By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Gin Foo Yee, owner of Gin’s Construction, changed his destiny, defying odds because he knew he was the master of his own fate and creator of his own luck.
When Yee first came to America at the age of 22 in 1987, his immediate concern was one of survival. Following conventional wisdom of the Chinese community, he applied for work in a Chinese restaurant. Why? It was easy to find (although it isn’t easy work), and it provided him a steady income. Also, no special skills or proficient English was required. And he could meet new friends. But it did require long hours of labor, six or seven days a week.
What’s the reward for Chinese immigrants choosing the restaurant track? They could become head chefs and eventually own their own Chinese restaurants. But that would also mean years of toiling in the kitchen. Not all restaurant workers can transition into successful restaurateurs because of the language barrier and the lack of management experience. The more Yee saw many of his friends stuck for years without the desire to change, the more determined he was to get out of restaurant work.
A wake-up call came on Yee’s 10th year of working at the restaurant.
“My daughter Sandy was born,” he said. “I needed to provide my family with better living. I realized that I didn’t want to work in a restaurant for the rest of my life.”
Being a father had motivated Yee to ponder what would be next on the horizon and he knew he had to do something to pursue his dream.
“I have known some Chinese immigrants who had become contractors,” he said, which inspired him to be a contractor. The bridge to opportunity was to go to school. First, he enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program.
“Education was the best way for me to begin,” Yee said. After improving his English, he applied at the Seattle Central College for an 18-month carpentry program, which teaches cabinet-making and fine woodworking. “But I failed the (entrance) test, (due to the language barrier),” Yee said. “My scores were not high enough. I could have repeated the course or given up. Instead, I went to talk to the department head to find out what I could do to improve.”
Yee said he was lucky because the department head had once worked in the ESL Department. Empathizing with many immigrants’ plight, the department head gave him a chance and let him enroll in the program.
John Harvey, an instructor of Seattle Central College’s Wood Technology Center, said the College’s role is to remove barriers for students who want to be successful. Yee was simply one of the many who experienced hurdles over the years in the school.
The carpentry course opened Yee’s eyes. While Yee was a student, he volunteered to work on several school repair projects to get experience.
A few weeks before he graduated from the program, a past instructor visited the department to recruit students to work on remodeling his house. He hired Yee on the spot.
“I felt lucky,” Yee said with gratitude. “I didn’t even graduate and hadn’t applied for a job and I got a job. Someone gave me a chance. I was paid $14 an hour 12 years ago. I didn’t know anything at the time. And I worked very hard at it.”
Yee said his field requires a lot of practice. His role is to be a problem solver. Each job is different and has its own unique problems. Since then, he has done all kinds of contracting work, including building and remodeling basements, decks, restyling rooms and houses, dry-walling, painting, building a stone path, and several other remodeling challenges. His passion is to do the best job he can and search for all means to broaden his knowledge and skills. He was proud that some of his projects would use recycling materials to cut down cost for his client.
“I care about building relationships with my clients, doing a good job,” Yee said. “They are not just my clients, I want them to be my friend. I still go back to check with my clients to see how my work pans out.”
“My dad worked very hard to turn his life around,” said Yee’s daughter Sandy, who is now a student at the University of Washington. “He did not have a college degree, but that did not stop him. He dedicated himself in his studies to become a contractor. Now, he is a self-made owner of his own construction company. My dad is the true definition of the American dream and I am incredibly proud of him.”
Yee’s client Michael Pickett, said “Gin Yee is thorough, detail-oriented…He helped us construct our baby room/nook and did extra work as part of the bid because he didn’t want his name on something that didn’t look good.”
Even though Yee has been a contractor for 15 years, he said he is still learning. Looking back at how he changed his field, he said, it was a big step when you want to change your life. At least, he knew what he wanted, set a goal, and went after it until he succeeded. And he loves his work.
“I now have more time to spend with my family,” said Yee. “I was lucky too that when I went to construction school full time, my wife worked full time to support me.”
Yee also considered his wife fortunate. Originally, she worked for the International Clinic for Health Services as a translator. The rules changed and she was required to go back to school with tuition paid for certification. With her new education, she changed her job and is now a medical assistant at the University of Washington with good benefits.
“We can control our own fate,” Yee said. “It’s important to realize that we have to continue learning every day. Don’t just make fast money and run. It never works to do five days’ work when you should do seven days.” (end)
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.