Student Newswire of The University of Arizona School of Journalism

Arizona Sonoran News

Arizona Sonoran News

Student Newswire of The University of Arizona School of Journalism

Arizona Sonoran News

    The little-known history of Arizona’s Chinese

    A picture on display at the Arizona History Museum of two unidentified Chinese men in 1890. Courtesy of Arizona Historical Society.
    A picture on display at the Arizona History Museum of two unidentified Chinese men in 1890. Courtesy of Arizona Historical Society.

    One insight struck Chia-Lin Pao Tao when she arrived in Tucson in 1976.

    She was most surprised by how few Asians she saw along with little, if any, marks of Chinese legacy in the area. Today, she knows differently.

    The Chinese have a long connection to Arizona’s past, playing substantial roles in the state’s development of transportation, agriculture and mining.

    But the era of a century past when Chinese communities thrived in Arizona is long gone, replaced by a history of discrimination and out-right hatred, according to scholars who study the Chinese and their time in the state.

    As a professor in UA’s East Asian studies department, Tao specified in teaching Chinese history, focusing on women. Throughout her time in Tucson, she has learned about the history of the Chinese in this state. Tao believes many would be surprised to learn about the major contributions and unknown challenges of the Chinese in Southern Arizona, notably the discrimination those immigrants encountered.

    Tao says the earliest Chinese who came to the Arizona territory consisted of young men in the early part of the 19th century, seeking better opportunities and conditions. Drought, war, land shortages, natural disasters and seasonal floods plagued China, she said.

    David Pietz, an associate professor in UA’s East Asian studies department, says most of the Chinese men embarked west during the time of the California Gold Rush that began in 1848.

    Many of these Chinese men left California and headed to Arizona after the state passed the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850, which imposed discriminatory taxes on Chinese and Mexicans.

    According to the Arizona History Museum, many of the Chinese found work on the transcontinental railroad during the late 1870s.

    With Irish workers building the railroads in the east, Tao says the United States also recruited Chinese workers from China to work on the west coast.

    “The Chinese workers were hard working, they were willing to sacrifice, do the hard work, risk their lives, and work at a very low price,” says Tao. During this time, Tao says over 36,000 workers came in just three years. Census figures show Chinese were 1 percent of Tucson’s population in 1880.

    The museum, located at 949 E 2nd St., also displays Chinese artifacts found in a well at what is known as today’s Mission Garden site. These artifacts include items such as gaming pieces, Chinese ceramics, a Chinese medicine bottle and a rice wine jar.

    Despite their efforts in building the railroad, Tao emphasizes how the Chinese were under appreciated.

    “Later when the railroad was completed and at the ceremony, you don’t see Chinese people there. It’s all white people,” says Tao.

    Chia-Lin Pao Tao poses next to a scroll she made symbolizing vital energy (Photo by: Zachary Pleeter/Arizona Sonora News).
    Chia-Lin Pao Tao poses next to a scroll she made symbolizing vital energy (Photo by: Zachary Pleeter/Arizona Sonora News). Tao says she feels the Chinese experienced discrimination from the Anglos because her people clearly look different than most. Pietz believes Hispanics did not like the Chinese either, possibly because they felt their jobs were threatened.

    As the numbers of Chinese increased in the territory, so did discrimination. In 1878, the Arizona legislature passed a law restricting Chinese immigrants from being able to work in the mines, which led to the Chinese pursuing other jobs such as opening their own grocery stores, as well as farming.

    Followed by this, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese immigration to the U.S.

    To help illustrate the discrimination during this time, Tao pulled out an old newspaper article published in April 23, 1882, with the bold caption, “Anti-Chinese riot”. The article reports of an anti-Chinese riot that happened on a railway.

    Hatred for Chinese extended around the territory.

    “During these years in Tombstone there was a very popular show at the Bird Cage Theatre called, “The Chinese Must Go,” so that says something,” says Tao.

    According to Patsy Lee, a member of the board of directors at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, discrimination continued to rise. In 1901, Arizona law prohibited Chinese men from marrying Anglo women. Such discriminatory laws led many Chinese to flee to Mexico, Lee said.

    “They became Mexican citizens and then applied for immigration.”

    Tao says Esther Don Tang, the child of early Chinese pioneer Don Wah, brought leadership to the Chinese living in the American West. Tao says Tang fought discrimination regardless of hostility she encountered.

    “Not only did Esther fight discrimination but she emphasized and devoted herself to community service.”

    Born and raised in Tucson, Tang also helped advocate for the large Hispanic community in the area, says Tao.

    For over 50 years, Tang took part with several groups such as the mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, the Pima Council on Aging, United Way and the National Board of the YWCA.

    In Tao’s text, “Contributions of Chinese-American Women in the West,” Tao recounts discrimination Tang experienced.

    For example, Tang recalls that during her childhood in Tucson, she was not allowed to go swimming in certain city pools, was forced to sit in the balcony of old Lyric Theater, and was not invited to her friends birthday parties.

    Tang died in March at the age of 97.

    Lee says her father, who came to Tucson after serving in World War II to attend the university, also experienced similar discrimination.

    “My father told me this… Even if you had money and tried to live in an area like Winterhaven- oh no, there was no Chinese or even blacks.”

    With still minimal recognition of Chinese contributions and history in Arizona today, people such as Donna Tang, who serves on the board at Friends of Tucson, have come up with ideas to do just this.

    She is one of many who help operate Mission Garden in Tucson, an agricultural museum of Sonoran Desert-adapted trees, crops, and plants. Part of the garden will recognize the Chinese history of the region.

    The Chinese garden will consist of a variety of fruits and vegetables including bok choy, cilantro, winter melon, and mandarin oranges.

    Aside from the production of the railroads, another major contribution of the Chinese to Arizona was growing fresh produce and vegetables. She says that fruits such as strawberries were never grown here before the arrival of the Chinese.

    “Their produce was so pleasing and it brought such color and deliciousness to a dusty desert town.” 

    Zachary Pleeter is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at [email protected].

    Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

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    Comments (2)

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    • A

      AmyNov 3, 2015 at 3:33 pm

      Thank you for this terrific article. Chinese American history and major contributions to the development of this nation have been omitted from much of the U.S. history that is taught today except for a quick mention of the building of the railroads. Here is an online exhibit that tells more

    • B

      billOct 30, 2015 at 5:50 pm

      Mr. Hi Ho lived in Benson and operated a market. His family grew up here in Benson and some are still here.