The Peoples of Utah, The Pioneer Chinese of Utah

The Peoples of Utah, ed. by Helen Z. Papanikolas, © 1976
“The Pioneer Chinese of Utah,” pp. 251–77
by Don C. Conley

The distance from the subtropical rice paddies of China’s southernmost province to the mountainous desert of the Great Basin spans one-third of the earth’s circumference. Along this tumultuous course of Pacific Ocean waves and Sierra Nevada mountain peaks came Chinese men to forge an integral but mostly forgotten link in Utah’s frontier life.

The majority of the approximately one hundred thousand Chinese arriving at the port of San Francisco between 1860 and 1880 came from Kwangtung Province.1 In its capital, Kwangchow (Canton), the first trade between China and western nations flourished from 1760 to 1840.2 This commercial venture brought news of American current events, such as the California gold rush, that stimulated the imaginations of adventuresome Cantonese. The confrontation of two civilizations determined the future of many Chinese who found themselves toiling in factories, mines, chophouses, laundries, and building the first railroads in North America.

In the nineteenth century floods, typhoons, droughts, and general poverty were the endemic forces on the Pearl River delta of which Kwangchow was the city center. Besides insufficient protection from natural catastrophe, further insecurity stemmed from the loose and faltering central government in Peking, twelve hundred miles north of Kwangtung,3 an abundance of local bandits roaming the hills, ethnic disputes among the three main districts (Hakka, Punti, and Tanka), local official corruption, heavy taxes which drained a large portion of meager earnings, and unparalleled population density.

Dr. Ernest King and his family who sold Chinese goods and repaired china dolls in their King Doll Hospital

The family was the single institution providing some stability in that chaotic society.4 Hardship was reality to the Chinese; and if leaving such circumstances for an opportunity of self and familial improvement for a sometimes lengthy but usually temporary period could by chance alleviate such burdens, why remain in predictable immobility? And so, the opportunity was welcomed by thousands of Chinese who packed a few worldly belongings in straw baskets, balanced on bamboo shoulder poles, and set off for the riches of America.

The discovery of gold in California was initially the chief attraction. Besides the obvious motive of quick wealth, the Chinese idealized the Confucian teaching of an extended family (joint-family).5 Central to this ideal was financial security that provided Chinese education in the classics for male heirs. This education, in turn, brought land ownership, membership in the scholar-gentry class, and substantial living quarters where many generations could be housed under one roof. The ideal was achieved by an elite minority, mostly those already in the upper social strata.6 Nevertheless, it permeated all levels of society, existing dreamlike in the minds of the people. Whether philosophical or practical, there was no want of motives for going.

The emigrants made their way to Hong Kong and from there to San Francisco, a journey averaging about two months.7 The earliest groups were sponsored as indentured servants by one of the Chinese Six Companies, all centered in San Francisco. Because this proved ineffective, it was replaced by the credit-ticket system, wherein a Hong Kong brokerage firm advanced the forty-dollar passage and a connecting firm in the United States found work for the immigrant and collected the voyage debt from his eventual earnings. This credit-ticket system was used by most immigrants unable to pay their own way.8

The construction of the Central Pacific from Sacramento to Promontory brought the first Chinese into what is now the stale of Utah. At one point there were more than twelve thousand Chinese employed in the building of the Central Pacific.9 E. B. Crocker, brother of Charles Crocker, Central Pacific general superintendent, was among the first to suggest using Chinese laborers.10 Charles Crocker tried to persuade his Irish construction superintendent, J.H. Strobridge, to employ Chinese, but be resisted until labor became scarce and then consented to experiment with fifty Chinese. These fifty did so well that no limit was placed on Chinese employment.11

Confidence in the Chinese laborer was confirmed by Le]and Stanford, the governor of California and one of the “Big Four” railroad bosses, when he wrote Andrew Johnson:

As a class they are quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious, and economical. Ready and apt to learn all the different kinds of work required in railroad building, they soon become as efficient as white laborers.12

They not only laid track with consistent precision but also became legendary in their blasting of tunnels and ridges with nitroglycerin while lowered in baskets over cliffs fourteen hundred feet above the American River Canyon.13 Their Chinese food was more conducive to good health than the meat and starch diet of American workers and their tea drinking protected them from diseases transmitted through polluted water.

After moving across Nevada into Utah, the Central Pacific met the Union Pacific at Promontory. Chinese participated at the joining of the rails. In preparation for driving the Golden Spike

a slicked-up team of the Union Pacific’s best Irish track-layers had already swung the west rail across the gap in the track and spiked it down, except on the missing tie. Now a gang of Chinese, in clean blue jackets, moved out to put the final, east rail in place.14

In all the talk that took place at Promontory on that occasion, no mention was made of the Chinese contribution; but the Chinese were not altogether forgotten. At a Sacramento celebration, Charles Crocker “in his brief, proud speech was the only one of the day that recognized the role of the Chinese.” “In the midst of our rejoicing,” he said, “I wish to call to mind that the early completion of this railroad we have built has been in great measure due to the poor, destitute class of laborers called the Chinese–to the fidelity and industry they have shown…”15

On the centennial of that memorable event at Promontory, May 10, 1969, in a speech given by Secretary of the Treasury John Volpe the gargantuan task, the sweat, lifeblood, and genius of the Chinese railroad man was left unmentioned.16

