This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. This blog is not supported by advertising, it's supported by the generosity of my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

Being Chinese in old-time Phoenix - 1899


While I was in the Arizona Room of the Burton Barr Library a few days ago, I came across a wonderful publication from 1899 called "Arizona Graphics". I love looking through old documents, and touching the paper that people in 1899 Phoenix had touched. I dislike history books, which repeat things, often with mistakes that get printed and reprinted again and again. And I know that there's no guarantee that original documents won't have mistakes, all humans make mistakes, typos, that kind of thing, but just knowing that gives me a level of comfort to walk into the past when I see original documents.

What really caught my eye was an article about the Winter Carnival, which was held every December in Phoenix. It included a Carnival Queen, and various events, and of course a parade. There were a lot of photos and one of them was the one at the top of this post, which was captioned "Chinese Division in Parade". And today I'd like to go back to Phoenix in 1899, and imagine that I'm Chinese, and that I'm in that parade.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm no expert on the history of China, or of the Chinese in America. I'm sure you'll find a lot of information on that. But I've been a young man, and I've had the heart of a young man, and the feelings of a young man. So let's walk in the parade as young Chinese men in old-time Phoenix and see if we can feel it.

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I will call myself Tom. It's not my actual name, but it's something that the non-Chinese people around me can pronounce, and remember. And as we walk along Washington Street, carrying the American flag, I feel a connection. I don't know what it is, but I'll tell you a secret: I like it here. And no, I mean no disrespect to the Celestial Empire where I was born, but I would like to stay here, if I could. I like the smell of the desert, I like the wide-open spaces. I've grown strong here, and I think I could put that strength to use. I know that I don't speak English, but even so I know that I'm good with horses, and I could be a good hand.

1893 article about Chinese in Phoenix celebrating. Montezuma Street is now 1st Street. The Chinese neighborhood was near 1st Street and Monroe.

Yesterday I caught a runaway horse on Montezuma Street. I brought it back to the man who smiled and seemed impressed with my ability. He thanked me, and gave me a penny. Tomorrow I will go to his ranch and pick up a rake, or a shovel, and show him my strength, and I believe that he will give me payment for that. I believe that I can do that. And maybe I'll learn some English, stay here in Arizona if they will have me, maybe someday raise a family. I know that everyone dreams of going home, but I believe that I have found my home, right here.


Image at the top of this post: The Chinese Division of the Winter Carnival Parade in 1899, Washington Street, Phoenix, Arizona.