TexasEscapes.com HOME Welcome to Texas Escapes
A magazine written by Texas
Custom Search
New   |   Texas Towns   |   Ghost Towns   |   Counties   |   Trips   |   Features   |   Columns   |   Architecture   |   Images   |   Archives   |   Site Map


Texas Counties

Texas Towns
A - Z


Excerpts from

The San Antonio Community

by Mel Brown

Chinese Heart of Texas book cover
To order:

Contact Mr. Mel Brown at 512-288-7354
or email at melbjr@earthlink.net

"JOHN CHINAMAN IS HERE." A simple four word declaration heralds April 5th, 1875 as that day on which the Chinese first came to the rustic and rowdy town of San Antonio, Texas. Did he remain there for a while, start a business or just look around and leave? Why was he drawn to this oddly cosmopolitan frontier city where so many strange languages were spoken around each corner and in every shop? Ten years after the American Civil War, traveling there from any other town in the state, like Dallas or Houston, required a journey of several days by stage coach. The first railroad did not reach San Antonio until 1877, so that meant a dusty, bone jarring ride for seemingly endless hours and miles.

A few years later San Antonio became home to a number of other Chinese men who had been brought to Texas to complete the Southern Pacific railroad line that ran from Florida to California. When the railroad project was finished, most Chinese migrated back to the West coast and many returned home to Guangdong. Others decided to remain, so San Antonio's small Asian population soon began to grow along with the prosperous city. The Daily Express reported on March 2, 1883 that "... a fresh delegation of washee-washee Chinese has just arrived." Many of these men had skills learned while working on the great railway but they opened hand laundries so as not to compete for jobs with the local work force. By 1887, the number of Chinese laundries was twenty-five as the colony had grown to over fifty men and one woman.
* * * * *
Sue Lee may have been San Antonio's first Chinese female resident but that was a secret which she desperately wanted to keep. This unusual oriental tale comes from an August, 1887 newspaper story under the droll heading "IN BREECHES AND BOOTS". The colorful account informed its curious readers that in a certain Chinese cafe "very popular with the local Celestials, one of the waiters is certainly a woman, dressed as a man." Loyal patrons of the "chop shop" on W. Commerce St. near City Hall helped Sue Lee maintain her subterfuge. Many of them adamantly swore that she was a "real man", in spite of her obvious feminine features and girlish mannerisms. Maybe the poorly fitting trousers and brogans gave her away. An apparently beguiled newspaperman wrote that at times she affected "...a bewitching look through the long black lashes of her almond eyes."

We trust that Sue Lee did not let her guard down as consequences could be terrible. Readers were informed that this "celestial masquerade" was necessary because Sue was a runaway slave. The article explained that Cantonese girls were regularly indentured to rich Chinese masters by a syndicate in San Francisco. This fugitive woman had escaped a keeper who might have paid as much as $3,000 for her, depending upon her age and physical appearance. " Poor Sue, doubtless to gain her liberty, has broken away from her masters and in the garb of a man is keeping her identity and whereabouts concealed from her owners."

The ardent reporter ended by adding that her charade might be undone by the police, if they enforced a local ban on women appearing publicly in men's garb. Sue Lee's uncertain fate remains concealed to those of us looking back to her day; hopefully, she lived her life as a free woman, one way or another. Thousands of long suffering Chinese girls and women were exploited and abused during this period of legal prostitution while many others died as a result of disease and neglect. Sexual slavery was the frontier reality of nineteenth century America due in part to the bigoted strictures on immigration of Chinese women."
* * * * *
It was about this time that the U. S. Congress passed an "Exclusion Law" promoted chiefly by organized labor and west coast politicians. It specifically banned Chinese immigration into America beginning in 1882. That in turn compelled the next generation of Cantonese laborers and merchants to enter Mexico instead where they were at first welcomed to help stimulate that nation's northern states economies. Like they did everywhere else, the Chinese prospered by hard work and frugal living. Within a mere twenty years they dominated local economies as commercial farmers, merchants, laundry men and even in light manufacturing. By the beginning of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, they were being scapegoated to the point of social then legal persecution which eventually turned violent.

