Most of the early Chinese were brought to Tucson as laborers for the railroads and mines. However, before the railroad had even reached Gila Bend three Chinese men had left the work crews and came to Tucson. These first Chinese Tucsonans shared the family name of Wong. They opened the O.K. Restaurant at Church and Mesilla streets in the late 1870's. Instead of a cash register, they used a laundry basket to collect 75 cents for each meal served. [Fong, p.8] Restaurants, grocery stores, laundries and farming would become important industries for the early Chinese community.
After the Chinese were forced to leave their railroad or mine jobs due to racism, many chose to return to their homeland. Fortunately for Tucson, other early Chinese immigrants decided to remain in the Southwest. These men dreamed either of making their fortune and then returning to China, or of making enough money to bring their families here.
The occupations open to those who chose to remain in Tucson were limited. Some became vegetable farmers, leasing plots of land along the Santa Cruz River. Much of this land was owned by Loepoldo Carillo, Samuel Hughes, Solomon Warner and the Sisters of St. Joseph. [Fong p.12] These Chinese farmers became Tucson's chief source of fresh vegetables. Their vegetables filled a need which was not being met by Anglo or Mexican farmers, who concentrated on crops such as wheat, barley, peppers and beans. Few other pioneer farmers felt it was profitable to grow fresh produce in this climate. By the 1880's, the Chinese leased more than 100 acres of farm land along the Santa Cruz River. [Turner p.4]
The Chinese farmers were very successful, although they used large amounts of water for their crops. The amount of water used and the question of whether the lands rented by the Chinese (the oldest cultivated fields in the area) were entitled to all the water they required led to a law suit. [Sheridan, Los Tucsonenses, p. 65] This legal feud over water rights was finally settled in 1885. The Chinese farmers won, and they were able to continued to produce fruits and vegetables for Tucson's population. However, complaining continued from some quarters. Superintendent Howard Billman of the Tucson Indian School wrote in 1889 that he personally investigated the use of water by the Chinese farmers and believed, "some thieving Chinese above us were simply robbing us." [Fong p.14] The Chinese farmers were actively cultivating this land at least until the end of the century. [Sheridan, Los Tucsonenses, p.67]
Many worked hard to become conversant in the languages necessary for better jobs: English and Spanish. Tucson's Mexican population became some of their best customers. Underneath a sign for Charley Lee Groceries (circa 1898) was an advertisement in Spanish for butter, fruit and fresh eggs.
Tucson's Chinese-American population worked as individuals and as a community to counter prejudice. Education and hard-work has always been valued in the Chinese culture. By 1890 the Chinese Mission School was operating on Ott Street. Chinese organizations, such as the Ying On Association, worked to assist members of the Chinese community when they were threatened by unfair, discriminatory business practices. By working as a group, the Chinese had leverage to help ensure a fair business environment for Chinese owned businesses. Their concern about fair business practices was very real. For example, in 1893 a petition was presented to the Tucson City Council proposing that Chinese businesses be segregated to a certain part of town. This measure was defeated, and Chinese businesses were free to locate wherever there was a need for their services or products. Ying On also acted as a support for elders in the Chinese community in settling disagreements between feuding family groups.
Discrimination and racism were clearly evident in society at that time. When the railroad companies stopped seeking Chinese laborers, laws were enacted to make it difficult for Chinese to immigrate to America. Laws were also passed to keep any Chinese already in the country apart from other members of society. By 1893 Chinese were required to carry a certificate of residence which included a photograph.
An 1901 Arizona law prohibited Chinese from marrying Anglos, stating that "the marriage of a person of Caucasian blood with a Negro or Mongolian is null and void." There were also Anti-Chinese Leagues in every major Arizona city in the 1880's. Despite this treatment, many Chinese chose to remain in the Southwest and become citizens.