Tuesday, June 23, 2009

When Chinese were smuggled into El Paso

Leon Metz: When Chinese were smuggled into city from Mexico
Leon Metz / Special to the Times
Posted: 06/22/2009 12:00:00 AM MDT

Nowadays, if one wanders through Concordia Cemetery, as I do on occasions, there is one site that we can observe through the iron gate -- but can't enter. And I'm referring to the Chinese Cemetery section.

This area is one of the best-kept secrets in the city, a national historic treasure, and yet one of the least-known and least-visited historical areas in El Paso.

We know when the first Chinese arrived, and that would have been 1881 with the arrival of the first railroad in El Paso. The Chinese helped build that railroad, but after reaching the city, they were stranded -- and subsequently deported.

So since the Chinese were denied legal entry into this country, they commenced slipping in by way of Mexico, and thereafter walked north.

During this period a resident Mexican could cross north across the international line with no delays and no papers. Hence, the initial U.S. Border Patrol arose. In popular and local parlance, they were usually referred to as "Chinese Immigration Agents."

But a few Chinese were already here. By 1890, El Paso had an official population of 11,120 residents and 312 were Chinese.

Most of the Chinese lived south of Overland Street, usually in hotels, restaurants, laundries, alleys or in railroad cars where they were often employed. And since most Chinese were men, such things as Chinese family units were essentially nonexistent.

A Chinese information bureau arose at 200 S. St. Louis Street.

Chinese merchandise stores, like American general stores, were usually placed where people could gather, exchange gossip, discuss news and hold meetings. In 1889, the City Council minutes mentioned an El Paso population of 11,069 residents, of which 7,846 were anglos, 2,069 were Hispanic, 810 were black, and 344 were Chinese. During that same year, four Chinese grocery stores opened in the city.

By 1892, the Chinese population had risen to 500, practically all illegally entering the U.S. by way of Juárez. Although some did not remain for any length of time, a great majority of them found El Paso employment with the railroads, or in restaurants, saloons and so forth.

During that same year, El Paso had 15 laundries, 13 of which were Chinese. Twelve Chinese druggists easily found employment. A Baptist Chinese mission opened at 412 San Antonio Street.

And before long, the Chinese had one particular dominant monopoly in town, the laundry business. During 1889, El Paso sported 18 laundries, all but one operated by the Chinese.

But during this period of years, 1870-1910, stories constantly and steadily arose of tunnels under the Rio Grande, and tunnels meandering through various areas and regions, houses and businesses. The only reason for these tunnels was to smuggle Chinese into the country.

Therefore, there used to be -- and perhaps still is -- a home in Sunset Heights known as the "Turtle House." It allegedly has a tunnel leading down and under the city, particularly under the Downtown subdivision of Chihuahuita, and by some a accounts, under the Rio Grande.

I've been in the Turtle House (in the presence of owners, of course), and have opened that entrance door and saw what looked like a totally black tunnel. I was offered an opportunity to crawl inside, but I chickened out.

Up until that particular instant, I never fully realized that I was claustrophobic. So I lost my chance, perhaps, of resolving one of the most interesting and intriguing historical puzzles and mysteries regarding El Paso's remarkable and historic past.

Leon Metz, an El Paso historian, writes often for the El Paso Times. E-mail: cmetz48888@aol.com

El Paso Times article


Anonymous said...

my name is Claudia King I am looking for information or pictures of my great grandfather sam hing or by the name of samuel king , I know he furnishes supplies and labor for the texas paciflc road . If you can help me in any way I would be so thankful , Claudia King

Anonymous said...

It's really funny to find you across this cyberland. I'm also searching! Take care, auntie. R.F.K.

godsgrace247@sbcglobal.net said...

Claudia and Rafa ...

This is Sam's great grandaughter too ...
Dolores' grand daughter, German's daughter.

Please contact me at godsgrace247@sbcglobal.net.

I am in Southern California.

I have been researching great granfather also.

Thank you for posting. I hope we can all reconnect.

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