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Know the West

How a California archive reconnected a New Mexico family with its Chinese roots

Aimee Towi Mae Tang’s Chinese American family never talked about the past. She decided to change that.

On a bright afternoon in March 2021, Aimee Towi Mae Tang was curled up on her couch in Irvine, California, reading a book she’d chosen for her then-13-year-old daughter Marisol’s homeschool curriculum. Aimee had taken over Marisol’s education, frustrated by the narrow view of the world taught in public school and what she called its “European American bias.” Then a news alert lit up her phone: A gunman had shot and killed eight people at Atlanta-area spas. Six of them were Asian women.

For Aimee, a fourth-generation Chinese New Mexican and a citizen of Jemez Pueblo, the tragedy echoed the discrimination and violence her family has experienced. In the 1930s, state laws barred Edward Gaw, her great-grandfather, from buying land in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During the 1980s, when she was in high school, boys harassed her, shouting a gendered slur common in American films about the Vietnam War. When Aimee saw videos of Asian elders being attacked and beaten in late 2020 during a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, she thought of her own father, who was then 76.

 

Three weeks after the Atlanta shootings, I found myself on the phone with Aimee, talking about the nation’s shocked reaction. Aimee’s usually tender voice hardened. “You’ve ignored your cancer for years, and now, at stage 4, you go to the doctors and ask, ‘Oh, how is this happening?’” she said. “Well, come on! If that’s how you’ve treated the Chinese, how is this not happening?”

Aimee’s father and grandparents spoke fluent Cantonese, but her family raised her to fit in with white American society. “We never talk about China. We speak English in our household. We eat Chinese food with a fork and knife,” she said.  

The daughter of a Chinese father and a Jemez mother, she often felt disconnected from her Chinese side. Since childhood, she had visited Jemez Pueblo, 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque, helping in the vineyard, harvesting white corn and learning stories about the high mountain mesas that surround the pueblo. But when she asked about her Chinese relatives’ past, she said, her grandfather refused to answer. If pressed, he simply said, “We are American” in a deep, commanding voice in which “American” clearly meant “European American.” To this day, Aimee said, she “slaughters Mandarin Chinese” when she tries to speak it. When I met her, she still knew little about how her family got to Albuquerque.

At 49, in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, she realized that, for her, the idea that “We’re American, not Chinese” no longer resonated. She wanted a deeper understanding of her own identity, not just for herself: She wanted Marisol to learn about more than the Christian calendar and European history, and to understand the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties as well as the history of the pueblos. What did the land her great-grandfather came from in China look like, she wondered? Why did he leave, and how did he end up in New Mexico? And what would it take to give Marisol a stronger sense of connection with her Chinese ancestors than Aimee had ever had?

Fremont Grocery ads that ran in the Albuquerque Journal, from 1919 (left) and 1930.
Courtesy of Dr. Siu G. Wong/Albuquerque Chapter of Chinese American Citizens Alliance

AIMEE IS THE FOURTH — and final — owner of Fremont’s Fine Foods, the family-owned gourmet grocery store her great-grandfather opened in 1918. Until it closed in 2010, the store sold almost everything: liquors, snacks, teas and parasols from Europe and Asia; produce, seafood and meat from Hawai’i to the East Coast; dishes like chow mein and chop suey. Aimee has black hair and a warm manner, and when she talked about the business, her dimpled smile appeared frequently.

When I met Aimee on Zoom for the first time in February 2021, she showed me a wrinkled notebook full of anecdotes about her family history, the fruit of more than a decade of research. Thumbing through the pages, she noted that a Chinese neighborhood in Albuquerque lured her great-grandfather Edward to New Mexico in the early 20th century. “I’m sure they had a job waiting for him in this dusty Western town,” she said. But she knew little else about his life. She wondered if I, a Chinese immigrant working as a journalist in Albuquerque, could help answer some of her questions. I was new to Albuquerque, a sprawling city of a half-million people, few of whom looked like me, and I often felt lonely and out-of-place. I agreed to help her; perhaps, I thought, I might find my own sense of connection in the history of this family and my city’s long-vanished Chinatown.

