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In my life, I feel so fortunate. Even if you don’t have an education, you still could make it here in the United States. I made it. If I can make it, other people can too. – Lit Ng
Before the emergence of big box one stop shops like Target or Walmart, there was Monte Mar in Monterey, California. When it opened in 1960, Monte Mar was a new type of store because it not only sold groceries, produce and meat, but it also sold non food, and household items. Monte Mar was successful from its opening day when so many customers came that there not enough shopping carts or parking spaces. Some customers parked their cars four blocks from the store and some were using card board boxes to put their groceries in. Eventually, three more stores opened with a slightly different name, “Monte Mart.” Monte Mart opened in Salinas in 1962 with 120,000 square feet of space and 700 parking spaces. Then came stores in Del Rey Oaks, and Carmel Valley. Even the Beach Boys played at the Monte Mart store in Salinas 1963. At one point in time, income from the Monte Mart Stores was the biggest tax revenue in Monterey County. And it was built by Lit Ng, an immigrant who was born in China, was detained at Angel Island at age six, grew up mostly in California’s Central Valley, but never finished seventh grade.
Now in his eighties, Lit Ng, and his wife of over sixty years, Sintao, still make their home in Monterey, where their property of 400 plus acres of land is right next to Clint Eastwood’s golf club. For many years now, Lit has been an avid hunter, owning ranches in Montana and New Mexico that grows wheat, corn, sugar beet and cattle. Lit also owns homes in Honolulu and San Francisco. They have six children, and eleven grandchildren. They spend their retirement traveling all over the world but mostly between Monterey, Montana, and China, where they’ve done much philanthropy work.
I was born in 1932, in Guangdong Province, China. I am the youngest of four children in a family that has immigration ties back to my great grandfather who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1800s to work in a tannery before the Exclusion Act.
After my grandfather went to Mexico and crossed over to the United States, my great grandfather returned to China. There was a group of businessmen willing to put up all the money and made him a partner if he was willing to start a tannery in China using western methods he learned. He refused because he promised the tannery owner that he would not open a tannery business on his own after he was taught all the techniques of running a tannery. In 1934 after three attempts, my father, Poy Ng, successfully passed interrogation at Angel Island and immigrated to the U.S. under a paper name. When my father arrived in San Francisco, he worked in the same laundry where my grandfather worked. My grandfather then returned to China.
My early childhood was a traumatic time when war-torn China was being invaded by Japan. One day, when I was six years old, I was home alone and heard planes flying overhead. I ran outside and saw bombs being dropped on the marketplace where my mother and grandmother had gone. I hid in a tree, and soon I saw people carrying the wounded and the dead in wheelbarrows from the road 150 feet where I was hiding.
After the attack, the elders decided that the family needed to move to Hong Kong, but the only way to get there was by foot. Back then, thieves roamed the trails at night hoping to take advantage of families trying to leave China. We often walked at night, and could not take a direct route because it was not safe. We passed many villages and small towns that were destroyed by Japanese warplanes. Being only six years old, I was the youngest and couldn’t always keep up. So my sister would have to carry me on her back or my mother would balance me on one end of her bamboo pole with our belongings on the other end. It took over a week of walking, but we eventually reached Macau and then took a boat to Hong Kong.
Soon after my family arrived in Hong Kong, my father arrived and got papers for me to go back with him to the U.S. In 1939, we embarked on the 20-day boat trip across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. I was detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station, and remembered living with my father in the men’s quarters. I can recall during mealtimes that my father had to pay five cents in order to get a fried egg on top of what I was fed.
After a week’s stay and being interrogated by officers, I was approved to be landed in San Francisco. I was enrolled at Washington Elementary School, but soon started working afterschool at a restaurant call Woey Loy Goey in Chinatown where I had my meals. I helped peel shrimp, clean tables, made wontons, and washed dishes. I started working when I was seven years old and earned 50 cents a week. Shortly thereafter, my father bought a paper for my brother to immigrate to the U.S. as well.
Throughout my childhood, I continued to work. Our family moved to the small rural town of Tulare in 1942 when my uncle was offered to run a butcher shop. Again, I enrolled in school, but also worked at the butcher shop after school. This was also during World War II, when many workers, including my two uncles, were called to fight in the war. My brother quit school to work full time in the market. Due to the labor shortage, the school would often close early so the students could work, picking cotton in the cotton fields.
At ten years old, I earned two cents for every pound of cotton that I picked. I earned about three dollars a day from picking cotton and two dollars a week at the butcher shop.
There was only one other Chinese kid at my elementary school, David Joe. David’s grandmother was Mary Joe and she ran an American café. The Joe family had been in Tulare since the late 1800’s. David and I became good friends and used to ride our bikes on Sundays to go fishing and hunting for rabbits. Sometimes I would go hunting with my brother or uncle too.
I was a good student, especially at math. I also played on school teams for baseball, football, and basketball. I loved playing on a team. I could only practice half an hour each day because I had to work but my coach understood my situation and let me play on the teams anyway. In 1947, when I was in the seventh grade, my father decided we would return back to China. My coach gave me a school block sweater before I left, and I didn’t take it off for weeks.
