Sunday, September 2, 2007

Joe Shoong (1879-1961) - Founder of National Dollar Stores

[Gravesite photo by Michael Colbruno]

End of Main Road on the right

Joe Shoong (1879-1961) was the patriarch of an Oakland Chinese-American family affiliated with the once widely known National Dollar stores. Born in San Francisco, the son of immigrants from the Guangdong province of China, Shoong opened a small retail clothing shop called "China Toggery," in 1903 at age 24, along with three other partners. Within four years, Shoong had bought out his partners and established more branches. He renamed the new retail chain National Dollar Stores, which grew to more than 50 outlets in California, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, Washington and Utah.

Shoong became a millionaire many times over, say history files.

Longtime Oaklanders may remember the Oakland National Dollar Store at Washington and 11th streets, for many years the heart of downtown shopping. Nothing in the store sold for more than $1. The Shoong family home was in the Adams Point district, north of the lake where he kept his five cars. Their Mediterranean-style two-story home on Bellevue, now a city landmark, was designed by architect Julia Morgan. The cost to build the house in 1922 was $13,000.

In the decades to follow, Shoong's Adams Point home "became a hub of Chinese-American society," with such luminaries as Madame Chiang Kai-shek coming for visits, causing the entire block to be "roped off and guarded around the clock by the FBI and the local police," say the files. During his later years, Shoong donated much of his wealth to philanthropic causes, including building a community center in Chinatown, still in use today (at 9th and Harrison streets) and endowing scholarships for Chinese-American students at the University of California. Shoong, as well as son Milton, contributed to the restoration of the landmark Paramount Theatre in the 1970s, and to a tree-top teahouse and dragon slide in Children's Fairyland.

In 1938, Shoong's stores began having labor problems. National Dollar's women's dresses, once manufactured on the premises were being supplied by a factory in San Francisco's Chinatown. Chinatown was the only part of labor-minded San Francisco without labor unions.

Mountain View Cemetery docent Jane Leroe discusses Joe Shoong:

Into Chinatown went an organizer for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and before long organized the union's first Chinese local. A National Labor Relations Board election in January 1939 established it as sole bargaining agent. Negotiations started. Two weeks later Joe Shoong sold the factory to his foreman Joe Sun and another man. The union thought he had acted in bad faith and its members walked out.

Picket lines were thrown around Joe Shoong's factory and Joe Shoong's three San Francisco stores. Members of A. F. of L.'s Department Store Employes' Union, with whom Joe Shoong had a closed shop agreement, refused to cross the lines. Joe Shoong's three stores closed down. These were the first Chinese picket lines in the U. S. Joe Shoong eventually filed suit against the Ladies' Garment Workers for $500,000 damages and finally got an injunction to stop the picketing


Jim said...

Compelling, informative article found while looking for data on National Dollar Stores. As resident with interest S.F. Bay Area history, fascinating. Wish it could have offered data on what became of the remaining NDSs after the labor struggles in the 1930s. How long did it continue, and with how many stores? Does anything of the original chain remain today? Is it a non-copyright term today that any entrepreneur can use as wished? Would welcome any feedback from the excellent author, even while focus is on Joe Shoong himself more than his business. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Aloha Jim. I worked for National Dollar stores in Hawai'i in Wailuku Maui from 1988 till 1994. the stores had a very distinguished green terrazzo floor lobby with a dollar sign on it. I have a pic to show you if interested. Aloha Paul

Anonymous said...

I thought this was just a little confusing. In other articles that I read people seemed to think that Joe was a lying cheater who forced chinese Americans to work for him for very little pay. Thus becoming no better a man than the average sweatshop owners.

itsthemedia said...

Please do post any pictures of the stores. I have read that the first store was in downtown Vallejo on the main street - 200 block of Georgia street.No mention in this article about Vallejo though.

Anonymous said...

“Shoong's Adams Point home "became a hub of Chinese-American society," with such luminaries as Chiang Kai-shek coming for visits, causing the entire block to be "roped off and guarded around the clock by the FBI and the local police," say the files” - Well, Chiang Kai-shek never visited US in his life time, so this story can not be true.