As he waited for the Friday afternoon rush he knew was coming, Richard Gee sat on a small wooden stool in front of rows of colorful liquor bottles, neatly labeled with their name and price. His grandson Anthony Gray, who works at the store on weekends, walked in with lunch for his grandfather.
A bell rang, summoning Gee to the window of his liquor store. He laughed when he saw the customer, a regular who had just returned from a trip to Vegas.
“Did you do any good? Or did you lose your calzones?” Gee joked, using a slang word for underwear.
Gee’s relationships with his customers sustain The Bottle Shop, a small liquor store at the corner of 22nd Street and Cherry Avenue in central Tucson. Gee has owned the store for more than 40 years.
Although it might seem like a typical community liquor store, Gee’s shop is connected to a much broader legacy of Chinese-owned grocery stores in Tucson reaching back even further than the 1950s, when his parents opened the first of four El Grande Markets.
There used to be hundreds of Chinese-owned grocery stores in Tucson. Now, there are only a handful left.
Howard Eng is Gee’s childhood friend. His parents also owned a grocery store, and like many of his generation, he grew up working there.
He said that even though the markets are disappearing, it is more important than ever to remember the history that led to stores like Gee’s.
“The new generation, the latest generation [of Chinese people] needs to understand how we got here,” Eng said.
Gee, who is 73, could have retired years ago.
“The American way of thinking is that when you reach 60-some-odd years old, you should be retired and your heirs should be running it,” Gee said. “ But I enjoy what I do. I wouldn’t do anything else and I will not trade these customers that I have for anybody in the world because they’re that good to me.”
Like many people who love their work, Gee jokes that he might never leave.
“I probably will die here doing what I’m doing,” Gee said with bright eyes.
The hundreds of Chinese markets in Tucson in the mid-1900s didn’t just pop up overnight. They reflect the political history of the United States and the wave of anti-Chinese immigration laws in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The first Chinese people immigrated to Tucson in the 1800s, and in the 1880s, crews of Chinese railroad workers built the Southern Pacific Railroad line through Southern Arizona, according to an exhibit in the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center.
“The Chinese were here before Arizona became a state,” said Eng, a retired professor of public health at the University of Arizona currently writing a book on the history of Tucson’s Chinese grocery stores.
Anti-Chinese sentiment led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which was the first federal law to outlaw immigration based solely on nationality and prohibited Chinese laborers and miners from entering the U.S., according to the Museum of Chinese in America.
What is less commonly known is that the act allowed Chinese merchants, students, and diplomats to immigrate to the U.S. This distinction, between merchants and manual laborers, would have dramatic consequences across the entire U.S.
Laura Ng is a historical archaeologist at Grinnell College who researches the history of diasporic Asian communities. Ng gave a talk in May at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center about the early history of the Chinese community in Tucson.
“Like literally if you lifted your finger and had any connection to a labor occupation — like let’s say you own a laundry — if you did any ironing, you’re considered a laborer,” Ng told Arizona Luminaria.
Ng said the Chinese Exclusion Act not only prevented immigration to the U.S. but it gave a stamp of approval to harassing Chinese people and was used as a way to deport Chinese people who were not supposed to be excluded.
A Supreme Court case in 1900 further differentiated between merchants and laborers.
In 1897, authorities arrested a Chinese woman named Gue Lim, claiming that she was a Chinese laborer and didn’t have the proper documentation to be in the U.S. Her case, United States vs. Mrs. Gue Lim, went all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled in 1900 that she was allowed to remain in the U.S. because she was the wife of a merchant, not a laborer.
This case meant that Chinese merchants could bring their wives and children to the U.S. without the registration required of laborers, according to a timeline made by Sandy Chan, a local historian who has been researching the history of Chinese people in Tucson for decades.
In Tucson, by the late 1880s, there were more and more Chinese people going into the grocery business, Chan said.
“Then you had the Gue Lim Supreme Court decision,” Chan said. “Where merchants could bring their wives and families, which they did. By doing that, they put down roots in the communities in which they were living.”
By the mid 1900s, Chinese grocery stores were booming. In 1949, there were 710 Chinese people in Tucson and more than 100 Chinese-owned markets, according to an exhibit at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center.
The Gee family legacy
Gee’s parents opened their first grocery store, El Grande Market, in the 1950s, on Grande Avenue and St. Mary’s in what is now known as Barrio Hollywood.
Gee’s father, Frank Gee, was born in China in 1918 and came to Tucson when he was young, Gee said.
Frank Gee opened a grocery store, Del Monte Market, with his “paper brother” who had helped him immigrate, Gee said. After WWII, Frank Gee left that business and returned to Shanghai to search for a wife. He met Verne and they married and moved to Tucson to open El Grande Market together.
The family had 10 kids: 4 boys and 6 girls. Gee grew up working in the store and continued working there both during and after college.