I began with the local chapter of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the oldest Asian American civil rights nonprofit in the U.S. Members directed me to the local library and to the University of New Mexico, which held transcripts of oral history interviews about the community. But the records of Aimee’s ancestors were kept at the National Archives in San Bruno, California, home to over 200,000 case files on people the immigration authorities interviewed from 1882 to the early 1950s. The archive was closed to the public due to COVID-19, and for over six months, I waited for it to reopen.

Finally, last December, in a lull between COVID spikes, I flew to San Francisco. On a gloomy morning, I drove south to the quiet, wooded grounds of the institution, far from the busy traffic of the Bay. The archivists led me to a spacious, bitterly cold room, where the files I sought waited on a cart. For two days, those 400-plus colorful pages became my world — passenger arrival lists, immigration records, business filings and legal case files, dotted with Chinese characters.

They told a story of struggle, discrimination and assimilation. Aimee’s great-grandfather Edward, her first Chinese American ancestor, did not become Edward until he came to Albuquerque, I learned. Before that, he was Ong Shew Ngoh. The man she knew as Edward Gaw was a popular, well-respected businessman in Albuquerque. Shew Ngoh, however, was a determined young merchant who survived excruciating ordeals in his immigration journey — experiences he rarely shared with anyone.

For two days, those 400-plus colorful pages became my world — passenger arrival lists, immigration records, business filings and legal case files, dotted with Chinese characters.
Business ledgers from Kim Lun Chong Co. that include Ong Shew Ngoh’s name. In the English translation, his name is recorded as “Ong Sue Ngow,” demonstrating the difficulty of tracking immigration records.
National Archives at San Bruno, California

 

SHEW NGOH WAS BORN and raised among the lush hills and croplands of China’s humid Southern coast in the 1880s. His family, part of a clan now commonly known as Tang or Ong, farmed in Wing On Lee, which translates to the Village of Eternal Peace. It was a chaotic time: Droughts, famines, internal rebellions and foreign intrusions swept South China, and many people left, seeking safety and prosperity elsewhere. In 1905, Shew Ngoh did, too, venturing 100 miles east to the port city of Hong Kong. On the first day of December, he and around 30 other Chinese passengers boarded a steamship, S.S. Coptic, bound for San Francisco.

The journey lasted nearly a month, and no welcome awaited them at the end. Instead, they faced a system designed to keep them out. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese people from entering; only merchants, diplomats, students and laborers already living in the U.S. could stay. And yet Shew Ngoh, then around 17, managed to enter the country. He settled in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the first in North America, where an estimated 15,000 people of Chinese descent lived in tall brick and wooden houses, and flimsy shacks lined the alleys. He studied Christianity at mission schools and learned English. He worked at Kim Lun Chong Co., a trading company where many of his clansmen worked. The shop, located in the heart of Chinatown, sold a kaleidoscope of goods from China — rice, tobacco, liquor, dried abalone, slippers and clothing. Shew Ngoh worked in bookkeeping and sales, often laboring 14 hours or more. Like many Chinese migrant workers, he slept at the back of the building to save money.

From the archives, I learned that Shew Ngoh’s arrival in America had gone smoothly due to the fact that “his alleged father” Ong Kee Hung had “been a domiciled merchant here for more than twelve years” at Kim Lun Chung Co. This “alleged father” fascinated me. I spoke with more than a dozen family members, friends and members of the Chinese American community who knew Shew Ngoh, but none of them had ever heard of Kee Hung.

A photo of Ong Kee Hung is enclosed in his habeas corpus case. On the back of the photo, his name is written in Chinese.
National Archives at San Bruno, California

According to the limited records I could find, Kee Hung arrived in San Francisco in 1876, a gangly 20-year-old from Wing On Lee with a pointy chin and no recorded immigration papers. He spent the better part of five years plowing, sowing and irrigating the fertile soil of the California Delta, working alongside Anglo and Hispanic farmers and hundreds of other Cantonese immigrants. In 1881, he went back to China. But by the time he tried to return to America, in 1888, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was fully in effect. He was denied entry and detained on a boat just a few yards away from shore. 

