Chinese grocers were key in Arizona history

PV Library to offer presentation

Li Yang giving a presentation on pioneer chinese woman Lai Ngan.

Li Yang/Courtesy

Li Yang giving a presentation on pioneer chinese woman Lai Ngan.

As a graduate student at the University of Arizona, Li Yang said that in the summers, she would go to the Arizona Historical Society and check out their files on the Chinese people in Tucson. At one point, she saw an article that included a story about Lee Wee Kwon, a Chinese grocer in the city, that sparked her interest. She went back to the university to read more, Yang said.

“I started reading more and more. I realized this person is very interesting because somehow, he was connected with General John J. Pershing,” she said. “That’s how he was allowed entry into this country because he was in Chihuahua, Mexico, and at that time, the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect. It was implemented to the full letter. The reason he was able to come in was because he provided service to General Pershing.”

Yang will be at the Prescott Valley Public Library from 11 a.m. to noon on Saturday, March 18, to give a presentation on Kwon as part of the AZ Speaks program.

Kwon’s grocery store was open between 1917 and 1965, a period of time when there were a lot of Chinese grocers around Phoenix and Tucson, Yang said.

“The Chinese basically dominated the grocery business in Arizona before the coming of supermarkets and convenience stores,” she said, noting that Kwon is one of many.

Kwon’s clientele was mostly Hispanic and this was mainly because after 1912, the Chinese people moved into the Mexican neighborhoods and opened more grocery stores, making it so the clientele was predominantly Mexican, Yang said. Also, since Kwon lived in Chihuahua for 15 years, he spoke fluent Spanish, she said.

Not only does she present and teach the audience about the Kwon and his Chinese grocery, but there’s also the possibility that she’ll learn from someone in the audience, Yang said.

For more information about Li Yang’s presentation, call Jennifer Kim at 928-759-3040.