Promontory became the gateway for most Chinese coming into Utah in frontier times. Between 1870 and 1880 the greatest population of Chinese in the state lived within the boundaries of Box Elder County, employed almost entirely as section hands on the railroad.17

In the late 1880s and early nineties, when W. A. “Pappy” Clay was just a boy, he was allowed entrance into a world unknown to most, excepting the Chinese who possessed it. Wallace Clay was born March 11, 1884, three hundred feet from that historic spot where “the golden spike” joined the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. From 1884 to 1893 his father was the telegraph operator and Central Pacific agent at Blue Creek where Wallace Clay’s childhood was surrounded by the objects and people of the railroad in its day of glory. The precocious observations of the child were still present in the man of ninety years when he was interviewed:

After they used them [the Chinese] in the construction of the Central Pacific roadbed, then about every twelve or fourteen miles they had a section house along to keep the track up after it was built, and at each one of these section houses they had a section boss and he was usually a big, burly Irishman, and then he usually had about thirty Chinese coolies working under him as section hands, and that was the set up all the way from Ogden to Roseberg, California.18

My name being Wallace Clay, was changed by those Orientals to “Wah Lee, Melicum Boy,” and I more or less lived with them from 1889 to 1892, and only slept with my parents and had breakfast at home mostly at Blue Creek Water Tank Station during one-half of each twenty-four hours.19

Because he was inquisitive, bright, and just a child, Wallace Clay was allowed to see and experience first hand what was only conjecture and mystery to most Caucasian Americans of that era. He explained in fascinating detail the intricate and well-camouflaged construction of an opium den and of the dream world in which the opium smoker moves–a process Clay observed rather than actually experienced. He spoke of moments of sharing, of an interchange of knowledge and friendship:

When not “raising taps and tapping ties” those good China-men, among whom were “my very best friends” were many who probably got homesick for their wives and children in China, so they took me as a sort of pet and they gave me much Chinese candy and firecrackers and Chinese money and they asked many questions about American life and I asked them many questions about life in China.

I will now describe how my “Chinese friends” lived at old Blue Creek Station in 1891. The antiquated box-car they lived in had been remodeled into a “work-car,” in one end of which a series of small bunk beds had been built as a vertical column of three bunks one above the other on both sides of the car-end from floor to ceiling so that around eighteen Chinamen could sleep in the bedroom end of the car, while the other end of the car served as a kitchen and dining room wherein there was a cast iron cook stove with its stove pipe going up through the roof of the car and with all kinds of pots and pans and skillets hanging around the walls, plus cubby holes for tea cups and big and little blue china bowls and chop sticks and wooden table and benches–about like we now find in forest service camp grounds–occupying the middle of the car.

After twelve-hour shifts on the railroad roadbed, these men who conquered some of the most rugged terrain in the West let their thoughts turn toward loved ones. Clay often saw them “writing long letters back home to China wherein they used little paint brushes to make their Chinese hieroglyphics or picture writing.” The Chinese also indulged in the age-old remedy for aching muscles, taking “time to prepare a nice hot evening bath” in a big wooden tub of steaming water.

Since even the sound of music in the West was alien to the Chinese, with their own traditions of sacred, dramatic, and popular music–written in an entirely different scale from western music–the men Clay knew played two common instruments, the lo (large gong) and, possibly, the nu k’in (two-stringed fiddle). The familiar sounds may have eased their loneliness.

The men also took pride in preparing and sharing delicious-sounding meals. As heirs of one of the world’s great classic cuisines, these Chinese obtained the necessary ingredients and combined and ate them with gusto. While the meal was a single course and not so elegant as Peking duck, it was surely satisfying to hungry workers.

The cooks built their own type of outdoor ovens in the dirt banks along side of the sidetrack, and their stake pot spits along side their hunk cars, where they did most of their cooking when the weather permitted. Each cook would have the use of a very big iron kettle hung over an open fire and into it they would dump a couple of measures of Chinese unhulled brown rice, Chinese noodles, bamboo sprouts and dried seaweed, different Chinese seasonings, and American chickens cut up into small pieces…When the cook stirred up the fire and the concoction began to swell until finally the kettle would be nearly full of steaming, nearly dry brown rice with the cut-up chicken all through it.

Each Chinaman would take his big blue bowl and ladle it full of the mixture and deftly entwine his chopsticks between his fingers and string the mixture into his mouth in one continuous operation, while in the meantime he would be drinking his cup of tea and still more tea. I was the curious, watching kid so the cook would ladle up a little blue bowlful for me (Little Wab Lee) and hand me a pair of chopsticks and with them I would try to eat like the rest of my buddies, but I never could get the “knack” so I would end up eating with my fingers which would make the Chinese laugh and I would get no tea.20

Besides Wallace Clay, there were other earlier (but none so excellent) eyewitnesses of Chinese life in Box Elder County. Among the earliest recorded observations were those by a group of excursionists from Cincinnati experimenting with the new-found luxury of railroad travel. Here is their report written September 7, 1869:


It was there that the excursionists saw the Chinamen. Sam Hing and Ah Lee have little huts adorned with signs, vouching for “good washing and ironing done here.” A gang of Chinese laborers, in loose blue muslin garments and peaked parasol hats of straw, were grading a new switch at the station. Their slow, measured way of plying their shovels, explosive cackle of conversation, and frugal midday meal, and manner of eating, amused those who watched them.21

Corinne, the once-booming railroad center, had a Chinese community in its heyday. The artifacts of an old Chinese laundry are among the memorabilia housed in the railroad museum there. An editorial from the Utah Reporter provides a vivid, although ethnocentric, impression of its international atmosphere:

    Corinne is just now a fine place for the study of ethnology. We have in and around the city some five hundred Indians,

two or three hundred Chinese,

    and quite a number of citizens of African descent. Our streets are gay with red blankets, paint and feathers, with Mongolian blue and purple, and with all the varieties of costume affected by hunters, miners, merchants, ranchmen and freighters of the “superior race”22

The same newspaper reported the first known Chinese wedding, attesting to the presence of Chinese women in the territory.