He fought back. A lawyer filed a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf, arguing that he had been unlawfully incarcerated. This was a common legal pathway for Chinese immigrants. Kee Hung had lived in the U.S. before the law went into effect, his lawyer argued, and therefore he should be allowed back into the country. After four days, he posted bail and left detention. In 1889, after eight months of court battles, the court ruled in his favor. He settled in San Francisco and became a shareholder at Kim Lun Chong. Eventually, he brought Shew Ngoh over to join him.

Were Kee Hung and Shew Ngoh biologically related, or merely relatives of convenience? I could find no evidence either way. In one of the few exceptions to the Chinese Exclusion Act, people with a paternal link to a U.S. citizen or merchant could enter the country. Hopeful immigrants came to San Francisco’s northern waterfront, carrying fake papers identifying them as the blood relatives, often the sons, of merchants or U.S. citizens of Chinese descent. These immigrants became known as “paper” sons and daughters. At least a quarter of Chinese Americans in the 1950s were descended from them.

Aimee, who was aware of this phenomenon, thought it was possible Kee Hung and Shew Ngoh made a secret deal. “Maybe we are a bunch of paper sons, but so what? I’m all for that because of the racism so integrated here,” she told me. “It was the Chinese that built the West. It was their hard labor and creativity that really were the true ‘pioneering spirit’ of building a community.”

But in spite of Kee Hung’s efforts, Shew Ngoh got caught in America’s anti-Chinese immigration crackdown. In 1909, now a shareholder in Kim Lun Chong, he went back to China for an arranged marriage. By the time he returned to the U.S. in 1910 as a merchant, everything had changed. Immigration authorities had built a new facility to tighten border control, a complex of overcrowded barracks on Angel Island, far from the mainland. There, they detained immigrants from China, Japan and other parts of Asia, as well as Europe, Oceania, Central and South America and Mexico. More than 175,000 Chinese were incarcerated there over the course of 30 years. Shew Ngoh was one of the first.

An affidavit supporting Ong Shew Ngoh’s merchant status before he returned to China in 1909 to marry his fiancee, in an arranged marriage. When he came back to San Francisco the following year, he was detained on Angel Island for almost a month.
National Archives at San Bruno, California

ON DEC. 4, 1910, A FERRY carrying about 160 Chinese travelers, who were forbidden to land at San Francisco, pulled into a sheltered bay on Angel Island known as “China Cove.” One by one, they disembarked, carrying their luggage, and made their way to a three-story administrative building guarding a set of detention barracks on low-slung hills.

Old photographs show Shew Ngoh as a tall young man with high, rosy cheeks and a diamond-shaped face. Immigrant inspectors on Angel Island assigned him the number “6385” and told him that he’d be interviewed later. If he was lucky, he’d be allowed to leave the island. 

They took him to a drafty, two-story wooden building. He would have climbed the stairs to the barrack’s narrow foyer, and then walked down a dark hall to  a 1,500 square-foot room, where close to 200 people were housed, sleeping in rows of three-tiered bunks. He found an unoccupied bed. At 5-foot-9, he was much taller than most of his countrymen and had to curl up to fit. 

The air in the barracks was still and claustrophobic. Immigrants had access to a pair of bathrooms, both filthy. A recreation yard ringed with chicken wire offered the only escape to the outdoors. Immigrants were segregated by race and country of origin; European detainees had access to a grassy playground about three times the size of the yard for Chinese and Japanese detainees. Meals were scant in the early days, a measure officials justified by claiming that it was customary for Chinese people to eat only twice a day. During the routine medical examination, doctors stabbed a half-naked Shew Ngoh for blood samples and checked to see if he was infected with hookworm and other parasitic diseases — common excuses to deny people entry in the early 20th century, especially immigrants from Asia.

