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.
What Fred Ong describes as "family education"--the transmittal of these values--explains how people from a peasant village, with no literacy in English, could come to the U.S. and establish themselves as merchants in one generation. It explains how, inside of two generations, these same illiterate peasants could witness most of their children graduate college and their children's children earn honors in the nation's most prized professions.
Henry Ong Sr. came to Phoenix as a young man under the sponsorship of an uncle, Shung-Yip Ong, whose son Yuen Lung ran a small grocery store near downtown. The Yuen Lung grocery still stands at the corner of Washington and Eighth Streets, one of the few buildings to survive the leveling of Golden Gate barrio that occurred as part of the downtown renewal efforts of the Sixties and early Seventies.
As a grocer, Henry Ong's day began at 6 a.m. and ended sometime after 10 at night, when the store closed. "Families lived together in a room at the back of the store or in the basement," his son Fred recalls. In those tiny quarters, Henry Ong would rise along with his children, eat breakfast and go to the wholesale warehouses near the railroad tracks where he would buy the day's produce fresh.
He might stay long enough for a cup of coffee with other Chinese merchants, but would be back in time to open the store at 8 a.m., 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. When Fred and Henry Jr. got old enough, they joined him after school, working in the store until it closed at 9 or 10 p.m. and doing homework between customers. "We work, work, work, all the time, that's why we got ahead," Fred Ong says.
"At that time, a lot of Chinese went into the grocery business because it didn't require a knowledge of English--you just put out your food displays and put the price there," he explains. "Instead of borrowing from a bank, the relatives and sometimes friends would pool their money, everybody chip in $100, to help someone start a new business. [It was] like a credit union, only for family and friends."
The investors drew lots to determine their place in line for reimbursement. The system worked because hardly anyone defaulted on his loans. "To fail to repay a loan would mean a loss of face, not only for yourself but for your whole family," says Henry Ong Jr. "If it looked as if someone was not going to make it, the head of the family would step in and repay at least the friends to prevent the family from losing face."
By not going to a bank, the Ongs could avoid dealing with a series of onerous state and federal laws designed to preserve, at their expense, the economic and social advantages held by Anglo Americans. Through special taxes, deed restrictions or outright prohibition, laws were passed to prohibit Chinese from owning property, participating in mining bonanzas or integrating themselves socially with whites.
Anti-Chinese laws came into existence as early as 1876, and more were passed whenever downturns squeezed the young economies of the American West. Immigration laws became increasingly restrictive, so much so that family members, upon returning from a visit to China, were sometimes thrown into a customs holding tank even when they had proof of citizenship. When the late Wing F. Ong, Fred and Henry Jr.'s first cousin, came to the U.S. as a fourteen-year-old cabin boy in 1919, he was incarcerated for three months while authorities double-checked his citizenship. (Wing Ong, though born in China, was a citizen because his father, a laborer, had been born in the U.S.)
In California, where thousands of Chinese had migrated to work in the fields, mining camps and on railroads, a series of disastrous economic problems led to murderous persecution of the Chinese by mobs of unemployed whites during the 1870s. Some Chinese fled to Arizona, among other states.
Once in Arizona, they never experienced the level of violence aimed at Chinese communities on the coast but faced, instead, discrimination of an equally persistent nature. Chinese like Henry Ong Sr., arriving in the 1890s, were a convenient target for the local media, and most towns of any size had at least one anti-Chinese hate group.
Prescott and Tombstone, not Phoenix, were "the hotbeds of Chinese-haters," said a 1956 account in the Arizona Republic. (The Republic article, though sympathetic, fails to note that its predecessor, the Arizona Republican, led the media in race-baiting when the Chinese first arrived in Phoenix. In 1890, when Arizona's Chinese population could be counted in double digits, the newspaper pronounced, "The wily Mongolians should be kept in as small an area as possible.")
