THAT’S MY FATHER Tong Chee Lee (1916-1972) ON THE LEFT. Don’t know date of picture, how old he was or if he even how to fly a plane. But dad’s a cool guy, he’s different, just as the Lees of Brownsville Brooklyn were different, at least in some ways. I’m going to list some of the un-Chinese Lee quirks and impart a taste of life as a Lee from the 1960s Brooklyn to the present.
–Dad was a poor dirt farmer who married up snaring my mom (Wong Suey Wah, 1926-2006), who was 10 years younger, from a wealthy family and educated to be a teacher. Very un-Chinese.
–He first came to the US at age 12, and came back in 1949 with mom, my older (by a year) sister Howlin and me, Howdy. I was 30 days old when we left Hong Kong to flee the Communists. We arrived at Ellis Island and were detained there overnight. My other siblings Howmee, Howard and Howell were all born a year apart after that. We were all named beginning with “How.” Not un-Chinese in that it seems many Chinese have unusual American names like Angus, Baldwin, Corky, etc.
–We got a taste of the blackboard jungle at PS 156 where Mike Tyson went. To avoid further harassment at middle and high school levels,our parents had us go to parochial schools. I was baptized (choosing the name Christopher) as were the first five of us siblings. I saw few Chinese in our parish.
–We did fit the stereotype back then: hard-working parents– long hours at the restaurant and mom becoming a garment worker (much to her chagrin, considering her background), quiet studious kids.
–However, I was once scolded by a teacher for “talking so much.” No Chinese kid in those days ever spoke. There were few Chinese in public schools, fewer in parochial schools (I was the only Chinese in my HS graduating class). There were maybe 4 Chinese families in the PS 156 area (2 restaurateurs, 2 laundries).
–My youngest brother George Washington was born in 1960. He was studious like his older siblings’ and was Admitted to the NYU 6 year dental program, but becoming a podiatrist instead. Un-Chinese?
— By 1968 pop bought a house in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn where there were no Chinese, again fleeing, this time because Brownsville had become the “Fire Capital of America” with the rioting from 1964 on.
–Cancer from life-long smoking took dad in 1972. Very Chinese—everyone smoked.
–I cut short grad studies in philosophy (un- Chinese) and in 1975 I started law school at mom’s urging.
–howlin and i married causcasians still mostly un-chinese in the 80s.
–I went on to litigate employment discrimination cases for the Federal government and then became a Federal Administrative Law Judge, retiring in 2006. I was one of 7 Asian judges in NYS in 1994 when I went on the bench. Litigation was un-Asian, most likely due to the perception of Asians having accents.
–The kids growing up were bookish and nerdy, but we also played sports. The boys were well-known at the Roy H. Mann JHS B-ball courts as “Big Chuck” (me), “Middle Chuck” (Howard), and “Little Chuck” (Howell) because we shot lights out. We were never fearful of not playing because in choosing sides—even if we shot last—we always made our foul shots. Un-Chinese. These days we play tennis. One brother taught tennis for many years and I coached HS tennis a couple of seasons.
–My daughter was a varsity Ivy fencer and captained her HS softball, field hockey and fencing teams while a National Merit finalist. She is a Classics (Greek and Latin) grad student. Very very un-Chinese.
— My mom died in 2006, but my siblings are all alive and well; all professionals and retired except for George.
–I now serve on the Board of a Chinese advocacy organization, doing what I was meant to do. Someday I hope to write the great ASIAN American treatise on the aspects of discrimination that are not covered extensively in the current Asian literature.
–but What would make dad even more proud is that I remember all that I learned while working summers in his restaurant and cook some now.