Shew Ngoh’s first interrogation was on Dec. 11. He failed, misstating the date of his arrival in the U.S. by a single day. The inspector jumped on that small discrepancy. He reported that “it doesn’t appear that this entry has been verified by our records,” and ordered Shew Ngoh to remain in detention.

Shew Ngoh was cut off from the outside world, but he was not alone in his despair. On the dreary walls of the detention facility, the detainees inked and chiseled their experiences and thoughts in the form of classical Chinese poetry — pairs of rhyming lines with rich vocabularies and refined tonal harmonies.

Today, they survive only as modest dents on the crack-wrinkled walls. There could be hundreds more hidden away; the station staff, who dismissed the poems as graffiti, repeatedly covered them with putty and paint in pale yellow, russet and gray. Still, over 200 inscriptions remain. They invoke heroic figures in Chinese legend and history who confronted hardship and testify to the detainees’ shared outrage, humiliation and trauma.

“Alas, yellow souls suffer under brute force of the white race / Like shouting at a dog which has lost its home, we are forced into jail / Like a pig chased into a basket, we are sternly locked in / Our souls languish in a snowy vault; we are really not even the equal of cattle and horses / Our tears shower the icy day; we are not even equal to bird and fowl,” one poet wrote in 1910. 

Shew Ngoh was cut off from the outside world, but he was not alone in his despair. 
A Chinese poem that was etched on a wall of the Angel Island barracks. * A colloquial Cantonese term for the U.S. ** From the Book of Rites. Confucius saw a woman weeping at a grave and asked why she was so sad. She said, “My father-in-law and my husband were killed by tigers. Now my son is also killed by a tiger.” “Why don’t you leave this dangerous place?” he asked. “Because there is no oppressive rule here.” Confucius replied, “Oppressive rule is surely fiercer than any tiger.”

 

Two weeks after his unsuccessful interview, Shew Ngoh got another chance. This time, the inspector interrogated him about Kim Lun Chong, asking, “Does your firm cater to the white trade?” “What do you sell to white people?” “How many white people come (into) your store a day to buy goods?” Shew Ngoh answered some in fluent English despite the presence of an interpreter, hoping to prove that he could fit in in white America. The inspector praised his effort, the stenographer noted, and this time, he passed. In the shaky strokes of his signature on the records, I can see the panic and pressure of that day.

He was released on the third day of 1911, aged 22. 

ON A FEBRUARY AFTERNOON earlier this year, I met with Aimee and her father at her house in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Surrounded by a vermilion Chinese storage cabinet, a Chinese Buddhist mural and cornmeal-filled bowls that her Jemez grandmother had made, they took notes as I told them of their ancestor’s incarceration on Angel Island. I watched as her father wrote down “175,000” — the number of Chinese immigrants who were confined there — and thumbed through a book I’d brought about history and poetry from Angel Island. I watched as this almost 80-year-old man learned things he’d never known about his family. “I wish I knew sooner,” he said. “Maybe I’d bring it up in a roundabout way and start with something like how many times you went back to China.”

 “It must have been hell, because he never brought it up. It was nowhere in our family history.”

Aimee believed that her great-grandfather left Angel Island feeling traumatized; he had been treated disrespectfully, his dignity denied, and he lived in constant fear of deportation. “He had to fight it all on his own,” Aimee said. “It must have been hell, because he never brought it up. It was nowhere in our family history.”

AFTER HE LEFT ANGEL ISLAND, Shew Ngoh distanced himself from Kim Lun Chong, perhaps because of the pressure he felt to assimilate. He came up with an Anglicized moniker — Edward Gaw, the name his great-granddaughter knew him by — and became obsessed with getting to New Mexico. On a hot summer day in 1913, he reached Albuquerque. He found work in a restaurant and opened a grocery store, part of a cluster of Chinese-owned businesses. The small Chinatown was a tangle of unpaved streets shared by cars and carts, near the Mission Revival-style train depot.