…on the evening of Saturday, the twenty-third, by Justice Sewell, Mr. John Tip [“John” was a nickname applied to all Chinese males in frontier times.] to Miss Ma Choy both of the Flowery Kingdom, but now residents of Corinne. The affair took place at the restaurant of Mrs. Clemmens and the happy bridegroom indulged in quite a handsome “set out of cake, wine and other delicacies. Several ladies and gentlemen of the Anglo-Saxon “Persuasian” were present by invitation and the novel affair was by them pronounced a very pleasant occasion. We understand that the history of the lovers has been a romantic one, and that John secured his fair one by a regular American runaway. The surroundings were well worthy of the first Mongolian wedding in Utah.23

Terrace, like Kelton and many other legendary Utah ghost towns, boasted a large Chinese community in frontier days. Terrace was located about one hundred miles west of Promontory; little remains of it since a fire drove out its few remaining inhabitants in 1900. According to the 1880 Census there were fifty-four Chinese in Terrace, only one of whom was a woman. Most of the men were railroad employees, but others were independent small businessmen. One man named Hong Lee “kept a store,” another, Wah Hing, ran a laundry. Ching Moon was a grocer, and the only woman, true to frontier expectations, was a twenty-eight-year-old prostitute. One Wong Tz Chong performed the handiwork of a tailor, and another, Ah Lei, raised vegetables in his own garden. Apparently there were two Chinese laundries in Terrace, because Wa Hop was a laundry proprietor also.

How valuable are the census records? Regarding the history of the pioneer Chinese in the West, census records are perhaps more Informative than the few other records available. Such simple statistics as names, ages, occupations, and literacy, in the dearth of written history about the Chinese in the state, help clarify certain misconceptions: many of these first Chinese could read and write, which puts to rest the faulty notion that they were all coolies. Far from being unskilled, a number of the Chinese took advantage of the economic potential of the new towns to leave the ranks of labor and open their own businesses.

In recent times, Frank Tinker told of souvenir-seekers in Terrace discovering evidence of the lives of those persons listed on the census rolls: Chinese pottery, coins, and assorted artifacts.24

Tinker has also recorded the familiar experiences of a few old-timers, George Grose and the Hersheys, who observed the attempts to keep cultural customs alive even while enduring the isolation imposed upon so many Chinese men in mining and railroad towns throughout the old West.

Once a year, on their New Years Day, the Chinese made long strips of white coconut candy which the youngsters of the village came to beg. There were no wives here and no children. When the men died they were taken to a cemetery west of town which defies location today. Later some of the remains were shipped back to China…25

The practice of burying the body for a period of five to ten years, exhuming it, and shipping the bones back to the homeland to be placed in the ancestral tomb may be compared in part to the desire of many people for burial in native soil. Ancestor reverence, a significant aspect of religion in China (Buddhism, Taoism, and Ancestor Reverence), apparently motivated this custom among Chinese.

As the railroad center for Utah, Ogden witnessed the development of a Chinatown with census figures rising from 33 Chinese in 1880 to 106 in 1890.26 The Chinese section was characterized by “many rows of low wooden structures…built along Twenty-fifth Street from the Broom Hotel to the railroad station, four city blocks west of Washington Boulevard, and many of these establishments were operated by the Chinese.” 27

Among laundries operated by Chinese in Ogden were: Ching Wah, 2438 Grant Avenue, Hang Yei, 2222 Grant Avenue, Sam Wah, 271 Twenty-fifth Street, Sue Wah, 123 Twenty-fifth Street, and Wong Lee at 229 Twenty-fifth Street.28

Wong Leung Ka was one of the earliest established Chinese merchants in Ogden. He arrived around 1880 but did not come with the influx of railroad workers. However, like many other Chinese of that period, he came to this country without wife or family. Unlike settlers from northern Europe, most Chinese had not left their homeland permanently, and most intended to return. What little is known about Wong Leung Ka was revealed by his son, Wong Siu Pang of Salt Lake City. Wong Siu Pang, who had never known his father, learned of him from family members, mostly from an older brother, the only other child in the family, who lives in Wyoming and has been in the United States for over fifty years. Wong Leung Ka resided in Ogden for forty-six years. During those years, he returned to his family in China twice. Each visit lasted less than a year because he traveled with a business visa that did not allow him to remain away longer.

“Sing Lung Store” was the name of Wong Leung Ka’s shop in Ogden. The store carried groceries, canned goods, and Chinese imported items. Above the store, in the upper level of the building, were sleeping rooms. Wong Leung Ka was known for his compassion and generosity. When times were hard and men were unemployed, Chinese in the area sought Leung Ka’s store as a place of refuge. Sleeping rooms and meals were provided. When, and if, employment was found, the men would pay back what they could.

