Chinese immigrants have been coming to the United States for over 150 years for many of the same reasons as immigrants from other countries. Some have come seeking economic or educational opportunities. Others fled war and famine. Many have come seeking the “American Dream” and a better life for themselves and their families. Some were explorers seeking adventure, fame, and fortune.
The first Chinese immigrants came to North America as indentured servants on Spanish and British ships. Chinese immigration to North America started in earnest in the mid-1800s when a small discovery changed the course of history, not only for Chinese Americans, but for the entire United States.
In January 1848, flakes of gold were discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California. Shouts of “Gold!” spread like wildfire around the world. In China, destitute families heard stories of quick riches and mountains of gold. “Sojourners” borrowed money, signed on as contract laborers, and started on the long difficult journey to California.
By 1849, most of the major gold claims had been depleted. The Chinese miners used gold panning methods and patiently mined the trace amounts of gold that were left. The small successes that they had were met with resistance. During this time period, whenever the Chinese would make strides, laws aimed specifically at them, including special taxes and onerous restrictions, were passed.
Very few women emigrated from China. Men came alone either to earn money to send back to their families or to find riches and a new life. The women who did immigrate usually came as indentured servants and some were forced into prostitution.
By the late 1800s, the Chinese in California had established themselves as skilled agriculturalists. They drained unproductive swampland and created some of the most fertile farmland in the world. Chinese immigrants also contributed their expertise to the fishing and garment industries.
Following the Civil War and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Chinese, who had been brought over by the thousands to work as cheap labor on the most dangerous, grueling sections of the railroad, became scapegoats for the country’s economic and unemployment problems.
In the late 1800s anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States (particularly on the West Coast) was growing. This came to a head after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Violent incidents in several western states became know as the “Driving Out” where thousands of Chinese Americans were forcibly removed or forced to flee their homes and businesses.
Although the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, Chinese Americans would not gain full rights in American Society until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Chinese American Citizens Alliance
In 1895, a small group of Chinese Americans in San Francisco formed an organization called the “Native Sons of the Golden State” because they wanted to play a bigger role in shaping the country of their birth. They also felt that the Chinese-American community needed leadership to actively and fully participate in American ideals, traditions, and institutions.
Originally, this organization was limited to Chinese males born in California. As branches were formed in other parts of the country, the organization was expanded and renamed the “Chinese American Citizens Alliance.”
The Chinese American Citizens Alliance is now a national organization with lodges around the country, including one in Albuquerque. Although for much of its history the Alliance only admitted men as members, in 1977 women were admitted for the first time. Since then, women have served in many official capacities. In 1997, the first woman president of the Alliance was Nancy Ann Gee, an Albuquerque native. Many other Albuquerqueans have held high positions in the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, including Carolyn and Dr. Tony Chan and Dr. David Hsi.
Chinese in New Mexico
Chinese Americans would find their way to New Mexico on the railroads and as miners. The dangerous, Western leg of the transcontinental railroad was built by Chinese laborers. When the railroad came to Albuquerque in the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants and laborers came with it.
Albuquerque’s first Chinese-American families lived on the 200 block of West Silver. Many owned and operated laundries due to limited economic opportunities. Two of Albuquerque’s first “pioneer” Chinese-American families were the Tangs and the Ongs.
The Tang Family and Fremont’s Fine Foods
“Fremont’s was our communication with the world. If you wanted anything, you would go and say ‘please get it for me’ and, sure enough, within a couple of weeks or so they would call you and say ‘it has arrived.’ They were our contact with the world market.”
- A long-time Albuquerque Resident
Edward Gaw Tang, a Chinese immigrant, opened Fremont’s Fine Foods in downtown Albuquerque in 1918. At a time when New Mexico was still fairly isolated from the rest of the country, Fremont’s connected the people of Albuquerque to the world by selling East Coast and European foods. Fremont’s continues this today and has expanded to include foods from cultures around the world.
One story says that Mr. Gaw Tang named the store after General Fremont because to him the name “symbolized the possibilities of the Western Frontier.” Another version says the name came from his port of entry, Fremont, California.
