Herlinda Wong Chew, businesswoman, interpreter, immigration specialist, travel agent, and linguist, was born Wong Sun Far (using the traditional Chinese practice of surname first) in approximately 1894 in Guadalajara, Mexico. She was the daughter of Francisca Perez, a Mexican woman with Aztec ancestry, and Carlos Wong, a Chinese immigrant and successful hotel owner in Mexico. According to her family, when she was young, her feet were bound, a traditional practice used to denote status of a girl’s family in traditional Chinese culture. She attended a Methodist Episcopal school in Guadalajara until the sixth grade (which her daughter, also named Herlinda, later explained was considered an “adequate” education for a young girl at that time). Despite her short period in school, Wong remained interested in education and often spent nights reading by candlelight beneath her bed. Before her death, she was fluent in English, Spanish, French, and the Chinese dialects of Cantonese and Mandarin.
When she was eighteen years old, Herlinda Wong married Antonio (Yee Wing) Chew, a Chinese man who moved to Mexico around 1905 to work to send money back to his family remaining in China. He opened his first grocery store in Ciudad Juárez before he married. In 1914 she and her husband established Chew and Look, a grocery firm with Joe Yat Look, and opened a grocery store on Comercio Street in Ciudad Juárez.
During the Mexican Revolution, Chew and Look provided supplies and grocery items for Chinese and Mexican merchants in the area. Sometime between 1912 and 1917 some of Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s rebel forces, who frequented their business or the business next door, warned the Chew family of an impending raid or attack on Ciudad Juárez. The war brought an increase in anti-Chinese violence, including a massacre in Torreon, Mexico, in 1911. In 1914 some revolutionaries reportedly targeted Chinese merchants in Ciudad Juárez. The Chews decided to temporarily seek asylum in El Paso. Herlinda Chew also assisted in arranging temporary asylum for approximately 200 other Chinese families. After returning to Ciudad Juárez, the Chews considered starting a wholesale grocery company, but local conditions persuaded them to attempt it across the border. Herlinda researched U.S. immigration law and found that the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred most Chinese immigrants from moving to the United States, allowed Chinese merchants to migrate legally to the United States. According to U.S. Department of Labor immigration records, Herlinda, her husband, and their four young children arrived by foot at the port of Calexico, California, on February 17, 1922, and declared their intention to permanently live in El Paso, Texas. In February 1923 the Chews opened the New China grocery store in El Paso. In 1930 they had four stores, one managed by Herlinda Chew.
After settling in El Paso, Herlinda Chew continued to study immigration law and worked as an interpreter to assist Chinese individuals and families trying to migrate to the United States or to obtain travel visas to return to China. Among those she helped were Mexican women and children that had been deported from Mexico with their Chinese husbands to live in China where their marriages were not recognized by the Chinese government. Toward that end, Chew made four trips to Canton, China, to help interested women and children return to Mexico. She also arranged travel for Chinese persons living in Mexico who wanted to return to China and earned herself an informal title as a travel agent.
In addition to her international efforts, Chew was also civically active in her local community. Within a few months of moving to El Paso in 1922, she was reportedly “one of the most active members” of the Parent-Teachers Association of the Sunset School in El Paso. To combat the looming presence of chain stores in El Paso, Chew helped independent shop owners organize to compete. During the Great Depression (1929–39), she was appointed as an expert on minority issues for the National Recovery Act. When the Sino-Japanese War began, before World War II, she was temporarily in Canton where she taught English to students at a Cantonese mission. Within the community, she opened and ran a Chinese-language school for both children and adults to help encourage strong connections between students and their ancestral language and heritage. She was also a member of the Pilot Club International, the local chamber of commerce, and helped organize and served as the president of a local committee of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party).
In 1939 Chew faced ill health and hoped a change of climate would help. She travelled to Portland, Oregon, in July of that year. On August 5, 1939, Herlinda Chew passed away. Her husband died a month later in El Paso. They were survived by their eight children: Josephine, Antonio Jr., Grace, Wellington, Herlinda, Gloria, Frederick, and Charles. They were buried in Restlawn Memorial Park in El Paso. She was included in the El Paso Women’s Hall of Fame in 1992. In November 2000 the city of El Paso honored her memory by naming a street Herlinda Chew Way.