Photo courtesy of the family of Soleng Tom
The Early Years
Soleng Tom was born in Nahm Loung Tuon (South Dragon Village) on March 11, 1911. [Reitz, p.6] His village was about 120 miles from both Canton and Hong Kong, in what is now the People's Republic of China. Soleng Tom had 4 brothers and 2 sisters. His father was a prosperous businessman and community leader.
Soleng Tom attended school at an early age. After school, he and his brothers worked in the family store, learning business skills from his father and uncles. His father felt that Soleng had the talents and abilities that would enable him to make his fortune at "Gold Mountain," the term used to describe the United States among Chinese. He arranged for his legal adoption by a great uncle, Wing Poy Tom, who owned a laundry on Congress in Tucson. [Henry, p.75]
In 1929, an eighteen year old Soleng Tom sailed for San Francisco. [Reitz p.12]. Upon arrival, he and his fellow immigrants were interred on Angel Island for a customary 30-day waiting period. While earlier in the century, Chinese emigrants had been welcomed as needed laborers for the railroads, by 1929 the situation had changed. Customs agents carefully scrutinized papers and continually re-interviewed prospective immigrants. Any inconsistencies in documentation, such as an incorrect date or name of a relative, would be cause to deny entry. Fortunately, Soleng passed this scrutiny and was admitted to the United States.
Soleng's first job was working on the docks in San Francisco for $15.20 a week. [Henry, p.75]. Soleng later moved to Tucson where he worked in a restaurant performing general cleaning and slept in the back of the business. Soleng also worked at his uncle's laundry. Eventually, he and his uncle combined their savings to open a grocery store at Congress and Simpson. This was only the first of several business ventures. He next opened the T & T Market with partner C.Y. Tom, and in 1939 opened Soleng's Market at 2300 South Sixth Avenue. In addition to continually expanding his grocery operations, he purchased real estate, developed poultry and dairy farms in the Santa Cruz Valley, and a cotton farm in Marana.
In 1956, Soleng Tom's business ventures were described by Sen. John Rhodes as:
"Today his many businesses in Tucson are numerous. He now runs a real estate and insurance agency, three supermarkets, a drugstore, and an auction house. He owns a business center which houses a furniture store, a jewelry store, a clothing store, a variety store, a hardware store, a restaurant, a barber shop, a finance company, a beauty parlor, a bakery and a post office. He also is a cotton farmer."
Soleng learned the value of education at an early age and continued to seek out educational opportunities after coming to the United States. To improve his English skills, Soleng sat in the back of a Safford Elementary School second grade class to learn by listening to the classroom instruction. [Reitz, p. 20] Later, he would sit in classes at Roskruge Junior High to further improve his English. This determination paid off by opening paths to higher education.
Soleng earned a pilot's license in Tucson, and pursued further training in aviation. He enrolled in the School of Aviation Engineering (Park Air College) at the University of St. Louis, earning a B.S. degree in 1936. He paid for English tutoring, room and board fees by cleaning his tutor's house, and shoveling coal and collecting garbage for the college. [Reitz, p. ]
Education helped Soleng Tom rise from a talented immigrant struggling to survive in an new land to a respected business leader. Soleng Tom has also contributed to the educational opportunities available to Tucsonans. From 1964-1980 Soleng Tom served on the Tucson Unified School District board, serving as President of the Board five times. [Reitz, p. 112-3] To honor him for this contribution, TUSD named an elementary school after him.
Airman and Sailor
Soleng Tom was actively involved in both the Chinese and American war efforts. [Congressional Record, p.A5698]. After graduating from college, he organized and ran the Chinese Aviation school for 2 years at Alameda, California. From 1937-38 the school graduated 110 pilots who left for China to join the war effort against the Japanese. From 1944-46 he served in the U.S. Navy, working on transports flying between Alameda and inland cities.
It was common for parents to arrange a marriage prior to sending a son to Gold Mountain, because this created a link back to the homeland. True to this tradition, Soleng's parents arranged for a marriage prior to his departure. Using a marriage broker, an appropriate bride from a prosperous family was selected. The "western-style" wedding included flower-girls, a ring bearer, and a suit and gown. Soleng had been married approximately 6 months before departing for America, leaving behind an expectant wife. [Reitz p.12].
When he realized that he would be remaining in the United States for the remainder of his life, Soleng arranged for a legal divorce from his bride. While many men just abandoned their homeland brides, Soleng fulfilled his responsibilities toward his ex-wife and daughter by arranging for their financial security.
Soleng met his second wife, Mae Don, when she was in high school. She came to his store soliciting funds for a charitable or civic cause. For years to come she would always tease him about turning her down for a contribution. Mae Don corresponded with Soleng when he was away at college, and during his military duty. When he opened Soleng's Market, she supervised his grocery, check-out and phone order departments.
Soleng Tom and Mae Don were married in August of 1941. They had two sons, Soleng Jr. and Arthur. Mae Don Tom suffered a stroke and died in 1985.
A strong believer in responsibility to the community, Soleng has lead many projects that have benefited the Tucson community. He built a Y.M.C.A., and established and supervised the Chinese School of Tucson. This school meets the needs of the Chinese-American community, as well as any other Tucsonan who needs cultural, linguistic or job assistance toward becoming useful citizens of our community. He has also been active in the National Chinese-American Citizen's Alliance, is a long-standing member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and served as Southwest Regional Director of the National Chinese Welfare Council for 9 years. Soleng was also very active in the American Legion, serving as Arizona Department Commander in the late 1950's, as Western Regional Commander in the late 1960's, and narrowly missing being elected National Commander in the early 1970's.
Soleng Tom was active in the push to clean-up the South Tucson government in the 1950's. According to Don Hummel, Mayor of greater Tucson from 1955-1961:
"South Tucson was financially living on speed-traps along its main thoroughfare. A kangaroo court atmosphere pretty much permeated the city. There seemed to be little or no regard for justice or the law." [Reitz, p.98]
Soleng publicly spoke in favor of disincorporating South Tucson, and assisted in investigations that eventually brought the South Tucson mayor, Town Clerk, and 2 other officials to trial. During this period, Soleng had received threats against his life. On May 25, 1958 Soleng's Market was set ablaze, a victim of suspected arson. Soleng quickly rebuilt the market, and never regretted what he sacrificed in making South Tucson a better community.
Soleng Tom died April 30, 2000, at the age of 88. His son Soleng Tom, Jr., said that his father cared about Tucson and giving back to the community.