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John Kai Sr. was a patient, persistent man. He fought racism and the raw desert and used his family's success to boost the Chinese community in Tucson and influence the development of Marana.
When Kai first came to Marana in the early 1930s, the struggling town was home to a handful of farming families. When he bought his first parcel of land in 1935, the town didn't even have a grocery store. He built a commissary, saving the farmers a trip to Tucson for fruit and vegetables.
Today, Marana is a booming suburb whose population has rocketed from about 2,100 in 1990 to more than 26,000 in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But the town's rapidly increasing subdivisions belie its origins. Contractors and businessmen didn't build Marana. Farmers did. Families with names like Gladden, Aguirre and Honea, now names on roads and subdivisions, helped found this town and strode through its past.
Kai would eventually farm more than 4,000 acres in Marana. With the help of his whip-smart, charismatic wife, Mamie, he added his name to the list of the town's pioneering families.
But before Kai carved out a home in Marana, he peddled groceries to the few farmers there from the back of an oversize truck.
The farm families formed a small, tight-knit community well into the 1970s, and back in the early '30s they already knew him by name. A few even tried to introduce the personable Chinese immigrant to their daughters to make up for a lack of potential mates in the tiny town, says John Kai Jr., the oldest of the couple's three children.
Despite the polite interactions, because he was Chinese Kai Sr. struggled to find someone who would sell him land.
He kept pushing, though. Some called him the "crazy Chinaman," John Jr. says, because of his incessant inquiries about buying land and growing cotton in the desert.
Finally, a farmer relented — with a catch. Kai could buy 2,500 acres, if he could come up with $10,000 in cash in the next two days. Kai didn't know if the land had water, but he and his brother Bing K. Wong bought it anyway. Wong, also a successful Marana farmer, took three-quarters of the acreage and Kai got the rest.
With an intuition about when to sign a deal and a fearless approach to acquiring property, Kai and Mamie turned that first plot into real-estate holdings across the country — and a sizable fortune.
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 07.23.2006