By Sharon Lee
Special for the Northwest Asian Weekly
Much has been written about Tony Lee and his 40-year legacy in the fight against poverty. Tony was also a tireless leader championing racial justice for the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community.
On Nov. 12, Washington state lost a human rights giant as Tony passed away at his home in Seattle at the age of 72. Very few people know about Tony’s humble beginnings, his immigrant experience, and how his world view was shaped.
Tony was born in 1948 in Swatow, China and was the ninth of 10 children born to his parents Wai Lee and Chang Pei Yu. Tony’s Chinese name is Lee Boon-pong.
When the Chinese Communist Revolution took place, Tony and his family fled to Hong Kong in 1950, as his parents feared persecution for practicing their Catholic faith. In Hong Kong, according to Tony’s older brother Joe, the family had to share a one-bedroom apartment and experienced poverty and hunger. After about a year, their parents moved the family to Brazil, as Brazil welcomed Chinese and other immigrants.
Tony spent his childhood in São Paulo, where his father ran a fruit and vegetable store. The Lee family saved enough money and in 1959 immigrated to the U.S. and moved to Seattle. Records of Tony’s actual birth date were lost, so his parents picked Feb. 12, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, a date they can easily remember.
Unlike many Chinese immigrants who moved to Beacon Hill, Central Seattle, or South Seattle, Tony’s family lived in Wallingford, where his parents established a local corner grocery store. The family lived above the store. Tony always remarked that the family, even with so many children, did not go hungry because they always had food in the store. Tony worked in the store helping his parents, and that is where he developed his love of fruit. Tony can be found eating four oranges at a time! As a teen, he and Joe delivered newspapers, worked odd jobs, including selling programs at Husky games.
Tony graduated from Lincoln High School in 1965. He excelled academically and played varsity tennis. He went on to attend Harvard University, graduating in 1969.
He made lifelong friends from high school and college. But after being away, Tony was homesick for Seattle, so after being accepted into law schools, he decided to attend the University of Washington instead of Harvard.
Tony worked as an attorney for Evergreen Legal Services and represented indigent clients, including immigrants and refugees. He even argued a case before the State Supreme Court. In 1980, Tony was active with the Tenants Union and housing advocates in supporting a campaign to pass rent control in Seattle. However, due to the landlord lobby, this resulted in the State legislature banning rent control statewide in 1981. Tony stood for his principles despite the fact that many family members owned rental property.
Given his faith, Tony spent many years advocating on peace and social justice issues working for the Archdiocese of Seattle under Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. During the fight for more funding for human services, Tony collaborated with many advocates and lobbied City Hall—and this is where he first met Sharon Lee, who was on City Council staff. They married in 1986, and had their son Chris, who is now 30.
Tony continued his advocacy work at the Washington Association of Churches and in 1995 was hired by Frank Chopp as Advocacy Director for Solid Ground (then Fremont Public Association). Tony’s long-term partnership with State Rep. Frank Chopp resulted in major victories in Olympia. In honoring Tony, Frank states, “Tony Lee served for so many years as the conscience of the legislature. He was an eloquent and tireless advocate for people in poverty. His legacy will continue to touch the lives of tens of thousands of people, through human services, educational opportunities, and economic justice. He was a great man!”
Diane Naraski, former Executive Director of Asian Counseling and Referral Services, states, “The Asian and Pacific Islander community, communities of color, and all people with low-incomes lost a great and beloved leader with the passing of Tony Lee. His humble, warm, and brilliant leadership, and his mentoring of generations of social justice organizers contributed enormously to improving and saving lives.
No single person is more responsible for the creation and preservation of the safety net of vital services for immigrant and refugee communities, including our own API community, than Tony Lee. I believe the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition and the many other organizations Tony was involved in are devastated to have lost Tony, but will honor him through their continued work to advance social justice.”
Throughout his career, Tony served on many boards and commissions. He was a co-founder of the Statewide Poverty Action Network and won many awards and recognitions, including the Goldmark Award from the Washington Legal Foundation. Tony and Sharon won Heroes for the Homeless Awards from Operation Nightwatch. Tony was also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Seattle Human Services Coalition. After a marriage of over 20 years, Tony and Sharon divorced—yet remained on good terms. In 2018, the Low Income Housing Institute, where Sharon is the Executive Director, dedicated their new building in Lake City as The Tony Lee. The building includes 70 affordable apartments and an early learning center operated by Refugee Women’s Alliance.
Tony’s son Chris wants Northwest Asian Weekly readers to know, “Dad had a huge heart. He dedicated his life to helping those in need, and was compassionate to everyone he knew. He deeply treasured his family and friends. He also loved life, and found joy in many things. I’ll never forget his smile, and he will always be an inspiration to me.”
Tony is survived by his wife Angie Bartels, former wife Sharon Lee, his son Chris, his brother Joe, sisters Bernadette, Marie, Mary, and Cecilia, and many nieces and nephews.
Sharon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.