Although Chinese residents weren’t allowed to own the land their businesses operated on, the names of Chinese businesses appeared on maps of Albuquerque in the 1920s.

 

In 1918, Shew Ngoh, now Edward Gaw, and two clansmen rented a humble 15-foot-wide storefront at 217 West Central Avenue, two blocks from the rough gray stucco depot, on the northern edge of the Chinese enclave. They named their business after John C. Frémont, a colonial Western explorer who, in 1856, became the first Republican nominee for president. They served Cantonese chop suey, Kansas beef, Hawaiian taro and other foods that reminded the diverse community’s residents of their own hometowns. Soon, locals lauded it as one of the best grocery stores in town.

Albuquerque’s Chinatown was one of more than 200 Chinese settlements in the West, according to William Wei, a history professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the author of Asians in Colorado. Chinese-owned businesses, mostly grocery stores, laundries and restaurants, found their way to towns like Rock Springs, Wyoming; Jacksonville, Oregon; and Silver City, New Mexico.

The influx of Chinese immigrants was closely tied to the exploitation of the West. In an 1848 report to Congress, geographer Aaron Palmer called the Chinese “well adapted for clearing wild land and raising every species of agricultural product” and suggested that Chinese laborers could help develop the West’s natural resources. At the turn of the century, the West was home to the overwhelming majority of the nation’s 100,000 Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants.

But anti-Chinese propaganda was growing. Thousands of Chinese laborers helped build the Western leg of the 2,000-mile Transcontinental Railroad, and then became the scapegoat for the economic depression that followed, blamed for widespread unemployment and low wages. The federal government passed severe immigration restrictions, including the Exclusion Act, and Chinese immigrants lived under near-constant threat of violence. Over 150 anti-Chinese incidents of mob violence and lynching events occurred between 1852 and 1908, killing 143 people and displacing over 10,500.

By the time Fremont’s Fine Foods opened, Albuquerque’s Chinese community, like many in the West, was in decline. Under state and local laws, the residents faced eviction orders, punitive taxation and redlining, and few new immigrants joined them. Many Chinese immigrants left for the coasts, and even for China: Close to half of the Chinese Americans born in the U.S. relocated to China in the early 20th century. By 1920, only about 61,000 remained in the U.S., and most Western Chinatowns had vanished.

“It is in the Interior West that all these communities were driven out,” said Wei. “They are the least known about.” In New Mexico, Anglo landowners argued that the state should be recognizably white, minimizing Hispanic and Indigenous contributions and seeking to push out Asian landowners. In 1921, with voters’ approval, the Alien Land Law amended the New Mexico Constitution, effectively banning Asians from owning land.

Edward had saved more than enough money to buy the land his store stood on. But state law prevented him, meaning he could do little to help preserve the neighborhood. Gradually, the Chinese-owned stores closed, and Albuquerque’s Chinatown dwindled. By World War II, it was gone. Few traces of the neighborhood remain in newspaper clippings and records. “If my great-grandpa were allowed to have land, the Tang family and Chinese Americans could have owned downtown Albuquerque,” Aimee told me. By the 1950s, people of Asian descent were allowed to own land, but until the Fair Housing Act of 1968, racially restrictive covenants prevented Asian, Black and Latino residents from buying property in certain white-dominated areas. The Alien Land Act was not officially repealed until 2006.

Today, salons, nightclubs, cannabis dispensaries and empty parking spots have replaced the Chinese-owned laundries, restaurants and mom-and-pop shops. Only a small black plaque titled “Chinese Pioneers in Albuquerque” commemorates their existence. Decorated with Chinese characters meaning opportunity and hope, the plaque is dedicated to “the memory of the Chinese Americans who came to Albuquerque to help build and settle this frontier town.”

 “If my great-grandpa were allowed to have land, the Tang family and Chinese Americans could have owned downtown Albuquerque.” 
A few “Chinese laundries” appeared on maps of Albuquerque in the early 20th century, including this 1902 map.
Courtesy of Diane Schaller/Historic Albuquerque Inc.

