The woman watched as soldiers confiscated her family’s land and beat her husband to death—another horror in the bloody land reforms of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. She gathered up her daughter, paid a few bribes and laid low in British Hong Kong for two years, having fled her native China, like so many others, in fear.
By September 1956, she had hustled enough money for passage across the Pacific for her and her daughter. When the two refugees arrived in the United States on a tourist visa, they moved straight to Santa Fe.
The mother’s brother-in-law ran a successful restaurant a block from the Plaza. Her daughter, eager to learn English, agreed to work at the joint for no pay. It’s unclear who tipped immigration officers off to the arrangement, but the feds eventually arrested the mother and daughter and summoned them to Albuquerque, where they faced a deportation trial.
Fortunately, the brother-in-law had friends in high places.
Larry Bynon, a powerful Republican figure and radio personality who happened to speak a little Chinese, drove down to the courthouse and translated for the two young women. Rep. John Dempsey, New Mexico’s at-large delegate on Capitol Hill, filed an emergency bill to halt the family’s deportation.
Dempsey and Bynon were political enemies—Bynon previously mocked a speech given by Dempsey, a former governor, as a “second-rate fireside chat”—but a crisis for Santa Fe’s most prominent Chinese family compelled bipartisanship. The effort made it all the way to the White House. President Dwight D Eisenhower signed the intervention, granting reprieve to the two young women, Young Chang How and Chu Fung Lou.
Anything for the family of George Gee Park, the brother-in-law who moved to Santa Fe in the early 1900s, started two successful businesses, established the city’s first colony of Chinese Americans and networked like it was no one’s business, becoming the president of the local restaurant association and a founding director of the Bank of Santa Fe.
George’s brothers and business partners, Henry Gee Gay (older) and Joe Gee Soon Oey (younger) arrived around the same time and became well-known community figures themselves. The men were second-generation Americans, born in San Francisco to Chinese parents.
(Each brother adopted a new first name. Two of the men also Romanized a Chinese word to become their American last names: George became better known as Mr. Park and Henry became Mr. Gay, while Joe stuck with his ancestral name, Mr. Gee.)
If American history can be traced through the groups we fear the most—nationalities, races, ideologies, religions—then Park grew up during an era of anti-Chinese sentiment. In this Southwestern town, though, where few Chinese ever lived, he planted his roots and worked toward an improbable realization of the American Dream.
Park’s lived experience, along with that of his family members who came to this country—both in what confronted them here and in how they thrived—resonates with particular clarity today as the nation again grapples with its immigration policy. Further, a nationalist wave has empowered forces that threaten to intensify the fight and chill the melting pot.
It probably helped that the family made damn good food.
In 1923, Park, Gay and Gee acquired a restaurant called Majestic Cafe, where they previously worked as cooks and managers. Under their stewardship, Majestic Cafe became New Royal Cafe and then New Mexico Cafe. At last, in 1937, the greasy spoon on San Francisco Street rebranded as the New Canton Cafe, paying homage to the South China province from which its proprietors traced their roots. (Today, Canton is more frequently Romanized as Guangdong.)
Menu items cycled through over the decades, but the family always offered a wide selection of Chinese, American and New Mexican cuisine. Chop suey competed with cheeseburgers for diners’ attention. One reviewer marveled at the Cafe’s pies, doling out special praise for the peach and banana cream offerings: “Rotten for the figure, but oh, how good for the palate!”
On Sunday they served turkey. On Friday, clam chowder. Sue Lim, granddaughter of Park, recalls the latter was a favorite among guests. “We had people come up from Albuquerque to buy a quart,” she says.
While stationed in New Guinea during the Pacific campaign in World War II, Bynon wrote longingly of New Canton Cafe’s T-bone steaks, reported the hometown paper. The restaurant famously did not serve alcohol, but away in the jungle, Bynon pleaded for Park to save him a bottle of Ng Ka Py, a Chinese liquor.
