Wendy Jane Yee
Great-granddaughter of Lim Lip Hong
Interviewee: Wendy Jane Yee (Great-granddaughter of Lim Lip Hong)
Interviewer: Connie Young Yu and Barre Fong
Location: San Francisco, California
Length of the Interview: 29 minutes, 30 seconds
Wendy Jane Yee: I’m Wendy Jane Yee, I am the daughter of Gene Lim Yee, who is the daughter of Robert Fok Lim Sr., who was the fourth child and second son of Lim Lip Hong, our common ancestor who was the first one to come to the Bay Area and California, in 1859, according to other family members.
Wendy Jane Yee: My father was Don Moon Yee, who was born in Salinas and grew up in Salinas in Monterey County, whose father came in the early 1890s originally as a student, and whose mother came probably after the turn of the 20th century. She was a Fong from somewhere in the Toisan area of Southern China–Canton area. She was literate and a Protestant. She was considered in the Salinas Chinese community to be an odd duck because she wore hats and was very western. I never knew her because she went back to visit her family in China in the early 1920s with my father’s younger sister, who was two years old. She left my father with his father, and she never came back. The visit became I guess permanent residence. Then she sent his younger sister back when she was 16. I have an interesting copy of the–my father’s teenage younger sister’s immigration file in the National Archives in San Bruno, because she had to prove she was the same person who had been taken out by her mother when she was two, before she knew anything about the immigration service and the laws and rules. So the multi-page interview typed on onion-skin paper is quite fascinating because they put these people through the ringer, but luckily she was admitted. She went on to found what became a very successful retail/florist business in Palo Alto right at University Avenue. She became a real estate investor in apartment buildings there and married into the Young family, which is related to your cohort who’s working on this research project. Connie Young-Yu.
Wendy Yee introduces herself and her paternal side of the family. A paternal aunt founded a successful business in Palo Alto and married into the Connie Young-Yu family.
Chinese florists; Connie Young-Yu; Don Moon Yee (father); Gene Lim Yee (mother); Lim Lip Hong (great-grandfather); National Archives; Palo Alto; Paternal aunt; Paternal grandmother; Robert Fok Lim Sr. (grandfather); Salinas, Monterey County; San Bruno; Toisan; U.S. Immigration; University Avenue; Wendy Jane Yee
Chinese American businesspeople–California Chinese American women Chinese–Clothing & dress Family history Immigration law National Archives and Records Administration (U.S.)
Wendy Jane Yee: Then on my mother’s side, her family was very interesting. Not just the Lim Lip-Hong side, but also her maternal side, which was Su Hu, because that grandfather came from China, but–it’s interesting–his wife was born here. But unfortunately we don’t know that much about my maternal great-grandmother. That was pretty common because in those days the culture emphasized–everything was about men, the way Muslim cultures are. Not that many people cared about the origin of women because women were second or third-class citizens. Many women–well *inaudible* was to be the number one wife because many of these men had second families, even Chinese. Because my Yee grandfather had a second wife and a second family after my grandmother went on her visit which became permanent to China. The two must have known about each other because all through the decades, my step-grandmother, even after her husband my grandfather died, because he died when my father was eight, so my step-grandmother then had three little children–a baby and two toddlers–and had to work at the canneries at Monterey to support them because in those days you didn’t have life insurance to take care of you the way they did in later times, in the 20th century. They always sent some remittance money to the first wife. I sort of take pride that I was a descendant of the number one wife because that’s what counts, really. You’re not the descendant of the concubine. And then on the Su Hu side, my great-grandmother was born here but I just wish we knew something. We don’t really know. And it’s just difficult to do research because the National Archives only started keeping track around the 1880s or so. And I guess what’s sort of interesting because our family was not negatively impacted by the Chinese Exclusion Act because they were already here.
Wendy Yee describes her maternal side of the family. Her grandfather had two wives: one in the U.S., and one in China. Not much is known about her maternal great-grandmother.
