The Promise of Gold Mountain: Tucson's Chinese Heritage

Tucson's Chinatowns

Don Chun Wo and Co., Tucson, 1880's
Don Chun Wo and Co., Tucson, 1880's
[22K 30034, AHS-Tuc, copied from C.A. Spenser album H18]

Many of the earliest Chinese immigrants living in Tucson moved into run-down adobe buildings located at the west end of Pennington Street. The residents of "Old Chinatown" were primarily young men trying to become established in this country. Wash houses, stores and opium dens soon sprang up in the area. [Henry, E-3] The Chinese population eventually spread southward, and by 1908, 37 Chinese businesses were operating south of Congress Street. Many Chinese families moved with their businesses, settling in neighborhoods alongside Anglo and Hispanic families.

Unidentified Children
Unidentified Children
[30K AHS-Tuc, BC H20]

A Family
A Family
[26K AHS-Tuc, BC H21]


Chinese child with balloon, probably in Tucson in the 1880's
Chinese child with balloon, probably in Tucson in the 1880's
[29K 30034, AHS-Tuc, copied from C.A. Spenser album H22]

New construction gradually swallowed up Old Chinatown. In 1911, a block of buildings west of Main between Pennington and Alameda streets was demolished to make way for a Women's Club. Additional buildings were lost to make way for City Hall and new, costly homes being built along Paseo Redondo.

A second "Chinatown" evolved in the area roughly bordered by Meyer, Main, McCormick and Broadway. Eventually Ying On, a Chinese association, grew large enough to own the city block bounded by Meyer, Main, Jackson and Broadway. Chinese associations played a role in helping immigrants get established. Many associations were based on family relationships. Ying On was a non-family group that became the largest and most influential in Tucson.

Looking south at South Meyer Street in Tucson; Occidental Hotel on right
Looking south at South Meyer Street in Tucson; Occidental Hotel on right
[22K AHS-Tuc, BC H23]

Kuo Ming Tang Organization in Tucson
Kuo Ming Tang Organization in Tucson
[24K 29,216, AHS-Tuc, filed in oversized case 38, drawer 2, Tucson-organizations-Kuo Ming Tang H24]

Ying On owned a large, gray building on Main Street between Broadway and Ochoa where it rented rooms to single Chinese men and provided a place for the Chinese community to meet and socialize. This building had been originally built by Leopoldo Carrillo in 1898. It is described in a 1937 Arizona Daily Star feature as,

While not exactly a rabbit warren, it approximates one in some respects and is the last stronghold of the old China in Tucson. The furnishings are old and worn, the great community cook stoves and ovens built up on brick bases under the overhanging roof of the patio are older than the building itself.

Chinese proclamations on sundry inscrutable subjects adorn the inside walls. Laundry hangs from wires stretched from corner to corner. This old Carrillo building, put up by a Mexican, has lost all its Spanish-American attributes, and is now wholly Oriental.

In later years, this building also was a place where many old men returned to live out the remainder of their lives. After death, their room would be sealed up, leaving their clothing, dishes, and other belongings just as they were. [Turner p.4]

This building would act as a focal point for the Chinese community for nearly 31 years, until the entire eight block area was demolished in the 1960's prior to building the Convention Center.

Learn more about the Tucson Urban Renewal Project and view a series of images from photographs taken at the site in 1968.

Other buildings that were focal points for the Chinese-American community were institutions like the Chinese Mission School, located on Ott Street in the late 1890's, and the Chinese Evangelical Church on Meyer Street.

Chinese Evangelical Church (1930's?) located on Meyer Street near the 200 block of Main Street
Chinese Evangelical Church (1930's?) located on Meyer Street near the 200 block of Main Street
[33K 59747, AHS-Tuc H25]


Chinese musicians

Chinese musicians
[33K 59739, AHS-Tuc, from orig. owned by Henry Gee H19]


Unidentified Chinese woman in Western dress

Unidentified Chinese woman in Western dress
[24K B2324, AHS-Tuc, BC H26]

By the 1920's many of the younger Chinese were active in the mainstream society, including political parties and business associations. To maintain ties to their native land and to nurture cultural identity, the Chinese Evangelical Church brought a minister from China in 1930. He was hired to conduct Chinese church services and to teach the children Chinese. [Fong p.27]

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