a sudden you hear them, "Wait, I got a son in China . You don't have no record to prove he's not." so that's when a lot of them come over at that time claiming that. Then immigration got wise of them, say, "boy, that's too many people coming in, you know? We have no records." so they just make it harder and harder for them to come through. So that's always been a sore spot for the Chinese people.

Narrator:
Several Arizona Chinese families were founded by Paper Sons. D.H. Toy is one example.

Shirley Toy Tung:
He was only 15 when he came, first came. And so he said he had several brothers here. And so he bought -- he had bought papers, and that's how we have the name of "Toy," rather than "Kwan," which is really our surname.

Bob Yen:
The first person on my father's side of the family was his father. So my grandfather, his name was Harry Yen. His Chinese name, I think is Ong Hep Lo. And you can tell already that the family name is different. He had a family name of "Ong." we are actually Ongs. Unfortunately, my grandfather's father was not in the United States . My grandfather therefore took the name of a distant family member, a Mr. Yuen, Y-U-E-N, took those papers, these false papers, came to the United Sates as the son of this merchant, Mr. Yuen. He came here when he was 17 years old in 1915, just three years after Arizona Statehood. And the story that he told me about his migration was that he got on a sailing ship, it was a 30-day journey at the time to come here. And he landed in San Francisco , at Angel Island . He joined his brother -- we always called him Uncle Sing -- who lived in Glendale at the time and who had a grocery store there. He said that Phoenix in 1915 was a different place than what we know now. There were no air conditioning units, no evaporative coolers, and his first impression of Phoenix on stepping off the train was this was like hell. [ chuckles ]