Rolling History Bus to Highlight Vibrant Relevance of Tucson’s Chinese Grocers

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Concentrated downtown in the southern and western barrios are vacant buildings and somewhat unknown mom-and-pop shops offering a glimpse of the Tucson Chinese groceries’ storied past. This fall, funded by a grant from Tucson Pima Arts Council, a “rolling history” bus, painstakingly decorated with traditional arts and outfitted with exhibits, memorabilia and multi-media presentations, will bring the story of the Chinese grocery’s prominent role in Tucson back to the communities where it all started.

Spearheading the project are Patsy Lee, 2012 Tucson Chinese Association president-elect whose father and mother ran the Allen Market in Barrio Hollywood in the 1950s, and Robin Blackwood, chair of the History Committee for the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center. Robin and Patsy have given form to the “Chinese Grocers” project, conceiving a variety of components including the bus, oral histories, video documentation of food culture, mapping historical and current grocery locations and storyboards on display at the Center, which provide a life history of local families and businesses.

“We wanted to catalyze interaction and spark an exchange among neighbors, merchants and the Chinese community,” says Robin. “We wanted a way to celebrate the excitement and heritage of a remarkable part of Tucson’s past.”

Still from heritage video about Chinese chorizo
Still from heritage video about Chinese chorizo

For three years the History Committee of the Center has explored the history and community of the Chinese grocers of Tucson, explains Robin. In 2012, the Center received a grant from the Tucson Pima Arts Council for a “Beyond Groceries” project, which is building on the Center’s ongoing study of the Chinese groceries and celebrating the diversity of the neighborhoods themselves. In partnership with neighborhood sponsors, the Center has been conducting oral histories of neighbors’ recollections of the grocers and working with collaborator Southern Arizona Food Traditions to produce two food heritage videos. A “rolling history” party through the neighborhoods on September 15 is the centerpiece of the project.

The decorated, full-sized, 56-passenger bus will visit five neighborhoods intrinsic to Tucson’s Chinese grocery history, spending at least one hour in each location, where entertainment will include (depending on stop) Lion Dance, youth ballet folkloric folklorico, Mariachi Nueva Melodia and Chinese dancers from Tucson Chinese School. Demonstrations, videos and an exhibit of other materials collected will be part of the program:

• First stop is Barrio Hollywood, stationed at the Grande Tortilla Factory parking lot with a drive by the Allen’s Market site to acknowledge the history of that 1950s-era grocery;
• Second stop in Barrio Anita, nearby the Anita Street Market and locations of other historically Chinese markets;
• Third stop is the Iron Horse neighborhood, site of the Chinese-owned and operated New Empire Market;
• Fourth stop is in South Tucson, at the corner of South 9th Ave. and 26th Street, behind 100-year old La Primavera Market, formerly the Lee Hop/Lee Fow Markets; and
• After driving by the corner of Meyer and Kennedy Streets in Barrio Viejo, site of the empty Don Wah and Lucky’s Markets, the bus reaches Stop Five, Lalo Guerrero Elderly Housing, where the carriage of historic Chinese grocer Lee Goon (property of Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum) will be on display, and the final party will be held.
Attendees will have the opportunity to participate in storytelling during the day by making on-the-spot videos of their recollections of the neighborhoods and neighbors. The event is free to the neighborhoods. Locations and estimated times of arrival are on the map and flyer included with this article.

Historical Perspective
In the mid-1800s, immigrants from Asia came by steamship and rail to California, seeking refuge from poverty and war. They crowded into “Chinatowns” to work in railroads and mines. Conflicts with European-American communities drove the immigrants to Tucson, starting in the mid-1870s. Soon the immigrants were working with railroad crews, but when those jobs moved on, many Chinese stayed to work as laundrymen, to open markets, or to farm vegetables. The early Tucson Chinatown was centered around Main and Alameda, after WWI relocating to the Mexican-American barrio (nearby the site razed for the Tucson Convention Center.

In the 1920s a significant number of Chinese grocery stores were doing business in Tucson, and the numbers peaked in the 1940s, with over 100 stores. After the peak, the numbers slowly declined for various reasons. Currently, only a handful of Chinese-owned small groceries remain. At the Chinese Center, a collection of more than 30 story boards are on display recounting the Chinese Grocery history.

A history this richly illustrated might be difficult to navigate. Instead, a folklife project encouraging dialogue and creativity not only recreates a lost reality; it draws connections to how the Chinese groceries still influence neighborhoods today, using all possible details including photos, songs, crafts and oral histories. And, of course, food.

To learn more about the September 15 event, the videos, oral histories or storyboards: Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, 1288 West River Road, You can find a map of the September 15 route here.

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