Monday, May 13, 2013

The Hi Wo Company Grocery Store

Last Thursday I hopped on my motorcycle and rode off in search of a blog topic. It was a beautiful southern Arizona day, not too hot, sunny with a cool breeze. I remembered stopping at the San Pedro Valley Arts and Historical Society in Benson when Katie and I were exploring new territory after our move from Washington. I noticed some pictures and information about a Chinese family who lived in Benson from the late 1880s until the recent past. This was at a time in our history when there was so much racial prejudice against the "yellow peril" that in 1882 the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which limited any further immigration of Chinese people and barred those already here from becoming US citizens.

The cowboy era has always interested me, probably because I grew up watching all those western television shows and movies. But frankly I’m getting a little tired of the Earp brothers and their six minutes of fame. There were tens of thousands of Chinese men who came to the US in the mid to late 1800s, first to work in the mines and then to build the transcontinental railroad. Most are forever lost to history, unrecognized and unappreciated.

San Pedro Valley Arts & Historical Society
          At the historical society, a nice woman named Jeanette helped me find information on the Wo family, who owned and operated the Hi Wo Company Grocery store on 4th street from 1896 to 1989. Hi Wo came to the US when he was 16. He first lived in San Fransisco and then moved to Tombstone where he worked in a restaurant. I’m not sure why he left Tombstone, maybe Doc and those pesky Earps and Clantons were getting under his skin. He moved first to Tucson, and then to Benson, where he stayed for the rest of his life. At the age of 39 he opened the Hi Wo Company store. It sold groceries and other goods. Jeanette proudly showed me Hi Wo’s stove and refrigerator that the historical society had acquired.

Hi Wo must have been a courageous man to have established himself and family as respected members of American society at a time when there was so much hatred and prejudice against the Chinese. He married twice and had four daughters and a son. He died in 1931 and two of his daughters continued operating the store. The information online says that the Wo
Hi Wo & family
family descendants still owned the building, but Jeanette told me they have since sold it to a woman named Kay Luzadder. Kay owns the Clip Cut N Polish beauty salon  right next door to the old Hi Wo Company building.  Jeanette said that the building was only a block and a half away from the historical society, so I walked over to have a look.

Current picture of Hi Wo Company building
          The two story stucco building was locked and the windows boarded up. I went next door to the Clip Cut N Polish and found Kay giving a manicure to a customer. The beauty salon was quite busy, there must have been six or seven women sitting in there in various stages of their beauty makeovers. All of them seemed very interested in why I had entered the salon. Kay asked if I wanted a haircut. I declined and told her I was interested in looking inside the old Hi Wo store. At first she said I’d have to come back at a time more convenient for her, but as I was about to leave, she told her assistant to finish up on the woman’s nails and said to me, “Come on, I’ll give you the one minute tour.”
Current picture of the Inside of  the Hi Wo building
          I followed her next door. She unlocked the building and we went inside. It looked like an antique shop that needed to be organized. Stuff was piled everywhere. Kay showed me binder after binder filled with letters, post cards and ledgers from the Wo family. There was a diary of one of the daughters and a lot of family pictures. She said all this stuff was left in the building when she bought it and that she spent hours and hours painstakingly organizing it. She told me she bought the building because she needed the parking space for her beauty salon. The Hi Wo building is on the Arizona Historic Register and so if  Kay wanted the parking space around it, she needed to buy the building, but not tear it down. My minute tour was up all too soon and I asked her if I could come back and nose around some time in the future. She said I’d have to make an appointment and that she would need to supervise me. She has a goldmine of history in that building and I decided I wanted to return at a future time.

          I thanked her and left to search for evidence of Chinese gravesites in the area. Except for Hi Wo, his second wife Emeteria and Hi Wo’s son Joe M. Wo who are buried in the Benson City Cemetary, I’m not having much luck. But that’s another story, another blog.


  1. I would really enjoy exploring that old place. The stuff inside needs to be preserved and from the looks of things they are using the place to store a bunch of worthless beauty salon stuff. The real stuff should be separated. Maybe you and I should get out our old exploration gear and pay that place a visit.

  2. I actually work in the Prescott are for a local fire department. One of the Wo's ancestors works with me, it was neat to stumble upon this article after making a trip down to see the old building myself.

    1. I remember shopping here as a young girl. My grandma would send us there for groceries, super cheap! My maiden name is Comaduran. Mr. Wo's wife was Josephine Comaduran. Very interesting to see this from an outsider's perspective
      Thanks for the blog.