After the war ended, all my uncles were discharged from the army. In January 1947, my father and I returned to China. Our family had left Hong Kong and moved back to the village when Hong Kong was lost to the Japanese. When I left my family eight years before, our farewell dinner had many tears of sadness from my family, and my mother only had an egg and peanuts to cook for me. But our welcome home dinner was quite different. We shed tears of joy and my mother could cook a large dinner of special dishes since my father had been saving up money in America for five years. I started school again, but there was only an elementary school in the area that went up to 6th grade. I would still play a lot of basketball, but I was much taller than the other students. Later that year, my father and other overseas Chinese put up the money to build a middle school for our area. The enrollment was so high that they shortly had to build an expansion of dormitories for students who wanted to attend from far away.
In 1948, I met my future wife, Sintao, at school. Our families took our horoscopes to a fortune teller and confirmed that we would make a good match. At first, I thought we were too young to get married, I was sixteen and she was fifteen, and we both wanted to finish our education. But China was going through a civil war and my father thought it was a good idea to return to the United States soon. Sintao’s mother thought it was best that we got married before I returned to the U.S. My family agreed with her mother. And we had a large wedding in the village.
In 1949, my father and I returned to San Francisco by airplane. Unlike the three-week trip by boat the first time I immigrated, the flight was only 24 hours. Unfortunately, my wife could not come with me since the U.S. government did not recognize our marriage because it was just a village ceremony. When I got back to Tulare, I knew I had new responsibilities back in China. Not long after I returned, I got a letter from my wife that I was going to be a father. So I worked in the butcher shop full time and did not return to school. I worked six to seven days a week for long hours and made $150 a month. My daughter Linda was born in December that year.
In 1950, the meat market building was labeled unsafe by the city and condemned. So the partner had a year to find a new place for the business. The business partners got a loan from the bank to buy three acres of land to build a 6,000 square foot supermarket, which was pretty large for a town of only 12,000 people. The partner called it Palace Supermarket, and sold meat, produce and groceries, plus an expanded wholesale meat business.
In 1951, my wife and daughter Linda moved to Hong Kong, only two days before the Communist party closed the border. After the new store opened, I arranged to go to Hong Kong so that I could bring them to the U.S. I finally arrived in Hong Kong and met my daughter Linda for the first time. Sintao and I went to get an official marriage license and then had to wait five months to get approval from the American Consulate to allow Sintao and Linda to return to the U.S. with me. Unfortunately, during this same time, my grandfather and grandmother did not survive the anti- capitalist movement of the Cultural Revolution in China during this time.
Another store would open up later in Castroville 1955 where my father moved to oversee the store. When my uncle went to Castroville to open that store, I got to run the Tulare store and learned a lot about running a business successfully. It only lasted a month before my uncle returned to run the Tulare store. That one month gave me the opportunity to make some of the changes that I thought was important to run a successful business. My uncle didn’t agree with my methods and went back to his same methods.
In 1958, the family partnership broke up. In 1959, my father borrowed money from his friend and uncle and Bank of America to start a new supermarket called Monte Mar in Monterey, the first of the four Monte Mart discount chain stores. More than just a supermarket, Monte Mar sold food items at low margins, but lots of non-food items at higher margins to make up the difference. This was a new business concept as a supermarket. It was a big success during the first year.
In 1962, we opened a second store in Salinas, called Monte Mart. While other discount stores in the area were suffering, Monte Mart continued to thrive. As president, I always believed in taking care of our employees, and we developed good employee benefits. I believed that if you have a happy employee, you have a good operation.
In 1964, 29 employees from the Monte Mart stores were on a plane to Lake Tahoe for a company excursion. Tragically, the plane crashed due to a malfunction, and there were no survivors. I lost my father along with our top partners and other employees. It was a big blow to my family and business. But my main concern was that the employees and their families were taken care of.
Since we lost many of our department managers, I also had to run the store plus the market department myself and train other employees to take on new managerial roles. Luckily, we got through those hard times. Two and a half years later, we opened our third store in Del Rey Oaks where we handled most of the non-food items ourselves. In 1968, we opened a final store in Carmel. Finally in 1974, after much success in pioneering the discount super store and its many merchandising innovations, Albertson’s Stores bought us out, but they could never continue the success we had all those years.
Now, I love to go hunting not to kill animals, but because I love the people who hunt and the wild places I visit. I have met many amazing and influential people and have been all over the world, including, Baja California, New Mexico, Alaska, Canada, India and Africa.
In fact, my passion for hunting has brought me to the world of wildlife conservation, especially in China. I have become good friends with Peking University Professor and Zoologist, Pan Wenshi, who is recognized for his devoted efforts and outstanding contributions in research and protection of wildlife, such as the panda bear, and construction of ecological civilization.
My wife and I also have a passion for education. Over the many years since retirement, we have donated and helped to build seven hospitals and 45 schools in provinces throughout China. We still travel extensively throughout China each year.
“All our grandkids have a good opportunity to get a good education here in the US, so we feel we need to do something in China so they too can get a good education.” – Lit Ng
In 2013, Lit Ng was honored with an Immigrant Heritage Award by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. Mr. Ng was interviewed at that time by Jeffrey Gee Chin and an excerpt follows where he talked about his journey to America and time on Angel Island.
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