New Empire Food Market is where Tun Lim Lee befriended longtime residents, young families and students in the Iron Horse neighborhood.
He and his wife, Anne, along with their five children, served the multicultural neighborhood just north of downtown, including North Fourth Avenue and University of Arizona areas while operating the market at 526 E. Ninth St. for nearly six decades.
The elder Lee was a hard-working, humble, caring man, said his son Alvin Lee.
Tun Lim Lee died of cardiovascular disease Aug. 10 while at Casa de la Luz Hospice near his wife, their children and spouses, and grandchildren, said Alvin Lee. He was 87.
Lee’s legacy will be carried on at the market by his family, including Anne, and son Melvin Lee, who will manage the grocery store.
Customer Armando Alcantar grew up at the store and called Lee his adopted father.
“It’s hard to walk in here because he is no longer here,” Alcantar said recently. “He was like a dad to many of us neighborhood kids. He helped everybody and gave us candy and ice cream.”
It was common for Alcantar and other children to be invited by Lee to go fishing with his family and friends. Alcantar and Lee’s son, Alvin, happily recalled trips to Roosevelt, Patagonia and Silverbell lakes and reeling in crappie, bass, bluegill and catfish.
The market, which has a history of different owners dating to the 1930s, still appears much like a 1960s-stylish grocery store. Wooden butcher blocks used by Lee remain in the back of the store, and Alvin Lee recalled his father still giving credit to customers, and holding on to their receipts in an old cigar box.
Daughter Tina Champlin said working in the store taught her how to be a team player and the importance of customer service. “When I was about 6 years old, I had a wooden stool that was kept up front near the cash register. I started working as a bagger,” she said letting out a smile. “By 9, I was a cashier, and I would also help my dad stock supplies.”
When Alvin Lee was a UA aerospace engineering student, he and his brother, Melvin, would deliver groceries to customers in the university area and other neighborhoods up to the Flowing Wells and River roads area. They would also deliver boxes of groceries to customers on the east side.
“My father taught us many values. He taught us to never give up on our dreams and to always work hard,” said Melvin Lee. “My father worked long hours and would go shopping early in the mornings to buy fresh foods for the store,” he said.
Alvin Lee said he could picture his father cutting beef, chicken and pork until two in the morning so his customers would have a wide selection of meat to purchase each day. “At one time, we had about six employees when the market was booming in the ’60s,” said the son.
The elder Lee “showed his love through food and would prepare meals for us and would invite neighborhood friends. He also made meals for the homeless,” said Alvin Lee, recalling dishes of spaghetti, Chinese spare ribs, stir fry and chop suey.
Tun Lim Lee was born on Aug. 6, 1930, in Hoi Ping (now known as Kaiping), China, and he left at the age of 14 by ship for America after an uncle urged him to come for a better life. The ship docked in San Francisco, and then Lee came to Tucson and moved in with relatives and began working at a market on South Meyer Street.
He attended Safford School and completed the ninth grade before he was drafted into the Army in 1953. Alvin Lee said his father was a cook and also served in the infantry during the Korean War. Lee received the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal and the National Defense Service Medal.
After completing his military service, he returned to Tucson and worked at various grocery stores before he traveled to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, to court Anne Mee Wong, his future wife. Wong, a native of Taishan in Guangdong, China, worked in a bed-and-breakfast and lived with her grandfather, a butler for a wealthy family.
The couple married Aug. 20, 1960, and returned to Tucson and became owners of the New Empire Market.
In addition to his business, Lee was an avid bowler and a member of the Tucson Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Ying On Labor & Merchant Association, a member of the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center and president of the Lee Association of Tucson.
He received a service with full military honors Aug. 19 and was buried at East Lawn Palms Cemetery at 5801 E. Grant. A tribute to his life followed at Tucson Chinese Cultural Center at 1288 W. River Road.