In 1927, while waiting to embark to China for a third time, he died suddenly at the age of sixty-nine. His dream of returning to see his youngest son and enjoy a reunion with his family was unfulfilled.29 The basic pattern of the sojourn of Wong Leung Ka was repeated thousands of times by other Chinese.

…Because some Chinese had such difficulties living in America, so he hoped his children would not come here to live.30

This was the message of Wong Leung Ka to his sons. But like their father, a spirit of adventure and faith brought them to this country where they have made their homes. Sometime after the youngest son Wong Siu Pang emigrated with his wife, three sons, and daughter in 1964, he and his older brother drove to Ogden and stood on the site of “Sing Lung Store.” It was no longer there, and everything all around was changed. The old proprietor’s grandchildren were being educated at the University of Utah and other institutions of higher learning. Among them are two promising artists, a scientist, and an inventor, children of Wong Siu Pang.

In the 1870s a controversial theory that Chinese immigration to the United States should be suspended because of high unemployment and job shortage was initiated in California, rapidly filtered into all states and territories of the United States, and was especially defended by those areas with Chinese populations. It was also argued that unemployment was high and jobs were scarce because the Chinese, willing to work for lower wages, were usurping jobs rightfully meant for white Americans. Newspapers in Utah shared the attitude of editors throughout the western region: the Chinese must go. The uproar culminated in the passage of the Chinese exclusion laws beginning in 1882. An editorial in the Ogden junction said:

…But when every argument in favor of the Chinese is exhausted, the case of today is not covered; for times are hard, work in places is difficult if not impossible to get and the wages of white men, as a consequence, have dwindled to such an extent that there is at least but a trifling difference between the prices paid for work performed by the white man and that done by the copper-colored incubus.

The first care of the nation should be the welfare of its subjects, and when we are brought into competition for day’s labor, something must be done. There are unquestionably more workmen than there is work to be performed; and to divide what little there is with the inferior and alien race, is not a good or a just policy.31

The editorial made no note of Chinese-owned businesses that contributed to the economic health of the area by creating jobs and markets for goods and services. Also ignored was the employment of Chinese on the Central Pacific Railroad out of desperation because not enough local citizens were willing to hazard such work.32

Since 1900 the largest Chinese population in Utah has been consistently in Salt Lake City. After railroad employment diminished for the Chinese in Box Elder County, the greatest number of Chinese remaining in Utah gravitated to the capital city. The 1890 Census counted 271 Chinese in Salt Lake City, whereas Box Elder County had only 147 for the same period.

Plum Alley ran north and south dividing the city block between Main and State streets, the cross streets being First and Second South. Within and around Plum Alley the Chinese developed a microcommunity with grocery and merchandise stores, laundries and restaurants. Henry Ju, as a child in the 1930s, recalled accompanying his father Joy to Plum Alley on special occasions:

They used to have those little shops where you could go and buy Chinese groceries that they sent from Frisco to here–then you’d look in the back and see a bunch a guys settin’ around tables gambling; and how some of ’em used to sit there and smoke their water pipes.

Chinese dragon float in Pioneer Semi-Centennial celebration

On New Year’s Day [Chinese Lunar New Year] they had a big New Year’s celebration sponsored by the tong in Plum Alley and they’d invite the police chief and mayor and all the dignitaries and they’d set around there and eat all the goodies and some of them old guys [the old Chinese men] would come over and give us the red envelopes with money in them [A Chinese tradition: the older married people give money to the young people, mostly children, in red decorated envelopes, the contents known as “lucky money”]; that’s all us kids looked forward to…That was quite a haul, when you’d get up there you might get twenty bucks–they used to give silver dollars…33

Salt Lake City architect William Louie, grandson of a pioneer Chinese railroad worker, said that according to ancient custom the men probably paid all their debts before the dawning of the Lunar New Year, and in camp the cook would have plenty of hot water ready for the required bath. After a midnight feast of abalone and other special foods not eaten every day, the first day of the new year was a fast from all meat. Coming from a family-oriented culture where children are prized, the men were noted for their generosity toward American youngsters, especially on Lunar New Year. Mr. Louie recalled that they always seemed to put lots of money in the traditional red packets for the children in Ogden. 34

Holidays provided occasion for greater merging between the Chinese community and the majority populace. A New Year’s parade during the 1890s in Salt Lake City is recalled by Ivy C. Towler:

    A prominent feature of nearly all New Year parades was a huge Chinese dragon two hundred feet long which progressed along the street like a gigantic centipede. The dragon itself, which swayed from side to side, had a head six feet tall spitting fire from its vicious red mouth. The back of the creature of red, yellow and green painted canvas was suspended on arched staves, supported by poles from within, placed at regular intervals, giving its body a muscular appearance. The curtained sides hung down within two feet of the ground showing the legs and sandled [sic] feet of many Chinese marching in regular rhythm.35

Jimmy Wong, a Salt Lake restaurant owner, told of the history of the Bing Kung Tong, the Salt Lake chapter of the Chinese Benevolent Society with headquarters in San Francisco. He said, “There are chapters in Los Angeles, Denver, Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno, Portland, Seattle, and other major cities with large Chinese contingencies throughout the West.” The first quarters for the tong were located in Plum Alley before the turn of the century, but Wong could not pinpoint the exact year it was first organized in Utah.36 William J. Christiansen’s research into the objectives and functioning of the old tong concluded:

    …As in other larger western cities, the Salt Lake City Bing Kung Tong’s main function was economic. It provided jobs and job counseling, transportation, translating services, lawyers, and letter writing services. Meetings were held often and economic matters were discussed. Another function was the provision of social activities such as gambling.37

Another major Utah Chinatown existed in Park City, the once-famous mining town, from its earliest days. According to the 1890 Census, 131 Chinese resided there. The first railroads into Park City were constructed in part by Chinese labor.