Canneries; Chinese Exclusion Act; Chinese women; Gene Lim Yee (mother); Lim Lip-Hong (maternal great-grandfather); Monterey; National Archives; Polygamy; Step-grandmother; Su Hu (maternal great-grandfather)
Chinese American women Family history National Archives and Records Administration (U.S.) Polygamy- China
Wendy Jane Yee: So I guess the good news is our common ancestor on the Lim side, Lim Lip Hong, got on a boat and got here and survived this railroad work and became a merchant, eventually. He came long before the Exclusion Act. They live on Patrol Hill, where apparently they must have gotten on pretty well with the neighbors. But there were a lot of commercial businesses–a lot of polluting-type businesses, by modern standards, because there were ship chandleries, factories that made rope, tanneries, poultry and meat slaughterhouses. So when people get all worried about living near pollution, that’s nothing because most of the Lim family must have had very strong DNA because many of them survived–for people born in the 1870s, 1880s, 1890s survived well into their 80s and some into their 90s. They were around a lot of pollution, they smoked, they drank–we don’t have any alcoholics that I know. But you know, they led their life in pretty happy moderation. I think a lot of the success was they had strong standard family units. They had arguments and fights probably some in-laws didn’t get along with the other sister/brother in law–but they got along. None of the other mothers-in-law that I heard of gave the impression that they were difficult autocratic dragon ladies. It seemed like they kind of adapted to American ways.
Wendy Jane Yee: One thing that’s interesting that my mother doesn’t know a lot about but that one of my first cousins, her older brother’s son, Lin Lin, told me about when we were teenageers is that, in talking to our grandfather, Robert Fok Lim Sr., apparently he ran away from home, from Patrol Hill when he was 14 or 15 and went on the railroads, kind of like a hobo. All across the US and ended up in the deep South. So that’s how he developed a funny kind of prejudice that lasted probably until the day he died against some white people. Especially the Irish because in the South they would hire him for day jobs, and then after he did the work, not pay. There wasn’t much to do about it. So he had a very independent American Yankee-type streak. He didn’t behave like a docile Chinese son the way his brothers were more likely to be. He really kind of knew how to kind of maneuver. Because he was completely bilingual and quite conversant with American culture, that’s why he was offered the job by Shell Oil which was quite a prestigious big job. They hired him to handle the Asian farmers in the western US which was basically west of the Rockies, Hawaii (it was not a state), and China–he even was sent to China. I have copies of the immigration file for him because Chinese who were American-born or naturalized had to register with INS–the smart ones, shrewd ones–before they went on any business or pleasure trip to make sure they could get back in. Because the Exclusion Act was not recalled formally until–[cut off] Let them know you were already American-born, and could prove it. And they still rang you through a small ringer coming back. I also have files on any relative I could find on my mother’s maternal side who made trips abroad.
Fong: I think that, actually, your great-grandmother did leave the country and did have to go through–
Wendy Jane Yee: That I don’t know, because I didn’t find any file on him.
Fong: She just got the file in coming back in, and actually going through pretty rigorous interview process.
Wendy Jane Yee: Interesting. I couldn’t find one on him. I saw photos of him and my great-grandmother, because they had to certify that their eldest son, who was the labor broker who made trips to China, was in fact their son born here. They would get affidavits for the grown children of elderly parents and vice versa. So I have to ask Andrea.
Yee’s maternal side of the family lived on Patrol Hill, where they were exposed to industrial pollution. They maintained a strong family unit. Yee’s grandfather, Robert Fok Lim Sr., ran away to the South as a teenager. He later worked for Shell Oil to manage Asian farmers in the western U.S
Chinese Exclusion Act; Chinese family units; Chinese merchants; Chinese railroad workers; Immigration and Naturalization Services; Irish workers; Lim Lip Hong (great-grandfather); Lin Lin (nephew); Potrero Hill; Pollution; Robert Fok Lim Sr. (maternal grandfather); Shell Oil
Chinese–Employment–California Environmental justice–California Immigration and the transnational experience Pollution–Social aspects–United States- History
Fong: So you have not been to China.
Wendy Jane Yee: No. Our family really has nothing to do in the village, and one problem when you go to China, and you go to these ancestral villages–and we don’t have any direct relatives, anybody that we know of–is that people from these villages think everybody in America are rich. Because in relative terms we are, but we’re not in our terms. They expect you to give them huge amounts of money, flat-screen TVs, refrigerators, you know, and I’m not a wealthy person. And I’m not very good at roughing it, so I’m not sure I would be a good person. I’d like to get there before I kick the bucket, but I’m not sure if that’ll happen.
Fong: One of the questions we’ve asked interviewees–
Wendy Jane Yee: Because I feel culturally much more American. And I have those values. I see nothing really in Chinese political life and their human rights record is dreadful. Always has been. I am very thankful that my great-grandfather came here so that the rest of our family could be born here and grow up here and have a legal system backing us up. I would not have wanted to be a peasant tilling the soil in southern China. Which probably would have happened and we probably would have had a very hard life.