"The worst incident occurred in the Chinatown of Torreón, Coahuila in May of 1911. A violent rampaging throng of three to four thousand Mexicans attacked the approximately 1,400 Chinese there. In a period of four hours on May 15th, 1911 over 300 Chinese men, women and children were murdered. Forty of their grocery stores were demolished, along with five restaurants. Four hand laundries were ransacked as were dozens of smaller shops. The productive commercial farms and gardens nearby were also destroyed. As rioting raged, employees, wives or children who got caught, were killed or beaten. Five Japanese residents, mistaken for Chinese were also murdered. Dead were buried in a large pit which was hastily prepared as a mass grave outside the municipal cemetery."

A few years later in March 1916 the Mexican bandit-general Pancho Villa attacked and pillaged Columbus, New Mexico killing several civilians and a number of U.S. Army troops posted there. Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing led a large American military force into Mexico known as the Punitive Expedition to capture or kill Villa. He was unsuccessful and was recalled in early 1917 to prepare the army for war in Europe. Because of the ongoing persecution of Chinese in Mexico he was given permission to bring over 500 of them to the U. S. who had aided the Expeditionary force. Just over 400 of them ended up in San Antonio at Fort Sam Houston and became known as the "Pershing Chinese." Overnight that city's Chinese population jumped from nearly 100 to nearly 500. Soon there were families with children born as Texans as the Alamo City became home to the largest Asian population in the state.
* * * * *

Fred Wu
Fred Wu stands by his delivery truck, in front of Alamo Grocery at 217 S. Alamo about 1946. Fred bough the successful market from his uncle, Ted Wu, then ran it until 1964 when he relocated due to HEMISFAIR in 1968. Fred became a founding member and first president of the Chinese American Optimists Club of San Antonio in 1953.

Photo courtesy Virginia Wong

The 1920s and '30s were the Golden Age for San Antonio's Chinese community when more families settled down there, raised kids and established businesses. The majority of them owned and operated "mom & pop" grocery stores that were scattered in and around the downtown area. There was never a Chinatown as such in SATX because the market families assimilated fairly quickly into the already remarkably diverse ethnic patchwork that San Antonio had been since the 1850s. Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, French, Black, English and of course Mexican populations had been living together for years by the time the Chinese arrived.

For various historical reason, the majority of the Chinese coming to America from the 1870s onward came from Kwangtung, now Guangdong province near Canton. As a result of this trend the original American Chinese were a mostly homogenous group in terms of dialect, tradition, attitude and behavior. This was equally true of those coming into San Antonio's multicultural milieu.

So the Chinese entered into the midst of this colorful quilt as neither white nor black. This enabled them to live wherever they chose, have businesses in any sector and send their kids to the nearest school regardless of its racial makeup. Their many, family run markets and numerous cafes became familiar sights nearly everywhere in town. ABCs or American Born Chinese were growing up as Texans and along with their "paper son" siblings were also building the homogenous community. Paper sons were those young men born to American fathers who visited wives in China who could not immigrate because of the Exclusion Laws.

14th Air Service Group, Chinese American servicemen in  WWII
The All-Chinese American 555th Air Service Squadron members pose next to one of the P-40s belonging to the Chinese American Composite Wing of the 14th Air Force under Gen. Claire Chennault. Their mascot Stevie(an orphan) kneels next to San Antonian Sgt. John Leung during a lull in activity. Photo courtesy Dora Leung

Finally the old Exclusion Laws were undone in 1943 as WW II raged across Asia and thousands of Chinese Americans joined the U. S. armed forces. A number of San Antonio's ABC's and those so called "paper sons" also enlisted. Along with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Gen. Claire Chennault requested that an Army unit be established entirely of Chinese Americans to be sent to China for the war effort. The 14th Air Service Group was formed and arrived there in late summer 1944 then got busy using their training in different ways to ensure that the American and Chinese air forces were as effective as possible against the large and powerful Japanese army. - "The 14th Air Service Group was made up of nine technical support units. Each of these performed some specialty such as the various quartermaster functions as well as transportation and communications, etc. They were responsible for supplying everything from tooth paste and fresh uniforms to the fuel, spare parts, ammunition and bombs needed for air operations. The 14th also managed level three of aircraft maintenance and repair. Keeping aircraft operational was the 14th ASG's most important task and was provided by the well trained 407th Squadron mechanics and technicians."

