When Wong Sing died in 1934, his mourners in Utah included high government officials and ranking army officers. Sixty Ute Indians met in solemn tribal council to extol his virtues. Friends and acquaintances gathered to share their memories of him with newspaper reporters and each other.
Maud Anderson, the daughter of a homesteader, remembered seeing Wong Sing when she was a child riding in a wagon with her family. They had just bounced over the cobblestones of the river bottom and were crossing the big red bridge that spanned the Uintah River when her father said, "Look at the Chinaman!" and stopped the team so they could take a closer look."This was a long time ago," she said. "But I can see him now as he was then - a small slender fellow with a funny shirt we thought was fascinating. He had a small close-fitting cap and a long queue of black hair hanging to his waist. He was bending over a washtub doing laundry for the soldiers of the fort."
Neither Maud Anderson nor anyone else could remember exactly how or why Sing had first come to Fort Duchesne, Utah. Some believed he had emigrated with his father to San Francisco and was then hired as a handyman by an Army officer who brought him to the post. Others claimed he went to Utah to join an old Chinese laundryman who had become too old to pick up and deliver the laundry himself. But all agreed he had been doing the wash for the soldiers at Fort Duchesne since 1889.
The fort had been established three years earlier. Situated between the Native American and white settlements, it was 100 miles from the nearest railroad and could be reached only by stagecoach or freighter wagon. At that time Utah was still a territory. The eastern half was the legal, treaty-granted home of the Utes, who included three distinct groups: the White River faction from Colorado, the Ouray and the Uintah.
In 1884, the federal agent on the Uintah Reservation had called "his" Indians "the best lot of savages in America." But subsequent intratribal warfare and trouble with cowboys prompted the 400 or so white families to appeal to the governor for protection. On Aug. 20, 1886, the black troops of the Ninth Cavalry arrived to establish the post and to "discipline and control the Indians" in eastern Utah, western Colorado and southwest Wyoming.
The 275 soldiers in the six-company post were delighted to have Sing do their laundry, and he had more than enough business. Sing, a young man of 20 or so, had other aspirations. When two soldiers form the fort rented a room at the Fort Duchesne Hotel and opened a poker game, Sing eagerly accepted their invitation to join the game.
"He was a dead game sport," his friend, William TenBroek, recalled. "The soldiers used to try to read his face, but he could hold four aces and never bat an eye."
Though Sing did not always win, he made enough to order a supply of inexpensive chinaware, which he packed in a little red wagon and sold to the wives of Army officers and homesteaders when he delivered their laundry. With the profit, he opened a restaurant that catered to the military trade. A little later, he added a small store and set out to secure the Utes' trade.
Relations between Chinese and Native Americans in the West varied. In the Pacific Northwest, Chinese were at first welcomed as brothers, and some Chinese married Native American women. But as the numbers of Chinese increased, Native Americans came to regard them as poachers on their lands and fishing grounds, and there were often attacks and murders of Chinese by bands of Native Americans. Some whites added to the growing antagonisms by playing Chinese and Native American laborers against each other or disguising themselves as Native Americans when they raided Chinese camps. In Arizona, however, relations were generally more cordial. Quechan (Yuman) Indians sold fish to Chinese working in railroad construction camps and supplied the fuel for Chinese laundries.
Having been frequently betrayed, the Utes were deeply suspicious of Sing, but he won them over by a policy of strict honesty and fair dealing. He also became proficient in several Indian dialects. Before long, local Utes patronized the "Chinaman's store," arousing the jealousy of several white merchants, who had Sing expelled from the reservation. In support of Sing, the Utes refused to have anything further to do with the white merchants, and shortly afterwards, their establishments were destroyed in a mysterious fire.
Sing built a new store on a small piece of land outside the reservation, across the river, 1 1/2 miles northeast of Fort Duchesne. Those who held licenses to trade on the reservation predicted failure for the "Chinaman's store." Instead, as Sing's reputation for integrity and fair prices grew, his trade extended to stockmen, businessmen and farmers from every section of the Uintah Basin, and he shipped supplies and equipment to customers far beyond eastern Utah and the reservation.
