Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Asian-Americans in Valentine, Nebraska: New Stories of the 'Prairie Mosaic'

For Sale at Plains Trading Co, Valentine, NE
Readers who have finished my two Highway 83 books may have picked up on a running theme. It’s best summed up in the words: the “Prairie Mosiac,” a term that speaks to all the different cultures that contributed to the development of the Great Plains. In The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, there was the story of the Negro League's Satchel Paige and integrated baseball being played in Bismarck years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues; the Jewish settler Harry Turnoy and his homestead east of Wilton; the German-Russian Welk family; the founder of Minot, Norwegian Erik Ramstad, as well as the story of the BrulĂ© Lakotas who reside at Rosebud.
In the The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition, there is the story of the African-American DeWitty/Audacious settlement in the Sand Hills. And Garden City, Kansas, today, which has invited and absorbed waves of immigrants from all over the world to work in its meatpacking plants.
Hollywood in the 20th century largely brainwashed us into thinking the West was lily white. In fact, census records show there were Native American, black, Asian, mixed-race families in towns all over the Plains, especially in railroad towns. A typical "cowboy" on the cattle trail was more likely to speak Spanish or Swedish than English. 
When I passed through Valentine, Nebraska, in 2009, I encountered two Asian-Americans, one by design, one by accident. The vignettes show that the idea of a "Prairie Mosaic" is not part of history. It's part of life there today.
The first was the Korean-American Bum Song, who was selling bonsai plants by the side of the road. His life story is in the book. 
Bum Song, 2009
The second was an encounter I had planned. Years before, I ate at a Chinese restaurant on the south side of Valentine. I returned there in 2009 on my research trip to find out more about the family. I was curious as to how they coped in a town where there were few, if any other Asian families. When I arrived, I discovered that the first Chinese family had moved on. The Guans had taken their places.
This is a “cutting room” floor blog. I decided not to run a picture of Bum Song in the new book because it didn’t meet my standards for composition. For those who would like to see him, here is a picture!
I cut the story of Fei Guan out of the manuscript for pacing reasons. I felt the narrative was lingering too long in Valentine, and I had to move on. But I’m posting it here:

The China Cafe

The last stop on Highway 83 leaving Valentine is the town’s only Chinese restaurant, which is simply named the China Cafe.
There’s nothing fancy about the brown, square building made of corrugated steel. The interior is plain as well, with a few Asian knickknacks, posters and booths upholstered in cracking vinyl.
Fei Guan works the wok while his wife Sui waits on tables.
China Cafe, Valentine, NE, 2009. All photos by Stew Magnuson
The Guans are the town’s only Chinese family.
For Fei, it was a long journey from Hong Kong to the middle the prairie. The 40-year-old with a medium build and dark hair sticking out the back of his baseball cap left the former British colony shortly before the Chinese took the territory back in 1997. As many Chinese emigrants have since the Gold Rush days of the 1840s, he ended up in San Francisco, where he bought a restaurant. He ran it for thirteen years until his landlord just about put him out of business. Every year, he raised the rent until it came to about $6,000 a month.
It was about that time he saw an ad in a Chinese language newspaper offering a restaurant for sale in Valentine, Nebraska. Of course, he had never heard of the town, and never been to the nation’s vast interior. He had lived in two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, but had no experience in small towns. But he was intrigued. First, there was no competition. Drive 100 miles in any direction and there are no other Chinese restaurants. Hell, in San Francisco, you can’t walk five minutes without finding Chinese food. And not only was the business for sale, so was the property. No longer could a landlord put the squeeze on him when it came time to renew the lease.
So he bought the restaurant from the Chinese family who had owned it for seven years and moved his family to the town on the edge of the Sand Hills.
That was two years ago, and he hasn’t taken a day off since.
He closes for a half day on Christmas, but otherwise works seven days a week, including Thanksgiving.
“I want my customers to know that I’m always here.”
He gets up in the morning, brings his kids to school, and then has about two hours to fish the Niobrara River.
“I meet a lot of people when I’m fishing,” he says.
Fei Guan, 2009
The exterior and interior are plain, but the food is not. The chicken and black mushrooms is delicious and tastes more like the authentic Chinese meals one finds in San Francisco than the oily congealed food one finds in most rural Chinese restaurants. Fei doesn’t believe in the ubiquitous “Chinese buffet” that one finds in about every town nowadays. He does one on Fridays for lunch, but that’s the only concession he makes.
I tell him that the 1910 census that I had read at the historical museum shows that there was one Chinese family living in Valentine. The Cahotas ran a boarding house. Later, the family ran a five and dime store downtown. Fei is genuinely surprised, although we both agree that the name sounds more Japanese than Chinese.
Has it worked out? I ask him.
“The economy is slow, and business is down a little bit. But I can still make a living,” he says.
The End

Addendum: The fall of 2012, three years after this encounter, I had a chance to make a quick trip down Highway 83 from the Rosebud Reservation to Oakley, Kansas. I stopped in to say hello to Fei Guan and get a bite to eat. The sign was still up, but when I walked in the restaurant, it had been totally gutted. A woman came out of the kitchen and informed me that she and her husband had bought the building a few months ago, and they were going to open a gun shop in its place. The Guans had left town. She didn’t know where they went. I wonder how the Guans and Bum Song are doing, and where life has taken them five years after our paths crossed.  

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are for sale at Plains Trading Co. in Valentine, Nebraska.

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