They did everything from day to day maintenance to recovery and repair of crashed airplanes. Salvage of unrepairable aircraft was another of their jobs; it meant removal of all reusable parts or components. That included everything from radios, to tires, instruments, wings, and armament which could be reused on other aircraft. This duty and service would prove, in the long run, quite beneficial to the men themselves as they later would use Veteran's benefits to buy homes or start businesses back in Texas. At the war's end, many of these men were allowed time to return to their ancestral villages and areas to look for wives. It proved to be a good policy as many of them eventually brought women to the States for marriage and to begin families.

"Many other Chinese American citizens served their nation in World War II. Just over 13,000 of them enlisted or were drafted into the various branches of the Army and Navy after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Added to the number of those already in military service since 1940, that number climbs closer to 16,000. They saw duty in overseas areas including almost all of Europe, plus North Africa and the Mediterranean. Many thousands more served in the Merchant Marine throughout the vast conflict. During WW II, 214 Chinese Americans died while serving in all the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, either in combat, in accidents or from illness."

WWII Chinese American pilot
"Civilian Pilot Training instructor Frank Eng awaits his next student on the wing of a Fairchild PT-19A at a base near Ballantine in East Texas. The Army paid private contractors all over Texas to teach basic flite skills to thousands of young recruits during WW II because of the shortage of military instructors."

Photo courtesy Virginia Wong

"As the 1950s began though, another challenge to full acceptance of Chinese Americans as "real Americans" emerged. A new wave of racism arose in the country which was fed as much by fear of communism as it was by xenophobia. From June, 1950 the United States' dominant role during the Korean conflict meant, in effect, an undeclared war with China. That was due to Beijing's alliance with North Korea's marxist regime. This produced much suspicion in America as to the loyalties of its Chinese citizens. It came at the time when many Chinese Americans were finally beginning to overcome old prejudices and fears in their hometowns."

"Complicating matters, the FBI began covert surveillance and intelligence gathering programs in many cities. Those programs had larger Chinatowns pitting their citizens against each other over issues of loyalty. The sadly contentious period passed but left many victims in its wake as personal and political vendettas surfaced, leaving communities with permanent scars. For the most part, these differences never became disruptive for San Antonio's modest Chinese American community, long noted for its conservatism and loyalty."

"However, for one particular family this was indeed an issue and one which permanently affected its children. By the mid-1950s, Mr. Hong Fat Lee became known in town as being sympathetic toward Chairman Mao's mainland or "Red" China regime. His views ran contrary to the convictions of most San Antonio Chinese at the time who favored the Taiwan based Nationalist government of the Kuomintang's Chiang Kai-shek. Beyond the day to day friction it caused him within the community, it also made the grocery man suspect to the authorities as well. A good American and staunch believer in personal freedoms, the well read Mr. Lee was also somewhat outspoken in his political opinions. This eventually led to disruptive visits from the FBI which was then known to harass citizens it perceived as disloyal to America."

"So it was that late one night twelve year old Tom Lee was awakened by loud knocking on the front door of the family home on Texas Street. Opening the door, he was confronted by a G-man who demanded to speak with his father immediately. Sleepy and now grumpy, Tom told the agent that his parents had already retired after a long day of work at the family store. He added that if the man wanted to discuss something with Mr. Lee, he could find him any day of the week at the nearby HONG LEE Market. Tom then slammed the door in the agent's face and went back to bed."

"Tom could also have told the FBI man that his father was a strong supporter of Congressman Henry B. Gonzales (Texas' first Hispanic U. S. representative), always voted Democratic and instructed the Lee children in the particulars of the U. S. Constitution. That young Tom Lee would eventually become a political activist who participated in early and very unpopular civil rights demonstrations while attending The University of Texas at Austin. It was there on campus in 1961 that he shook hands with Dr. Martin Luther King. In doing so, Tom expressed his own heartfelt beliefs and honored his dad's unique style of Americanism."
Mary Eng or "Auntie Mary" to hundreds of family and friends, is one of the most remarkable citizens San Antonio has ever known. She was born in Shreveport, Louisiana where her father operated one of the largest laundry businesses in that state. Mary lived in China for three years, receiving the traditional education which her father required, and graduated from high school there. She later married a San Antonio merchant named Joseph Eng, raised four children, organized youth clubs, led China Relief drives, worked in the family's markets, taught English to war brides, was a Civil Defense worker, captained a women's bowling team, baked countless almond cookies and made egg rolls for annual charity functions in her spare time.