Another friend of the family, US Sen. Bronson Cutting, enjoyed turtle soup and sliced chicken during a banquet held in his honor. More than 20 years before Rep. Dempsey stuck his neck out for Mr. Park’s sister-and-law, Cutting had helped secure entry to the states for Mr. Gay’s son, Gee Gow.
The New Canton Cafe shared a block with H Sax Fur Shop, Souders Furniture and Grose Jewelers. The Chinese immigrants’ eatery outlasted them all. Moviegoers likely dropped by the joint for snacks after catching the latest blockbuster down the street at the Paris Theater, which stood at 123 W San Francisco St. until it burned in 1945. The restaurant stayed open until 11 pm, except on Mondays, when it didn’t open at all.
Businessmen, congressmen and newspapermen all frequented the establishment, which had 10 booths and a private dining room that served up to 12 guests. Chinese lanterns and paintings, some donated by the Witter Bynner Foundation, adorned the ceilings and walls. Visitors were welcomed by a bright yellow neon sign that said, “No Liquor—But the Best of Food.”In 1941, a journalist observed a tourist marveling at the overhanging lanterns. “We’ve seen a lot of strange things in Santa Fe,” he reportedly said. “But can you beat this? Here we are in a Chinese restaurant listening to a bunch of Hawaiians play Spanish music while people talk French and we eat Mexican shrimp.”
When Chinese immigration to the United States took off in the mid-1800s, enclaves of laborers tended to sprout along mining and railway hubs. The Territory of New Mexico, too, saw an influx of Chinese immigration.
Small colonies formed in Deming, Hillsboro and Silver City, where demand for cheap labor attracted workers who were willing to take tough jobs for little pay, according to Anna Naruta-Moya, an archivist who studied Chinese American communities in New Mexico for the Office of the State Historian. Food service, laundries and housekeeping rounded out the other gigs offered to the Chinese.
At first, the Old West welcomed the cheap labor. An 1868 report from the Santa Fe Weekly Post described the 60,000 or so Chinese immigrants in California as “frugal, temperate and industrious.”
But as the Chinese population grew, tolerance at times turned to hostility. In New Mexico, souring racial relations erupted into violence. Miners in Soccoro rioted when a superintendent hired a “Chinaman” to work as a servant, leading to one death when a worker got shot in the neck.
An 1881 editorial in The New Mexican captured the day’s prevailing anxiety, warning of a future in which “representatives of the Celestial Empire are so thick in our midst that as in the case of San Francisco and California generally, it is a crying evil with which we are unable to combat.”
To summarize: They’ll steal our jobs.
Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first federal law restricting immigration of workers based on ethnicity. Ten years later, the Geary Act extended the ban on Chinese immigration and required all persons of Chinese descent to register with Department of Labor authorities. The undocumented faced arrest, imprisonment and deportation.
But despite the air of xenophobia directed toward their community in the early 20th century, some Chinese made well. Naruta-Moya recently dug up the story of Sam Ho Kee, an immigrant who graduated as valedictorian of his 1906 class at Albuquerque High School. By some accounts, he was the first Chinese person in the nation to earn the distinction.
There’s also the Lew family of Deming, who operated a farm that became an agricultural model for the small town. Known as the Chinese Garden, the Lews’ fields produced legendary yields of watermelons, pecans and Irish potatoes, not to mention a small fortune for the family.
Before he set up shop on San Francisco Street, Park lived in San Francisco, California, where his father worked as a cook. He was about 10 years old when city officials, citing bubonic plague, installed a barbed-wire fence around Chinatown. He was 16 years old when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the Northern California coast, killing more than 3,000 people.
He lived with two other families on the third floor of a brick building, above a grocery store. When his father returned to China in 1911, Park, then 20, was taken under the wing of a laundryman on Mission Street.
In 1915, Park sought to visit China for the first time in his life. But before he could leave the country, he had to prove his citizenship under the Geary Act, submitting a form to the Department of Labor’s Immigration Service. In the spring, he boarded the SS Mongolia and eventually arrived at Chong Shing, a village with four dwellings where his parents lived in a brick home with an open courtyard and dirt floors. Villagers shared a well for water.
