By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Four beauties wearing their crowns and native costumes — all sharing the same surname and ancestors dating back 2,000 years in China — joined hundreds of Lees on March 30 to cheer their extended family’s achievements.
Lee is the second most common surname in China, behind only Wang, according to Wikipedia. It is also one of the most common surnames in the world, shared by 93 million people in China and more than 100 million worldwide.
Last year, Seattle’s Lee Family Association (SLFA) bought a building for over $550,000, including remodeling, at 3217 Beacon Avenue South. To celebrate the Beacon Hill building’s grand opening, the association invited leaders from Lee Family chapters around the country.
This story is about how a small family association raised the money quickly, to fulfill their dreams. It also shows a glimpse of Chinese American history — how overseas Chinese, facing discrimination, bonded together to help each another and make things happen because of their common origins, roots, surnames, and geographical identity in China. This is not something that outsiders can fathom. Yet it has been going on for the past two centuries in America.
The Lees raised $230,000 in one year — much faster than anyone expected — which qualified them for a mortgage from the bank to pay for the rest. This is not just the SLFA’s project. Lees in other parts of America have embraced it and contributed immensely to ensure that it would be successful.
Others did it, we can do it too!
Nationwide, many of the Lee Family Association chapters have their own buildings.
These family associations were founded decades and even centuries ago to ensure Chinese immigrants have a place to socialize, support one another, and have a permanent address for when they work in different parts of the country.
“It’s an investment for the future generations of Lees, Woos, Chins, etc.” said Connie So, who teaches Asian American Studies at the University of Washington. “For many Chinese, something tangible like property will always have value. For my family, like many other early southern Chinese in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, the family associations provided support in an unfamiliar and often hostile country. “Historically and even now, family associations provide financial and emotional assistance. It is part of our history as Chinese Americans and demonstrates our concern for our fellow clan/family members.”
Although Portland has a much smaller Chinese population, Portland Lee Family Association acquired its own property more than 20 years ago. With more than 1,000 members, San Francisco is not only the headquarters of the national Lee Family Association, it also owns five properties.
Seattle LFA was inspired by its sister chapters. It dreamed about having its own headquarters nine years ago, according to Faye Lee Hong, president of the Seattle chapter.
“If we don’t have a permanent address, our family association will eventually die,” said Faye. He has seen what happened to other family associations, such as the Locke Family Association, which closed down after it lost its lease.
“We need to have a place for activities for our members, like Christmas and the Moon Cake Festival party,” he said. “The permanent headquarters can attract new members to come.”
Faye said the association “has found a place it can afford, and, most important, it produces income to cover expenses. It’s no use to find a big and fancy place, which is costly and we can’t afford.”
When the SLFA decided to have its own building two years ago, the association knew that the local chapter wouldn’t be able to raise all the funds needed. SLFA has over 100 families, and about 25 active members, according to Faye. SLFA also has a 97-year history and is looking forward to celebrating its centennial three years from now.
Locally, SLFA is also one of the smallest Chinese family associations in Seattle, compared to big ones such as Gee How Oak Tin (Chin, Yuen, Woo), Soo Yuen Tong (Louie, Fong, Kuang), and Eng Family Association, which all have their own buildings.
The right leadership
SLFA members knew that Faye would be the ideal person in the association who could fundraise effectively for its cause. As one of the most respected leaders in the Chinese community, Faye, known as “Mr. Nice,” had fundraised successfully for many important projects and causes for the Chinese community, including the Seattle Chinese Gate on South King Street, which was built in 2008.
In addition, Faye has supported many community charities and helped individuals and other leaders’ programs for decades. Now that he is heading the Lee’s building project, other local Chinese community organizations and individuals have quickly reciprocated with donations.
Immediately, he set an example by donating $10,000 himself to show his commitment.
Like other family associations, Faye knew that he had to enlist help from Lees who live outside Seattle.
Dan B. Lee, who was president of San Francisco’s national Lee Family Association last year, recalled what he told Faye two years ago. “Give us a plan and we will go from there.”
Dan and other Lees quickly took the plan and mobilized 16 other chapters to help. San Francisco’s LFA donated over $80,000 ($50,000 from the headquarters and over $30,000 from individuals).
Whatever San Francisco does, the New York chapter often follows, Dan said. The two big chapters thumbed up, giving Seattle’s project weight and momentum. Dan then traveled all over the United States, including Los Angeles, Oakland, Stockton, Sacramento, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to ask for donations on behalf of Seattle. The funds collected were from other chapters, as well as individuals, just because they share the same last name.
Faye said he was moved by the whole experience. One chapter said it actually had saved up $5,000 to repair its own building, but donated to Seattle instead.
The building has a lot of potential, and sits on a big lot with commercial and residential tenants on the top and ground floors, as well as a small apartment in its backyard.
After the Lees performed the ribbon-cutting ceremony during the day, they attended SLFA’s Lunar New Year banquet in the evening at the House of Hong restaurant. Nearly 50 Lees from San Francisco, New York, New England, Portland, Washington D. C., Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, Sacramento, and Stockton attended the day’s event.
They were happy with the building, said Faye.
To make its grand opening special, the Portland chapter suggested inviting the four beauty queens, who happen to be Lees, too. It showcased the Lees’ accomplishments, including the younger generation. The four Lees instantly became the main attraction for guests. They were Miss Chinatown USA 2013, Leah Li of Mercer Island, who flew from New York; Crystal Lee of California, Miss California; Ka Man Lee, Miss Chinese Chamber of Commerce USA 2014; and Karen Li, Miss Chinatown USA 2014.
Yes, Faye and the Portland chapter paid for their airfare. (end)
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.