All the men working on the Echo and Park City Railroad have been discharged and Chinese labor substituted in their place. The former class were being paid 1.75 per day; the latter require only 1.10. Some day when we are looking through a very powerful microscope we would like to examine the soul of a corporation like the Echo and Park City Railroad Company.38

This project, in addition to mining, which always attracted Chinese to provide community services, was probably what encouraged the development of the Park City Chinatown. Fraser Buck, an old-time Park City resident, had the following to say about the Chinese in the mining settlement:

The Chinese moved into an area back of Main Street about a block above the post office; they had about fourteen or so houses there. They were very nice, they didn’t cause the people in town a lot of trouble. There are still two or three houses standing left from the old Chinatown sector.

There was a Chinaman came here called, “Old Grover” [nicknamed for Grover Cleveland] and he passed away just a few years back, but he was an old, old-timer. He was quite progressive–he acquired a house or two and rented until he built himself quite a thing. He had a son, “Joe Grover” come from China who lived with him and he inherited the houses that he had. Sometimes we used to say that he had eighty houses, but I don’t think that’s possible.

There were a few women–and there was China Mary–she lived down here on Main Street and was well received by the town.

The mines all had Chinese one or two, and when they got going, they had up to five Chinese, most of them. They took care of the cleaning [in the mines and for the miners] and all that kind of work, and the cooking.39

A landmark in old Park City was the “China Bridge” that stretched across Chinatown from Rossie Hill, the residential section of Park City.

They built the “China Bridge”–people in Rossie Hill–they didn’t like to come down through Chinatown.

Chinese laundries and restaurants were scattered in different parts of the town. Washhouses were not allowed on Main Street.40

An advertisement in the Park Record tells of a Chinese restaurant in old Park City:

    Charley Ong Lung has lately opened up a first class restaurant, opposite the Marsac Mill, where can be had choice meals at all hours. Oysters in every style. Meal tickets– twenty-one meals for $7.41

Fraser Buck’s impression was that most of the town did not resent the Chinese. However, this was not always true:

Yesterday a smart aleck thought to exhibit his smartness in front of Greenewald’s by attacking an inoffensive China-man, who was passing along the street molesting no one. He grasped the Celestial and threw him down and pulled his queue rather too severely for John’s liking. The Chinaman hastened to his feet and gathered up an armful of rocks and started for the S.A., who threw his hand back to his hip pocket under the pretense of drawing a pistol. This movement had not the effect of checking the Chinaman, who pressed him so closely and hurled stones so rapidly that the S.A. was forced to take to his heels for safety.42

The Chinese continued to be victims of sporadic, racially inspired difficulties into the first decade of the 1900s. During 1902 and 1903 the miners union campaigned to boycott Chinese restaurants and laundries, to end employment of Chinese, and to prohibit the selling and buying of Chinese goods. The acting consul general in San Francisco sent a petition of redress from See Lee and others in Park City, with a sample of articles published in the Park Record and a handbill, to the Chinese charge d’affairs in Washington, D.C. The articles, entitled “White or Chinese” and signed “Saltair,” complained that ninety-eight widows were forced to compete with Chinese restaurants and laundries.

    Shall the widows famish while the heathen Chinese feast…All members of organized labor are in duty bound to patronize only white labor, and such establishments as employ only white labor…The unorganized laborers of the camp who patronize the Oriental competitors of our race…are a greater menace…than an equal number of “scabs.” Either the widows or the Chinese must go.

The handbill was also anonymous:


By spending your money with your own race, or braid your hair in a pig tail and move to Hongkong… Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country but he never stooped so low as to patronize Chinese.43

Of the early Chinese in Tooele County, none was more famous than Sam Wing, known as “Doc Chinaman” to his fellow townspeople in Mercur. Besides practicing medicine [Chinese herbal], he was the proprietor of a laundry that employed four Chinese men.

In the early years of her marriage (1904-5), Evalee McBride Fackrell was the next-door neighbor of the doctor and his wife Molly, both of whom, she said, spoke English well. Mrs. Fackrell expressed great faith in Sam Wing as a physician:

When the doctors Out there [Mercur] had a case that they didn’t know how to cure, and got so bad–they sent for him and that man pulled many a case through that the doctors would have lost. Everybody thought if they just had the “Doc” to take care of them, they’d be all right.44

On one occasion when Mrs. Fackrell’s baby was crying during the early morning hours, the “Doc,” recognizing symptoms of colic, came into the Fackrell home and rubbed a “Chinese peppermint oil” around the baby’s mouth and navel. The baby ceased crying immediately and his mother thought the “Doc” had drugged him. Sam Wing assured her that the baby would be all right, and his words proved true.

