By Maya Chin
My own family history inspired me to do this project on Chinatown. My great grandfather was a very prominent businessman in New York Chinatown, and even served as Chinatown’s “mayor” for more than two decades. He is considered a “major force in the founding of the twentieth-century Chinatown” and an “advocate and community leader,” according to Julia Holmes, author of 100 New Yorkers.
In 1892, my great grandfather, Kong Chow Chun was born in Shan Pui Village, Toisan, China. In the early 1900s, he and his family moved to Hong Kong to join the family’s export business, Sun Goon Shing. Sun Goon Shing also run a general merchandise store in Melbourne, Australia.
In 1926, strict Australian immigration laws for Chinese forced him to move his family. He wanted to set up a branch of the family store in the United States. He planned travel and explore the country until he found ideal location. At this time, the United States was also very strict about who immigrated. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which excluded Chinese laborers for immigrating to the United States, was still active.
Chun was a Section Six exception to the Exclusion Act, which meant he had a merchant passport. This proved that he was not a laborer and he was allowed to enter. He also had a letter of introduction from the vice consul of the American Consulate General in Melbourne which allowed them to be released immediately. They had to stay the night because the last ferry had already left. The next day they arrived in San Francisco Chinatown. Mr. Chun quickly realized San Francisco had too many other Chinese shops to compete with. Then he went to Oakland Chinatown to visit his sister and look around, only to discover there was too much competition there as well.
He traveled to Chicago where his brother had a restaurant and then to Albany, New York, where they had a joint ownership of the restaurant Oriental Occidental. Finally he decided to set up his store in New York City because it was the “crossroad of the world.” He bought a building at 55 Mott St. and opened a store called Sun Goon Shing in Chinatown. The exact location was actually right outside the border of Chinatown in what was then, part of Little Italy. Some Chinese called him “crazy” for choosing this location outside Chinatown. But Chun predicted Chinatown would grow rapidly. This started some of Chinatowns expansion.
He stocked his store with Chinese ingredients, including water chestnuts, soy sauce, dried fish, candied ginger, etc. He also had other miscellaneous Chinese things such as silk scarves, porcelain dinnerware, other housewares. In the front of the store was the butcher shop that roasted ducks, pigs, and chickens, which they hung in the window. He was said to have the best roast duck and cold vegetable salads around. Chinese peddlers would resell his food to Chinese laundry workers outside of Chinatown.
Besides selling Chinese groceries, his store also served as a social center and meeting place for the community, especially those from his home village in China. These old neighbors entrusted him with sending letters and money back to their families in the village.
Throughout his life, Kong Chow Chun had seven kids, Four boys and three girls (including my grandmother Ada Chun). Two were born in China, two in Australia, and my grandmother and two others were born in America.
After Chun retired, he sold the store and became devoted to making sure Chinese had the same rights as other Americans. He fought the right of Chinese students to attend public universities in New York. He also was able to get a lot of the street and subways signs written in Chinese below the English. He also stood up for Chinese traditions that were banned, including leaving the heads of ducks and chickens on in grocery stores. During World War II, he created an institution for Chinese seamen to gather called the Site of Chinese Seamen’s Club. Chinese were not allowed to create institutions like this until Chun campaigned. He convinced the department to clean the streets of Chinatown more often. He supported the Chinese schools in Chinatown and even funded a scholarship in his name. And he was also the president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Chin Family Association.
Some of his artifacts and photographs are featured in the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas (MoCA) specifically in the “Where is Home? Chinese in the Americas” exhibit. Artifacts from Sun Goon Shing are located in the Tuck High Company store, a permanent exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany, New York. The Tuck High Company, located for many years at 19 Mott Street before it closed, was one of the oldest Chinatown stores.