Spend any amount of time with Frank and Tina Chong and it becomes evident they are humble and hard-working people. Their lives were inextricably tied with Sequoia Market – which his parents built back in 1955 – until it closed in 2005 but they left a legacy of community support still remembered today.
The Chongs have been away from the grocery business for 13 years but something within them drives them to keep working.
The couple married 50 years ago this coming November. They met through friends in February 1968. Tina’s dad lived and worked in Turlock and he came up to Ceres looking for a job with Frank Chong Sr. who had opened Sequoia Market at the southwest corner of Central and Caswell avenues. Frank and Tina hit it off and married nine months later.
Frank was born in 1941 in Hanford to Frank and Mabel Chong. His dad has passed away but his mother is now 94 and living in the house where she’s lived for 60 years.
Tina was born in Canton, China in 1945 to James and Jeannie Gong. Her dad immigrated into the U.S. in 1948 while Tina was raised in Hong Kong. Her mother came later. In 1966 Tina moved to Sacramento with her two sisters who had never known their dad. Tina had attended Sacramento City College, studying to be an accountant. She also attended Stanislaus State University which was then a college.
The Chong family came to the United States when Frank’s grandfather came to the Valley and operated a store in Hanford with other relatives and acquaintances. Frank’s first taste of working in a grocery store came in Hanford. When the grandfather passed in 1954, Frank Chong Sr. decided to strike out on his own in the grocery business and came to Ceres.
Coming to Ceres
“Dad had a friend in Patterson and he said he was looking to build something somewhere and he said, ‘Why don’t you try Ceres?’” explained Frank. “My dad got a hold of Sid Long Sr. and Les Fricke, he was a one-man Chamber of Commerce and he and Sid Long found the piece of property where Sequoia Market is.”
To fund the construction, Frank Sr. borrowed from relatives.
“He borrowed no interest, no nothing, a handshake type deal. The old days.”
The friend in Patterson loaned the blueprints used to build Liberty Market in Patterson, explained Frank, because he wanted the senior Chong to save money on and architect.
For a small town, Ceres already had a number of grocery stores. There was the Dabbs Market at the corner of Central and Whitmore across the street from Ceres High School. There was also Simms Market on Fourth Street (later the town library and DeBoard & Govett Chiropractic) and Valley Cash Mart which once sat where the Valero gas station is at Fourth and El Camino. There was also Richland Market, which the Pallios family opened in 1951 at the corner of Richland Avenue and Evans Road. Then came Whitmore Market between Fourth and Fifth streets.
“It was friendly competition,” said Frank. “We had enough business to go around. As a matter of fact, the Pallios family and us got along real well.”
He explained that Sequoia’s prices were about equivalent with the other markets – until the bigger corporate markets came into Ceres in the early 1970s.
“We knew that Save Mart came in and checked our prices. Nick Tocco and my dad got along real well. In fact, Nick would come into the store and ask for the ‘Old Man,’ so, they’d go across the street for a cup of coffee.”
The Chongs had a reputation of being staunch community supporters, helping out youth sports teams and non-profit organizations with fundraisers.
“They supported us so we supported them,” said Frank. “You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
When the larger chain markets like Lucky’s and Save Mart moved in, the Chongs remained the locally-owned family market.
“We had our steady clientele but you know the city was growing too. Once they started chipping away at prices, we couldn’t match their prices because they were buying bulk. What we couldn’t match in price we offered service and goodwill.”
For example, when the Ceres High Boosters Club started up, Sequoia offered to store meats for fundraisers. The Chongs allowed a music concert in their parking lot for the Boosters where Chester Smith performed from the back of a flatbed trailer.
“When we moved up here this was a small town. It was about 3,000 people, if I remember right. People were friendly.”Frank Chong
A small town
“When we moved up here this was a small town,” said Chong. “It was about 3,000 people, if I remember right. People were friendly.”
Frank came to Ceres as a freshman and found friends right away at Ceres High School.
“The only Chinese students at Ceres High at that time were just me and my brothers,” said Frank. “We had a couple of Japanese families here. We were treated well. We had no problems. When we first moved up here I didn’t know anybody and the seniors kind of took me in, sort of.”
He explains that his house we are sitting in on Caswell was once a peach orchard. Fowler Road was “way out of town,” he said, and Mae Hensley Junior High was also in peaches at one time.
Frank’s brothers were Dick Chong, Bill Chong and Lowell Chong and they all helped out stocking shelves and sweeping the floors. Frank even served as the store butcher.