Yu: It wasn’t enough to *inaudible*
Wendy Jane Yee: Yes, because my maternal grandmother died in the mid-40s despite remittances. So I’m sure the remittances never got to her. Because they had to run from the Communists who were fighting the Nationalists, and then the Japanese invading. They always had poor food distribution in the south because Beijing and Shanghai didn’t care about the peasants. They looked down on them. And that continues to this day. You meet people who came from China, who only can be here because Toisan immigrants from the 19th century laid the groundwork for the positive stereotype of Asian immigration from most of Asia. They have no interest in American culture. When they move here they stick to their own. And they–all of them actually look down on Americans, even white Americans as an aggregate group. Which is regrettable because despite the United States’ warts, we still have the best human rights record and the best standard of living of any country in the whole world. Why do you think people risk their lives to get here from the south of the border and the Orient or wherever. The Middle East now. So the negative attitudes of some of the more recent Chinese immigrants is most regrettable because it’s like they only want America only for what they can get out of it financially. They don’t put anything in. Some of them don’t want to take the time to learn English better. Some of them have enough money, they don’t even have to work. They can go to free English language classes that are given at all public schools or adult schools in most cities in the Bay Area. I’m very proud of being American-born and being an ABC. I have no apologies. When Chinese people from the Orient criticize me for not speaking Chinese, I say, well watch your kids and your great-grandchildren as the generations go by. And we have seven generations in our family now because my older cousins are grandparents.
Wendy Yee explains her reasons for not going back to the ancestral village. She describes identifying more with American culture and politics, criticizes some of the mindsets of more recent Chinese immigrants, and voices her pride in being American-born.
America; American-born Chinese (ABC); Ancestral villages; Communists; Nationalists; Quality of life; Recent Chinese immigrants; Toisan; World War II
Canton Immigration and the transnational experience Quality of life–China Quality of life–United States Recent immigration and American society
Wendy Jane Yee: Oh, this beautiful jade pendant, which has an art deco plaque and an old-cut diamond hook came from my mother’s maternal side because one of her mother’s–her eldest sister’s husband–founded a national retail chain called the National Dollar Store which went out of business about a decade ago, but which had stores all over the western US, particularly in California and Hawaii. At that point it provided a lot of jobs for Chinese-Americans who couldn’t get any jobs because of racial discrimination at a lot of conventional white American businesses, both big and small. And she used to travel, my great-aunt Rose, Su Hu Sheng, used to travel to to the Orient and just buy probably relative truckloads of Burmese jade because in the 1920s and 30s it didn’t cost that much. And all the best jade came from Burma. So this is a piece that came to my mother’s great-aunt by marriage, probably because it was a wedding gift. When she passed away and left it to my mom, my mom decided to give it to me, to enjoy now while she’s still alive. So I enjoy it–I wear it for luck. Doesn’t always work, but it helps. Can’t disprove it.
Wendy Yee wears a jade necklace inherited from her mother’s side of the family. A great-aunt’s husband founded the National Dollar Store, which employed Chinese in a time of job discrimination. The jade was sourced from Burma.
Art deco; Burmese jade; Family jewelry; Jade jewelry; Job discrimination; Mother; National Dollar Store; Rose/Su Hu Sheng (great-aunt)
Chinese American business enterprises Chinese–Clothing & dress Chinese–Employment–California Jade art objects–Burma Job discrimination
Fong: Can you tell us anything about your own life?
