ChanFamilyMy grandfather, Chan Yuen Yee (1859-1944), came to the United States in 1880 when discrimination against the Chinese was very strong. He lived through the San Francisco earthquake before moving to the Los Angeles Chinatown in 1915 and then to Houston, Texas, in 1935. He supported his families in China and the U.S. by operating a pawnshop and grocery store his entire life. His six children grew up working in the stores.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 profoundly affected our family. Because Chan Yuen Yee was a merchant in the United States before the law was enacted, he was able to call on the store’s mailman and insurance agent to swear that he was not a laborer, but actively operating a business. (The law excluded laborers but allowed merchants to travel back and forth to China.) He supported his first family in the home village, Luk Chuen, Toishan District, Kwangtung Province, in China while owning and operating a pawnbroker shop in San Francisco Chinatown from 1880 to 1909. He became part of the San Francisco Chinese bachelor society created by the Chinese Exclusion Act.
When he made his final trip back to China in 1907, he returned with his second wife, Yee Shee, and started his American family. I never knew him since he died in 1944 and I was born in 1950. Their eldest son, Edward K.T. Chen, was the first Chinese American to graduate from the University of Houston and became a professor of history and political science there. His brothers Charlie and George were the first Chinese Americans to graduate from Rice University. Chan Yuen Yee’s grandchildren grew up speaking only English and attended colleges across the U.S.
My father, George, told me that his eldest brother, Edward K.T. Chen, was brilliant. Edward lived in New York City before settling in Houston. He was secretary to the Vice-Consul of the Republic of China. In 1937 in Texas he testified against a proposed bill that would not allow Chinese to own property. He was the first president of the Chinese American Citizen’s Alliance (CACA) in 1954. He helped prevent the internment of American Chinese during the Korean War. He helped start the first Chinese Church in Houston. Because he was a fluent English and Chinese speaker, highly educated and politically engaged, Edward was able to bridge the gulf between Chinese and American cultures. A Texas historical marker placed in 2009 at the Tracy Gee Community Center in Houston, Texas, honors the accomplishments of Edward K. T. Chen.

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