Family  /  Dispatch

How a California Archive Reconnected a New Mexico Family with its Chinese Roots

Aimee Towi Mae Tang’s Chinese American family never talked about the past. She decided to change that.

SHEW NGOH WAS BORN and raised among the lush hills and croplands of China’s humid Southern coast in the 1880s. His family, part of a clan now commonly known as Tang or Ong, farmed in Wing On Lee, which translates to the Village of Eternal Peace. It was a chaotic time: Droughts, famines, internal rebellions and foreign intrusions swept South China, and many people left, seeking safety and prosperity elsewhere. In 1905, Shew Ngoh did, too, venturing 100 miles east to the port city of Hong Kong. On the first day of December, he and around 30 other Chinese passengers boarded a steamship, S.S. Coptic, bound for San Francisco.

The journey lasted nearly a month, and no welcome awaited them at the end. Instead, they faced a system designed to keep them out. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese people from entering; only merchants, diplomats, students and laborers already living in the U.S. could stay. And yet Shew Ngoh, then around 17, managed to enter the country. He settled in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the first in North America, where an estimated 15,000 people of Chinese descent lived in tall brick and wooden houses, and flimsy shacks lined the alleys. He studied Christianity at mission schools and learned English. He worked at Kim Lun Chong Co., a trading company where many of his clansmen worked. The shop, located in the heart of Chinatown, sold a kaleidoscope of goods from China — rice, tobacco, liquor, dried abalone, slippers and clothing. Shew Ngoh worked in bookkeeping and sales, often laboring 14 hours or more. Like many Chinese migrant workers, he slept at the back of the building to save money.

From the archives, I learned that Shew Ngoh’s arrival in America had gone smoothly due to the fact that “his alleged father” Ong Kee Hung had “been a domiciled merchant here for more than twelve years” at Kim Lun Chung Co. This “alleged father” fascinated me. I spoke with more than a dozen family members, friends and members of the Chinese American community who knew Shew Ngoh, but none of them had ever heard of Kee Hung.