Adapted from an interview conducted by William Wong, edited by Jordan Yee and Eddie Wong
Don Yee Fung Lee looks back at the hardships and trials of his life with great candor and feeling. From very harsh beginnings, he forged a life that is rich with accomplishments on the professional and personal level.
My Years in China Before Emigrating I was born in December 1927 in KaiPong County, China, in the village of Ha Bin, which means “by the side of the shrimp,” and near the small town of Bock Hop. Our village had no more than 10 houses. KaiPong is next to Toisan County. The village was pretty much self-contained. There was a pond, where they raised fish. In the back of the houses there were the outhouses.
I remember the floor was dirt. We had no electricity. The whole place is dim and dark, so life was pretty grim. In those days, in the middle of the night, there were a lot of bandits. In China, there were pow low. Pow means gun, and low means tower – gun towers. [Note: A photo of these UNESCO World Heritage sites can be viewed at this UNESCO website]
In the middle of the night, I remember hearing the gong, and the dogs are barking. It was really dark at night because there’s no light! I was very scared. That’s when my grandfather would take me up to the gun tower, for protection from the bandits.
My grandfather didn’t have a gun. The pow low was simply a place to hide from the bandits. Other people have guns, and they had rocks too, and they would have hot oil on top to pour in case bandits came. I went to school in the village up to probably the 4th or 5th grade. After my mother died, he (grandfather) was there in Ha-Bin village with us. It was my grandfather who brought me over. My grandfather was a translator in San Francisco Chinatown. He’s not educated, but he learned English apparently, enough to read and write to deal, front and center, with the Caucasians. He was an important man in the sense that he could write a few words in English and say a few words in English.
We had come over on the President Coolidge. The reason he wanted to bring me over was the Japanese war. The Japanese were marching down pretty close to Guangdong at the time, 1939. So I came on over on almost one of the last steamships that left Hong Kong.
How the Chinese Exclusion Act Affected and Shaped Families Like Mine My father was the only child, and I’m the only one too. Our family tree is very small. In the village, I only had my grandfather and my grandmother. My mother passed away when I was either three or four, so that affected me quite a bit. I don’t have any siblings, and I don’t have any other relatives. In the village, I only had my grandfather and my grandmother. I was raised by my grandmother. In the earlier years, I didn’t have any sense of my grandfather. I didn’t see my father at all. He left for America in June 1927 before I was born.
Before 1927, there were only my grandmother and my father in the village. When he got to an adult age, he got married. The sad thing about it was he got married, and a few months later he had to come to the U.S. So he and my mother separated physically after only some 30-odd days.
He came over in June 1927 on the President Grant when he was 21 years old. His name was Lee Suey Sang. Because we were not farmers in China, we were below average. My grandfather was here in America. The only thing that kept my family in China together was my father because he was making $25 a month working in a grocery store in Texas. He sent $15 of that home to China. I think the conversion rate was around 30 to 1 at that time. I’m just guessing. So it would be a lot of money then.
Now, there’s only $5.00 to Chinese War Bond left, right? What did he spend it on? He’s a bachelor. Laundry, haircut, and sundries, that’s how it was. He lived a frugal life. His life is not much to speak of, I tell you -- the hard work and all that. He’s not educated, but he’s a very gentle person.
Angel Island - My Arrival and My Interrogation I was there at the tail end of July of 1939. I remember getting off the ferry and going on with maybe 50 to 60 people, Japanese and all others, besides Chinese. They put us into a place where they said, “Okay, you’re going to sleep here and eat here.” There was wire mesh all around the building. I was 11 years old.
I remember the staircase into a big room with three tiers of beds. The bed was just steel spring, with a thin mattress. Me being young and new, they threw me on top (laughter). The lower ones belonged to some of the bigger guys.