"When I was a child, even in third-class theatres like the old Rialto [in downtown Phoenix], the Chinese had to sit in the balcony," Fred Ong recalls. "We had to stay in the balcony even in theatres where Hispanics were allowed in the main section." No job with permanence or status was open to him until after World War II, by which time he and three brothers had all served in the armed forces. Last year Henry Jr., the only Chinese-American POW of World War II from Arizona, was recognized by Congress for his valor.
In the face of entrenched prejudice, the family associations established by the Ongs and other Chinese clans were crucial in bringing some balance to their odds of survival. Through the family association, the Ongs marshaled their resources to fund new enterprises, provide social and emotional support to newcomers and care for sick or elderly relatives. "The Chinese didn't want to go to the bank. They would have to disclose all their information and it might get them in trouble with immigration," Henry Jr. says.
While immigrants from many cultures with strong family ties band together to survive, few other ethnic groups could turn for reference to a tradition so complex, or well-organized, as the Chinese family association. The associations here, such as the Yee, Wong, and Lung Kong family associations, are modeled on institutions these same clans developed over centuries. In China the Ongs' family home was established by relatives in a city such as Canton, the capital of Guangdong, and served as a boarding house, mail drop, counseling center and social hall for family members arriving in the city to go to school, do business or visit.
Even now, when the Phoenix clan's reliance on its family home has dwindled to a once-a-week mah-jongg tourney and infrequent social occasions, the association is sustained by the commitment of its members. "My dad always said you have to know your culture to be a better man," recalls Fred Ong.
On the wall of the Ong family home in Phoenix is a large open scroll filled with Chinese calligraphy. "This is a partial history of the Ong clan that my father wrote," Henry Jr. says. "My dad was known for his calligraphy. Even though he had very little formal education, he was self-taught in calligraphy, which we consider an art form." Another scroll conveys good wishes to the Ongs from a school in their home village, which they endowed after achieving business success in America. Like the portrait of Ong Ko Met, the gesture of endowing a school none of the younger Ongs will ever attend symbolizes a strategic, rather than sentimental, value.
THE ONGS' IMMIGRANT cousin Wing F. Ong, who rose to become a Phoenix lawyer and the first Chinese American ever elected to a state legislature, began his formal education sitting under a tree with the other boys in his native village. Wing was expected to learn the teachings by rote and to serve his master with devotion (or take a beating), says his biographer Richard Nagasawa, a sociology professor at Arizona State University.
Wing arrived in the U.S. ambitious to learn English. Wing came to Phoenix, joining the family of his uncle Henry Sr., because the schools here would admit him. Under California law at the time, Chinese children could be (and were) excluded even from segregated schools if they didn't already know English, Nagasawa says in his 1986 biography Summer Wind.
Once in Phoenix, Wing Ong entered first grade at Grant Elementary School, then a new school just west of downtown on Adams Street, at the age of fifteen. He completed elementary school in four years and graduated from Phoenix Union High School after two years.
Wing's first exposure to politics came during high school, when he worked as a houseboy for Governor Thomas E. Campbell. The Campbells were so impressed by him they later helped him through law school at the University of Arizona. Fred Ong remembers his cousin Wing as "very dedicated, ambitious."
He was also outgoing, voluble and an astute observer of American custom and politics, says his daughter, Madeline Ong-Sakata. "Dad understood the system," she says. "A lot of Chinese Americans don't know how to play the game, but my father did, and he played it."
Wing initially followed his uncle and cousins into the family business, as did most of the second-generation Chinese in Phoenix. But his career ambitions outstripped those of most of his generation--and scandalized some of his relatives, according to his children.
Even as he prepared to enter a traditional marriage arranged by his uncle Henry, Wing notified his intended that he wanted to become a lawyer some day. His marriage to sixteen-year-old Rose Wong, whom he never saw before her arrival from China just in time for the wedding, carried obligations in both directions, Ong-Sakata explains. "She promised to support him in his goal to become a lawyer, but in return he had to promise to help her brother and sister emigrate," Ong-Sakata says. "That's the way it worked with arranged marriages. It was a pact and each side got something from it."
