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In the early fall of 1940, sixteen-year-old Lee Jee Jung (Margaret) left war-torn Hong Kong with her seventeen-year-old brother Lee See Jung (Philip) to go to America. Margaret’s father, Rev. Shau Yan Lee, had sent for them. Eleven years before, he himself had gone to America to be a Baptist minister to the Chinese in Northern California and later, Mississippi and Texas. Initially, Margaret’s father did not intend on bringing her to America. However, due to the death of her oldest sister and brother in China from typhoid fever around the time of the Japanese invasion in Canton, and her second oldest sister being no longer a minor, she and her brother were selected to join their father in America.
Margaret has bittersweet memories of the eighteen-day trip to America on the President Coolidge–a ride that cost her father and grandfather $115.00 at the time. She traveled in special third class, which meant a cabin for eight people sleeping in two-tiered bunk beds. Margaret remembers sneaking into parts of the boat where females were not allowed, and receiving “nice juicy apples and oranges” from someone. She even snuck into second class to watch a movie. At times she felt distraught on the boat, as she had difficulty finding her brother due to the segregated living arrangements. She remembers that her brother suffered from seasickness throughout the trip. “But to me,” she said, “It was a fun trip.”
Upon arriving in America, Margaret and her brother were detained at the United States Immigration Station on Angel Island for further investigation. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to this country, their father had to first produce two white witnesses to verify his status as a minister and that he had “performed no labor in the past twelve months.” Next, Margaret and her brother had to independently prove to immigration officials that they were really the minor children of Rev. Shau Yan Lee in order to land. (Clergymen and their families were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act.)
Once the two children landed at Angel Island, Margaret and her brother were separated and given a medical exam. “We had to take off all our clothes,” she recalled. “It didn’t bother me very much, but some of the women were very unhappy about that.” During the medical exam doctors noted that she had curly hair, which led them to believe that she might not be Chinese. “They just decided I was not Chinese no matter how I told them I was Chinese,” she said. As a result, she was put in the European women’s dormitory. A fire in the Administration Building at the Station had destroyed the women’s dormitory along with the dining halls, immigration staff offices, and interrogation rooms, so Margaret, along with other female immigrants, were actually detained in the Station’s hospital, and had their interrogations conducted at 801 Silver Avenue in San Francisco. The immigration station and all detainees were moved to this address in November 1940.
Margaret remembers that the detainees in her dormitory room on Angel Island were Mexican, French, and German. Although she could not communicate with them, she remembers that no one was happy. “They were more concerned about what are we doing here, when are we going to get out?” She was detained on Angel Island for twenty-three days, during which time she never saw another Chinese person. She ate with the European women and that was the first time she ever had food like pancakes, waffles, and custard. “For some reason I watched everyone cut up their pancakes and I learned to do likewise,” she said. “It used to drive people crazy, seeing me carve up my pancakes before I ate it, but I learned that when I was at Angel Island.”
Once a week Margaret was escorted from her dormitory to the luggage storage area where some of her belongings were kept. She was only allowed to have one small suitcase with her in the dormitory. The first time she went down to the storage area, she found a note from her brother in her suitcase. The note he left her said, “Don’t get those birthdays mixed up,” referring to his concerns over her possibly making a mistake in the interrogations.
When it was time for Margaret’s interrogation, she was brought from Angel Island to San Francisco. Once the boat landed in the city, she remembers that the immigration officials put her in a “paddy wagon.” This left an impression on her as she had seen movies showing criminals being put into those kinds of vehicles by police officers. Her immigration file shows that she was asked a total of seventy-four questions about her family background and village life, including all past residences and schools attended by her siblings.
During Margaret’s interrogation she said that the immigration officials tried to trick her by asking confusing questions about her life in China. She remembers being asked, “Where is the piano in your house?” to which she replied, “The dining room.” The officials then informed her that her brother had told them the piano was kept in the living room, to which she replied, “Well, when we eat it’s the dinning room, when we don’t eat, it’s the living room.”
After the interrogation was completed, Margaret was brought back to Angel Island to await a decision on her case. She remembers feeling anxious and worried about whether she would be allowed to land or not. “I just wanted to know how much longer this was going to take. Did I pass, did I not pass? I went back to the same old place (for further interrogation) and that was a little worrisome.” Fortunately, her answers and those of her brother and father agreed, and after a few more days, she was admitted into the country as the minor daughter of a domiciled Chinese minister. Overall, Margaret said that staying with the European women, she was treated pretty well. “That goes to show that they treated other people better than the Chinese people.”
A few days later, Margaret and her brother were allowed to land. Their father met them in San Francisco, where they stayed for a week, Margaret at the YWCA and Philip at the YMCA. Shortly after, the three of them took a train to Phoenix, Arizona, where their father had established a mission and where Margaret was able to reunite with a former classmate of hers, before settling down in El Paso, Texas, where Lee Shau Yan was the pastor of the Baptist Chinese Mission. Her father would go on to publish two books: How to Win the Chinese (1944) and China Has a Ten Thousand Mile Spiritual Wall (1945). The latter book was received by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, Margaret’s nephew has a signed letter from President Roosevelt to her father (Rev. Lee) for sending him a copy of the book.
Margaret graduated from high school in Norfolk, Virginia, after her father was transferred there, and then went to the College of William and Mary (1943-1945). While in college she worked in a Chinese restaurant. Shortly after, she went to the Virginia School of Medicine in Richmond, VA (1945-1950). Margaret remembers that at the time, women became a significant percentage of the college class because the men were away at war. She was the first enrolled Chinese and she paid for her education with three scholarships, and by working at night in a hospital. She actually graduated without owing any debt.
In the first year of her studies at the medical school in Virginia, she got married to a fellow student. Her husband jokingly says, “People used to always ask us where we met, and we used to always tell them, over a cadaver in medical school!” After graduating from medical school, Margaret became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1950 and established a successful pediatric practice in Fair Oaks, California. Most of her family was able to join her in the United States in the 1960s.
Interview with Dr. Margaret Lee Masters by Stephanie Flores on May 19, 2006.
Lee Jee Jung (File 40317/12-8), RG 85, National Archives, San Bruno, CA.
Larisa Proulx is a Park Interpretive Specialist at Angel Island State Park. She has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
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