Thin Lee was born in 1911, just one month after the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty. Lee Suey Horn (his real name) came from a politically prominent family, but it was a difficult period in China when Lee left home in search of better opportunities. Like many Chinese immigrants he came to the United States as a “paper son.” Entry into the United States was not guaranteed, and during his long journey by ship to San Francisco, Lee studied in preparation for the questions immigration authorities were likely to ask. Lee Suey Horn took the identity of Thin Lee, whose birth certificate supposedly had been destroyed in the earthquake fire of 1906. Lee’s initial questioning did not go well, and he was denied entry and slated for deportation. Lee spent three months detained on Angel Island until a lawyer that he hired at the cost of $3,000 finally won his appeal case and freedom.
Lee had borrowed the $3,000 from a cousin in New York City. After joining his cousin in New York he entered a life of never ending hard work. He found jobs in laundries and restaurants, working long hours as a dishwasher, and after a period of self-education to improve his English, as a waiter. But it was the beginning of the Great Depression and $3,000 was a large sum to pay back. By personal sacrifice and hard work over the course of several years Lee managed to do this. In his later years he told his children, “All I did was work, work, work to make it in America.”
After six years Lee was out of debt and had saved enough to travel back to Taishan to see his family and hopefully find a wife. Anti-miscegenation laws and prejudice in America made it virtually impossible to find an American wife, and because of the restrictive Chinese Exclusion laws, there were very few Chinese women available to marry. Chasing his luck all the way to China he found his perfect match in a village on the outskirts of Taishan.
Emma Yee was born in 1921 in Lynn, Massachusetts, of Chinese immigrant parents. When she was four, her mother passed away while giving birth to her younger brother, and at age nine she and her siblings were taken to the family village near Taishan. Her father remained in Boston, but married by “proxy” a woman in Taishan to take care of his children. When Thin Lee returned to his village, he met Emma, and admired her work ethic. He felt that the “city women” he had been introduced to in China were too soft and would not be up to the challenge of the hard work that would be required in America. After a year of marriage Lee returned to the U.S. to earn money to send for his wife, while Emma, in Chinese tradition, remained in China to care for her in-laws. In 1939, she finally returned to the U.S. after sneaking from China into Hong Kong in a small boat to evade Japanese soldiers.
If hard work was Lee’s driving force, then education was his passion. He taught himself English with the help of library books, careful listening, and by practicing English with his customers while waiting tables. Acquiring the skills to become a machinist, his chosen career, was more difficult. Lee spent much of his free time studying the intricacies necessary to become a machinist, and continued to learn new skills he needed for promotion in his industry throughout his working career.
Lee was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, but was given a deferment because of an existing hernia. Even though he didn’t serve in the military Lee was proud to be an American, and happy that his talent as a machinist helped the war effort. Lee and Emma struggled to raise their four children while still helping to support family in China. Lee was a machinist by day and waited tables at night and on weekends – always working two jobs until his retirement. Emma ran a laundry business in the early 1950’s from the front of their tenement apartment building, and went on to factory work as her children grew older. Due to the family’s financial situation the “Eat Less and Move More” part of Lee’s philosophy was mostly unavoidable, but the “Don’t Worry” aspect gave him the positive outlook to endure a life of hard work. Eventually Lee’s machinist skills and optimism served him well. After working for several companies, and with his children successfully grown, he happily retired to a life of leisure and travel in 1971.
Thin and Emma Lee moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s, where he began to take classes at East Los Angeles Community College, including tap dancing, tennis, pottery making, swimming, roller skating, and many other activities, and he was even featured in the college's newspaper. By all accounts his smile was legendary on campus. In 1981, when he was 70, Lee fought off a serious bout of cancer, but kept active and smiling into old age, finally giving up tennis and riding his bicycle when he turned 90. Thin Lee passed away in 2005 at the age of 94, and after 69 years of marriage to Emma.
Thin Lee’s philosophical words and bright personality contributed much to everyone who knew him during his lifetime. We should all strive to follow Thin Lee’s proverb to a long and healthy life - “Eat less, move more, and don’t worry.” The great philosopher Confucius couldn’t have said it better.
Special thanks to Thin and Emma Lee’s family members who all contributed words and/or photos to this story: Jeanne Lee Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Bleux Lee, Susie Lee Spiess, and Daniel Spiess.
Grant Din is community relations director at AIISF.