The Promise of Gold Mountain: Tucson's Chinese Heritage

Don Wah and Fok Yut Ngan

The following profiles were composed from interviews with Esther Don Tang and from her writings.

Don Wah after marriage in Hong Kong, 1908
Don Wah after marriage in Hong Kong, 1908
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A native of San Francisco, Don Wah arrived in Tucson as a member of a Southern Pacific Railroad crew that was building tracks through southern Arizona. Don Wah had been hired as a cook for the railroad workers. He left the crew upon reaching Tucson and took a job at a Tucson restaurant

When Don Wah was 30, he traveled to China to marry an 18 year-old woman named Fok Yut Ngan (Silver Moon).

Fok Yut Ngan after marriage in Hong Kong, 1908
Fok Yut Ngan after marriage in Hong Kong, 1908
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Fok was the youngest daughter of a wealthy family . She had been taught embroidery, but few practical skills. She had narrowly missed having her feet bound, but still was unused to walking any distance. Normally, people would carry her in a sedan chair when she traveled.

Formal photograph taken before Fok Yut Ngan married Don Wah
Formal photograph taken before Fok Yut Ngan married Don Wah. (Fok Yut Gnan's sister - who married a Mr. Lee and went to San Francisco to live. One of her daughters was selected as Miss Chinatown. Two brothers - who ran a gun powder store. Both were over 6 feet tall. Mr. Fok - the father of the family Mrs. Fok Shee, mother of the family Fok Yut Ngan - youngest daughter. She married Don Wah in Hong Kong and settled with him in Tucson, Arizona. )
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After returning to Tucson, Don Wah and his wife rented a store on the corner of Convent and Simpson Streets (Quarto Esquinas). Fok Yut Ngan learned to cook and perform other household tasks, and eventually learned to speak both Spanish and English. She would run the business when Don Wah was a few blocks away in Chinatown playing fan tan and mah jong. Fok Yut Ngan also learned to keep the business' financial records. The store at Convent and Simpson Streets was also became one of the Tucson's first bakeries. Later the store moved to Jackson and Convent streets.

Through hard-work and long hours, Don Wah and Fok Yut Ngan were successful in several business ventures. Their bakery eventually led to a chain of successful grocery stores. They raised 10 children .

Don Wah family taken in 1947 in South Tucson (33rd Street)
Don Wah family taken in 1947 in South Tucson (33rd Street)
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Every weekend and during the holidays the Don family gathered at their parent's home to eat dinner and visit. The tradition continues as each individual has their families.

Pictured from left to right: back row: Soleng Tom, "Dolly" (Hildred), Bessie, Dorothy, Phillip, Luella, "Cupie" (Mildred), Norma Jean, David Tang.
Front row: Mae Soleng Tom with son Soleng Jr. on her lap, Arthur Tom, Florence Chan Don (with Phyliss on her lap), Don Wah, Fok Yut Ngan, Patricia Karen Tang Crowley, Esther Don Tang with Diana Cheryl Tang on her lap.


Don Wah Family gathering, 1949
Don Wah Family gathering, 1949
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Pictured from left to right: back row: David Tang with son David Tang Jr., Fok Yut Ngan with granddaughter Diana Cheryl Tang, Esther Don Tang, Luella Don, Mildred Don (at piano), Dorothy Don, Norma Don, Hildred Don (sitting on arm of chair), Phillip Don. front row: Don Wah with granddaughter Phyliss on lap, Florence Chan Don with Jeffery Don on lap, Patricia Karen Tang on floor, Bessie Don pointing to piggybank

 

True to tradition, Don Wah's children honored their father on his 80th birthday . Approximately 500 family and friends joined in the celebration at the American Legion Building on Broadway. The celebration featured speeches and tributes, a banquet, and a four-tier cake with a Chinese longevity statue and red tassels representing good luck and long life.

Don Wah at his 80th birthday celebration
Don Wah at his 80th birthday celebration
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Don Wah and Fok Yut Ngan
Don Wah and Fok Yut Ngan
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Family portrait at Don Wah's 80th Birthday
Family portrait at Don Wah's 80th Birthday
American Legion Building, Tucson, Arizona
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Standing from left to right: back Row: Soleng Tom, Edward Chan, Barbara Wu, Phillip Don, Theodore Wu, Rose Wu, David Tang, Florence Chan Don carrying son Phillip Don Jr., Mildred Don. middle Row: Norma Jean Don, Hildred Don, Bessie Don Chan, Mae Soleng Tom, Millie Wu (niece), Esther Don Tang, Luella Don, Dorothy Don center: Don Wah and Fok Yut Ngan Grandchildren: Patricia Karen Tang, Arthur Tom, Soleng Tom Jr., Phyliss Don, Diana Cheryl Tang, David Tang, Jr., Theodore Wu, Jr.

Esther Don Tang shares some memories of her mother and father

My father came from California, uncomfortable with the political climate and prejudices there. He worked as a cook for the Southern Pacific railroads as they laid the tracks across the southern part of Arizona.

In 1906, he went to China to marry my mother from Fukein. She used to recount stories of her life. Her father, who was a wealthy gold smith and manufacturer of gun power and fire crackers, had 8 wives. He housed them in separate houses and there was a common kitchen and patio. The complex had a ten foot wall with double gates to keep bandits out. Beyond the wall there was an orchard.

Mother's parents felt that their baby daughter from the first family was going to the Gold Mountain. Little did they know she had to learn to cook and worked in the bakery and store my father owned. At 3 in the morning she would carry me, papoose style, to the store and wrap bread. Dad would deliver his bread to stores in a horse and buggy. On his first delivery his horse spooked and the buggy turned over, spilling the bread all over Simpson and Convent streets. The neighbors scrambled into the street for free loaves.

Customers would buy their groceries and my mother would mark the amounts they owed in a cartera (notebook) and return the cartera to the customer. On pay day, everyone would return to the store to pay their bill and receive pelon, a gift of fruit or candy. That was really trust!

My father was always proud that he made the deciding vote as to where the Drachman Elementary School should be located. He was at the barbershop getting his queue cut off when some men pulled him from the barber chair to come and break the tie vote.

My mother put $2000 earnest money on a house in the Belmont subdivision on Country Club Road. The salesman did not tell her that originally the subdivision had been restricted to keep Orientals from living there. On revisiting the house, "No Chinks Wanted" was scribbled on the wall.

House in Belmont subdivision
House in Belmont subdivision
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My mother and father gave the house up, and lost $1000 of earnest money, which was a great deal of money in those days. Subsequently they bought two lots from Abe Chanin, a writer for the Arizona Daily Star, and built a beautiful house in that neighborhood (Water and Vine Streets).

Continue with Esther Don Tang

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