Mrs. Fackrell described Molly’s home:

Just a beautiful little home, just a little home–with two rooms, and the men that run the laundry lived back further. I never went into their apartment at all. They had their laundry in the back part of the home.

Molly often came to visit Mrs. Fackrell, particularly to admire her baby boy. She would hold him on her knee and bounce him saying, “A pretty baby, a nice baby.” Mrs. Fackrell said, “She [Molly] had children, and they were in China, and they couldn’t bring them over here, and she was lonesome.” Molly pined for her children and the “Doc” finally insisted she return to China. In later years Mrs. Fackrell remembered seeing Sam Wing often at the New York Cafe in downtown Salt Lake. After leaving Mercur he ran the Chinese Herbal Medicine Store near the Salt Lake railroad terminal. Whether he ever returned to China is not known.

In Carbon County during the 1880s, the Chinese worked in Pleasant Valley as coal miners. No one seemed to care if they ran laundries, sold vegetables, repaired cane-bottom chairs, or cooked their ancient cuisine. But the free enterprise system could only tolerate so much freedom in the 1 880s.

At the reopening of Utah mine, Chinese were sent in. On their behalf I will say that there is still standing a portion of the mine entry that was driven by them and it is as beautiful a piece of work as one could wish to see in a coal mine. Evidently no powder was used for blasting. Entry was driven exclusively with pick work. The sides are perfectly straight to a certain height and the roof is semi-arched. Due to the method of working this entry will stand indefinitely.

A short time after the Chinese were imported into Pleasant Valley, white labor started to come in and naturally resented the presence of the yellow men. When white labor was strong enough they brought the situation to a climax and took the law into their own hands. One day they herded the Chinese into a boxcar, fastened the doors and started the car down grade. Fortunately, the car kept the track until it reached a place near Hales where there is an adverse grade. It stopped there and evidently the “Chinks” traveled the rest of the way on foot. At least they have not been seen in Pleasant Valley from that day to this.45

In the Uinta Basin during the late 1880s and the early part of this century, few personalities stand out with such prominence as Wong Sing. He had a humble beginning as a laundryman at Fort Duchesne in 1889, but during the twenties be owned and operated a merchandise store which boasted an inventory of between sixty and seventy thousand dollars.46

Phoebe Litster remembered as a girl in Vernal that:

Wong Sing and two other Chinese set up a washing and cleaning shop. I was about ten or twelve… [1891] and then I got married and we were transferred to Fort Duchesne, he had that store there all the time…Everybody traded with him, and always, before the depression, he put a sack of candy in people’s groceries before they went home. When my boy Robert was born, he came to see the baby and put a dollar in the baby’s hand. He was thoughtful, he was good; he was good to all the people.47

Besides general merchandise, the store handled furniture, ready-to-wear, meat, and groceries and acted as general agent for machinery companies and other firms.48 Phoebe Litster’s son-in-law, Oliver Bradley Cloward, joined Wong Sing as an order boy in 1921. Mr. Cloward was impressed by his benefactor.

He was a stocky built man (about five feet six inches, five feet seven), he wasn’t a flashy man, he was just a common, everyday man. He just wore kinda pants, and he usually had a yellow shirt on…

The remarkable thing about him was he had very much patience–that didn’t seem to matter to him as long as you was honest. . . . He’d try to train you in his way, and he did. He taught me to figure, and he taught me to write better, and how to treat people and bow to meet ’em?

He had an old pair of overshoes sitting around that’d been on the shelves you know, for a long while –and some poor family come in there– they got those overshoes free; or if anybody had a fire in the neighborhood, Wong Sing was there, and usually contributed the most to help those people out….

People respected him; they came from Vernal to trade with him, they came from Lapoint–all over the Basin–I’ve known cattlemen to come from around Vernal there and spent two hundred dollars at once with him.

I never beard of him being dishonest with any man in all of my life.

I was kinda backward–and he brought that out of me–he really made something out of me. He really taught me. He never taught me anything bad. He’d always say, “Let’s do it this way,” and if I ever made a mistake-I don’t know of him ever bawling me out.

He trusted people so, I guess he lost lots of money by trusting, but he just seemed like he couldn’t see a family in need.49

Wong Sing spoke the Ute language and displayed a knowledgeable interest and respect for Indian culture. His annual calendars were always designed with an Indian motif.50

The Indians would trust him. I never seen anything like it the way they trusted him. He [Wong Sing] could speak it [the Ute language] fluently. He could tell you from memory the different things that’d happened [Uinta Basin Indian history]. When I worked there, there was still some of the old chiefs, that’d come there, and he’d tell me about them. He knew, I believe, every Indian on that reservation, their character, and what they’d do, better than any man (I think) that’d ever lived out there.51

When Wong Sing died in a 1934 auto accident, sixty Ute men assembled at the office of the Indian agency to mourn his passing.52

Other Chinese lived throughout Utah in the nineteenth century. In Washington County, the boomtown of Silver Reef had a total Chinese population of fifty-one in 1880. Of these, ten were women.53 Prominent Utah author Juanita L. Brooks recalled hearing that

some of the white men knew that the leader of the Chinese had a white mistress–they tried to burn him out, I think they lit the fire–he didn’t leave.54

During her father-in-law’s declining years, Eva L. Miles wrote down his memories of life in Silver Reef:

When a Chinese man or woman died they were buried in a graveyard east and a little south of Bonanza Flat…

When they would take a person (corpse) to the grave yard, they would carry them on a litter and one or two China-men would go ahead of them, carrying a lot of small pieces of paper about two inches square. They would throw these in every direction in front and to the sides.55

This paper was “spirit money,” used to detract and appease the evil spirits who would otherwise deter the soul’s successful journey heavenward.