“I had to sack potatoes, cut meat,” Gee said. “I was one of the few people that knew everything about the store.”
He described it as a difficult life.
“It was 14-hour days, every day, seven days a week,” Gee said, “After a while, you get tired. But you don’t shy away from it because this is the work you have to do. I feel very sorry for my mom and dad because they had to do it.”
Eng, the retired professor writing a book about Tucson’s grocery store history, said Gee’s experience was common for their generation.
“Most of my generation — we all worked in grocery stores. Other people on New Year’s Eve would go and party, have a good time,” Eng said. “We ended up doing the inventory.”
Gee’s family went on to open three more El Grande Markets, all on Tucson’s south side. Eng said that they were some of the largest grocery stores in town.
In the early 1980s, Gee’s father started getting ready to retire and sell the El Grande Markets.
“My dad said, ‘Richard, to keep you off the streets and out of trouble, I want you to apply for a liquor license,’” Gee said. He did, and he won one out of nine the city was offering that year.
“So I invested all the money that I had into the liquor store,” Gee said. “Never regretted it.”
He opened The Bottle Shop in 1982 in a shopping center the family owned on the corner of 22nd and Cherry.
“I am what they call a spin off,” Gee said, grinning.
He said he opened a liquor store because it is more lucrative than the grocery business, especially with the rise of large companies that wiped out many of the small, family-owned markets that used to be a staple on Tucson’s street corners. Ironically, Gee is allergic to alcohol.
Gee was not the only family member to continue in the retail business. After his father passed away in 1985, the eldest brother, Frederick Gee, followed his father’s example as the manager of El Grande Market #2.
Tragically, in 1992, while working at the market, Fred Gee, his uncle Zewang Huang, and Ray Arriola, an employee, were shot and killed in an armed robbery. The murders are the reason that today The Bottle Shop is drive-through and walk-up only — this setup provides safety, Gee said.
After Fred was killed, as the next oldest son, Gee became responsible for taking care of the family’s legacy and estate.
“Traditionally, in Chinese custom, the oldest son takes over the estate,” Gee said, “It fell into Freddie’s lap. When he passed, it fell on my lap.”
The original shopping center where Gee opened his liquor shop has long been demolished. All that remains is The Bottle Shop, a Nico’s Tacos, and an empty desert lot.
When his father retired, Gee’s family started renting out the old buildings that used to house El Grande Markets. The original El Grande Market is now a church.
Gee’s brother, Tommy Gee, also owns a liquor store, Liquor Express, in South Tucson. Even though the El Grande Markets no longer exist, Gee sees himself and Tommy as carrying on his family’s legacy.
“With the image I have of what my mom and dad wanted, we continue the legacy of my mom and dad’s, which was the business and to make it grow,” Gee said.
Saladitos and Chinese chorizo
A bell rang, signaling that one of Gee’s longtime customers, Pat Haro, had pulled up to the window in her car. Haro has been going to Gee’s store since the ‘80s.
“Oh, qué chingados!” he exclaimed in greeting, “Hey, Patty.”
Gee speaks Spanish, Cantonese, and English. He picked up Spanish so that he could better communicate — and joke around — with his customers.
Gee’s ability to speak three languages connects him to many of the Chinese grocery store owners who came before him who spoke Spanish or an Indigenous language like Yaqui or Tohono O’odham.
An article published in the Tucson Daily Citizen in 1974 profiles Dolores Wong, a Chinese woman who ran a shop in South Tucson called the Country Market. Wong spoke fluent Spanish, according to the article, which is on display at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center.
“Her customers call her ‘Nana,’” the article reads.
Eng said his father, who ran their family’s grocery for almost 30 years, spoke passable Tohono O’odham in addition to English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and a little bit of Spanish.
A map of the Chinese markets in the ‘40s shows most were on Tucson’s south and west sides, with a concentration of markets in what is now known as Barrio Viejo in downtown Tucson.
“The Chinese, for the most part, lived within the barrios,” Chan said.
When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, Tucson became a part of Sonora, Mexico until the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. Ng pointed to the fact that Tucson was Mexican as one of the reasons for the regular mixing of Chinese and Mexican cultures.
Marcos Imperial has been working at The Bottle Shop since 2015. Before working for Gee, Imperial worked at a different Chinese-owned store, Holiday Mart, which opened in 1918. Holiday Mart is now closed.
Imperial remembers going into small corner markets like The Bottle Shop as a kid.
His dad used to take him to a market near Santa Rosa Park, by Barrio Viejo and Barrio Libre.
“I had family in the area and it was like the little local corner store,” Imperial said.
The legacy of strong ties between the Chinese grocery stores and Mexican barrios can be tasted in Tucson’s food.
