History of Chinese Grocery Stores

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In Southern Arizona, a new project hopes to document the untold stories of Chinese Grocery stores and their unique cultural ties in the barrios of Old Pueblo.

Jose Cárdenas
>> any historical account of the old barrios in Tucson would have to include a few chapters on the one Chinese grocery store, or actually many Chinese grocery stores. A new project hopes to document many of the untold stories of these early business families and the unique cultural hybridization that took place in the barrios of the old pueblo. Luis Carrion has the story.

Luis Carrion
>> when you need to visit the neighborhood convenience store, you're likely to end up at a place like this. However, there was a time in Tucson when the neighborhood convenience store looked more like this.

Arlene Gin Lee
>> mom and pop stores. That's the kind of store my dad and mom had. We lived behind the store but today they're not like that anymore.

Ora Lee
>> all our neighbors would be the Mexican people living on that street. They were also my friends, my schoolmates.

Luis Carrion
>> the Chinese grocery store was an important fixture of just about every block in the old barrios of Tucson, and before the influx of larger corporate retail businesses, the small family-owned stores served as a social and financial anchor of the neighborhood.

Patsy Lee
>>we couldn't buy land where the white people lived that was not allowed. So we ended up being in the barrio because of our language and the opportunity for us to own our own business and our own property. Most 90% of the stores were in the barrios.

Luis Carrion
>> Patsy Lee is part of the last Chinese American generation to grow up in the grocery business here in Tucson. She's also now the president of the Tucson Chinese association and has begun a project to document the history of the Chinese grocery store in Tucson. She points out that the story of the Chinese markets here is one of two cultures meeting and devolving into something new and entirely unique.

Patsy Lee
>> what developed I think was the greatest thing my best friends are Hispanic, people I grew up with, and I speak a little Spanish. So I'm trilingual. It's weird, when growing up I spoke better Spanish and Chinese than I ever spoke English.

Luis Carrion
>> this project hopes to offer some insight into the role of the Chinese Americans in southern Arizona. And it was born in part out of the sense of urgency that Lee felt in talking to the members of the senior program.

Patsy Lee
>> we started this history program at the culture center, and one of the things we realized was that we didn't know where we were going to start. I knew I grew up in the grocery store business. My friends did, and why are we children of grocery store owners? And we said, well, let's start with grocery stores. Everybody had pictures of ourselves and our parents at the counter, or at the butcher counter, so that's what we did.

Luis Carrion
>> the images that have been donated by the families reveal a bygoner era that seem so much simpler than the world we live in now. For people like Arlene Lee whose family lived and worked in the still-standing anita street market, the memories are bitter sweet.

Arlene Lee
>> that's a store we moved to. It had very small living quarters behind, in back of the store. It also had a basement. The first year we moved to Tucson, my mother always slept in the basement. Because it was much cooler. And she could not take the heat in Tucson. She eventually got used to it.

Arlene Lee
>> anita street is a short block, and we had three grocery stores. And my friend Sophie was at the store diagonally from us. A block to my right of our store there was another grocery store. There was no competition. I think the customers all had credit, of course. My mother had a vegetable garden in the back. And I would take vegetables to my friend's family.

Patsy Lee
>> the connection is amazing. Where I grew up in barrio Hollywood, most of my friends' parents worked for the mines or the railroad. And so they got paid every Friday. They would come back into these Chinese grocery stores and pay their bills. So during the entire week, my friends would come in, you know, and say, Maria, I need a pound of meat and bread, and buy $20 worth of groceries, and all my friends had to do was sign their name.

Luis Carrion
>> for Patsy, the photographs as well as the oral histories are only part of the first stages of this cultural history project. The plan is to eventually publish a book that reveals the unique sense of community that was created around these neighborhood anchors of the barrios.

Patsy Lee
>> we knew everybody by their first name, and you knew their parents all their brothers and sisters, and everybody knew each other. To me I think that's, America has to give back to where we care for each other.

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