For several years, he helped build railroads in California, difficult, back-busting, hot and dusty toil. It paid poorly, too.
Woo Som Yee was a coolie, one of the thousands of Chinese laborers imported to the United States during the latter part of the 1800s to put the nation on iron wheels. When he completed his contract, he had to leave the land he helped modernize.
He could have returned to China, but opted instead for Mexico, making his way to the vast desert valley just across the border from what is now Imperial County.
Woo Som Yee would become known in his new land as Francisco Yee. And he would leave a legacy of hard work and financial success common to the Chinese who helped settle the Mexicali area and who helped nourish Tijuana and other older sectors of the Baja California peninsula.
Francisco Yee’s grandson, Adolfo Yee Chek, a restaurateur known as Fito Yee, is well-acquainted with the history of the Chinese in Mexicali and Tijuana. He has been in the area for many years and is adding significantly to it himself.
“Mexicali did not exist when my grandfather arrived,” he said. “At first, he fished to be able to eat. Then he picked cotton for the Colorado River Land Co. Then he started planting cotton, too.” That was around 1902. Mexicali was founded March 14, 1903.
“As Mexicali started and grew in 1903, my grandfather went into business. They had these establishments known as tiendas de abarrotes, where food and general merchandise were sold.
“There were several cafes in Mexicali,” Yee said. “Not really restaurants. They were like coffee shops. And they served more Mexican and American food than Chinese.”
Those Chinese immigrants who could left the fields and opened tiendas de abarrotes and cafes. As more immigrants arrived to work in the fields, the need increased for the tiendas and cafes. Before long, some of the cafes would become restaurants. There would be hotels, money exchanges, a lottery, banks, clothing stores, fan-tan games, general merchandise stores and--yes--a Chinese laundry.
Chinese would outnumber Mexicans by 2 to 1, later 3 to 1. To the west 120 miles, though their numbers were much fewer, they would also become important business elements in Tijuana. They settled in Tecate and Ensenada, but in smaller colonies.
They never packed political clout, however, and do not to this day. But, from the beginning of their colonies in Baja California, Chinese have been numerous and economically notable.
In those primitive days early in this century, the Mexicali Valley might not have been developed without them. As former Chinese government official Saul Chong put it:
“Everyone knows Mexicali exists because the Chinese could stand the heat.”
It was 1902 when the Colorado River Land Co.--whose principals included Los Angeles Times Publisher Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler--obtained from Guillermo Andrade a concession of 832,000 acres to raise cotton. The company took over the Mexicali Valley.
Chong, secretary of the Chinese Consulate at Mexicali under China, recalled that, although the company had tried hiring blacks and Hindus, they could not endure the dry, searing temperatures.
“The company offered land to Chinese to facilitate their getting started,” Chong said. “This helped open the valley to agriculture.”
Sometimes, however, the heat was unbearable, and it led to tragedy and the naming of two god-awful spots, the Desert of the Chinese and the butte known as El Chinero.
For many years, Chinese workers sometimes reached Mexicali by way of steamboat trips from a mainland Mexican port to San Felipe, then by walking the last 136 miles. One doomed group of 42, however, tried this in the 120-degree heat of August, with a guide who was certain he could find the two water holes along the way, even though he had made the trip only once.
It was 1902. The 42 had already walked 500 miles through tropical Mexico before sailing from Guaymas to San Felipe, where they paid a combined $100 to Jose Escobedo to lead them the rest of the way. But Escobedo could not find the water. Only he and seven Chinese survived, and Escobedo died shortly after they reached Mexicali. The desert and butte where so many perished are named for them.
In 1914-16, as war dominated Europe, demand for cotton was high, and, according to Chong’s estimate, 15,000 Chinese worked in the Mexicali Valley fields, while the area contained only 5,000 Mexicans. At the same time, civil war was ravaging Mexico, and many Chinese left Sonora and Sinaloa states and resettled at Mexicali.
Before the 1920s ended, other Chinese would arrive to avoid the dangers of Mexico’s Cristeros Revolution.
Chong said Chinese also quit Sonora and Sinaloa to escape racism fomented there by followers of former President Plutarco Elias Calles. Also in the 1920s, Prohibition in the United States encouraged establishment of cantinas and gambling halls in Mexican border towns, so business improved on many fronts.
“And, in World War II, the Chinese arrived to work in the cotton fields again,” Chong said. “There was a lot of work, a lot of money.”
Marisela Gonzalez Felix, a researcher in Mexicali at the Regional Museum of the Autonomous University of Baja California, said Chinese built the first school in Mexicali as well as the first public hospital, a laundry, the Kuomintang Building, the Methodist Church (with help from north of the border) and other structures. Most have since burned.
Their Chinatown was La Chinesca, bounded today by Juarez and Lerdo avenues on the north and south, by Azueta and Morelos streets on the west and east--just two square blocks. Census figures Gonzalez obtained do not show nearly as many Chinese in Mexicali as Chong estimated.
It was San Diego, Gonzalez said, that lured the first Chinese to the area.