They thought that if the man or woman who was buried was going to heaven, they’d need to have time to eat or drink while they went. So they’d have a lot of nice aromatic roast pork and other delicacies to take down for this person to eat and a bottle of liquor.

Well, they’d put it on the grave and go away. When evening came, the Indians would come and eat the pork and drink the liquor…56

Juanita L. Brooks also recalled that:

One of the men [a scholarly Chinese] tried to teach him [George F. Miles] Chinese…He was young, inquisitive, and a brilliant, little chap. So he was friendly enough, that they took time with him, for him to learn to read.57

Silver Reef’s Chinese community advertised a variety of services in the Silver Reef Miner:

Call around to Hop Lee’s establishment and be convinced that there is no better repairer of chairs in the Reef.58

Other items and advertisements in the Silver Reef Miner were:

First Wash-house
(lower Main Street)

Washing, ironing and fluting. Work donepromptly and in best of style.59

(It is possible that this Sam Wing is the same Sam Wing [Doc Chinaman] who later had a laundry in Mercur along with his Chinese medical practice.)

Charley Legget, the well-known Oriental caterer, has established a bakery in upper Chinatown, next to Hop Lee’s store, where can be found at all times a supply of bread and table pastry. The more poetical name of the dealer in baked dough is Ah Fung.60

The Chinese New Year was appropriately celebrated here this week. Firecrackers, Celestial music, lots of fun and forgiving of past grievances were the orders of the day.61

During pioneer times, the number of Chinese converted to Christianity in Utah was minimal. But this is not to say that various denominations did not show an interest in the Chinese and a sympathy for their problems. Mormon leader James E. Talmage was one.

    Talmage, at Brooklyn tabernacle, last night, denounced the anti-Chinese law, said come the Chinese had, come they would, come they should. God liked the Chinese physiognomy so well that he had made four hundred millions of them, while he had only made one Kearney [the instigator of the anti-Chinese movement]. Talmage liked the paganism which endured insult uncomplainingly better than the Christianity which mauls and stones them. The Nation that got the inside track with them would be the richest nation of the globe.62

Among members of the Congregational church of Salt Lake City were some Chinese. An 1897 newspaper article described “a Chinese Christmas entertainment” that took place at the church “in a hall ornamented with diverse kinds of Oriental creations until it presented a very pretty and picturesque scene. The entire program was carried out by the Chinese (Sunday School scholars) themselves.” 63

The decades between 1900 and 1930 were the years of growing Chinese activity around Plum Alley. In Ogden, Chinese businesses dotted Twenty-fifth Street and spread to Grant and Lincoln avenues north. As in most Chinese communities, there were few families. In Ogden, four or five families provided the rare presence of women and children. However, during the depression years a declining population took its toll of laundries, stores, and restaurants, and by 1940 the number of Chinese in the two principal cities reached a low of fewer than five hundred. It was in this setting that the second-generation Chinese grew up.64

During World War II most of the eligible men served with the armed forces. Of the twelve in overseas units, one failed to return. Lt. Arthur Chinn from Salt Lake City was shot down in France while flying a mission in a P-51. Kingsley Wong, a Third Army infantryman, received several Purple Hearts and other medals, including the Silver Star for gallantry in action in Gennany. Many returning American-Chinese veterans capitalized on their hard-earned opportunity to attend college under the G. I. Bill, receiving an education that would probably have been an impossibility had this financial aid not been available.65

When the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1952, Chinese immigrants again began to settle in the United States. In Utah, many university students from Hong Kong and Taiwan discovered the beauty and opportunities in the state and remained to become citizens. Presently Utah universities, hospitals, and corporate businesses are dotted with names such as Lee, Wong, Chang, and Yee.66

The 1960-70 decade has seen a marked increase of 7.5 percent in Chinese population in Utah; 1,281 were listed in the 1970 Census.67 Almost half are cooks, bus boys, waiters, or owners of Chinese restaurants.68 Inability to speak English has kept many Chinese immigrants in jobs paying less than four hundred fifty dollars a month. The language barrier is being perpetuated among children from Hong Kong and Taiwan who speak little English.

Chinese immigrants and their children have serious difficulties between them. Communication is limited: “…the parents learn only enough English to get by, while the children learn only enough Chinese to converse in household conversations.”69 Parents attempt to impose traditional Chinese values on their children: they expect their children to marry and to have social relations only with Chinese; and they disapprove of American leniency toward young people. Although the children are far more Americanized than their parents, they are not completely assimilated into American life and have conflicts with both cultures.