Wendy Jane Yee: I grew up in Brooklyn. My parents had to build a house on a lot that a white real estate broker friend of my grandfather’s, Robert Lin, helped them get in the North Berkeley Hills. They looked for a lot that would be near the best, highest-rated public schools which my sister and I were able to go to in the 1950s to mid- 60s. We all went to Berkeley High because Berkeley only had one high school. They could never figure out where to put the second one. They had so many debates but they never did. Then post-WWII baby boom shrank, and then they closed some of the schools. To save money my mother’s younger brother, who became a UC Berkeley and Harvard-trained architect, designed the house. It was his first house so there were a few floor plan issues. It has a spectacular three bridge view of the North Berkeley Hills. So that’s where we grew up. We grew up in a white neighborhood. What’s most interesting is that my mother and her brothers were born in the 19–her older brother was born in 1913, my mother was born in 1917 at the house, in 1327 Josephine Street in North Berkeley in the Foothill flats. Her younger brother was born in the early Alta Bates hospital in 1921 in Berkeley. They grew up in a white neighborhood–that was very unusual. My grandfather just got along with it, and he was able to have a positive enough relationship with some white somebody-or-other–he got his building lot around 1911 or 12 around that block. Most of the neighbors–they were all white, they were Irish, German, Scandinavian-American. My mother grew up with all white kids. I have some darling photographs by grandfather took of the kids in the 1920s writing runes in the front of their house. It;’s just darling, it’s like kids in the R Gang, the black-and-white movies of that era. One little kid is wearing the round Corbusier-style eyeglasses. A little blonde girl is the bride. My uncle, he’s Chinese, a cute little boy, was playing the groom. The kid with the eyeglasses was playing the minister. Very cute. And that was very unusual. Robert Lin and Ruby Su Lin’s family was very unusual, because the rest of his siblings grew up around Chinese–like on Otrero Hill. The oldest uncle, who was a labor broker, lived with his mother and father upstairs. The others lived in SF. Not in Chinatown–they too lived in neighborhoods that were more white, but they also had Chinese, like the Richmond district. There were exceptions. But generally speaking, the Fair Housing Act was not passed until Lyndon Johnson railroaded it through the US Congress in the mid-60s. Fair lending came later. So progress is made. But all in all, most Asian immigrants don’t even know there was discrimination. They come here, they pay cash, they’ve always been able to buy real estate. But they don’t even know the history and they don’t care when you tell how different it was to be…because all they have this Chinese cultural thing about, “Oh, have to make money, have to get something for nothing, have to twist somebody’s arm.”
Fong: One of the groups that’s really in support of this project is actually Silicon Valley group of first-generation Chinese immigrants–
Wendy Jane Yee: Interesting. Cantonese, or not? A lot of them are from Taiwan or elsewhere.
Fong: A mix. Both Cantonese and Taiwanese.
Wendy Jane Yee: Interesting.
Fong: But they actually appreciate the foundation that was laid by your generation’s immigrants.
Wendy Jane Yee: Well that’s good to know, because it’s been my personal experience–and I know a lot of people, because this is my 29th year in real estate brokerage, and my profession means that I meet all kinds of people, and because I like to talk to people and find out about them, I’m always curious. I find out about, you know. It’s like a spider web, and it just amazes me how many Chinese that have come in the last twenty years really don’t care. I think it’s a shame. They have no appreciation for history. All they’re after is money. Money is not everything in life. You can’t take it with you.
Both Wendy Yee and her mother grew up in white neighborhoods in the North Berkeley Hills. Yee talks about her mother’s experiences and the history of integrated housing. She criticizes first-generation Chinese immigrants’ lack of interest in past housing discrimination.
Berkeley; Berkeley High School; Brooklyn; Cantonese immigrants; Fair Housing Act; Fair Lending Act; First-generation Chinese immigrants; Gentrification; Lyndon B. Johnson; North Berkeley Hills; Otrero Hill; Real estate; Richmond district; Robert Fok Lin Sr. (grandfather); Ruby Su Lin (grandmother); San Francisco; Taiwanese immigrants; White neighborhoods
Fair housing Gentrification. Gentrification–California–San Francisco
Fong: Any other stories that you want to relate?
Wendy Jane Yee: Oh, the cousin who knew about her older cousin Fanny Lin Lee, who knew about our great-grandfather’s supposed unofficial second family that had a mother, or a mistress, who was Native American Indian. She co-founded a pioneer Chinese sorority, originally at the predecessor of San Francisco State University, which was Teacher’s College. Because the state university system and the University of California system were founded that the only criteria was you had to have a certain grade point average. That is why minorities were able to go. And there were Chinese. Whereas if you applied to Stanford, Ivy League or any private universities, even the Catholic ones, they routinely had gentleman’s agreements about how many minorities they would let in. And I spent the first half of my undergraduate years at Wellesley college in Boston. And I’m sure there was an unspoken gentleman’s agreement, because when I went in 1964–I stayed for 2 years, freshman and sophomore years–there were probably about only two dozen Asian students, and they were all Chinese. But not that many–about half of us were American-born, ABC, and the rest only from wealthy families in Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or Singapore. There was one black student my year. She didn’t come back the second year. I wouldn’t say anybody was hostile. In fact, most everybody was very nice. But I was shocked because they did put me with a Chinese-American, and ABC roommate, who grew up in New Haven Connecticut, whose parents were Cantonese Chinese who grew up in Hawaii and settled in New Haven after her father went to Yale Medical School. He also ended up teaching there and working as an optomologist in New Haven. It turns out we were talking. Her grandfather who had been dead many, many years had known my grandfather, Robert F. Lin Sr., when my grandfather traveled to Hawaii on business for Shell Oil. They knew each other. She talked to her parents who knew enough from her still-then living grandmother, the widow. So we thought that was an incredible small-world story. What we were really shocked about was that they put us with an Asian-American roommate. Because I figured that I’d just go there and because I know I wasn’t any one of these big numbers I’d probably have a white roommate. I’d only grown up with white people in the North Berkeley Hills. She got so mad she went and asked one of the Deans, and the Dean said, “Well we just thought you’d be more comfortable.” So it shows you how the world has changed since the 1960s. And they weren’t playing discrimination, they just thought–they had certain assumptions because they didn’t know, they had no background. She grew up in a wealthy suburb in Connecticut, of New Haven.