“In 1860, they established San Diego Bay as a port for abalone fishing,” Gonzalez said. “They would sail in their junks 400 miles south to Bahia de las Tortugas.” And they colonized. “The 1888 census shows Chinese in Ensenada and San Quintin.”
In the national archives at Mexico City she found documentation of tong wars in Mexicali, mainly in the 1930s.
San Diegan Ruben D. Padilla, 80, who grew up in Mexicali, recalled the tong wars--from a distance.
“I heard the shooting and saw the bodies,” Padilla said. “The fighting was over commercial territory.”
Padilla recalled how the older Chinese still wore pigtails in the 1920s and 1930s, and how each bank had to have a Chinese teller “because Chinese were half the population but 90% didn’t speak Spanish. The Chinese tellers were noted for the rapidity with which they could count money.”
One of the most popular eateries in Mexicali, he said, was the Restaurant El Centro, operated by several Chinese.
Today one of the most popular is Restaurant Dragon, opened by Fito Yee in 1978. Another is Yee’s La Mision Dragon, opened in 1980 on the site of a former monastery and retaining some of the monastery structures.
The Dragon restaurants of Tijuana (1982), Tecate (1985) and Rosarito Beach (1988) are also his. Saul Chong manages Yee’s Tijuana eatery.
Yee was born in Canton in 1946. His father died in 1951, and the family moved to Hong Kong in 1956. He sailed alone two years later to join his grandfather, Francisco, in Mexicali.
Mexicali now has 100 Chinese restaurants, including cafes, and fewer than 1,000 residents of pure Chinese descent. Mexico’s economic troubles of recent years sent many Chinese to the United States, and Mexico’s diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China sent others.
Like many Chinese men of his generation, Fito Yee married a Mexican, the former Maria Graciela Beltran Rodriguez, and their son and daughter are studying accounting.
Grandfather Francisco went to Hong Kong in 1963 and was reunited with his wife after nearly seven decades. He died there in 1968 when he was almost 90.
Angel Wong, who runs Chu Lim, is another well-known Mexicali restaurateur, and Chon Cavande is noted for his fine 190-room Hotel Lucerna, which he opened in 1966. Cavande opened a 170-room Lucerna in 1980 in Tijuana and a 140-room Lucerna in Ciudad Juarez in 1987.
Also, many businesses were owned by Chinese living in the United States or China.
In Tijuana, the patriarch of the Chinese colony is Rafael Leon, 78, from near Canton, a distinguished-looking, smiling man who introduced fortune cookies to Tijuana, but who is better known as owner of the Restaurant El Imperial, which he opened in 1962 across from the jai alai palace.
(His great fortune-cookie experiment started in 1958 when he began making and selling the first fortune cookies ever created in Tijuana. “But it did not work out,” he said, “because people would read the fortunes but not eat the cookies.”)
With his parents and five brothers, Leon reached Mexicali in 1927 and ventured alone to Tijuana in 1936 as an abarrotero , an operator of one of those small stores.
“There were 65 Chinese in Tijuana then,” he said. “Or fewer. They were abarroteros or rancheros or laundry operators. Tijuana had 25,000 residents. . . .”
About 1932, he said, three men organized the Chinese of Tijuana but it was not until 1950 that the official association, La Colonia China, was founded and opened a salon downtown. There, for 40 years, the youngsters of the colony have studied Spanish and used the library, while adults have held their meetings.
Roberto Leon, Rafael’s nephew, is president of La Colonia China, which he said was formed to help the needy, including new arrivals.
“A new arrival can go to the salon and find help in obtaining a job and help economically,” he said. “We do nothing political.”
They also do little partying, although they celebrate the Chinese New Year with a raffle and other traditional events at the salon. Generally, he said, they stay to themselves.
“We do not participate much in civic organizations because of the language problem. I speak little Spanish. Most of the older ones do not speak Spanish, and most who do, not well.”
The younger ones, he said, speak Spanish well and are “Mexican, not Chinese.” Roberto Leon, 52, is not as much Chinese as he used to be.
“You never forget your origins, but I am accustomed to Mexico. We have many good friends here.”
Luis Dan Cinco owns Cafe Palacio del Oro, down Agua Caliente Boulevard a short distance from the Mi Kin Low restaurant, a landmark since 1957.
When his family reached Tijuana from Sonora in 1952, the Chinese had jewelry stores, hotels, shoe shops, restaurants, laundries and tiendas de abarrotes .
“Now everyone has restaurants,” Cinco said. “The city grew and you need capital. But a restaurant does not need as much capital, and Chinese all know the restaurant business. Very few reached Tijuana with money, but all were good workers.
“Chinese are good business people and hard-working. All are very united also. And there are no bad elements here. If someone does something wrong, everyone knows. Everyone works.”
Tijuana, he said, has 95 restaurants large and small and about 600 Chinese of pure descent.
Of those many eateries, one of the few large ones is the Nueva Estrella Oriental, which opened last year with seating for 450 near the Plaza Rio shopping center. It is owned by a group that includes Roberto Leon, who is manager and chef.
“Here, we live to work,” Leon said. “Work. Do not be lazy. If you want to be the boss, you have to work. To be an owner is not easy. Workers get one day a week off. The owner does not.”