I came with my grandfather. My grandfather was here in America in the early 1900s, on a business visa. After the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906, he was smart enough to go to the cemetery and claim that a certain person is his mother, therefore making him eligible for citizenship. He reported my father, which is a true relationship, as one of his sons. He registered my father and my father came over on that piece of paper. But my father also registered me as a son. That’s a true case, so I didn’t have to buy any papers.
Interrogation While I was at the Angel Island Immigration Station,, I went for interrogations. They asked me a lot of questions about windows in the house. I slept in the mezzanine and they asked me how many steps going up to the mezzanine. I know I gave wrong answers and all that. That’s why they kept me there 28 days. My grandfather coached me to a certain extent, but how can you expect an 11-year-old to remember a lot of those things? It was not important enough then. He gave me papers to read, and he also interviewed me.
I was interrogated maybe three or four times. They lasted up to half an hour.. I was intimidated because I was only 11 years old, because there were all those people there. There was an official sitting there, with a secretary, typing. There was a translator, and there was a guard. Sometimes there was one more person, one of these “interested parties,” or whatever.
The Chinese interpreter was pretty much professional. He wasn’t smiling. He didn’t try to help me. He played it straight. I remember...we went by numbers. There was a blackboard with the numbers on it. Everybody’s got a number. I think my number -- I wrote it down -- is 80340. They would put your number up there on the blackboard, and you know you have to go to interrogation. They didn’t use names. Or, you’re supposed to have a check-up, health or whatever it is, they have that with the number. The only other thing I remember is that on the day they let you go, your number is on the blackboard and it says “San Francisco.” Detainee Life on Angel Island For my first breakfast they served oatmeal, or mush, or whatever it was. I couldn’t eat it, because we hadn’t been eating milky stuff. And the smell of the butter, it just, I mean, I hate to say it, but it almost made me vomit. I found out later, you could buy a breakfast for about five cents - fried eggs over rice. That was more like a Chinese meal. We didn’t know about this other breakfast at the time because we were in a separate line. Apparently there were enough people that didn’t care for the English-style breakfast, so they would swing over to the Chinese line. You learn as you go.
Passing Time I didn’t interact much with the other people. They pretty much have their own group. You don’t expect an adult to deal with you, because they have their own personal problems. The reason they’re there is probably they were detained anyway, so there’s nothing happy about being there.
The only thing you look to is the few people that are around your same age, and you go around outside, and do a little thing. There’s no such thing as baseball, or anything like that. There wasn’t much to do. No library, nothing.
A Bribe Secures My Release While I was at the immigration station in 1939, my father came out from Texas, where he was working. One of the persons who owned a grocery store in San Antonio, Texas, was from our village. That’s how they hired my father.
This is what my dad told me about the reason that I’m on Angel Island. There’s a difference in our case. Ours is a true case. My father’s true, I’m true in terms of identity.We were not paper sons. So theoretically, we should be able to walk in, and walk out, right? But that’s not the case. They keep retaining us because they – the immigration staff -- wanted to be paid off. There was no reason to hold you for a whole month, if you’re a true son. As I grew older, I talked to my father, and he said that they wanted him to kick back $300 to let me go. It’s a lot of money.
My father learned about this payment system through a middle person somehow. I was not the only one who paid kickbacks. However, one reason that they really deported them is that those people just could not afford it. Not everyone could come up with $300. My dad said he borrowed it. They put me on the ferry, and my father met me in the San Francisco pier. I didn’t know him. He had my picture to recognize me. It was very awkward.
I left Angel Island before the end of August, so I was there almost a month, about 28 days.... Just out of Angel Island, I met my father for the first time.
Surmounting the effects of the Exclusion Act and Angel Island Experience Not much happened when I met my father after leaving Angel Island.My father and I stayed at this hotel for a couple of days. Then he had to go back to Texas, so we rode on a train. This was 1939. I remember that it was a long ride and we didn’t have much room. We were sitting on the floor, rather than a seat. The train was crowded with soldiers and what not. The place that my father worked in Texas had a grocery store downstairs. Upstairs, it’s like a hotel. Everybody had a room. He had a small room. When I moved in, he bought a bed, so I was sleeping in the same room with him.