Not long after he arrived, Park met Yon Shee, a woman from a different village. Within three months, the two had married. Within two years, they had a son. By the time George Park left China again, another child was on the way, this time a daughter (Sue Lim’s mother).
Park sailed back to the United States on the SS Siberia Maru in 1917. During the next seven years, he moved to Santa Fe, opened a restaurant and sent monthly payments of $300 to his wife and children, who had moved in with his parents.
When Gay made his own trip to China, he delivered a gold coin to the village of Chong Shing. Mrs. Park handed him a message, addressed to her husband, saying she wanted to come to the United States.
In 1924, Yon Shee Park sailed aboard the SS Cleveland from China to San Francisco with the couple’s two children, named Gee Fat Park and Helen Park. Mrs. Park’s certificate of identity, also required for Chinese aliens under federal immigration law, lists her occupation as housewife and notes two scars above her left eyebrow and a “faint pit” at the outer corner of her right eye.
The tracks of the American transcontinental railroad never ran through Santa Fe. Deprived of an economic boom, the town’s growth stalled through the late 1800s, with the population hovering between 5,000 and 6,000. Archives give no indication of a significant Chinese population in the city before the turn of the century.
By the time his family arrived, Park and company had expanded, opening a laundry, which doubled as a gift store. In the space of a dozen years, it had burned down, reopened and relocated.
Park at first was treated as a foreign curiosity. His mother wrote him a letter from Guangdong in 1929. It became the subject of a New Mexican article that quotes the businessman’s broken English. “I do well Santa Fe. My family live Santa Fe. Why leave?” Park said, addressing whether he would ever return to his native China.
But as New Canton Cafe rose in popularity, so did the family’s place in society. And as the family grew, newspapers began to refer to them as Santa Fe’s first “Chinese Colony.”
The men employed their wives and children as waiters at the restaurant and ironers at the laundry. Several of the male children went on to serve in the US military, including Gay’s son Robert Gee Kong, a marine who was wounded in the Korean War.
Outgoing and charming, Park became something of a liaison for the colony. Locals spoke of his smile and affability. “He was definitely Mr. Personality,” says Sue Lim, who is now retired in Marin County, California, after a career in the insurance industry. “He spoke with anyone who came into the restaurant. And the next time they came in, he’d remember them.”
Whenever the annual Fiesta Parade rolled around, Park spearheaded the design and construction of a Chinese-themed float. In 1937, according to one report, “A gaping green and white and gold dragon reared its head above the float. Fireworks were exploded in every block and in front of La Fonda, a disgusted white bulldog tried vengefully to eat them while they were going off.”
Before and during the second Sino-Japanese War, Park leveraged his social status to raise money for relief. Under the banner of Friends of China, he organized fundraiser after fundraiser. For one event in 1936, the group held a showing for The Plow That Broke the Plains, a documentary on the Dust Bowl. During another gathering, they sold tea, jewelry and paintings at the home of Eleanor Brownell and Alice Howland—a pair of teachers who give their name to Brownell-Howland Road near Bishop’s Lodge.
Mrs. Park also earned legendary status in Santa Fe. Since she didn’t have an English name, locals referred to her as Mama Park, or sometimes just Mama. Lim recalls that her grandmother accrued no shortage of karma over the years.
“Some of these newspaper delivery boys didn’t have something to eat, so she would bring them in and care for them. When they got older and had great jobs, they would remember her,” she says. In 1942, Mama Park became the first Chinese person in Santa Fe to be naturalized as a United States citizen.
The following year, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. But it would take another two decades before the last vestiges of immigration restrictions for Chinese people would be dropped from the books.
