By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Fred Yee’s ordinary yet gentle face could be deceiving. Unless you worked with him, you didn’t see his beautiful personality and extraordinary community spirit.
Yee died at his home on Aug. 7 after a sudden heart attack. He was 67 years old.
I was one of his friends and beneficiaries. We met at the University of Washington in the early 1970s. His major was geology. He convinced me to take Geology 101 to fulfill my elective requirement, and even tutored me when I got stuck.
Ironically, his whole career had nothing to do with rocks, and everything he did was connected to his devotion and passion for the community. Yee’s interests had always been about giving. There are different kinds of volunteering. For Yee, it was hands-on, whatever it takes to fulfill a community goal by creating meaningful assets for the community. I have met quite a few volunteers of different organizations — all pointed to the fact that Yee recruited them personally, just like he recruited me to be in the geology class. When Yee immersed into something, he was all in. That’s how deep his passion was for the community. That’s how he spent his spare time — recruiting others to do good.
His means were never through protests or tearing up someone’s dignity. His style was personal — lending a hand whenever he could.
As one of the founding members of the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC) during his college years, Yee was critical to the organization’s existence. He was the strongest vocal advocate to transform CISC from a volunteer-based organization to a professional nonprofit agency. I was at that meeting more than three decades ago. His support for CISC instantly gave credibility to the organization when many Chinese community members accused CISC of being a leftist group. It was unheard of and unthinkable that young people would volunteer to help immigrant seniors, according to some Chinatown leaders who questioned the volunteers’ real motive. But Yee was no stranger in the community. He was a sixth-generation Chinese American who came to the United States in 1969.
He had deep roots in Chinatown, and his dad, George Yee, was a partner of the Wah Young Company, an established grocery store which was located on the storefront of the current Wing Luke Asian Museum. Old timers complained about CISC in front of Yee. “It’s left-wing.” Yee replied, “I am a CISC volunteer.” Quickly, rumors and gossips subsided.
Yee’s social work expanded. He went from working in a nursing home to becoming a minorities’ health administrator for the federal government. He had a three-year stint as the Kin On Health Services CEO, when former CEO Sam Wan took a sabbatical. Always, Yee chimed in when someone asked for his help.
Many Asian community members would rather give time than money. Yee gave both. Although Yee was not rich, he never said no to friends and community donations. Anytime someone asked for help, his response was, “Yes, I can.”
Yee was one of the major forces who pushed for and raised money for the Yee Fung Toy Family Association to own its own headquarters on Beacon Hill. He even encouraged the Yees to participate in the annual Seafair Chinatown Parade.
His sister, Hoyping, said Yee paid for all her family members’ plane tickets when they immigrated to the United States.
He organized ping pong programs for the International District Chinatown Community Center and Kin On. Those programs still continue to this day. When the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA) and Organization of Chinese Americans needed help for events, including the CACA national convention, he played a big role. Often, he was a captain table for many community events. Many times, his goal was to fill two tables, not just one. The number of Asian community events had increased several times over the years, and he would attend them if he was not traveling. As actor Woody Allen said: 80 percent of success is showing up.
In 1995, former governor Gary Locke was running for the seat, and I told him about Locke’s fundraising event. “Do you want to support this?” I asked Yee. In a heartbeat, he said yes without asking questions. It was $300 per person. At the time, it was considered a lot of money, when folks in the Asian community were comfortable with writing checks for $100 or under.
Yee was a single father, after his first wife Amy died of cancer in 2000 and before he married Clara. He raised successful kids — his daughter is a school teacher and his son is an engineer. The last time I talked to him was when he celebrated the 100th day of his first grandson with friends at a restaurant two months ago. “Your grandson is so much more handsome than you or your son,” I teased him.
“That’s our wish, isn’t it?” Yee replied. The guy always spoke from his heart.
One of Yee’s characteristics was his voice, often carrying a rhythmic laugh. He loved to laugh and sing. He met with his karaoke friends regularly. Once, I told him, “Fred, your singing, no good.” Not only did he not get upset, he said, “I know.” Only real friends can speak the truth to one another.
Yee represented the best side of humanity. If there were any flaws with Yee, it would be his craving for junk food. After his first heart attack a decade ago, he had not been diligently following good dietary habits. In fact, one time, I stopped him from nibbling crispy snacks excessively at his house. Perhaps, his appetite for unhealthy food contributed to his heart attack.
I miss my friend Fred, a wonderful human being whose life was cut short! I wish there were 1,000 more Fred Yees in our community — someone to carry his torch!
Fred Yee’s celebration of life will be held on Aug. 25 at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 8501 SE 40th St., Mercer Island.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.