Austin family finds clues in attic to Chinese pioneer
Joe Sing, Francisca Moreno broke barriers in early 20th-century Austin.
Updated: 1:35 p.m. Monday, Aug. 9, 2010
Published: 9:11 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 7, 2010 Small Type
They could write chapters in history books about people like Joe Sing, a Chinese immigrant who blazed trails in Austin around the dawn of the 20th century, and his lay-down-the-law wife, Francisca, who helped him. Sing eclipsed one barrier after another poverty, a strange land and language, discriminatory laws to succeed as a businessman, husband and father.
But Sing apparently also was a modest man, and his gritty story went with him to his grave in 1927. There it probably would have stayed had his descendants not discovered a box 80 years after his death.
"A magic box," Terry Aguallo, Joe and Francisca's great-granddaughter, says with hints of wonder and gratitude.
The story of Joe Sing and Francisca Moreno Sing is the subject of a flurry of attention — a new state historical marker, a featured spot in an Austin History Center exhibit on pioneer Chinese immigrants and a recent student documentary, part of the East Austin Stories film project at the University of Texas.
It begins sometime in the late 1800s, when Joe Sing left his family and his homeland in search of the proverbial better life in the United States.
Sing found it in Austin, where he soon bridged Anglo, Asian and Mexican American worlds. One of the city's first Chinese residents, Sing married Francisca, an American of Mexican descent who cooked for Gov. Ma Ferguson and who, like her husband, did not lack for resolve. Together they opened the Hong Lee Laundry, which flourished by catering to bankers, legislators and white-collar workers on Congress Avenue. The couple had four children and apparently enjoyed a loving marriage. Sing never became a U.S. citizen, however — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade it — and under another law, Moreno, without realizing it, forfeited her citizenship simply by marrying Sing.
But, perhaps because the Sing-Moreno story was not passed down in the detail it might have deserved, their descendants never really made too much of their family heritage, their ancestors' pioneering spirit or their own melting-pot mix of heritages. American. Chinese. Mexican.
Never made much, that is, until that day in 2007 when, in the historical East Austin home of Margaret Sing, the late daughter of Joe and Francisca, they stumbled upon a box they hadn't known existed. About 3 feet long and 2 feet deep, the cardboard box contained personal effects more than 100 years old that belonged to Joe and Francisca. The contents awakened family members' curiosity about their ancestry, stoked their pride and their introspection and moved them to tears. The items revealed, too, a family secret. They told a story of family — a story long stored away and now reclaimed.
In the 1970s, schoolmates taunted Anna Aguallo, Terry's younger sister. They called her Chinese and pulled up the skin at the corners of their eyes, recalled her mother, Mary Frances Aguallo, a blunt-talking woman with a sassy sense of humor and at 79 the oldest living descendant of Sing and Moreno.
"When I was younger, my eyes were quite slanted, and I definitely looked different," said Anna, 40, a special education coordinator with the Austin school district. "The teasing made me feel like an outcast."
Anna and Terry knew that their great-grandfather was Chinese. They had seen Joe Sing's portrait, taken when he was probably in his 60s — Sing, with a shock of black hair flecked with gray, his back straight, staring solemnly at the camera. When they were kids, Sing's son, Joe Jr., made it a point to remind the girls of their Chinese heritage, too, "not just Mexican," said Anna, who added that her great-uncle used his father's abacus in his bookkeeping at home.
But that's as far as it went, Anna said. Joe Jr. didn't speak Chinese, and with no exposure to the language, customs or other Chinese relatives — no family ever followed Joe Sing to America — the Aguallo sisters celebrated Mexican traditions far more. Perhaps the only exceptions were the steamed white rice and other Chinese food they ate every day.
Their mother never met Joe Sing, who died at 67 in a hit-and-run accident. Yet Mary Frances says she felt as if she knew Sing anyway because her grandmother, a disciplinarian who raised her and impressed her with her work ethic and devotion to God, constantly talked about him. "He must have been a very, very good father, parent or husband," Mary Frances said. "By talking about him, she kept him alive."
Discovering the past
Joe Sing was not a quixotic nomad seeking adventure. Like many Chinese men then, he probably had no other choice but to leave his relatives in China so that he could help them survive, said Esther Chung, who collects Asian American history at the Austin History Center and has been working with the Aguallo family.
It is not known when exactly Sing arrived in Austin, though from documents and correspondence Chung thinks it was sometime around the turn of the century. Sing was in Galveston in 1880, according to the U.S. census. It's known, too, that he lived in Boston and then worked in Shreveport, La. In New Orleans in 1894, he was issued, under the name of Joe Hall, a certificate of residence, a document required for a Chinese national to work in the U.S. Sing's real name was Jo Feng Sheng. In Austin, he was known to his customers as Hong Lee. Why he used three names at different times in his life is a mystery.
Nor is it known when Sing married Francisca or when they started the laundry business on Congress Avenue and Fifth Street. They had four children — Joe Jr.; Rumalda, or Ruby, as she was known; Margaret; and Senovia, Mary Frances' mother.
After her husband died, Francisca closed the original laundry and opened another one under her own name in 1937 at 207 E. Seventh St. When Francisca became ill, Margaret, who never married, devoted her life to taking care of her mother at a house they rented on Medina Street until Francisca died in 1962 at age 83. In 1984, Margaret had saved up enough money to pay cash for a home at 1705 Willow St. The quaint two-bedroom bungalow built in 1930 has been handed down to Terry's 24-year-old son Raul Hernandez, a fifth-generation descendant who is a records coordinator at St. Edward's University.
