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."