"Perhaps the most colorful media account regarding Mary Eng was the result of a notorious robbery at JOSEPH's Foodliner in the spring of 1973. Two bad guys named Jones and Perez entered the market with larceny in their hearts. This was their second holdup of the afternoon, as Mr. Jones cornered Joseph and Mr. Perez concentrated on Mrs. Eng. Short little Mary saw a pistol pointed at her and emptied the cash register as instructed. That set off an automatic alarm, which spooked the two desperadoes who fled with $1700 of hard earned Eng cash in a stolen 1967 Mustang. The two might have gotten away if they hadn't run a stop sign in front of a police car just a few blocks away."

"Thereon followed a 100 mile per hour running gun battle up I-35 to New Braunfels. The chase involved forty police, sheriff and constable's cars, a helicopter and a TV news crew who happened to be nearby. After running two roadblocks, the desperate duo was stopped in a lethal hail of gunfire from peace officers. Both outlaws died and JOSEPH's Foodliner was open for business the next day. Mary Eng was at the cash register as usual, though still a bit shaky but planning her next club committee meeting."

Now at age 90, Aunty Mary Eng epitomizes the historic San Antonio Chinese community and embodies its spirit of the American "can do" attitude and a Texan's love of place. The old Alamo City turned put to be the perfect choice of a home that early Chinese pioneers could have made to live in a hundred and thirty odd years ago. Modern immigration into the bustling city of Saint Anthony has widened to include many others from the wider Asian continent and Pacific Rim nations now as history continues to be made there. Chinese Heart of Texas is only the beginning of a history long overdue in the telling and hopefully much appreciated for its ongoing chapters now in the making.

© Mel Brown

Chinese girls on bike
"Wan Lee and her sister Shirley sharing a summertime bike ride past their home on Texas Ave. about 1950. The two Lee girls along with their seven siblings grew up helping in their parent's store the Kong Lee Market on nearby Zarzamora Street."

Photo courtesy Dr. Washington Tom Lee

Chinese kid in cowboy outfit
Five year old Washington Tom Lee shows off his official Roy Rogers cowboy outfit and six-shooter cap pistol at his Texas Avenue home in San Antonio about 1952. This youngster has become one of the city's most respected physicians while his brother and a sister are also MDs, one in Cal. the other in NYC.

Photo courtesy Dr. Washington Tom Lee

See Author Mel Brown writes on
"Chinese Heart of Texas"

San Antonio Conservation Society "2007 BEST BOOK AWARD"

Order Books by Mel Brown

Order Information:
Order "Chinese Heart of Texas" and his other books by contacting Mr. Mel Brown directly at 512-288-7354 or by email at melbjr@earthlink.net

Books ordered from Mr. Mel Brown are autographed and may have a personalized dedication added upon request
San Antonio in Vintage Postcards
WINGS Over San Antonio

Texas Books
San Antonio, Texas

Texas Escapes Online Magazine »   Archive Issues » Home »
Texas Counties
Texas Towns A-Z
Texas Ghost Towns

Central Texas North
Central Texas South
Texas Gulf Coast
Texas Panhandle
Texas Hill Country
East Texas
South Texas
West Texas

Rooms with a Past

Gas Stations
Post Offices
Water Towers
Grain Elevators
Cotton Gins

Vintage Photos
Historic Trees
Old Neon
Ghost Signs
Pitted Dates
Then & Now

Columns: History/Opinion
Texas History
Small Town Sagas
Black History
Texas Centennial

Texas Railroads

Texas Trips
Texas Drives
Texas State Parks
Texas Rivers
Texas Lakes
Texas Forts
Texas Trails
Texas Maps

Site Map
About Us
Privacy Statement
Contact Us

Website Content Copyright Texas Escapes LLC. All Rights Reserved