‘Chinese chorizo’ pays homage to the blending of two cultures in Arizona

If the coronavirus pandemic had never happened, Feng-Feng Yeh might not have learned the full history of Chinese Americans in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona.

Yeh was a top chef, or cook, in New York City when pandemic-related business closures put an end to his work and his career plans. She decided to return to her hometown. She also decides to revisit her passion for public art.

Looking for ideas, Yeh researched the history of Chinese immigrants in the Tucson area. On the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center website, she learned that Chinese family food stores were a thriving industry in the city beginning in the 1900s.

These food stores or grocery stores were more than just businesses. They were also lifelines for Mexican American communities in the area. Food stores – also called grocery stores – have even taken to making Mexican chorizo. Chorizo ​​is ground and spiced sausage, or pork meat. It earned it the nickname “Chinese chorizo”.

Yeh said she was “very moved” by the alliance formed between Mexicans and Chinese Americans. She described the immigration policies put in place during the same period as “rather racist”.

“I thought it was something you didn’t learn in school, especially in Arizona. I thought it was something that needed to be recognized and shared,” Yeh said.

Chinese immigrants who settled in Arizona did so under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first race-based immigration policy of the US government. Chinese and Mexican immigrants faced racism even though they were essential members of the workforce.

Older Chinese Americans in Tucson say they have spent years trying to spread knowledge about this story.

Yeh proposed to build a 3.4 meter high statue of two chorizo ​​sausages. She recently obtained financial support from the Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art and the Andy Warhol Foundation. To support the project, she organized a celebration called the Tucson Chinese Chorizo ​​Festival. Since October, several local restaurants and food trucks have been offering specials with meat and vegan chorizo.

Even many locals are unaware of Tucson’s major Chinese presence.

The Tucson Chinese Cultural Center is a large space of nearly 1,400 square meters. It serves as a community center and museum. Created in 2005, it has a multipurpose room, a large kitchen, classrooms and a room with tables to play the Chinese game called mahjong. The walls are covered with pictures and stories of long-gone Chinese grocery stores. The center also has a YouTube channel which includes a video on Chinese chorizo.

“A lot of people don’t know that we exist after 17 years. So we tried to spread the word,” said center leader Susan Chan.

Beginning in 1900, Chinese-owned grocery stores succeeded and became an economic force in Tucson. In the 1940s, 130 families operated more than 100 grocery stores in the city. The number of stores dropped in the 1970s and 1980s as larger grocery stores moved in and young Chinese Americans sought other careers.

Allen Lew points to a billboard at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center in Tucson, Arizona on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, highlighting his father’s grocery business. (AP Photo/Terry Tang)

Allen Lew’s father, Joe Wee Lew, opened his first of three stores in 1955. The stores were called Joe’s Super Market. Allan Lew started working at the market when he was around 10 years old. He remained with the company until the last store closed after 30 years in business. He is now 74 and a longtime member of the centre’s board of directors.

Lew and his four brothers and sisters grew up serving Mexicans and Native Americans clients. Everyone felt like “all one big neighborhood family”.

In fact, many Chinese grocers let poor customers pay when they could. “A lot of them get paid about once a month, every two weeks, and they’ve run out of money,” Lew said.

For the festival, Chinese-made chorizo ​​takes center stage along with inventive dishes that blend Chinese and Mexican cultures.

A local meat shop provided more than 225 kilograms of meat and plant-based chorizo ​​to restaurants for the festival. Yeh created the vegan Recipe. She invited Jackie Tran, a food writer from Tucson and owner of the Tran’s Fats food truck, to work on the real meat recipe.

Tran’s family is Chinese and Vietnamese. He added spices to the meat, including Sichuan pepper, coriander seeds and Chinese five-spice powder.

For the statue, Yeh partners with Carlos Valenzuela, a Tucson-born artist of Mexican and Native American ancestry. Valenzuela’s grandfather had had a credit account at a local Chinese grocery store.

If the idea of ​​a chorizo ​​statue makes you laugh, that’s how Yeh wants it.

“I think it’s catchy for tourists come and recognize that this city is a city that has been heavily influenced by Chinese culture, which I don’t think many people know about,” said Yeh, who still needs more money to pay for the project.

What does Lew, the son of a Chinese grocer, think of the chorizo ​​statue?

“It’s great,” Lew said. “I was surprised because I think when you grow up and you’ve done something your whole life here, you don’t think it’s a big thing.”

“But someone outside thinks, ‘This is different. This is cared for.’”

I am Caty Weaver.

And I’m Andrew Smith.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English.


words in this story

vegan – adj. free of any animal products

museum – nm a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as works of art or historical or scientific objects) are collected and displayed to the public

brother and sister – nm a brother or sister

customer – nm someone who buys a product or service

Recipe – nm a set of instructions for doing something, especially food

sightseeing – nm a person who travels for pleasure

cared for – adj. very pleasant, amusing, pleasant or interesting


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