The Wild West of Yester-Year

Fee Lee and Hal Shek Wong
By Rachel Kovaciny

Between 1850 and 1900, hundreds of thousands of people immigrated to the United States from China. At first, Chinese men came to work in the gold fields following the California Gold Rush of 1849. More followed when the railroad corporations needed workers to help build the first transcontinental railroad. Usually, Chinese men came to this country alone, and later sent for their wives and families to join them here if they were able. Or they would make a successful life for themselves and return to China to find a wife and bring her back. Such is the story of Fee Lee Wong and his wife, Hal Shek Wong.

Fee Lee Wong came to the United States in 1870. Family history says he worked for the railroad as a cook. He ended up in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory in 1875 during a gold rush, having traveled there with a group of miners, many of whom were white. The small group reportedly fought off bandits together. The group valued Wong’s contributions enough that he received a share in their mining claims. This was remarkable for a time when Chinese immigrants were often treated as inferior. Fee Lee Wong sold his claim for enough money to open a store in what we now call Deadwood. He called it the Wing Tsue Company; “Wing Tsue” is a transliteration of a Cantonese phrase meaning “Assembly of Glories.” The people of Deadwood thought this was the proprietor’s name, and Wong became known as “Wing Tsue” to most of the people in the growing town. He managed his business remarkably well, and it thrived. Stocked with a pleasing variety of imported luxury goods from China, the Wing Tsue Company quickly became known for selling fine imported silk, porcelain figures and chinaware, tea, toiletries, and even Chinese herbs and foods. Because of the latter, Fee Lee Wong eventually became known as “Dr. Wing Tsue.”

Wong quickly became one of Deadwood’s most respected businessmen. In the early 1880s, he returned to China to bring his wife back to the United States. Sadly, she had died while he was working hard to build a new life for them. Fee Lee Wong stayed in China for two years, during which time he met and married Hal Shek Wong. Together, they returned to Deadwood. By now, Deadwood had a thriving Chinatown area with hundreds of Chinese people living and working side-by-side. They even had their own fire-fighting company! By banding together in one part of town, these immigrants could continue practicing their own culture and religion, and offer some protection to each other. This must have made transitioning to her new home easier for Hal Shek.

Although the Chinese and white citizens of Deadwood had a remarkably peaceful relationship, that was not true for many cities across America, especially in the West. Many white workers resented Chinese laborers, who often would work for lower pay or do jobs others scorned. Chinese-run gangs also took over the red-light district in many cities, most famously in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Those gang-protected activities meant many people’s minds linked Chinese immigrants with crime and vice. Violence against Chinese immigrants often went unpunished. These issues eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the late 1880s, which regulated how many Chinese immigrants could legally enter the country. Happily, Hal Shek Wong moved here before the Acts went into effect. Together, she and Fee Lee created a happy and beautiful home in Deadwood, where they lived for forty years.

The Wongs had eight children, six of whom attended the public schools and Sunday schools of Deadwood. Tragically, two of their children died young and are buried in Deadwood. In 1902, the Wong family traveled to China to visit their family and introduce their children to the culture. When they attempted to reenter the United States, they had difficulty because of the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Eventually, a Congressman interceded on their behalf, and they could return to their home in Deadwood.

Fee Lee Wong died in 1921 in China; he had returned there with Hal Shek after he suffered a stroke. Some of his children also returned to China, where they married and spent the rest of their lives. Others remained in the United States. Their second son, SomQuong Wong, joined the Marine Corps and rose to the rank of captain. He was the highest ranking Chinese-American officer to serve our country during World War II. In the 1990s, grandchildren of Fee Lee and Hal Shek Wong began gathering in Deadwood for a family reunion every few years. Family members who still live in China today sometimes travel here to attend. The Wong family is working with historical societies in Deadwood to preserve the Wing Tsue Company building, which is still standing. 

Fee Lee and Hal Shek Wong were typical of many immigrants to the Old West. Whether they came from China or some other land, they made new lives for themselves that are still inspiring their descendants today.