“We worked after school in the store. School got out at about 3:30 and went to work for a bit and then we had dinner at the store. Then we went home and did homework. My whole life was that store. The only way we got out of work was when we told dad we had something to do at the school, such as a club activity or sports activity. It was the truth, most of the time.”
Being the sons in a grocery store family meant everyone in Ceres knew the Chongs.
“We couldn’t get away with anything in this town. It got back to parents before we even got home.”
Career choices blocked
Frank graduated Ceres High in 1959, went into military service and tinkered with the idea of leaving Ceres to work for the State Department.
“At the time I couldn’t because she was a non-citizen so that kind of went out the window. I guess you could say we were groomed to take over the store. I toyed around with the idea that maybe I wanted to teach but I was down at Stanislaus State where the rules always changed to get your credential. I went down there and said, ‘Are you trying to discourage me?’ And he says, ‘Yes, because we have a glut of teachers.’”
“I never worked in my life until I married him."Tina Chong
Tina quickly realized that marrying Frank meant she was marrying into the grocery business.
“I never worked in my life until I married him,” said Tina, suppressing a laugh.
“She had it made in the old country,” answered Frank. “Her dad was sending them money all the time. She came over here and found out she had to work.”
She did the store’s books and worked as a clerk while raising the kids and working a second job. She also volunteered for 14 years as a room mother at Caswell Elementary School. Tina remembers helping to wrap meat in the meat department.
“You got to know what it is. If it’s sirloin tip you better make sure that’s right.”
At times they were like ships passing in the night. Frank worked days and watched the kids at night while she worked at the Del Monte Cannery in the summer.
The Chongs have many memories of the store. Frank remembers the store being robbed “three or four times” and said they caught burglars both “inside the store and caught them coming out of the store. That was before the security bars went up.”
The store had been offered for use as a training center for the police department when the first canine units were brought into Ceres.
“They’d have me go hide in the store to see if they could find me.”
In 1962 the Chongs felt slighted a bit when former Vice President Richard Nixon visited Richland Market on a campaign stop in his quest to become governor. But that’s probably because politically active Clare Berryhill owned the Ceres Dehydrator across the street.
“He didn’t come to us. I did meet Nixon that night at the (Modesto) Elks fundraiser. (Maitland) Pennington, the former owners of the Courier, invited me.”
In 1968 a fire started from a short in a florescent lighted sign and went up into the roof. The store was forced to shut down for about two or three weeks until repairs could be made.
A first job for many
The store offered many Ceres youth their first work experience.
“We had kids who became very successful. We had one who became an orthodontist, Paul Hanson, and his brother Jim Hanson went on and did cancer research at Bethesda Hospital in Maryland.”
Another former worker, Brian Jones, is now an engineer and president of North Star Engineering Group with state Senator Anthony Cannella.
Even though they left the store in 2005, the Chongs are remembered when they are out and about.
“Even today we’ve had people come up and see me somewhere in town and they’ll tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Do you remember me?,’ especially the Hispanics that used to live in the Farm Labor Camp. Some used to play on my Little League baseball team. They say my dad used to help them out a lot.”
A dark night
One of the darkest moments in Ceres history occurred January 2005 outside the store when Andres Raya shot Officer Sam Ryno and murdered Sgt. Howard Stevenson in front of George’s Liquors.
“I heard rumor that there was one shell still missing and they think it’s embedded in the concrete inside the store,” said Frank.
His brother Dick was locked down in the store that night. Frank and Tina were coming home from San Francisco and just arrived home. Tina said Raya was in their backyard until he jumped back over into the neighbor’s yard.
“We didn’t know what happened and we had all the windows open and lights on.”
The couple got a heads-up to hide from Brian Weber, who was then a Public Safety commander.
“Brian played Little League baseball for me when I was coaching Little League back in the fifties.”
Raya was eventually cut down in a hail of officers’ gunfire in the alley.
Frank and Mabel retired from the store in 1985 after he began experiencing health problems. The Chong brothers ran the store for another 20 years until it was sold. The store went dormant for about three months while undergoing remodeling by the new owners. When the store’s name was changed, customers did enough squawking that they compromised with naming it “La Sequoia Market.”
Frank and Tina passed on their diligent work ethic to their three children. Son Frank Chong III went to the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a nuclear power engineer in the Navy and got out after five years and now works for the Northrop Grumman Corp. in Florida. Their second son, Randall “Randy” Chong was recently named commander of the of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Thetis in Key West, Fla. Daughter Kathy Chong teaches school for the Empire School District in Modesto.
“I’ve had a good life,” said Frank. “I have no complaints. Ceres has been good to us. I can say this: The good people of Ceres put my kids through school and food on our table. We’ve made a lot of friends and a lot of them are gone now.”