Ong Q. Tow, Chinese Businessman and Soldier
Not all the Chinese who settled in Orange County in the late 19th century were ranch hands or day laborers. Some were vegetable farmers, labor contractors, or businessmen. Ong Q. Tow was perhaps the best known. He was a businessman and an American citizen and even went off to war.
Tow – familiarly known as Jimmy Craig – was born in Sonoma County in about 1870 and educated in the public schools there. He seems to have arrived in Orange County around 1887. He spoke English well and served as a translator between Anglo employers and Chinese workers. He also worked as a ranch hand before he established his own vegetable farm in the Westminster area, selling his crops in Anaheim and Fullerton.
In 1896, he came to Santa Ana and opened a store on East Fourth Street where he sold Chinese and Japanese goods, including porcelain, silk, and teas. Dan Baker, editor of the Santa Ana Standard, “took pains to plug his shop” according to his biographer, Jim Sleeper. While over at the Orange News, editor James Fullerton noted: “O.Q. Tow we remember as a bright, stout and jolly celestial in the employ of Mr. Culver, and he was often of use to us as an interpreter when we had a large number of Chinese in our employ in boom times. The firm has a nice stock and O.Q. Tow will show it courteously.” (News, July 15, 1896)
When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, Tow was vocal in his support of the American cause and tried to enlist in Company L, the local National Guard unit. The enlisting officers were inclined to dismiss him out of hand, but when they discovered he was a U.S. citizen and registered to vote, they took down his information. But to Tow’s regret, Company L shipped out without him a few days later.
Undaunted, Tow volunteered for the United States Army and was sent to the Philippines in 1899:
“James Craig Tow, a native Californian, born of Chinese parents, last week enlisted in the service of the United States for duty in the Philippines with the Thirty-fifth regiment, United States volunteers. Tow has lived all his life in the state of California and was educated in the public schools. He speaks English distinctly, with little or no Chinese accent, and is almost a perfect man physically.* The last thing he parted with before entering the services of the United States was his queue. He first appeared before the recruiting officer with his queue tightly rolled on the top of his head, but the officer ordered that it be removed and Tow made a bee line for the nearest barber shop, returning in a few minutes with an up-to-date American haircut, after which the oath was administered and he became a full-fledged American soldier. Tow is the first Chinaman to enlist in the service of the United States. – Santa Ana Blade.” (Reprinted in The Hemet News, Aug. 18, 1899)
(* A year before, the local correspondent of the Los Angeles Times noted that Tow stood 5 feet 4½ inches and weighed 147 pounds.)
Even before his enlistment, Tow received favorable notice in the papers:
“Our friend Jimmy Craig, the vegetable vendor, who is known to his Celestial friends as O.Q. Tow, informs us that he contemplates a visit to New York to see the sights of the big American metropolis. Jimmy has made his pile in vegetables and is thinking of retiring for the season of luxurious ease. While his father, who is with him down on the vegetable ranch in Westminster, thinks of taking a trip to China to see if anything [is] left after the Japanese got through with them Jimmy will journey eastward to seek a pretty wife. He rides a bicycle, reads the English papers, has a plethoric bank account, and is calculated to be looked upon with green eyed envy by the Chinese in Mott Street [in New York]. He will play havoc with the hearts of Chinese damsels East or West, if we are any judge, and win or lose, will return after blowing himself east of the Rockies and go peddling vegetables again.” (Anaheim Gazette, Jan. 2, 1896)
“Ong Q. Tow, the enterprising Chinese merchant … registered [to vote] today with Deputy Clerk W.A. Beckett and, he says, he will vote for prosperity’s advance agent, Maj. William McKinley of Ohio. Tow is a native Californian. He talks better English than half the Americans, and is one of the shrewdest young business men in the city. He is 26 years old.” (Los Angeles Times, Santa Ana correspondence, July 2, 1896)
“Tow is the son of wealthy parents and is well educated, but has not spent his time in idleness since he left school. When he first came to Orange county about ten years ago, he worked on a ranch, and later on drove a vegetable wagon, but for several years past he has been in the mercantile business, conducting a store his father purchased for him on the corner of Bush and Third streets. He is quite a mechanic, and has a small brass cannon on exhibition in the window of the local Times agency, and a model of the [battleship] Maine in a window of the Brunner Building.” (Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1898)
Tow remained in the Philippines after the war, married and had a family and became a successful Manila businessman. He died there sometime before 1940.
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(A Final Thought: Those who wince at seeing Tow described as a “jolly celestial,” the praise of his language skills, or even an adjective like shrewd would do well to remember the general attitude toward Chinese immigrants in the United States in the late 19th century. It makes these sometimes ham-handed attempts at praise all the more meaningful when considered against the opinions of the time.)