Little has been known about the Chinese and their problems because they have been a quiet people, helping each other as best they could. Many in need of social services have been unaware that such agencies exist. Until recently the Bing Kung Tong was an important organization for Chinese in Salt Lake City. It provided translating services, letter writing, legal help, found work for new arrivals, and was a meeting place where the immigrants could enjoy speaking their native tongue. However, second-generation Chinese are not interested in joining the tong and today a few more than one hundred members belong to it. The tong no longer offers letter writing, translating, and legal services, but it still tries to help find work for the unemployed and continues to sponsor the Chinese New Year’s party for the community. Its recreation hail provides games, television, and magazines for all ages, yet it has become a club for elderly men who are unmarried or who were unable to bring their families to the United States.70

The Utah Chinese are showing a new vitality with an increasing awareness of their own unique background and culture. Plum Alley is no more, a victim of progress; a seven-story concrete parking structure now straddles what was once Chinatown. But the spirit remains, and in the screech of brakes one can almost hear the angry complaint of Hop Sing–late of 9 Plum Alley.71

1 Mary Roberts Coolidge, Chinese Immigration (New York, 1909), p. 498.

2 John K. Fairbank, The United States and China (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), P. 140.

3 George Babcock Cressey, Land of the 500 Million: A Geography of China (New York, 1955), p. 150.

4 Gunther Barth, Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870 (New York, 1955).

5 Olga Lang, Chinese Family and Society (New Haven, Conn., 1946), p.16.

6 John K. Fairbank, ed., China’s Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839-1923 (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), p. 4.

7 Barth, Bitter Strength, p. 69.

Thomas W. Chinn, ed., A History of the Chinese in California: A Syllabus (San Francisco, 1969), p. 15.

9 George Kraus, “Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific,” Utah Historical Quarterly 37(1969): 42-44.

10 Alexander Saxton, “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” Pacific Historical Review 35 (1966) : 141-52.

11 Wesley S. Griswold, A Work of Giants: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York, 1962), p. 111.

12 Kraus, “Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific p.45.

13 Griswold, A Work of Giants, p. 123.

14 Ibid., p. 326.

15 Robert West Howard, The Great Iron Trail: The Story of the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York, 1962), pp. 336-37.

16 Francis L. K. Hau, The Challenge of the American Dream. The Chinese in the United States (Belmont, Calif., 1971), p. 104.

17 1870 Census.

18 Interview with Wallace E. Clay, Hot Springs, Utah, December 2, 1974.

19 Wallace E. Clay, “Personal Life of a Chinese Coolie 1869-1899,” Unpublished paper written January 2, 1969.

20 Ibid.

21 Cincinnati Excursion to California, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Lafayette Railroad, 1870, pp. 38-39.

22 Utah Reporter (Corinne), April 26, 1870. Emphasis added.

23 Ibid.

24 Frank Tinker, Salt Lake Tribune, January 26, 1964.

25 Ibid.

26 1880, 1890 Censuses.

27 Kate B. Carter, comp., “The Early Chinese of Western United States,” in Our Pioneer Heritage, 17 vols. (Salt Lake City, 1958), 10:478.

28 Ibid., 10:475.

29 Interview with Wong Siu Pang, Salt Lake City, November 27, 1974.

30 Ibid.

31 Ogden Junction, January 29, 1879.

32 Griswold, A Work of Giants, p. 11.

33 Interview with Henry Ju, December 3, 1974, Magna, Utah.

34 Salt Lake Tribune, February 15, 1972.

35 Carter, “The Early Chinese of Western United States,” 10:456.

36 Interview with Jimmy Wong, December 3, 1974, Salt Lake City.

37 William J. Christiansen, “Chinese Ethnicity and Network Relationships in Salt Lake City” (Spring 1972), University of Utah, paper for Dr. Tom Collins, p. 8.

38 Silver Reef Miner, June 10, 1882.

39 Interview with Fraser Buck, November 29, 1974, Park City, Utah.

40 Ibid.

41 Park City Mining Record, June 5, 1880.

42 Park City Mining Record, August 7, 1880.

43 Governor’s Correspondence, Utah State Archives, State Capitol, Salt Lake City.

44 Interview with Evalee McBride Fackrell, December 5, 1974, Holladay, Utah.

45 Thursey Jessen Reynolds, et al., eds., Centennial Echoes from Carbon County, (Price[?], 1948), p. 37.

46 Carter, “The Early Chinese of Western United States,” 10:464-69.

47 Interview with Phoebe Litster, December 5, 1974, Salt Lake City.

48 Carter, “The Early Chinese of Western United States,” 10:464-69.

49 Interview with Oliver Bradley Cloward, December 6, 1974, Orem, Utah.

50 Carter, “The Early Chinese of Western United States,” 10:464-69.

51 Cloward interview.

52 Carter, “The Early Chinese of Western United States,” 10: 464-69.

53 1880 Census.

54 Interview with Juanita Brooks, December 5, 1974, Salt Lake City.

55 A handwritten memoir by Eva L. Miles, sister of Juanita Brooks, sent to the author in a letter dated June 1, 1975, from St. George, Utah.

56 lbid.

57 Juanita Brooks interview.

58 Silver Reef Miner, December 2, 1882.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid., February 10, 1883.

62 Ogden Junction, February 5, 1879.

63 Deseret News, December 20, 1897.

64 Typescript by William Wong Louie.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid.

67 Ibid.

68 See Angela Chan Conley, “The Social Problems of the Chinese in Salt Lake City,” (MS. thesis, University of Utah, 1973).

69 Ibid., p. 24.

70 Ibid., 24, 25, 27.

71 Louie typescript.