In the 1970s, one grocer established a Chinese/Mexican Deli. In 2022, Tucson hosted its first Tucson Chinese Chorizo Festival to celebrate the fusion food that is “an obscured historic food symbol of Chinese and Mexican immigrant solidarity,” according to the festival’s website.
At The Bottle Shop, Gee makes and sells his own saladitos. Known as Suān méi, or literally, sour plum, in Chinese, the popular Mexican snack of dried salted plums originated in China, a symbol of the history of the relationships between Chinese and Mexican people in Tucson.
When asked how he learned how to make them, Gee winked and said simply, “Chinese secret.”
The closest thing to a Chinatown
Tucson’s unique history makes it more similar to places like San Antonio, Texas or to the Mississippi Delta, which also have a history of Chinese grocery owners dispersed throughout other Black, Mexican, and Indigenous communities, Ng said.
Unlike larger cities on the West Coast like San Francisco or Los Angeles, Tucson never had a true Chinatown.
“A lot of the history of those larger Chinatown is because white people didn’t want them where they were living. So we don’t have that in Tucson, because they’re not living with white people. They’re living amongst Mexican Americans, living amongst Black people,” Ng said.
The closest thing to a Chinatown that Tucson had was the Ying On Compound, also known as the Tong House, a building that housed Chinese people who were poor, disabled, or too old to work, according to Ng. In 1968, the Ying On Compound was demolished along with much of Barrio Viejo to make way for the Tucson Convention Center as part of the city’s Urban Renewal program.
According to Eng, the Urban Renewal program in the ‘60s destroyed many Chinese grocery stores because it wiped out the area where many of the store owners and their customers lived.
“That displaced a lot of families,” Eng said.
After the ‘60s, the grocery stores that were left moved farther south.
Today, there are only a handful of these stores left.
The hard work of the early grocery store owners allowed their children to pursue higher education, Eng said.
Most of his generation have become engineers, teachers, pharmacists, doctors and lawyers, not retail owners, Eng said. “That’s a major change and that’s as a result of what was done before.”
Despite the slow disappearance of these markets, Eng said they remain an important part of Tucson’s local Chinese history, both for people whose families have lived here for generations and for newcomers.
“Individuals from the outside coming in — and I’m talking about Chinese people — need to have an understanding of what happened before they came, in order for them to have a closer link to the community,” Eng said.
The future of the family, the future of the store
Five generations of the Gee family have now been involved with the store: Gee’s grandson, Anthony Gray, currently goes to the University of Arizona and works at the liquor store on weekends.
“It’s weird knowing how long this has been in my family,” Gray said, “It’s been here for a long time. Longer than I’ve lived.”
Gray said that he has researched his family’s history, going back to the period around World War II, when Gray’s great-grandparents on both sides both owned businesses throughout Tucson and Phoenix.
“It’s interesting to look through and see how different families are connected to the same businesses. Everyone was somehow connected,” Gray said.
As Gee has gotten older, he’s thought a lot about the future of the store.
“I’d give it to my grandson if he wanted it, but I don’t want him to run this store. There’s long hours. It’s not a good lifestyle for a kid,” Gee said. “Tied down to the store; married to the store — you should be enjoying life.”
Gray used to want to take over the liquor store when he was younger, but it’s no longer something he wants to do, although he will continue to help his grandfather.
“I have other ideas of what I want for myself,” Gray said, “But I will help him no matter what.”
Micheladas, good advice and old friends
When Gee puts cans of beer or liquor into a plastic bag, he always turns them upside down.
It’s a habit he picked up to make sure Micheladas, a drink made of tomato juice and beer, would be mixed properly to give to customers.
As he was explaining this, another bell rang.
Pat’s son, Tommy Haro, drove up to the window where his mother had talked to Gee only a few hours before.
“I saw your mom earlier!” Gee said.
Tommy Haro said Gee is like a father figure to him and he asks him for personal advice.
“I give wrong advice,” Gee interjected.
“No,” Haro said.
“Sometimes I need to ask somebody to give me the flat out truth and I respect Richard,” Haro said. “Pain in the butt, but he’s the best.”
Before driving off into the late afternoon sun, Haro told Gee that his mom said she was going to make her menudo that weekend.
“I’m not gonna hold my breath,” Gee responded, deadpan.
Gee said his relationships with his customers are the reason he continues working at The Bottle Shop, even though he hasn’t needed to financially for a long time.
Customers like Pat Haro have watched over him since his wife died unexpectedly in 2019, he said.
“They treat me like I’m one of theirs. They even cook for me,” Gee said.
Gee pointed to a framed picture of his wife and their golden retriever that he keeps hanging above the fridges where he stores beer and soft drinks.
“[This store] keeps me busy and keeps my mind off her death,” Gee said. “My daughter tells me ‘Papa, this store is saving your life.’”
One day, Gee said, he would like to sell The Bottle Shop.
But for now, he remains in his store, standing at the window, laughing and teasing the customers he’s known for decades.