Although the store has moved four times within Albuquerque, Fremont’s remains owned and operated by the Tang family. Richard Tang, Edward’s grandson, left Shanghai, China for Albuquerque in 1955 and married Mary Toledo of Jemez Pueblo in 1970. Today, Aimee Tang, the fourth generation, and her husband Jacob Rasmussen, a citizen of Denmark, continue the tradition. For nine decades Fremont’s has thrived and become a celebration of diversity in Albuquerque.
Wing and Lin Ong
Wing and Lin Ong immigrated to the United States in 1929. After arriving on the West Coast, they took a train to Albuquerque. The dramatic, dusty, hot city of Albuquerque was not what they had expected. However, the Ongs persevered and opened a grocery store in the Barelas Neighborhood. As the Ongs were getting their business on its feet the Great Depression started in the United States. Although they had a large family of their own, the Ongs extended credit in their store to people who could not pay them. The Ongs felt that feeding their neighbors was more important than making money for themselves. The grocery store survived the Depression and was run by the Ongs until the 1980s. (1) In 1949, the Ongs opened the enormously popular “New Chinatown Restaurant.”
Lin Ong was a recipient of New Mexico BUDDY (“Bringing Up Daughters Differently”) award in 1998. This award was presented in recognition of a commitment to the promotion and development of women and involvement and impact on the community.
Many of Wing and Lin Ong’s family still live in Albuquerque and include Kim Jew, a very accomplished and popular Albuquerque photographer.
Contemporary Chinese Americans in Albuquerque
Chinese Americans living in Albuquerque come from as many varied backgrounds as any other group of people. They are 4th and 5th generation Americans, newly arrived students and family members, and everyone in between. Because of New Mexico’s high tech and scientific laboratories and industry, many Chinese scientists and engineers have come to New Mexico to continue their education or work for the National Laboratories and technology companies.
Albuquerque has celebrated its ties with China by designating two official “Sister Cities.” Lanzhou, China became a Sister City to Albuquerque in 1996 and Hualien, Taiwan has been a Sister City since 1983.
Dr. David Hsi
Since first coming to New Mexico in the early 1950s, Dr. Hsi has had a huge impact on many varied aspects of life in New Mexico. Dr. Hsi left Shanghai, China for the United States in 1948. He attended graduate school and eventually earned a Ph.D. He then spent 40 years working for New Mexico State University at the agricultural research stations in Clovis and Los Lunas where he became an expert and pioneer in the agricultural sciences.
During his time at the agricultural research stations, Dr. Hsi was instrumental in the development of two peanut varieties, the Valencia A and Valencia C. These varieties continue to be the primary peanut varieties grown in New Mexico and bring in millions of dollars annually to the State. (2)
In Albuquerque, Dr. Hsi has served on the school board and the boards of many local and national organizations. He has been very active in the Albuquerque Sister Cities Foundation as the chair for Lanzhou, China.
In 2007, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance awarded Dr. Hsi its highest honor, the “Spirit of America Award.”
Carolyn Chan and Dr. Tony Chan
Residents of Albuquerque since 1959, both of the Chans have been extremely active in the Chinese-American community in Albuquerque and on a national level. Both of the Chans have served in many different capacities in the national executive of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance and the local Albuquerque Lodge. Dr. Chan is a past president and Carolyn Chan was the first female president of the Albuquerque Lodge. Mrs. Chan was the first national communications director and currently serves as Executive Vice President of Civic and Public Policy for the Chinese American Citizens Alliance.
The Chans served on the national advocacy team which worked for nearly five years to help Congressman Michael Honda (CA-15) finally pass H. Res. 415 on July 30, 2008. The resolution recognizes the historical, but little known, role of Asians in preserving the Union in the United States Civil War. Despite their patriotism pre-dating the Transcontinental Railroad, many of the veterans were denied the right to apply for citizenship by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
In addition to working in the Chinese-American community, Dr. Chan was the first Chinese American Optometrist licensed in New Mexico and served as president of the New Mexico Optometric Association in 1973-74. A pioneer proponent of vision therapy as a mediation for learning problems, Dr. Chan served on the National Eye Advisory Council of the National Eye Institute. He received the lifetime achievement award from the New Mexico Optometric Association in 2007.
