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.