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Tombstone’s Chinese Pioneers

China Mary and Quong Kee were two of Tombstone’s most well-respected and successful Chinese residents. Photos courtesy Ben Traywick.

China Mary and Quong Kee were two of Tombstone’s most well-respected and successful Chinese residents. Photos courtesy Ben Traywick.

In the late 19th century, about 400 Asians resided in Tombstone and were ruled by a Chinese woman named China Mary. She was known for wearing opulent brocades and expensive jewelry, and was considered one of Tombstone’s most influential Chinese residents. China Mary, whose Chinese name was apparently Sing Choy, had acquired enough money to buy a Tombstone property on block 2, lot 9. She also was the wife of Ah Lum, a partner with Quong Kee in the town’s famous Can-Can Restaurant.

China Mary’s word was undisputed law in Tombstone’s Chinatown. If someone wanted to hire a cook, get their clothes washed or their house cleaned, they had to deal with China Mary; and if you were Chinese and wanted work, the only person to go to was China Mary. She guaranteed the work and honesty of every houseboy and servant that she placed in a home. She would say, “Him steal, me pay.” If on the rare occasion a servant proved unsatisfactory, China Mary would tell the family to run him out right away.

China Mary’s store carried Chinese delicacies, including cheese and interesting Chinese art objects. In the back rooms of her store, she operated fan-tan gambling where from time to time non-Chinese would try their hand at the Chinese gambling game. If they got rowdy, China Mary called upon her cadre of Chinese policemen to keep order. She was also known to handle the distribution of opium to Tombstone’s red light district as well as peddle the town’s Chinese prostitutes.

Despite her less than legal dealings, Tombstone remembered China Mary for her generosity. A miner down on his luck could always count on a loan from China Mary, although he had better pay it back. Once, when a cowboy broke his leg after his horse fell on him, China Mary took him to the Grand Central Boarding House and paid the bill until he recovered.

Although China Mary spoke frequently of returning to China and marrying the man her parents had chosen for her, she never left Tombstone and died there on Dec. 16, 1906 at the age of 67.

Another well-known resident of Tombstone’s Chinese community was Quong Kee. He made his Arizona reputation as a restaurateur — with the Black Diamond in Pearce, the Grecian in Charleston and the Can-Can Restaurant in Tombstone.

When Kee arrived in America from Canton, China, he began cooking for the Union Pacific railroad in Stockton and Virginia City. At one point, he returned to China and was married, but left soon after the wedding to come back to America. He left his bride behind, as well as a son, whom he didn’t know about until a few months before his death.

A grizzled old miner once said of Kee, “Yep, [he] was a Chinese. A heathen, I guess as folks would call it now, but he was a damned sight more Christian than most.” An old muleteer also spoke kindly of Kee, saying, “I wouldn’t be surprised if [Kee] was the first one to go in a hearse. We never had a hearse in Tombstone until about ’85. Before that they were either carried to Boothill or went in a spring wagon.”

On Jan. 11, 1938, Kee’s two old friends, John L. Larrieu and Marshal Hal Smith, found Kee unconscious on the floor of his room near Toughnut Street. He was taken to the Cochise County Hospital where he died that day at the age of 97. He was initially buried in the Bisbee cemetery, but when Tombstone residents learned of it, they were indignant, insisting he belonged in Tombstone’s Boothill Cemetery.

Three days later, the hearse arrived at Boothill accompanied by a mile-long funeral cortege. A crowd gathered to bid farewell to Quong Kee, the last member of Tombstone’s Chinese community. Rev. Rupert Witt, a vested Episcopal clergyman, performed the service. The Tombstone High School band played “Abide with Me” and a funeral dirge as 500 mourners passed before the open coffin. Ronald Bridges, a brother of a Maine senator, delivered a farewell address quoting from the Bible and the philosophy of Lao Tzu.

Kee’s pallbearers included David O’Neal from the state Tax Commission, John Gleeson, founder of the town of Gleeson, J.W. Smith, G.J. McCabe and George Berger. Two of Quong’s cousins, Gee Hing and Yu Wee, also attended. After the funeral, the men paid a tribute to Kee by stopping at the Crystal Palace Bar to drink a toast to their good friend.

— Jane Eppinga. Sources: Arizona Daily Star, Arizona State and Tombstone courthouse records, other historical works.

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