Human Interest

Lai Ngan’s story is similar to thousands of other Chinese immigrants who came to the United States nearly 150 years ago either by choice or by force. But in the end, unlike many, she would prevail.

Ngan’s story was shared by Li Yang, Ph.D., who was the guest speaker at the Church of the Nazarene in the Village of Oak Creek on Jan. 9. Yang, a professor and writer, has written several articles on Chinese-American history that have appeared in publications in the United States, China and Taiwan. She was a part of a speaker program sponsored by the Sedona Public Library and Arizona Humanities.

“She lived in a time where Chinese were discriminated by law — the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Yang said as she began her presentation in front of about 60 people.
Chinese immigrants were brought to the United States in 1848 during the California Gold Rush. A decade later they helped build the Transcontinental Railroad. But because many American workers felt their jobs threatened, many were deported.

“In the beginning the Chinese were welcomed with open arms because they provided cheap and dependable labor,” she said. “The anti-Chinese sentiment in the late 19th century and early 20th century was very high and you’d often see anti-Chinese propaganda in newspapers and elsewhere.”

Because the Chinese were not given jobs, she said many started forming Chinatowns in various states. Most consisted of male workers whose families were still in China. The women who were here consisted of wives of rich merchants and prostitutes.

Ngan was smuggled into the United States as a young girl and was married off in 1885, by her adoptive family, at the age of 12 to Lee Kwong, an American Civil War veteran and business owner. He was more than 30 years her senior.

“He was a dreamer and wanted to get rich after catching gold fever,” she said. “But prior to that, while visiting New York, he was shanghaied and forced to join the war where he served on a Mississippi gunboat. He was wounded five times during the war. But because of his service to the country, he became a naturalized citizen.”

In addition, Kwong was a notorious gambler, often doing well in business only to lose the money gambling.

By the time Ngan was 20, she had given birth to three children while the family was living in San Francisco. Kwong hoped to find his riches in Mexico so he and their eldest son went there, leaving Ngan and their daughters for nine months with no communication. So, she packed up the girls and moved to La Colorada, Mexico, to unite the family. And while her husband tried a variety of ways to make money, Ngan opened a small grocery store, which she ran for the next two years.

“They did not feel a rough and tumble mining town was a safe place to raise her kids so they moved,” Yang said.

While living in Sonora, Mexico, Ngan saved enough money to buy a house for her family, which would eventually include eight children with Kwong. But old habits are hard to break as her husband sold their house to pay his gambling debts without her knowing. That was until the new owner came to charge rent. Her daughter would later remember her mother yelling to the man, while holding a big stick, “This is my house, don’t you ever come back. I don’t care how many times he sells it, it’s mine. Don’t you ever think you can take rent from me.” The man never returned.

At the turn of the century, there was still quite a bit of prejudice against the Chinese, who were often accused of smuggling opium and prostitutes into the country, she said. Fearing for their safety, the family again moved, this time to Nogales, Ariz. But again, Kwong became restless and went to San Francisco with their eldest son, leaving Ngan and the children — two of whom were toddlers — to run yet another grocery store they had recently opened.

While in San Francisco, Kwong made national news when he attempted to register to vote. He was denied and because of it had his citizenship revoked after having been a U.S. citizen for 35 years. After returning to Arizona, they moved to Tucson, where Kwong would die a few years later.

Three years later Ngan would marry Tom Won, whom she had met years earlier and a man who Yang said was Ngan’s true love. Together, they had a son. The family then moved back to Nogales but tragedy soon followed.

“No one really knew what happened to Tom Won, not even the family members,” she said. “Presumably he was murdered. It was a very mysterious disappearance, leaving Ngan with a broken heart.”

Ngan died in 1940, just six weeks after one of her daughters died at the age of 49. Another daughter died at just 41. The remaining children saw professional success.

The library will host another guest speaker at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8, at Church of the Nazarene. Lisa Schnebly Heidinger will be speaking about her great-grandmother, Sedona Schnebly.


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