Carolyn Chan was one of the first Chinese-American teachers in the Albuquerque Public Schools. She served as chair of the National Advisory Council on Bilingual Education in 1982-83, vice-chair of Mayor Harry Kinney’s Commission on Adult Literacy, and was a member of Mayor Martin Chavez’s Task Force on Racial Profiling. Mrs. Chan served as president of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and was named to the Senior Hall of Fame in May 2005.
Dr. Andrew Hsi
Dr. Andrew Hsi is an award winning pediatrician with the University of New Mexico Hospital. Dr. Hsi’s focus has included children and families affected by prenatal alcohol and drug exposure, family violence, parental mental illness, and unsupported teen parenting. Dr. Hsi was awarded the first national “Humanism in Medicine Award” from the American Association of Medical Colleges in 1999. He was also awarded the “Children’s Champion Award” from All Faith’s Receiving Home in 2001 and the “Voice for Children Award” from New Mexico Voices for Children in 2007.
Charles and Synthia Lin and the Chinese Culture Center
The Lins, both originally from Taiwan, have lived in Albuquerque since the mid-1970s. Mr. Lin is the “Sifu” (teacher/father) of Lin’s Martial Arts Academy. Established in 1974, Lin’s Martial Arts Academy was the first Chinese martial arts school in Albuquerque. The school teaches the traditional martial arts styles of Ch’i Kung, Tai Chi Chuan, and Kung Fu.
The Lins built the Chinese Culture Center in 1988. The Chinese Culture Center is dedicated to the preservation of Chinese arts, language, and culture. The impressive building on Adams St. SE is based on two famous memorial buildings in Taiwan. The Culture Center is home to Lin’s Martial Arts Academy and a small import shop. A popular Chinese New Year Celebration is also hosted by the Culture Center each year.
Celebration of Chinese-American Culture
Many aspects of Chinese culture such as feng sui, Chinese brush painting and calligraphy, and Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture have been embraced by Americans of all backgrounds. Chinese New Year celebrations draw crowds all over the country and many Americans know their Chinese zodiac animal. Chinese food and its variations are extremely popular the world over.
Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the First Moon of the lunar calendar (which usually falls between late January and mid-February). The New Year celebration is the most elaborately celebrated holiday both in China and in the Chinese-American community.
New Year is a time for families to spend together and celebrate the passage of the old year and the coming new year. Traditionally, children were given red envelopes of money called “Lai-See.” Also traditionally, the seventh day of the New Year was considered “everyone’s birthday.” On this day everyone considered themselves to be a year older, instead of on the actual day of their birth. (3)
In Albuquerque there are a variety of Chinese New Year Celebrations. The largest, most popular celebration is held at the Chinese Culture Center. The celebration includes a 60 foot Chinese Dragon in the “Dance of the Dragon,” lion dances, fan and ribbon dances, and martial arts demonstrations.
A less commonly known festival that is still celebrated by many Chinese Americans is the Moon Festival (or Mid-Autumn Festival). The Moon Festival takes place during the full moon on the fifteenth day of the eight month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually in September). It is a time for families to get together and enjoy each other’s company while watching the moon rise.
One of the highlights of the Moon Festival is eating “moon cakes.” These dough “cakes” are filled with any of a number of things such as meat, bean paste, lotus seed paste, fruit, nuts, or preserved eggs.
1. Nasario Garcia and Richard McCord, Albuquerque ¡Feliz Cumpleaños! Three Centuries to Remember. (Santa Fe: Gran Vía Inc., 2005) 182.
2. “NMSU Clovis Science Center Celebrates 50 Years of Agricultural Research” New Mexico State University Department of Agriculture and Home Economics. Sept. 8, 1999. (http://cahe.nmsu.edu/news/1999/090899_CLOVIS.html)
3. “Celebration of the Chinese New Year” Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.