Profits from their grocery store were counted in pennies, and their first child was born in the back room. Nevertheless, recalls Ong-Sakata, "my father made good on his promise to bring my uncle and auntie over, and they helped Mom run the store while my dad went to law school in Tucson."
At the time Wing Ong entered law school, Phoenix's small population of Chinese was occupied almost exclusively in the grocery, laundry, and restaurant businesses, or were raising the produce that supplied the groceries and restaurants. The notion of seeking an advanced degree, let alone running for political office, was beyond imagining to most of Wing's generation.
Wing Ong graduated at the top of his law class in 1943 and became one of only eight Chinese-American lawyers in the U.S. He set up a storefront office next to the Wing F. Ong grocery store at 13th and Jefferson Streets across from Booker T. Washington Elementary School (now the New Times building.) Wing ran for the state House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1946 and was elected, the first Chinese American in the country to achieve such status. Over the course of his career, he was elected twice to the state House and once to the state Senate.
As a lawyer, Wing Ong represented the poor of Phoenix and battled immigration laws on behalf of newly arrived Chinese in San Francisco. In political life, he backed welfare, education and job-security measures.
Meanwhile, Henry Sr. helped establish the First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix. Henry Jr. remains active in the church and has been a trustee for Grand Canyon College (now University) and has served as state president for the Gideons and the Baptist Children's Home. Fred Ong taught night courses in citizenship to recent immigrants under a program sponsored by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the American Legion in Phoenix.
The resemblance between the Ongs' story and a series of Currier & Ives tableaux, unmarked by black sheep or other blemishes, is no accident. "We were able to establish ourselves because we were honest; we were involved in legitimate, honest businesses," Fred Ong says. "It is not that we're smarter than other people; it's that we work harder."
In America, this is the recipe for success. Or it should be. But the younger Ongs--and other Asian Americans of their generation--say the recent tide of ethnically motivated violence across the U.S. offers discouraging evidence that, once again, someone is tilting the game.
"I'D LIKE MY CHILDREN to be able to walk down the streets of Detroit and not get beat to death because they're Asian."
Madeline Ong-Sakata, who's in her fifties, sounds almost flippant as she responds to a question about her hopes for her children. But her underlying sentiment of frustration, fear and anger is echoed often by members of her generation as they confront a new set of barriers based on stereotypes, discrimination and downright resentment.
"Throughout the country there's been a well-documented rise in anti-Asian sentiment in recent years," notes Richard Nagasawa. "It's a particular concern to parents like Madeline whose children are just reaching adulthood."
Within the past year, vandals in the Phoenix metro area have attacked a Chinese cultural center in Chandler, and the offices of the Japanese-American Citizens League have been hit twice, most recently last month. "Everything seemed fine here until the vandalizing of the Chinese cultural center in November," Ong-Sakata says.
The emergence of hate crimes like the 1982 murder of Detroit resident Vincent Chin, beaten to death on the eve of his wedding by two unemployed white autoworkers he'd never met, sends a chilling message to Asian-American parents. "I think it's economic--people have to blame someone for the hard times," Ong-Sakata says. "The beginning of hate crimes in Phoenix coincided with the appearance of skinheads, according to the police. I think it's a small group of people who are actually doing the violence, but it reflects a wider attitude.
"The attitude is fed by the media, and the way it presents things," Ong-Sakata says. "For instance when Mitsubishi buys something, it's reported as a Japanese buy, but if a British company buys something, it's not even news. Most people aren't even aware that the British and Dutch own a lot more of Arizona than the Japanese do."
She complains that reporters constantly equate being Asian with being "foreign," setting the stage for discrimination. One example she points to is a New Times headline in the September 1990 Best of Phoenix supplement that lumped Asian restaurants together as "Refugee Restaurants."