Until Margaret's death in 2007, the home was a lively hub of activity and the site of family holiday celebrations.
"Everybody used to gather here," Raul says, standing in front of an oversized, graffiti-style print of the Virgen de Guadalupe that hangs in the living room. Two decoratively framed antique Virgen prints — they belonged to Francisca — anchor opposite ends of another wall. Before she died, Margaret stipulated that they never be removed, and she meant it, too. When the house was vacant for a short time, the family tried taking the prints down for safekeeping but couldn't because they were bolted to the wall.
With Margaret Sing's death came the task of cleaning the house and sorting through her belongings, a chore that lasted weeks. The family thought it was done until a worker installing central air conditioning told Raul he had found a box in the attic. Terry recalls telling her son to "just throw it away," and Raul says they came oh-so-close to doing so. But he insisted, and later that day, with a trash can beside her, his mother began digging through the box.
Tired, she pulled out the contents with disinterest at first until she realized what lay before her. Spread out on the large antique dining table, which had hosted so many family meals, were the mementos of the lives of Joe Sing and Francisca Moreno. Never-before-seen family photos of the couple and their young children, his 1894 certificate of residence and other documents, dozens of letters from relatives and business contacts with postmarks from China, Canada, Boston, Louisiana, "just everywhere."
In one striking photograph, Francisca, surrounded by her children, cradles Ruby, her youngest, in her arms.
For Terry, the faces in the photographs spoke the loudest: "They were Chinese."
"I thought, 'This is him in this box,'" Terry says. "This man came from across the ocean, and he was here, and you hear all these stories about the immigrants, and I'm thinking, 'What did he go through?'"
She teeters on the edge of being overcome with emotion, as she was that day of discovery in 2007 when Raul worriedly asked her, "Mom, what's wrong?"
"I told him, 'You don't understand. Look at this,'" Terry recalls answering, her voice rising. "And then I found the document, his papeles (papers) to come to the United States, and I thought, 'Oh, my God.'"
Terry can't hold back her tears anymore.
The family had never seen Sing's 1894 certificate of residence, which says he was 35 years old, was 5 feet 7 inches tall and had an olive complexion and three scars. In the photo, Sing looks vaguely sideways and wears a Western-style suit. He has a round, clean face and a stoic expression, and his head is shaved in the front. Though it isn't visible, it's likely that he wore his hair braided in a tail or queue in the Chinese custom then.
History center translators later helped decipher the letters, which revealed something more that the family had not known — Joe Sing had children in China. A son regularly wrote to him, once to ask for $200 to help with his pending wedding. So did a son-in-law. In fact, many people in China wrote to ask for money, including Sing's mother, who in one letter delivered the news that his father had died. The revelation that Sing had children in China raised questions: Did Joe Sing have a wife or an ex-wife in China? Did Francisca know her husband had other children?
These and other questions remain a mystery, though Mary Frances suggests that if there was another wife in China, her grandmother would never have stood idly by had she known. Joe Sing made it in Austin because Francisca pushed him, she says. "She was one of those people, what she said went. 'We're going to do this, come hell or high water,'" Mary Frances says, prompting Terry to joke that her mother, with her bossy manner, took after Francisca.
The Aguallos and Raul had no inkling that their find mattered to anyone outside their family until a couple of weeks later when Terry saw a blurb in the newspaper. It said that the Austin History Center was collecting Asian history and was seeking donations. Mary Frances turned over the Sing family papers, as they are now known at the center. The papers are a gem — the oldest and the biggest of the Asian collection and among the rarest of their kind in the country, Chung says.
With the box came a watershed rediscovery of roots. "It's enlightened us to grow more passionate about the history and to want to learn more about the Chinese culture," Anna says.
Family members ponder what part of them came from Joe and Francisca. "A strong work ethic," says Mary Frances, who still works organizing bus tours to New York and other cities. "I don't believe in retirement," she declares.
Finding the box wiped the cobwebs off faded memories. When Chung explained that Francisca lost her citizenship for marrying her husband, Mary Frances recalled that her grandmother sobbed upon learning that bit of news when she applied for retirement benefits. Her daughters said she had never shared the story before.
Raul did the research that led to the state historical marker, which will go up in October dedication ceremonies at Margaret Sing's old house, where he now lives. He vows not to mess with its character. That would be a disservice to history and to his Aunt Margaret. "How many ethnic women working in a laundry could buy a home by themselves?" he marvels. Recently Raul bought Chinese vases and bookends to place in the living room with the Virgens. Next, he wants to apply for a national historical designation, and he wants to visit China one day.
When she pulled history from a box in 2007, a wave of regret fell over Terry, who wished she had tried harder to learn about her great-grandfather before. But now, she says, "With all of this, it's like 'I know who you are.'"
'Pioneers from the East: First Chinese Families in Austin'
The exhibit continues through Oct. 31 at the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe St. Center hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
For information on how to preserve the stories of Asian Americans in Austin and Travis County, call Esther Chung at 974-7394 or visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/library/ahc.
To view 'Five Generations,' a documentary on Joe Sing and Francisca Moreno Sing by UT students Chelsea Hernandez, Adrian LaGuette and Rhea Rivera, visit www.eastaustinstories.org.
UPDATE: As originally published, this story misstated the date the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. The law was passed in 1882.