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Among the stubby commercial buildings that surged northward along 16th Street when Phoenix started booming after World War II, there is one in the 2600 block that catches the eye again and again. It is part of a cinderblock row of storefronts patterned, like much of the street, by odd little businesses and empty windows left behind once the crest of growth had subsided.
The sign above the door carries the words "Ong Ko Met" in large letters, under which are some Chinese characters. The blue-gray paint smoothed over the exterior wall adds nothing to explain them, so it is possible to pass the building day after day for years without understanding their significance.
In part, this was deliberate on the part of the people who built the structure named "Ong Ko Met." They did not want to attract attention, for they feared, with good reason, what emotions might accompany such interest.
In larger part, however, the anonymity of Ong Ko Met reflects the city's disinterest in its own heritage. What resides behind the bland facade is history, one of the longest, richest, and least known veins to be mined anywhere in Phoenix--the Chinese- American community.
Ong Ko Met is the association headquarters, or "family home," of the Ongs, an American family that traces it roots back to Han dynasty, a Chinese empire that was more than two hundred years old when Christ was born. To a great extent, the story of the Chinese in Phoenix is their story, for the Ongs have been here since Arizona was a territory. The Phoenix branch of the family represents the largest concentration of the clan anywhere in the U.S.
Ongs occupy leadership positions throughout the Chinese-American community and sometimes outside it. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce is headed by Fred Ong; his niece Madeline is executive director of the city's Pacific Rim Advisory Council and president of the Arizona Asian American Association. The late Wing F. Ong, Fred's brother and Madeline's father, was the first Chinese American in the nation to be elected a state legislator.
The Ongs' successes mirror a Horatio Alger saga. But there is a significant difference between the Ongs and other American success stories.
Most American families do not find themselves, more than one hundred years after arriving on these shores, still fighting to be recognized as Americans. Most do not pick up the morning newspaper to read about racially motivated murders, and wonder if Gum Sun--the Golden Mountain--can possibly hold a place in the sun for their children.
TWO DAYS FROM NOW, hundreds of Ongs will gather in the family home, before a portrait of their clan founder, and welcome the start of the Chinese Year of the Sheep.
The family home resembles a church meeting hall, but the spartan walls are lined with photographs of individuals and couples who contributed to its construction, and hung with banners full of calligraphy.
The portrait hangs above an altar much like that in a Catholic church, except that it is blazing with red and gold decorations and holds offerings of fresh fruit and joss sticks. In place of the crucifix is the image of Ong Ko Met, a minister to the first Han emperor. As a work of art, it probably would not fetch much at Sotheby's, but the painting faithfully transmits its message to his descendants.
The clan founder is portrayed as a young man, handsomely dressed in embroidered silks. His face exudes warmth, dignity and energy. "He was in his mid-twenties, very intelligent," comments Henry Ong Jr., president of the Ong Family Association. "He helped the emperor establish the Han dynasty and for this was rewarded with a very high post in the government. He was made administrator for the Kingdom and given the title `Ko Met,' which means the same as `duke' or `lord' in English."
By the time Henry Ong Sr., the first of the family to settle in Phoenix, immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s, China was under the control of the Manchu dynasty. The southern province of Guangdong, where the Ongs were concentrated, was desperately poor. "There was no freedom under the Manchu, and industry there was so limited," says Fred Ong, Henry Jr.'s brother and immediate past president of the family association. "The original immigrants came because of necessity. The first batch were very common people, attracted by the California gold strike, which they heard of through stories about Gum Sun, which translates literally as `Golden Mountain.'"
Though driven from China by poverty, the Ongs brought with them a sense of their antiquity and a deep respect for their own culture. Fred Ong, for instance, is quick to note the Manchu were not Chinese in origin, but were invaders from the north. Edgar Snow, the journalist who chronicled the Chinese Revolution in Red Star Over China and other books, once observed, "What Westerners never understand about the Chinese is that, no matter how many times they are defeated militarily, they regard their oppressors as cultural inferiors."
The altar and ancestor portrait in Phoenix, under which Henry Ong's four-year-old granddaughter Sarah plays as he talks, connote more than a sentimental bond with the past. They embody the values and institutions by which his family has lived for centuries, and which gave them the tools to succeed even after they found the Golden Mountain--America--largely off limits to Chinese.