My Education My father put me into grammar school, the first grade. I was 11 years old and spoke no English. I remember the chair about this size (holds hand low). This was grammar school because there’s no way they could put me any place else. Sam Houston Grade School, that’s the name. The students were mostly Mexican. I was the only Chinese.
My first real exposure to English was in grammar school in San Antonio. I was the oldest one in there, so the teacher tended to focus a little more on helping with me. As a result, I graduated. I went through every grade. I started grammar school in San Antonio in 1939. They may have skipped me. I graduated from Berkeley in January 1951. I was 23 years old. I also accelerated in college, because I took summer classes. Graduating from Berkeley took me three and a half years. I finished school – grammar school, high school, and college – in a little more than 11 years. I guess I picked up English pretty fast. Otherwise they wouldn’t have skipped me. I know I’m a good student at certain things -- math and all that.
We were there in Texas until 1941, when the war started. My father said, “My god, I am of draft age!” He was 35 years old, which was still draft age in those days. He said, “If they draft me, what am I going to do with this 13-year-old?” Me. He panicked. He started talking to friends, who said, “Well come out to California for defense jobs. You get a deferment that way.”
I remember we came out in March of 1942 to Gardena, a suburb of L.A. Gardena used to be a Japanese farming area. He had a friend who ran a small restaurant there. This friend said, “Instead of looking for a place, I got a little cubby hole up there if you want to stay, and give me a hand here.” So we stayed at the back of this restaurant. You’re talking about a cramped space. I helped sweep the floor to earn some keep. My father would look for ways to find a deferment. Friends told him defense was hiring people. Defense employers asked him what experience he had. “You sell groceries? No, no, you’re not qualified for defense work. You got to have something.” My father took a night class and learned radio operations and so forth. It was tough. He didn’t have too much schooling. Every word he found, he translated. It looked like he wasn’t going to make it. He wasn’t going to be able to pass that simple test. In the meantime, some other friend told him, “If you own a store, and if you are the only one there, they cannot draft you! If they draft you, you have to close!” [laughs] .
My father said, “Okay, I know groceries!” So he looked for a grocery store, but he didn’t have too much money. Don’t forget, he was only making $25 a month, and he was saving only a little of it. He finally found one place owned by this old guy, an Englishman. It was a real small grocery. The guy said, “I’ll tell you what. You just take over. When you make money, you pay me.”
My father felt a little better, now that he owned a place. The draft called him, but he said, “I’m the only one there.” That’s how he got out. During the war, he was running that little store, and I was going to school in Gardena. I was in junior high in Gardena.
At the store, he needed some change, like penny, dime and nickel. He couldn’t leave, and I couldn’t drive, but I had a bicycle. I remember it cost $15. I would pedal to the bank and get some change for him. It was a low life, this store. We cooked there; we slept there, just the two us during the war. He finally saved enough money to buy another bigger store. Guess where he bought it? In Watts!
Then I wished to go to UCLA. But UCLA did not offer civil engineering. It was such a small school at that time, not like now. The only place to go for civil engineering was Berkeley. So I went up to Berkeley, and that’s how we ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was 1947. I had a lot of friends at Cal. Prior to that, there’s nothing. I was quite busy helping my dad at the grocery store. In fact, I talked the teacher out of physical education at Compton High. I got off early that way, to help him. It was not a life for a child.
I was a good student. In high school, I had a Lion’s Club scholarship, but not at Cal. But I passed “Subject A” (remedial English) right away. That in itself was very tough. I had a good English teacher. There was another test at Cal that you had to take if you wanted to get into civil engineering. I was pretty well versed in that. In those days the schools were pretty good in the fundamentals. I had a reasonable amount of preparation to get in.