On Mondays, when New Canton Cafe was closed, Park and company would throw parties at the restaurant, stocked with liquor from the Payless Drug Store. Sometimes they invited friends. Other times, the gatherings were strictly family affairs.Bigger occasions, like birthdays and births, called for bigger venues. Calla Hay, long-time society editor at The New Mexican, covered regular shindigs at La Fonda and Hacienda el Gancho (on Old Las Vegas Highway). On the occasion of George Park’s 71st birthday, on January 27, 1962, Hay reported that more than 400 guests formed a reception line at La Fonda to honor the “patriarch” of Santa Fe’s Chinese colony. Family flew in from out of town and then-governor Richard Dillon drove up from Encino with his wife Maurine Williams.
As guests left the hotel, the family handed them “handsome bowls, Chinese spoons and bright red chopsticks.” Yon Shee Park and the other women in the family wore silk dresses, specially tailored for the gala and flown in from Hong Kong.
New Canton Cafe closed in 1975, after more than 50 years in business. The same month that Park closed the books, a pair of siblings named Toni Contreras and James Maryol opened a new diner in the same location. They called it Tia Sophia’s.
By that time, Park was already spending more time on his other career, as a director of the Bank of Santa Fe. He died in 1986.
The third generation of Gee family children, unlike their parents, didn’t need restaurant gigs. Those children went onto college and became architects and underwriters, lawyers and nurses. Most moved to California, except for the grandson who went to Memphis to become a pharmacist. Says Lim, “I guess that’s the reason the Chinese came over to the United States; to give their children an education.”
On a bitterly cold Thursday afternoon in December at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, curators were installing La Frontera y Nuevo México, an exhibit billed as an “anthropological investigation of the US-Mexico Border.”
A Donald Trump piñata hangs next to a glass case showing three red baseball caps, arranged vertically, that say: “Make America Great Again,” “Make America Mexico Again” and “Make America Native Again.”
Down the corridor, the museum’s largest temporary exhibit hall displays more than 100 pieces of Chinese ceramics spanning 6,000 years, from ancient statuettes to Mao-era bowls and plates. Across from that collection, arranged horizontally across a single wall, was an exhibit called Chinese Americans in New Mexico. That exhibit has since closed, but the ceramics are on view until mid-June.
“I’ve made an effort to do exhibits relevant to the local community,” says Devorah Romanek, museum curator. When China emerged as a theme, Romanek reached out to members of the local diaspora, who in turn loaned collections of teapots and cups.
Emblazoned with roosters and dragons, the tea accessories are cased midway through a timeline of photos and newspaper clippings tracing the history of Chinese immigration to New Mexico. Visitors can gaze at the immigration papers of Sam Ho Kee and his parents, provided by Naruta-Moya.
Santa Fe also makes an appearance, but not through images of the New Canton Cafe or its proprietors. Rather, we see a sepia-toned view of St. Francis Cathedral, dated between 1890 and 1895. Along San Francisco Street, a white hanging sign marks Sang Kee Laundry, perhaps the oldest known Chinese business in Santa Fe.
The photo offers evidence of Chinese life in Santa Fe before George Park and Henry Gee Gay came to town. Whoever was the enterprising man behind Sang Kee Laundry, it seems he did not benefit from geniality with his community.
In the spring of 1882, the Santa Fe Democrat reported that two men, one wielding the butt of a pool stick, broke into the business and beat the laundryman. Using a rope fashioned as a noose, they attempted to choke the man, identified by the Democrat as Lang Kee. Through moans, the man got the attention of neighbors. But the burglars had already made off with 80 bucks and a watch.
The exhibit on Chinese Americans opened with a political cartoon, drawn by Thomas Nast in 1870. Men dressed in suits look over a barrier labeled “The ‘Chinese Wall’ Around the United States of America.” Other men, standing on the other side, wearing ponytails and conical hats, watch as a ladder once perched against the wall comes crashing down before them. Below his drawing, Nast writes, “THROWING DOWN THE LADDER BY WHICH THEY ROSE.”
Romanek, giving a tour of the exhibit, pauses for a second to contemplate the illustration. “Some things never change.”