 

LAST AUGUST, AIMEE, who’d recently moved back to Albuquerque from California, and I set out to find any remaining traces of her family’s past in the city. Clutching a beige manila folder under her right arm, she met me by a half-empty parking lot downtown, its pay machines coated in scrawls and stickers. 

In the early 20th century, an upscale Meso-American-style hotel stood there. Her great-grandfather used to visit the hotel’s post office to send his earnings back to his home village of Wing On Lee, where he intended to retire. The Communist Revolution in the late 1940s ended that dream, though it seems that he never gave up the fantasy of returning, even in the last years of his life. When Aimee was born in 1971, Edward, then in his 80s, named her “Towi Mae,” which meant “lush hills and hidden serenity” in ancient Chinese and evoked the quiet farming village where he was born. He died six years later. 

In the heavy quiet of a hot day, Aimee and I walked down Central Avenue, past kitschy souvenir booths and shuttered taprooms and taverns, seeking the site of the grocery store. When we reached the address, Aimee stopped and flipped open her folder. From a pile of newspaper clippings and black-and-white images, she pulled out a photo of Fremont’s Fine Foods, taken in the early 1920s. It showed a humble storefront draped by a wrinkled portiere. Today, there was no sign of it; the original structure had been demolished and replaced with high-end lofts. In the city she grew up in, my guide seemed lost.  

Aimee’s hometown embodies the distance she feels from her Chinese identity. Albuquerque is 7,500 miles away from her family’s ancestral homeland in Guangdong. Today, only about one out of every 230 Albuquerque residents is of Chinese ancestry, according to city government; almost half are Hispanic, and nearly one in 20 is Native American. The Chinese American community is loosely held together by a few multigenerational families, including the Tangs. Many years, Aimee gathers with other Chinese Americans, mostly seniors, at an annual film festival in a church auditorium. The daylong event features movies and documentaries about the Chinese American experience. Sometimes, she is invited to a birthday celebration, or more likely these days, a funeral of an octogenarian or nonagenarian. 

The researchers at the National Archives have yet to find any evidence to disprove the “alleged” father-son relationship between Kee Hung and Edward. Aimee proudly calls Kee Hung her great-great-grandfather. Once, in the research room of the National Archives, I took a photo of Edward and Kee Hung’s black-and-white portraits and sent it to Aimee. “We are going to frame it!” she told me. The next day, I followed up with an even older photo of Kee Hung and details of his legal battle. She responded: “Wow! My family is fantastic!”

Aimee is also trying to break the pattern of keeping the family stories quiet, sharing everything she has learned with her daughter, Marisol.

“She’s wanting to portray to me that ‘I’m going to raise you differently than how I was raised and have you know your heritage very, very clearly,’” Marisol told me.

Last year, Marisol posted “Stop Asian Hate” in “big, big letters” on her social media. When her friends asked her about her Chinese heritage, she realized how little she knew. Now, all that has changed — she knows where her family came from, and how they settled in the U.S. “Knowing that my family has fought for their rights is very cool,” she said. “If that never happened, I don’t think I’d ever be who I am, or what I am.” 

Once the pandemic ends, mother and daughter hope to visit Wing On Lee, walk the fields and meet their Chinese relatives. “If my besties say that ‘You’re not really that connected to your Chinese side,’ I can say, ‘Oh, yes, I am.’” 

Marisol giggled. “And I have proof.”   

Portraits of Ong Shew Ngoh (Aimee’s great-grandfather, her first Chinese American ancestor, also known as Edward Gaw) and Ong Kee Hung, his “alleged father.” The pottery bowl in front of Shew Ngoh was made by Aimee’s Jemez grandmother and is filled with cornmeal, which is sacred and used in prayer.

 Wufei Yu is an independent journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico and was a fellow at High Country News. He was born and raised in Beijing, China.

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