My choice of civil engineering was dictated by the ending of the war. I was going to learn civil engineering to go back to China to build up China. I would say most everyone among Chinese living in America wanted to go back. Unless you were born here, that was different. But if you’re from China without family ties here, you tended to drift back. Discrimination was a big item, and family too. We didn’t have any family to speak of here in America. If you have a family, then at least you participate in some of the things here. My father and I were basically alone here. He led no life, and so did I up to that point, really. Discriminatory White Attitudes that fed the Chinese Exclusion Act continued even after its repeal
I think I felt racial discrimination more at Cal than anywhere else. It was in the engineering material class called Engineering Material 1A. The professor’s name was Wiskicil. He was an old-time professor known around the campus for being an old crazy kind of guy. He wore a red carnation all the time. In the first class, he looked around and there were about half a dozen of us Chinese in there, out of a class of 40-something. He said, “I want to be clear that you Chinese will not get an A or a B from me.” He said that right up front. He meant our language difficulty and all that, without even giving us a chance. This was on the first day of class. True enough, no Chinese student got an A or B from him. Some got C. I got a D.
How did I feel? I still had the feeling that he’s far more superior to us, as a professor. So I didn’t feel as intimidated as much as if I would have to face him now. It was sort of a passive attitude. There was no rebel or anything like that among us Chinese students. We just kind of meekly accepted it. Once I felt disillusioned about him, I didn’t have enough interest in him. I didn’t have enough enthusiasm for him. I sort of despised him. I probably did the minimal amount of work in this class. But I got A’s and B’s in other classes.
There were some subtle cases of discrimination too. Whenever they chose something, they always don’t choose you, like for some presentation. But I got my Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering.
In another case of racial discrimination, in 1958, which was a few years after I came out of the army, my wife and I tried to buy a house, but we couldn’t buy one. We went to this real estate firm in San Mateo. We had two or three children at that time. There were 10 or 12 people there, and they never looked up. As soon as we walked in, I said to the wife, “We better leave,” because, you know, you could sense it already.
It was the same thing at some other places, so we put it off. We didn’t want to buy an old house because you would have to repair it and all that; we were looking for a new house. Finally we heard there was a place in Hayward that I believed was owned by the guy who owned Eastern Bakery in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He teamed up with a builder to develop in Hayward. Eastwood Village, they called it. The price of a house was $15,000 or something. Practically the whole tract was Asian -- Japanese, Chinese, Filipino. Most of them have college degrees. Our block, I could count maybe six or eight engineers. That was Eastwood, the first housing development that was open to Asians.
When I graduated, I looked for a job. I went to maybe half a dozen interviews, but nobody hired me. I would say that was mostly discrimination at that time. Theoretically, at that time, an engineering degree from Berkeley is, in itself, significant. A lot of Caucasians who were civil engineering undergraduates all got jobs.
After half a dozen of these rejections, I was just kind of kicking around. Finally someone said, “Caltrans is hiring.” Remember, in 1951, it was Eisenhower’s idea of national defense, the so-called national defense highways. Naturally, jobs opened up. I went for an interview. It turned out that the guy who interviewed me was a Cal Berkeley graduate. He looked at me and said, “Oh, Cal Berkeley, good, have a seat.” He interviewed me, and said, “You can start working tomorrow, if you want.”
I got married in 1952. I met my wife at Berkeley. In my senior year, I had a couple of units free -- to fill in. Guess what I took up? Dance! I met her in dance class. Her name was Jeanette Chan. We had four children.
The impact of Angel Island and the Exclusion Act as symbolized on our lives Just out of Angel Island, I met my father for the first time. It was really awkward in the beginning. There was nothing like touching, hugging and all that. He just sort of looked at me and both of us didn’t smile. He had a stern face. With father and son, it’s always…that’s the old style. Chinese don’t believe in hugging. Nothing! No hugging. Just sort of a, “Oh, come this way.” I remember going to a hotel, on Grant Avenue. It’s called Washington Hotel or something, on the downhill side, beyond California, a fringe area of Chinatown. There was none of this father-and-son-holding-hand, talking, nothing. And I was very apprehensive. I said, “You know, this is a stranger.” He just sort of looked at me and both of us didn’t smile.
