By Sue Abbey
History is alive and well! When you spend twenty years of your career in one place, many incidents stand out in your mind. When that career means dealing with people, some of them stand out in pivotal way; a way that can change you.
I was fortunate enough to spend twenty years working in the archives at Sharlot Hall Museum. It was not, as people might think, a job working in dusty, dry places, shuffling old papers and photographs that few would care about. It was a career working with great people, helping good people, getting to know people from the past, the present, and even the future.
One event stands out above all the other memorable events over the twenty-year period, and it involves the past, present, and future. It also was a great lesson to show that history does, indeed live, today and tomorrow.
This story begins in Prescott in the 1880s when Jon Con Sang emigrated from his home in China to the United States. Like many other young Chinese, Sang hoped to make his fortune in the U.S. and take it home to his family. Unlike many others, he did just that. He found himself in Prescott, joined the Congregational Church where the Reverend T.W. Otis taught English as well as Christianity to the newly arrived Chinese immigrants. With his new language and his new faith, this former Buddhist, called 'Charley Wan' by the Prescottonians, worked in restaurants, in laundries, and for people in town. Finally, probably in the late 1890s, he had saved enough to return to China and establish his own business. The Sincere Company Ltd. eventually consisted of seven stores in the major cities of China. Charley Wan became a very wealthy man.
In the late 1920s, Charley sent a photograph of himself and his extended family to his old friend in Prescott, Moses Hazeltine. Charley had worked for the Hazeltine family in Prescott. Several years later, the Hazeltine family acquired the Sincere Company Ltd. brochure. This brochure showed that the stores were large department stores, some of them several stories high.
In the 1940s, during the Communist takeover of Mainland China, the Sang family lost not only several family members but also most of their possessions and all of the businesses that were taken over by the new regime. The only store not lost was the one in Hong Kong, still operating today. The Hong Kong store will undoubtedly become part of the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in a few years. What was left of the Sang family escaped from China with little but what was on their backs. Most of the family mementos, including family photographs and letters, were lost or destroyed.
That is the history, but history lives, and became alive for the Sang family and me in the spring of 1989. Charley Wan's great-granddaughter, Diana Cheng (Jan) Yue and her family came to Prescott and to Sharlot Hall Museum. Diana, shown in the family picture below, second from the left, back row, came with her husband, Sing, their son and his wife, and the first American born of the family, grandchildren Brian, David, and Jennifer.
Diana had heard that her great-grandfather, Jon Cong Sang (Charley Wan), had lived in Prescott in the 1880s. She wondered, by any chance, did the Museum have anything about him and his life here in Prescott? When the archives staff started putting the photographs and the brochure on the table, there were tears of joy and surprise and a family met their ancestors through those items. Diana's son and grandchildren were able to see their family through four generations in one photograph. They were able to see their aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and grandparents. They could see what the stores looked like, see how the family dressed, hear from Diana about the Christian church services given daily in their home, how Jon Con Sang initiated church service each day in all of his stores, and how his early English lessons from Reverend Otis in the far away town of Prescott, Arizona Territory, USA, converted the whole family in China from Buddhism.
The future generations of this family would now know their past. Diana's grandchildren who, that spring day, found their own roots will pass it on to them. Around the table that day, there was a bringing together of past and present, of older generations and the newest generation. That day closed with tears in the eyes and lumps in the throats of all those around the research table. And it closed on one of my most memorable days in my chosen profession.
Sue Abbey is Archivist Emeritus at Sharlot Hall Museum.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(po2380p)
Reuse only by permission.
Jon Con Sang (Charley Wan) and family circa 1920's. Wan's great-granddaughter, Diana, is second from the left in the back row. She found this photograph in the archives at Sharlot Hall Museum in 1989.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (buc1069p)
Reuse only by permission.
English class at the Congregational Church. Charley Wan is in the back row at the far right.