If not for the coronavirus pandemic, Feng-Feng Yeh might never have learned about a lesser-known chapter of Chinese American history in her hometown of Tucson, Arizona.
Yeh was an executive chef in New York City when the shutdown took away her job and career plans. She pulled up stakes and moved back home, turning instead to her passion for public art.
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Looking for inspiration, Yeh delved into the local history of Chinese immigrants, which she’d heard only bits and pieces of all her life. On the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center website, she learned that Chinese-owned mom-and-pop grocery stores were a thriving industry in Tucson from the 1900s on.
More than businesses, they were lifelines for Mexican American communities. The stores even started preparing Mexican chorizo — the spicy, ground-pork breakfast staple. It earned the nickname “Chinese chorizo.”
“I was very moved by the story of allyship between Mexican and Chinese Americans at a time when all these pivotal immigration policies were being enacted that were quite racist,” Yeh said. “I thought that was something that you don’t learn in school, especially in Arizona. I thought it was something that should be recognized and shared.”
Chinese immigrants settling in Arizona were doing so in the shadow of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the U.S. government’s first race-based immigration policy. Both Chinese and Mexican immigrants faced racism despite being instrumental to the workforce.
It’s a history that older Tucson Chinese residents say they have spent years trying to make more visible.
Yeh proposed erecting an 11-foot (3.4 meters) tall sculpture of two chorizo sausage links, and recently won a grant through the Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art and the Andy Warhol Foundation. To promote the endeavor, she organized the inaugural Tucson Chinese Chorizo Festival. For the month of October, several local restaurants and food trucks have been serving weekend specials with meat and vegan chorizo.
Even many locals are unaware of Tucson’s significant Chinese presence.
The 15,000-square-foot Tucson Chinese Cultural Center is a bustling hub that’s part community center and part museum, and serves at least 5,000. Established in 2005, it has a multipurpose room, commercial kitchen, classrooms, and a lounge with tables for mahjong. On the walls are display boards with mini-profiles of long-gone Chinese grocery stores. The center also has a YouTube channel that includes a 2014 video on Chinese chorizo.
“A lot of people don’t know we exist after 17 years. So, we’ve been trying to get the word out,” said Susan Chan, the center’s executive director.
Starting in 1900, Chinese-owned grocery stores prospered and became an economic force in Tucson. By the 1940s, there were 130 families running a little over 100 grocery stores in the city. The number of stores dwindled in the ’70s and ’80s due to an influx of supermarket chains, convenience stores, and a younger generation of Chinese Americans uninterested in the family business.
Allen Lew’s father, Joe Wee Lew, opened his first of three stores, Joe’s Super Market, in 1955. Lew began working in the market as a fourth grader. He still helped out until the last store closed after three decades in business.
He and his four siblings grew up serving Mexican and Native American customers. Everyone felt like they “were all a big neighborhood family.” In a pre-food stamp era, many Chinese grocers would let struggling customers pay whenever.
“A lot of them get paid like once a month, every two weeks, and they ran out of money,” Lew recalled. “They’ll tell my Dad or the other Chinese (grocers), ’Can you give me credit?… We give them credit — no charge, no interest, no nothing.”
Lew, 74 and a longtime board member of the center, remembers watching his father or the Hispanic butcher he employed making chorizo. They used the end pieces of “big rolls of bologna” or salami, boiled ham or other cold cuts.
“The butcher would cut off the fats and things that were part of the meat that were kind of bad. He would take that out and then you threw organ meats and all that and you make it just like hotdogs,” Lew said.
For the festival, Chinese-made chorizo is being celebrated with inventive dishes trying to fuse Chinese and Mexican cultures. At Mexican restaurant BOCA, for instance, chef and James Beard Award semi-finalist Maria Mazon made vegan and regular chorizo eggrolls with a carrot and papaya slaw topped with a fried egg.
Breakfast/brunch hot spot 5 Points came up with Tamal Niangao — charred, sticky masa cakes with chorizo, green onion, Napa cabbage and chilies in a soy maggi glaze. Jicama, cilantro and two poached eggs are then piled on.
The 500-plus pounds of meat and plant-based chorizo given to restaurants for the festival was made at a local butcher, Forbes Meat Company. Yeh devised the vegan recipe. She invited Jackie Tran, a Tucson food writer and owner of Tran’s Fats food truck, to work on the pork one.
“It was definitely something that fascinated” him, said Tran, who is of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. But he definitely didn’t throw in odds and ends. And he added dashes of spices like Sichuan pepper, coriander seed and Chinese five-spice powder.
For the sculpture, Yeh is partnering with Carlos Valenzuela, a Mexican and indigenous artist born in Tucson. Valenzuela will make the red mosaic tiles for the piece. His grandfather had a running account with a local Chinese grocery store. It didn’t occur to him at first that his involvement was a nice full-circle development.
“I just went into it thinking, ‘Wow, this is a really unique project, really an opportunity to talk about that history that hardly ever gets talked about,’” Valenzuela said.
If the idea of a balloon-animal-esque chorizo sculpture elicits a laugh, that’s the way Yeh wants it.
“I think it’s eye-catching for tourists to come and recognize that this town is a town that was heavily influenced by Chinese culture, which I don’t think a lot of people know,” said Yeh, who still needs more funds for the sculpture.
What does Lew, the son of a Chinese grocer, think about a chorizo sculpture?
“That’s great,” Lew said. “I was surprised because I think when you grow up and you’ve done something all your life here, you don’t think it’s a big thing. So, you don’t promote it. But someone outside thinks, ‘This is different. This is neat.’”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.