I got about as close to him as I can. I lived with hij.. I went to Berkeley. After I graduated, I spent time in the army, and he was still down in L.A. When I came out of the army, I had a job in San Francisco, so I lived there. My dad at that time was living with the family association in San Francisco. It wasn’t until I bought a home in Hayward that we again lived together. My father he died in 1994. He was 86 years old. He’s my closest person. I don’t have a mother. It really affected me when he passed away. I was no good for a few years.I didn’t touch his room after his death. I left everything as is. I went in there every once in awhile to ask, what can I do now?
The children did not want to bury him in his home village in China. I said, “You’re right, you want to pay a visit him and all that. But I have a deeper thought.” It really bothered me for several years. I didn’t do anything. He was cremated. Finally I told the children, “I have to make this move. From a Chinese viewpoint, he got married for a few months, and he was separated. It’s not right that while living and in death he was separated.” So I moved him back with my mother, in the village.
At that young age (11 years old), the Angel Island experience probably does not influence me as much as some of the other factors. To me, this other thing was more lasting for me -- my childhood. What influenced me most is the fact that I don’t have a mother and that I don’t have siblings. Almost puts you in the category that you have to pioneer most of the time because there’s no one to turn to.
You’re talking about shock. I told my children, “I don’t want anyone to go through life like that.” I was a three or four years old, and I don’t even know my mother! I still have no idea what my mother was like. Angel Island didn’t have a severe effect on me, in the sense that it didn’t cause me to be insecure or anything like that. The island, to me, is strictly a short-term process that I went through. All the other stuff that comes into play, like after Angel Island, meeting my father really affected me. He was a stranger. I didn’t know how to handle it. You have to know that he’s related and you’re going to have to look at him for survival. From that point on after Angel Island, it’s all the fact that you’re discriminated. They keep hammering you in. Those are the things that affected me. They sort of pushed me into an area where there’s only one way you have to go, and that’s up. Remembering and Honoring I took the children all back to the family village in China. At the same time, I moved all the other folks. My mother was in one place, my grandfather another, my grandmother…everybody’s scattered, so I moved them all together, and I had the site paved over in concrete. This was off to one side of the village. When I took the children back to the old house, it really recalled a depressing scene for me -- the dirt floor, and it’s dark and dingy.
I go back almost every other year. I explained to the children, “Even if you go back every five or 10 years, that’s good enough. But for the time being, you have to realize that you have to do the right thing.” I talk to a lot of elder people and they all say, “You did the right thing.” So I feel a little more relaxed. It took me 10 years to get away from the grief when my father passed away because he was here all this time with me.
Reflecting on a recent revisit On a visit with my family to Angel Island a couple of years ago, there were a lot of quiet moments. I wanted to be on one side, a little away from them. And I would usually walk to one place and I keep looking at the stairs. The posts are still there. Then I look at the wall and I said, “Hey, that’s where the blackboard was.” And I look at the whole row of toilets. It brings back memories.
I look at the poems, but it didn’t hit me, even though I know the words. But I don’t know if I could share the same thought about the people there. That was pretty hard to do at 11 years old. I don’t recall seeing anybody writing poems on the walls. You can see that the other detainees are alone. You can sense it. Everyone else is doing something and they’re there, sort of staring into space someplace. I heard some of them had been there over two years. I almost swelled up in one corner when I was there. I was explaining all that stuff out there. But, in my life, I do not hold that the detention against anyone.
Photos - Top: Photo of Don Lee at the AIISF Annual Fundraiser in 2009, Next: Photo of Don's father's Certificate of Identity, Middle: Don Lee's certificate of identity when he arrived in the United States, Bottom: Don Lee with former detainees, Li Keng Wong and Dale Ching.