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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).