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Ancestral Legacy

Fee Lee Wong broke through the boundaries of Deadwood’s Chinatown to become one of the city’s most respected merchants, but his struggle was only the beginning of the Wong family’s relationship with this frontier gold camp.
By Edith C. Wong

Ancestral Legacy
CREDIT: Courtesy Photo

Editor’s Note: In late December, Deadwood Magazine contacted Edith and LeRoy Wong, two great-grandchildren of Fee Lee Wong, with interview requests for an article on their family history. Two days later, the Wing Tsue buildings – home to the store operated by their ancestor – came down in a flurry of controversy. Shortly thereafter, Edith agreed to compose and submit an article concerning her branch of the Wong family, those descended from Kam Leung Wong, son of Som Quong Wong, son of Fee Lee. The first part of the resulting manuscript, with a focus on the lives of Fee Lee and Som Quong, is printed below. The story of Kam Leung and the modern history of the Wong family will appear in next month’s issue.

Author’s Note: Fee Lee Wong’s life in Deadwood has been the subject of previous publications. I have attempted to share some new details about his life, following by a brief description of the life of one of his sons, Som Quong Wong.

Fee Lee Wong was born in 1846 in a village of Canton, China. Years of floods, droughts, famine and political and social unrest in southern China no doubt influenced Fee Lee’s decision to venture out, to succumb to the lure of gold-rich California, otherwise known as the Gold Mountain. Sometime around 1870, Fee Lee and his brother Woon Waw sailed to America, ultimately arriving in San Francisco. Little is known about the years that Fee Lee spent there.

Fee Lee left California and supposedly traveled with a group of white prospectors to Deadwood in 1876. This group staked out many mining claims, of which Fee Lee received at least two. He used profits from the sales of these mining titles to establish his business, the Wing Tsue Emporium (the words "wing tsue" mean “assembly of glories”). His store sold silks, fireworks, Chinese curios, imported teas and other food products, as well as Chinese herbal medicines. In contrast to Chinese businesses, the typical American business name was derived from the owner’s last name. Combined with his reputation for selling Chinese herbal medicines, this resulted in Fee Lee often being called “Dr. Wing Tsue.”

In 1884, Fee Lee returned from a trip to China with his wife, Hal Shek. Eight children (three sons and five daughters) survived their birth and childhood and were raised in Deadwood: Hong Quong, King Shiu, King Que, Som Quong, Fay King, Fay Juck, Tong Quong and Fay Lan. The children were born between 1884-1902. At that time, Deadwood’s Chinese population was composed mostly of unmarried males; it was rare for an entire Chinese family to live in Deadwood. Referring to the birth of Hong Quong in 1884, Deadwood hardware merchant George Ayres remarked, "He was the first Chinese child born in Deadwood and I as well as many others went to see him soon after his birth, as a Chinese child was quite a curiosity." All but the youngest attended school in Deadwood. The children were accepted as friends and were quite popular in Deadwood High School.

Aside from a detailed description of a Chinese New Year’s visit to Fee Lee's wife, as described by Estelline Bennett in her book Old Deadwood Days, little has been written about "Mrs. Wing Tsue...the loveliest bit of exquisite china I ever saw."

A fire in 1885 destroyed the wooden building rented by Fee Lee at 566 Main Street. This structure was replaced immediately thereafter. Three years later, Fee Lee purchased this building and two adjacent lots. Fee Lee's store expanded into a new two-story brick building occupying the two lots. Completed in 1896, this structure would later be referred to in court records and deeds as the Wing Tsue Building at 568 Main Street.

In addition to being a successful merchant and a family man, Fee Lee was quite involved in the Deadwood community. He contributed to the purchase of the building materials for the Chinese Masonic Lodge. He paid for the funeral services and burials of Chinese at Mount Moriah Cemetery, as well as furnishing bail for arrested Chinese. Fee Lee Wong was a member of the Society of Black Hills Pioneers.

In 1902, Fee Lee took his entire family back to China to allow his children to gain a better understanding of the Chinese language and culture. Although it was believed that he would return to Deadwood with his wife and youngest child after two years, Fee Lee returned alone in 1903. Aware of the travel restrictions imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Fee Lee had obtained previous permission to leave and return to America. However, upon Fee Lee's return he was detained in Port Townsend, Wash. He was released and returned to Deadwood in 1904 only after some of Deadwood’s leading citizens (a list including Ayres, fellow businessman Nathan Franklin and former mayor Sol Star) testified that Fee Lee was “a merchant and an honorable person to whom full faith and credit should be given."

Consistent with the declining economy (and dwindling population) of Deadwood, Fee Lee faced a troubled financial situation by 1915. He defaulted on his mortgage and was forced to sell the Wing Tsue properties to First National Bank. This did not deter Fee Lee, as he continued to rent and carry on with his business at the same location. However, by 1918, Fee Lee had begun plans to return to China.

In 1919 Fee Lee suffered a stroke at a meeting of the Society of Black Hills Pioneers. He regained the use of his limbs, but not his strength. Later that year he left Deadwood and reunited with his wife and remaining family in China. In 1921, at the age of 75, Fee Lee died in Canton.

Sixty-seven descendants of Fee Lee Wong gathered in front of their ancestor

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