Chinese came to San Antonio in waves


San Antonio, like El Paso and Houston, evolved with a significant Chinese community, despite federal laws that banned them from the country for decades.

According to the Institute of Texan Cultures, the Chinese, the first of the Asian immigrants in Texas, arrived in 1870, came to America for the California gold rush and construction of railroads in the American West. The first wave of about 250 in Texas came to Calvert, a town with cotton production east of Waco, to help build a railroad in the Brazos River Valley.

Another 2,600 Chinese men came from California in the 1880s as the Southern Pacific rail line was being built to El Paso. The first child of Chinese descent in Texas is believed to have been born in 1885 to Sam Hing, a railroad labor contractor. By 1890, eight years after U.S. exclusionary laws took effect, the state’s Chinese population was 710, with nearly one-third in El Paso County.

By that time, San Antonio had about 50 Chinese residents. Many were farmers and laundry or restaurant operators. The next wave of Chinese were 527 who accompanied Maj. Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing into Texas, along with some 2,500 Mexican civilians, after a nearly yearlong expedition in Mexico. They had helped Pershing and his force of some 10,000 troops responding to an attack on the town of Columbus, New Mexico, led by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

The Chinese had worked in Mexico for centuries as shipbuilders and servants on Spanish trading ships. Many of those brought stateside by Pershing, who asked Congress to let them stay and avoid persecution under Villa’s regime, worked in or around Fort Sam Houston during the buildup for World War I and stayed in San Antonio. Bexar County then had the state’s largest Chinese population, well over 300.

This new wave of Chinese immigrants in San Antonio spoke more Spanish than English, with many living in the “Laredito” area in what now is the western part of downtown, expanding the city’s Chinese population to 600 by the early 1940s. Repeal of the exclusionary law in 1943 made it possible for Chinese Texans to ask their family members overseas to join them.

The state’s Chinese population grew from 1,031 in 1940 to 25,461 in 1980. Houston surpassed San Antonio in the 1950s as having the state’s largest Chinese community.

Early Chinese immigrants in Texas, almost all men, tended to be from the Canton region of south China. They arrived as laborers, but adapted to small business operations as laundry, grocery or restaurant operators. Newer immigrants were from north and central China, spoke Mandarin, and tended to gravitate more toward careers in skilled professions.

Aside from successfully lobbying against an alien land law that critics said would have driven Chinese groceries out of business, Chinese Texans have largely maintained a close-knit, inwardly looking community, with a focus on a patriarchal family structure, often with three or more generations living together.

The Chinese community created its own school in the 1920s. One of its teachers, Theodore H. Wu, operated a grocery in the HemisFair area and became a co-founder of Boysville, a children’s home that opened in 1943 for troubled youth. He later opened the Tai Shan Restaurant in an art deco building on Broadway that now houses Fiesta Commission offices. Some San Antonians still recall the Wu family.

Another organizer of the school, Don Wong, arrived in San Antonio before Pershing’s group in 1912. He opened a bakery in today’s Market Square area, and raised several children who became business owners or professionals.

San Antonio’s oldest Chinese restaurant, Hung Fong, was opened by Cantonese master chef K.A. (Kok An) Huey in the late 1930s on Broadway. It was a popular dining spot for U.S. Army troops at Fort Sam Houston and remains in operation today. Family members have said Huey came to America in 1916, hoping to open his own restaurant.

In the 1950s, when Huey was unable to bring his son, Kok Gon Jong, to join him because of immigration laws, he sought help from former Mayor and Congressman Maury Maverick Sr. Maverick took the case and won. In gratitude, the son changed his name to Maury Maverick Huey.

“Mr. Maverick wanted so much for me to join my father here, and he had tried so hard for so long that when it happened, he threw his big arms around me and hugged me, and I could feel the tears from his eyes dropping on my head and down my neck,” the son told Express-News columnist Claude Stanush in 1991.

In the 1960s, three of the son’s children, also hindered from relocating because of immigration laws, were admitted and naturalized with help from Maverick’s son, Maury Jr. The eldest of the three, whose name was Chui Kit Hui, changed his name to Maury Maverick Huey Jr.

The Huey family has passed on the restaurant business through at least four generations. It opened Ding How, a Chinese restaurant on the North Side, in 1983, and in 1991 opened the Maverick Cafe, which served a mix of Chinese, Texan and Mexican cuisine for more than a decade on San Pedro Avenue.

Howard Wong, an architect and retired Air Force colonel, worked with O’Neil Ford and designed St. Andrew Presbyterian Church and buildings at Trinity University and Southwest Foundation for Biological Research. He died in 2001. One of his daughters, Dr. Lenora Berning, the first San Antonio woman accepted to the U.S. Air Force Academy, became a physician certified in emergency medicine and hospice and palliative care.

The First Chinese Baptist Church of San Antonio, formed downtown around 1919 and known as the Chinese Gospel Mission, now is on the North Side. According to the church’s website, the founding members initially relied on support from the local faith community and the city, which allowed the group to hold early meetings at the Spanish Governor’s Palace. They moved to an upper room along Commerce Street, then worshipped at 601 Avenue B from 1940 to 1994 before relocating to a more spacious campus to the north.

In 1992, after Valero Energy Corp. bought the Avenue B church campus, the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission allowed the company to demolish the church structures to provide parking space. Noting that the buildings had lost much of its historic value because of 1950s alterations, commissioners ruled that the site retain its historic designation, allowing the city to retain review authority over future development, the Express-News reported at the time.

In 1964, Thomas Jefferson Lee of San Antonio, a Democrat, became the first Chinese Texan to be elected to the Texas House of Representatives, serving one term. His father, Fook Sune Lee, had come to San Antonio before Pershing’s followers and opened a restaurant.

Frank D. Wing, the longest-serving San Antonio city council member in recent times, representing the South Side from 1977-1993, was the son of Dan Wing, one of the Chinese workers who accompanied Pershing to Texas. His mother, Franscisa Cantu Rodriguez, was born in Mexico, according to research by historian Frank W. Jennings.

Wing, a close colleague of Henry Cisneros, who was mayor in the 1980s, then U.S. Housing Secretary, oversaw changes to the city’s municipal court system. He died in 2012. The city’s municipal court building bears his name.

By Scott Huddleston


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