"My children are completely American. That's how they see themselves," she continues. "But others look at them and still see `Chinese.' It's very common for people to ask us where we're from and be surprised to find it is here."
Ong-Sakata says her parents never mentioned discrimination when she was growing up, and not until she reached adulthood did she realize even a family like the Ongs, with wealth and education, could not live where it chose in the Phoenix of the 1950s.
The city's unofficial Chinatown, called China Alley, had been located under the site of the new Phoenix Suns basketball arena (and is now under excavation). But efforts by anti-Chinese groups to pass laws forcing the Chinese to stay in China Alley, which in other places gave rise to the Chinatowns of today, fell afoul of the state constitution.
In Phoenix housing discrimination against the Chinese took less obvious forms. China Alley was a magnet for new arrivals up until the 1930s, but families such as the Ongs sought to move away as their businesses prospered.
"My father practiced law for a time in San Francisco, and when we returned to Phoenix in 1956, Mom and Dad looked around for a house for us," Ong-Sakata says. "I kept saying, `Ooo, let's live in the Phoenix Country Club, let's buy a house on East Camelback.' My mother would just drop the subject. Years later I found out it was because those neighborhoods all had deed restrictions prohibiting Chinese. Now they aren't enforced, but a lot of them are still on the books."
Ong-Sakata says, referring to her involvement in the city's Pacific Rim Advisory Council and other public activities, "Now I understand [prejudice] is out there, and it's one of the reasons I do what I do, because I can foresee my children encountering prejudice." Among the Ongs, as with other Chinese Americans, the shift from business to the professions began with Ong-Sakata's generation and has continued among their children, both boys and girls. Parents shouldered the extra expense necessary because it was used for education, which they valued, and because it nudged the ceiling a bit higher for their children. Fred Ong, for instance, notes with pride that all five of his daughters are professionals.
But even as the third- and fourth-generation Chinese Americans branch out into medicine, law and other professions, they are hitting the same barriers that stopped their grandparents. "My daughter is a CPA with a large accounting firm in Los Angeles and last year was assigned to help a client who was being audited," Ong-Sakata says. "When the client learned her last name, they called her boss and asked, `Is she Oriental? We don't work with Orientals here, send someone else.' They didn't even want to meet her."
Most expressions of racial animosity are not nearly so crudely expressed, ASU Professor Nagasawa says. But they are widespread, nevertheless, he maintains. "You enter a profession and run into this invisible ceiling," Nagasawa says. "You won't find Chinese at the top in City Hall; you'll find very few [ASU] deans or department heads who are Asian.
"And when we complain, the attitude is like, `They have education, they have a profession, what more do they want?'" he says. "We wear the label `successful,' but what does that really mean? That you're educated, that we make money?
"What kind of success is it when you are not allowed to rise to the natural level of your abilities?"
In 1983, a group of Chinese-American writers, in an anthology titled The Big Aiiieeeee!, took direct aim at the new stereotype developing around their community's success. While their grandparents struggled with labels like "opium peddler," "filthy heathen" and the like, writer Frank Chin and his colleagues argued they are still being categorized, albeit in more sophisticated terms: "The white stereotype of the Asian . . . is the only stereotype completely devoid of manhood. Our nobility is that of an efficient housewife."
Her family's heritage may be one of the oldest in the city, but were her son to run for office "he would still be judged as representing all Asians," Ong-Sakata says. "We won't lose that until we are accepted as equals, and we haven't come that far."
end part 2 of 2
"My dad always said you have to know your culture to be a better man," recalls Fred Ong.
"A lot of Chinese Americans don't know how to play the game, but my father did, and he played it."
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Profits from their grocery store were counted in pennies, and their first child was born in the back room.
"My children are completely American. That's how they see themselves. But others look at them and still see `Chinese.'"
"When the client learned her last name, they called her boss and asked, `Is she Oriental? We don't work with Orientals here, send someone else.'"
"We wear the label `successful,' but what does that really mean?