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October 02, 2017


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Downtown Portland has a Chinatown with a spectacular gate but no Chinese to speak of, just the homeless and some gay bars. Depending how long they've been here, Asians are most likely to be found out on 82nd Ave, the kind of street Phoenix knows all too well: car lots, fast-food fry pits, pretty much the whole catastrophe of post-war America. But if you can get past the eyesore aspect, it's fairly lively.

I grew up in Sunnyslope where the Chinese operated most of the corner groceries in that pre-Circle K era. One of my classmates was Paula Lee whose family owned the Blue Star Market on Hatcher Rd (the building is still there). Even as a young child, Paula would do the ordering because she could speak English. She went on to be come a CPA and later married Matt Fong, who was the California State Treasurer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Fong

The Chinese were usually Republican (not Matt Fong's mother, however, who was California's Secretary of State). Democrats in the 19th Century passed a racist piece of legislation called the Chinese Exclusion Act that wasn't repealed until 1943. They would be a strong Republican constituency today if it wasn't for the unfortunate detour of the Republican Party into white nationalism. Today, Chinese-Americans are strongly Democratic.

I saw a documentary about 10 years ago called Chinese Restaurants. It was about the Chinese global diaspora beginning around 500 years ago and I strongly recommend it if you can find it. From Mozambique to Madagascar to Saskatchewan to Tromso, Norway, Chinese peasants opened small shops and restaurants around the world. It's an amazing story not of conquest but of endurance. In America, they faced sometimes extreme hostility and even death. Yet they persisted. Peasants with no apparent education were able to successfully engineer the gradients of the Trans-Continental Railroad. When America shut its borders, they flocked to Mexicali, which even today has a strong Chinese immigrant community. I suspect proximity to the border is the main reason for their outsized presence.

Human capital is one reason why this is probably the Chinese century. If it isn't, then it may well be India's. The human story itself is breathtaking in its arc and reach. Count yourself lucky if you knew these people when you were growing up.

Interesting article. When I lived in the east valley, I would shop at the Ranch Market there for some food items not available at regular stores, which I developed a taste for when I spent a summer in China during college. I ate at a restaurant there a couple times. I never knew much about the facility, but remember thinking that there wasn't much going on at the "Chinese Cultural Center" besides some Chinese owned businesses. I guess it's a shame it's going away, but like you say, maybe it's not that great of a loss since it was rather a weak enterprise to start with.
That is an interesting observation that greater acceptance and options for Chinese led to the decline of Chinatown in Phoenix. That's a good thing, right, that people over time would not feel the need to congregate with only their own culture and are comfortable living amongst the general culture of their adopted country? That phenomenon reminds me of my current hometown of Houston, which has quite a multiethnic population, including large historic numbers of blacks and Chinese. There is a part of town called Fifth Ward that in the several decades prior to segregation ending was a thriving community of middle class blacks. In the 70’s and 80’s, African-Americans with means took advantage of the opportunity to live in other parts of town that they never were able to before. As a result of “black flight”, Fifth Ward turned into a ghetto of drugs, crime, fires, etc. It has stabilized some now and most of the historic commercial buildings that characterized it in its heyday and in its decline have been torn down. It’s still not a great neighborhood, but the worst crime areas now are elsewhere.

Houston also has a Chinatown. Unlike Phoenix, it didn’t evaporate so much as relocate in the last few decades from its historic location downtown to the far west side of town. In actuality, it might more accurately be called Asiatown, because it’s not all Chinese. I work in that area and from my observations, the larger number of recent immigrants are Vietnamese and they do largely live in that part of town. When the Chinese center of gravity shifted west, the city endorsed the movement by putting up street signs on the major roads there in Chinese. The last few years they have also been putting up Vietnamese street signs.

"Even in the 1930s, grocery chains such as A.J. Bayless placed ads telling their customers not to patronize 'dirty' Chinese competitors."

Many years ago, I planned to celebrate my birthday at a Chinese restaurant in Phoenix. Interestingly, two older women - both native Arizonans, longtime Phoenicians, and one, a member of a prominent family - declined my invitation. I later learned the reason was that they believed all Chinese establishments were "dirty." I wonder if those ads influenced them.

You mention Wing F. Ong. I remember in the early '60s he had a Chinese restaurant, Wing's, on the SE corner of 7th St. (or was it 16th?) and Thomas Rd. (or was it McDowell?). Anyway, my mom and I considered it the best in town. When we didn't go to Wing's we patronized our neighborhood establishment, Aloha Garden, on S. Central. I also remember one of the few businesses left in the "old" Chinatown, Mandarin Inn at 1st St. and Madison. All long gone!

It was the SE corner of 16th street and Thomas. Now home to Burger King and a strip mall.

This is the week the novel is due. So unless a topic is obvious, I may not have a Rogue column for a few days. Apologies.

"keep scribbling"

Tovrea Castle was a real estate hustle, too. Maybe when we destroy our history we need to keep a few boondoggles for historical reference, as AZ has always been a real estate hustle kind of place.

I was always uncomfortable with the Center's China financial roots, and it's an untold story about the Valley that there is a big chasm between the Taiwanese and Chinese who still consider Taiwan to be a part of China.

The building is gorgeous when you walk around the areas past the stores themselves. The gardens, pond and rocks are quite unique, and the actual building itself is a piece of ceramic arts. I would love to see it preserved or at least cared for and adapted to their future plans, but all I see in the future is destruction and demolition which I find unfortunate.

To the last question, is it historic? No, not yet. Is it important? I'd argue yes, in many ways, for different reasons, to different people.

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