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Tracing Tracy Territory

Café demolition stirs memories of schoolyard chum

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Tearing down the venerable Canton Café building on Fourth Street, as was reported two weeks ago, caused several readers to show increased interest in Tracy’s “Poker City” days.

The Canton, of course, was one of several Chinese lotteries that flourished for five or more decades on Fourth Street until the late 1940s. Slot machines (Charlie Clark) and poker games (many locations) and prostitution (Hazel’s and Jesse’s) were other elements of that bygone, ribald era.

But for me, the Canton had a special meaning. Ng Shee “Mama” Lee, who operated the Canton for many years, had a daughter, May Lee, and three sons, Lee Dunn and Henry and Wing Lee.

Wing was the youngest — and more than that: He was one of my best friends in the fifth through eighth grades at West Park School.

In those days, Tracy had three kindergarten-through-fourth-grade schools — Central, South and West Park. And West Park also had a fifth-through-eighth-grade division for students from all three of the K-4 schools. It was Tracy’s only “middle school,” although it didn’t carry that label.

With three classes at each grade level, we were divided alphabetically — roughly A-H, I-P and Q-Z. The midrange class included names like Lee, Martinez, Matthews, Neves, Lopez, Lourence and Monnich.

It didn’t take us long in the beginning of our fifth grade year to know that Wing Lee from South School, who carried the family nickname “Pork Chop” with him, was one of the smartest kids in the room.

Wing was not only smart, but friendly and personable. And in the era when cursive penmanship was stressed, he could also print. After I marveled at his printing abilities, he offered to show me how, and he did. To this day, I don’t write, I print, thanks to Wing.

As is the case with middle-school students, some were beginning to mature and gain height while others hadn’t started maturing. Wing, Marcelo Martinez and I were in the latter group and were three of the shortest kids in the class.

We were short, but we had dreams. We wanted to be the greatest basketball players of all time. During recess and at noon, we spent a lot of time shooting baskets in the outdoor basketball courts in back of West Park.

Well, it didn’t work out that way, but we had a good time trying.

In the eighth grade, students in West Park’s upper grades voted for student leaders. It was no contest. Wing was elected student body president.

As we entered Tracy High as freshmen in the fall of 1946, Wing soon transferred to Berkeley High, living with one of his siblings. After graduating with honors, he enrolled in UC Berkeley and earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture.

Wing became a successful architect in Sacramento, and he and his wife attended a couple of our Tracy High class reunions. At the last of those, without any details, he told me he was having stomach problems that required surgery. A year later, he died in his 40s from stomach cancer.

Roger Rehn, by then Wells Fargo Bank manager in Tracy, and I went to Sacramento for Wing’s funeral at a mortuary in the south part of town. His oldest brother, Lee Dunn, told Roger and me that he appreciated two of Wing’s classmates being at the service.

We replied that “Pork Chop” was not only a friend, but someone we admired. And he could print.

Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at shm@tracypress.com.

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