In the middle of City Loosley Cemetery stands a solitary marble headstone bearing an inscription in Chinese. It is testimony to the fact that, for a brief time, Chinese immigrants made up nearly 10% of the population of early Phoenix. Some were railroad workers who had been laid off after construction on local rail lines was completed. Others came because the political climate for Chinese was better in sparsely populated Arizona than it was in the goldmining towns of California and Nevada. They worked in small, individually-owned businesses such as restaurants, grocery stores, hand laundries and vegetable farms. Although many of Phoenix's early Chinese residents eventually returned to China, about fifty were buried in the Pioneer & Military Memorial Park.
In 1993, archaeologist K. J. Schroeder asked William Tang, an associate professor at Arizona State University, to translate the inscription on the marble headstone in Loosley. Tang, a Mandarin speaker from northern China, translated it as that of Tang Xian Yuan, born in Canton province, Hoiping district, Da Lou village.
Years later, PCA researchers discovered the death certificate of Ong Sing Yuen, aged about 51, who died June 8, 1913, and was buried in Loosley. Since the man buried in Loosley had been born in Canton province, he would have spoken a dialect of Cantonese; 'Ong Sing Yuen' is in fact the Cantonese equivalent of the Mandarin 'Tang Xian Yuan'.
At the time of his death from esophageal cancer, Ong was a merchant living at 529 S. 7th Avenue. Although the pronouncing doctor listed opium smoking as a contributory cause of death, it is also possible that Ong was simply using opium to dull the pain of the malignancy that was slowly taking his life.
In 1997, K. C. Tang of Phoenix produced a family tree that identified Ong Sing Yuen as a collateral relative of Tang Shing. It is even possible that Ong Sing Yuen invited Tang Shing to come to Phoenix and take over his business when his health began to fail. Tang Shing became one of Phoenix's foremost Chinese-American businessmen. In 1929 he built the historic Sun Mercantile Building which still stands in downtown Phoenix. He and his wife Lucy Sing were the parents of eleven children, including Father Emery Tang and Judge Thomas Tang.
The Ong family has since revived its practice of honoring Ong Sing Yuen as one of its family members with a short ceremony on Ching Ming, a Chinese holiday which occurs in early April.
© 2017 by Donna L. Carr. Last revised 29 August 2017.
#Asian-Pacific Islander Month, Chinese heritage
Grave marker photo courtesy of the Pioneers’ Cemetery Association, Inc.