Phoenix Chinese American History

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A look at the history of the Chinese American community in Phoenix as the City hosts Phoenix Chinese Week 2012, a celebration of the Chinese New Year.

Ted Simons: Welcome to the year of the dragon. The Chinese new year started Monday as did Phoenix Chinese week 2012. It's a week long celebration of Chinese culture and history. Here to talk about Phoenix's Chinese community is Lucy Yuen, first generation Chinese American born in Phoenix in 1931, and Eddie Yue, also a Phoenix native. Thanks for joining us.

Lucy Yuen: Thanks for having us.

Eddie Yue: Thank you.

Ted Simons: you betcha! Let's start with you, Lucy. The history of Chinese Americans in Phoenix. Give us a grand overview.

Lucy Yuen: Well, it goes way back. I think we have had Chinese in the Phoenix area for more than 100 years. One of the first ones was Thomas Tang's mother, Lucy sing. She was born in Tempe in about 1905, I believe. She was probably the first Chinese woman born in the Phoenix area. After that many of the Chinese migrated into Phoenix. Most of the people that lived in Phoenix ran grocery stores. That was our main way of earning a living. I think it was that way because that was an occupation that didn't require a lot of skill, you know, and nothing that was too technical. So many of the Chinese had grocery stores. So a lot of us grew up in the grocery store business. You'll find that the first generation Chinese that are here were in the grocery business.

Ted Simons: I know that's how you grew up.

Lucy Yuen: That's right.

Ted Simons: You grew up that way as well. About 59th avenue and Thomas, a little gas station, a little action out there?

Eddie Yue: Yes. My dad came here in 1922 after graduating from University in China. At that time it was Canton. It was the Harvard of the south. When he graduated he had to take two foreign languages. English was one and the other was German. So he spoke Mandarin, Cantonese and a dialect. He put it to good use because when he came to Phoenix he taught at one of the Chinese schools.

Ted Simons: You mentioned Chinese schools. From what I read, correct me if I'm wrong, the kids, young kids would go to public schools, provided they were allowed in the public schools, and then on weekend and later they would go to Chinese schools.

Lucy Yuen: That's correct. Every day from 5:00 until 8:00.

Ted Simons: Every day after regular school from 5:00 to 8:00?

Lucy Yuen: that's right. Then on Saturday we went from 9:00 until 4:00. So that was --

Eddie Yue: I think one of his students was judge Thomas Tang, whose father was here, and had some mercantile in the old part of Chinatown next to America west arena. A while back they tried to -- the Phoenix Suns wanted to build a W Hotel over it but it was an historical building owned by the city of Phoenix. There was a committee that was against it. I was the co-chair along with ex corporation commissioner Barry Wong. We filed suit on that and won that. As a result the Sun mercantile building is still there. Judge Tang containing was one of our prominent citizens. He was on the city council, he was a superior court judge, and later appointed to the U.S. circuit --

Lucy Yuen: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ted Simons: sure.

Eddie Yue: in San Francisco. His wife, Dr. Pearl young, is noted too. She just recently received the spirit of America award with the national Chinese American citizens alliance. This year in August of 2011.

Lucy Yuen: She was very prominent in the field of pediatrics for the Maricopa County health department.

Ted Simons: You mentioned America west arena. My general knowledge of this says that that was at one point Phoenix's Chinatown. Literally the imprint of the arena is over over what was Chinatown.

Lucy Yuen: That's right. That was at 1st street and Madison. The Chinese school Eddie and I went to was at 2nd and Madison. The America West arena was built right in that site there.

Ted Simons: Were there other areas of town in the valley, other cities, other areas where the Chinese population seemed to take root?

Lucy Yuen: No, I think in Phoenix that is what is different from other cities. The Chinese population is scattered over a wide area. We have not concentrated in one area. When there was a Chinatown a lot of the men lived there. A lot of the men had families in China. They always worked hard and they saved their money and they sent it back to China to support their families. When we were growing up, we assumed, our parents told us that we were going to be going back to China, so we never thought we would be living here at that time. Of course being children, you know, they tell you what's going to happen and that's what you're going to stay with. But then in 1937, the war started with Japan, so I think that more or less --

Ted Simons: Changed those plans. Yes.

Lucy Yuen: Changed those plans.

Eddie Yue: Other notable Chinese people in the Phoenix area was Senator ONG. In 1946 he was elected to the Arizona house, and then he was -- when he was here, he -- I guess he had something to do with close Campbell, one of our first governors. And then in 1965, he ran for Arizona Senate and was elected to the Arizona Senate. So he was probably one of the first Chinese who held such a high office among Chinese Americans. One of our pioneers. To this day, you know, there's another person in the Arizona house, and that's Kimberly Yee. She is a member of the Yee clan, which I'm a member of.

Ted Simons: I know areas of south and central Phoenix were very important to the chinese community here in Phoenix because those were areas that were for lack of a better word segregated, were they not?

Lucy Yuen: yes, that's right.

Eddie Yue: yep.

Lucy Yuen: Most of the grocery stores were free south of Roosevelt, and you'd find a grocery store on almost every corner on Jefferson street, Washington street, Madison, down to Buckeye. That's where most of the Chinese grocery stores were concentrated.

Eddie Yue: Then in the '50s they started branching out.

Ted Simons: We've only have about a minute left. I don't want to cut you off, but we have Chinese week going on. What do you want folks to know?

Lucy Yuen: We have -- we're going to have food booths and we'll have a children's pavilion where they will be demonstrating crafts and children can participate in that. We have a full exhibit of which many of the pictures we're showing you today. We'll have continuous entertainment on the stage and then of course our finale will be at the banquet at the great wall, which will serve a ten-course meal.

Eddie Yue: This Friday we're having the opening at noontime at the cultural center. The American legion post 50, which I'm a member, will be doing the honor guard and posting the colors at that time.

Ted Simons: Very good. it's great to have you both here. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Lucy Yuen: We enjoyed being here.

Lucy Yuen:First Generation Chinese American; Eddie Yue:First Generation Chinese American;

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