Fong: It’s interesting, you were talking about thinking of yourself as more of an American than anything, and–
Wendy Jane Yee: And that’s okay, I am not apologetic one bit.
Fong: Yeah, but it’s funny you can run into circumstances where people will tell you, “No, you’re not actually like every other American.”
Wendy Jane Yee: And they didn’t mean anything offensive, it was just ignorance. Not in the pejorative sense of ignorance, just ignorance because they didn’t know.
Wendy Yee discusses the experience of minority students, including herself, on college campuses. She recounts being assigned to an Asian-American roommate her freshman year at Wellesley.
American-born Chinese (ABC); California State Universities (CSU); Chinese sororities; Fanny Lin Lee (cousin); Gentleman’s agreements; Ivy League; Private universities; Robert Fok Lin Sr. (grandfather); Stanford University; Universities of California (UC); Wellesley College
Chinese Americans–Education–Social aspects Minorities in higher education–United States
Wendy Jane Yee: And then one of the best stories from my childhood. I was lucky. My father was successful enough as a pharmacist who owned Rexol drug stores when that was the major retail drug store chain all over America. Before Longs got huge, before CVS even existed. And they went along and grew along America the way Walgreens did. It’s just that Walgreens, in later decades, knew how to keep on going and keep up with the competition, whereas the Rexol company didn’t. So they don’t really exist anymore. So my father wanted his kids, his three daughters, to see the US. So we’re the only family we know where my father took about two months when I was 10 ? years old in 1959, took us on a car trip all around almost every of the 48 states in the Continental US, and most of the provinces of Canada. I think the only states–his itinerary that he worked together with Triple A—that we missed were the Dakotas and parts of Florida. But he fit in just about every major national state park. Now we didn’t appreciate this very much because he also had this big thing about taking photographs and movies when we were tired. But he bought the biggest V8 engine Lincoln Mercury white station wagon with the fake wood, that had three seats. And because he was partners with his younger half-brother, who was able to watch the business, he was able that one year to take about two months. So that was quite an experience. He took movies and we have a lot of photographs. And then probably about 15 years ago he had the old reel-to-reel movies. He sent it to some place in Silicon Valley where they transferred it to a cartridge. But I have to get it transferred to DVD, because I think the tape will wear out some day. But one of the best stories is we were in line at Yellowstone lodge waiting for dinner. Because at that time you had to line up for what was probably a fairly expensive restaurant. And they had a big fireplace there. They had a *inaudible* that was like the size of this room. And you waited in front there. And this white man who was quite short came up to my father, who was 5’11” and quite hunky. And said, “Excuse me, sir, do you mind if I ask you a question? Are you Eskimo or Indian?” *laughs* And I nearly cracked up. I don’t remember where the guy was from. But he said, “I’m from a place where we don’t see any Asian people. I don’t know.” So my father explained to him very nicely. Because the guy didn’t know, and he was smart enough to learn by asking a question. So it’s not dumb to ask, because in the Bay Area we’re from a multicultural neighborhood. But much of America is either 90 percent white and a little bit black and that’s about it. So my father explained and he learned something. But that was very funny.
Wendy Yee’s father owned a series of Rexol drug stores with his half-brother. When she was younger, her father took the family on a road trip across the continental U.S. Yee recounts an encounter with a man who mistook her father’s ethnicity.
Bay Area; Pharmacists; Rexol drug stores; Road trips
Chinese American businesspeople Road trip adventures Road trip: national parks
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