Tyler had been around for less than 50 years when Sam MarDock rolled into town on a train to start a life here in 1890.
He would eventually operate as many as five Chinese restaurants and a lumberyard in Tyler, according to newspaper archives. But it started with one.
Although young and small, he was strong. His muscles and stamina had been built from days spent working on the farm. He also was hardworking and smart. In the U.S., he quickly learned every job given to him and there were many. He learned to read and write English and even picked up some Spanish during the decade or so that he spent in El Paso.
On his first trip back to his homeland, which he took 10 years after he arrived in the U.S., he was deemed a success because he returned with a few gold coins to pass out to the village elders.
“Sam was lauded as one of the successful young men who had gone to America and found gold …” the book states. “He did not tell them that he had endured hot days and cold nights in earning this money. They wouldn’t have understood. They thought finding gold was easy, and Sam let them think so as he strolled around the village as an admired son.”
Upon returning to the U.S., he worked with the railroad from El Paso to Del Rio before taking off on his own and finding work with the government as an interpreter.
But it was in Tyler that he found his niche and settled down. After arriving during the summer of 1890, he and his cousin, Louis Marion, were walking around the square one day when they met some of the city’s leaders, according to the book. The leaders told them a good café would be well received in the city so the men opened the Grand Star Café and sent for Chinese cooks and waiters to come from El Paso.
The restaurant served food from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The wait staff dressed formally with waiters in white coats and bow ties and waitresses in white dresses and hats somewhat like the nurses hats of old.
Prominent Tyler residents supported the endeavor, according to the book. These included T.B. Butler, Sam Goodman, Judge J.A. Bullock, A.S. Reaves and Sam Cox, among others.
The business prospered and soon Sam returned to China for the second time since coming to America. He wore gold coins as buttons and had a balance in a Hong Kong bank. With his money, he started construction on a three-story stone house in BokSha. He also hired a marriage broker to select a wife for him. With the work continuing in China, he returned to Tyler to check on his businesses, which his cousin Louis continued to run.
A savvy man, Sam saw the large crowds that hung around the Cotton Belt Railroad train depot and saw an opportunity to open a restaurant in the vicinity.
“He found he missed the camaraderie of the railroad men,” the book reads. “He missed seeing the big steam engines pulling large freight trains north and south, east and west.”
So in 1897, he opened the Cotton Belt Restaurant across from the train depot. The restaurant served dinners with steaks, ham and rice, and chili con carne, just to name a few of the dishes. The facility also housed a general store where he sold gloves, tobacco, socks and handkerchiefs, according to the book.
Sam ran the restaurant for 40 years. It was here that he would bring his wife, Wong Shee, 14 years after their wedding in China.
About 400 people came to the Tyler train station to see Wong when the couple arrived in 1911. She was dressed in traditional Chinese clothing and wore slippers on her bound feet, according to the book.
The adjustment to Tyler life could not have been easy for Wong. In China, after marrying Sam, she had lived in the three-story house he had built. Servants attended to her every need. Her days consisted of playing mahjong and being waited on hand and foot, according to the book. Her primary responsibility was to manage the money Sam sent from the U.S.
In Tyler, though, she lived in a house made up of a few rooms in the back of the Cotton Belt Restaurant. The noise of the railroad, townspeople and cars filled the small house making it difficult for Wong to sleep in the first few months.
Soon she started to make it home. She planted a garden behind the store fertilizing the crops with garbage, according to the book. She sewed her own clothes and even ordered Chinese food from a company in San Francisco to keep the cuisine of her homeland.
Two years after arriving, she had a baby girl and they named her Lucille. Sam and Wong went on to have two more children, Sam Jr. and Julian. They were the first Chinese children born in East Texas, according to the book.
Sam sold his original restaurant, the Grand Star Café, to the Haddad family. They changed the name to the Mecca Café and ran the restaurant for 40 years. The MarDock family eventually bought some land outside the city for a farm and inside the city for a house. The children grew up in the home along South Fleishel Avenue.
Once grown, Lucille became a secretary, Sam Jr. became a pilot and family import store manager and Julian became a doctor, according to the newspaper archives.
Julian, who graduated from Tyler High School in 1936, was believed to be the first Chinese-American fighter pilot in World War II.
Although all five members of the original MarDock family have passed away, a small exhibit with some of the family’s heirlooms and memorabilia has been on display in the Smith County Historical Society.