The store became a market for furniture, general merchandise and meat, and an agency for machinery sales. Each time Sing ran out of space, he added another building to the original without any regard to style. Nevertheless, former customers remember the store as a pleasant place to shop. Children never left without an all-day sucker personally handed to them by Sing, who often tucked a big sack of candy, apples, oranges or nuts in with the groceries. And each year he designed, printed and distributed calendars with a Native American motif.
By the mid-1920s, the store carried about $70,000 worth of stock. One day, a traveling salesman noticed Sing was still using an abacus - a counting frame common to Chinese merchants - to keep his accounts, and he tried to convince him to switch to an adding machine. When Sing failed to see any advantage to the machine, the salesman proposed a contest between the two, with each man totaling up a column of figures. Sing finished first, but his answer differed from that of the machine. When rechecking, the salesman discovered he had pressed a wrong key and Sing was correct!
To ride out the Depression of the 1930s, Sing had to cut back on staff and stock. But when a hard-pressed rancher asked for time in which to pay for a purchase, Sing would say, "It's not my policy to extend credit, but you need the goods, so take them." No matter how much people owed him, he never let them leave the store empty-handed. And stock that sat on the shelves a while inevitably ended up going to poor families for free.
Whenever there was a fire in the neighborhood, Sing would be there to help. He also contributed to Uintah County Hospital and did welfare work among the Native Americans. He assisted them in business transactions and he learned their history and culture, becoming so accepted that he was allowed to photograph and film tribal customs. He then lent these pictures to Indian Service officials in an effort to increase their understanding of the tribes they served.
From all accounts, Sing knew everyone on and off the reservation, and many people proudly called themselves his friend. Yet no one seemed to know anything of his personal life. When Sing introduced a young Chinese man who arrived in Fort Duchesne in 1924 as his son, Wing, the residents were shocked. There were those who claimed Sing had never left the Uintah Basin and Wing was really a nephew. Others said he had gone back to China, married and fathered a son and daughter before returning to Utah alone.
As a merchant, Sing would have been entitled under the exclusion laws to have his wife and children join him. The process, however, would have been humiliating and speculative, since all incoming Chinese immigrants were detained (for weeks and sometimes years) at immigration stations, where they were forced to verify identities through interrogations and physical examinations. In one case a woman was denied entrance because the contour of her ear was supposedly different from that described on her affidavit.
Mothers and children could also become separated, as in the case of the Wing family in Mercur, Utah. Dr. Sam Wing's wife, Molly, was admitted, but their children were not. For a few years, Molly remained with her husband, but she pined so much for her children in China that Wing finally insisted she return to them.
Nor could Sing have guaranteed the safety of his family in America. When drunken miners tried to abduct the daughter of a Chinese merchant in Fiddletown, Calif., and the merchant shot one of them, it was not the miners who were imprisoned, but the merchant, who had to depend on the corroboration of white residents to support his testimony of self-defense.
Not surprisingly, Sing never sent for his wife or daughter, only his son. Just as Sing feared, immigration officials in San Francisco refused to admit him. Fortunately, a friend, William H. Siddoway, telegraphed U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot, who convinced the officials that "things were as represented," and Wing was released.
For the next 10 years father and son worked side by side. Then, on the morning of March 19, 1934, Sing was on his way to see a doctor in Salt Lake City about his rheumatism and to pick up merchandise when the truck in which he was riding overturned. Tracks on the highway indicated the truck went out of control, struck a shoulder and rolled over six or seven times, hurling out Sing and the driver. The driver survived with a fractured skull, but Sing was killed instantly.
The "Vernal Express," reporting on the accident, described Sing as "the merchant prince of the Uintah Basin." And his friend William TenBroek promised, "He will never die in the memory of his acquaintances and the residents of Uintah Basin."
*From "Chinese American Portraits: Personal Histories 1828-1988," by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Chronicle Books, 176 pages, $29.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.