Lillie Lee Hong, a.k.a. – Grandma Hong
January 3, 1919 – October 19, 2012
St. Louis, MO
(PHOTO: Grandma Hong at the age 93, always smiling and feeling like she is 39…)
Lillie Lee was born in Canton, China on January 3, 1919. In 1924, five year old Lillie immigrated to St. Louis, MO with her mother Gene Shee to join Lillie’s father Frank Lee. Her father owned a Chinese restaurant. Her parents lived in a small two-room apartment in Hop Alley (Chinatown, St. Louis), where many poor Chinese lived in the extremely congested tenement housing, located along the riverfront at the edge of the downtown business district. Other immigrants came from Italy, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Greece and Russia, as well as black migrants from the South – each lived in separate clustered row housing neighborhoods. The hot and humid St. Louis summers covered the whole crowded area, making life difficult and unbearable, but they all wanted a better life. They left their homelands and came seeking that American Dream…”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”.
Lillie and her aunt attended the St. Louis Chinese Gospel Mission. It was one of the first Chinese churches in St. Louis, founded by Miss A. Chiles, a retired American missionary who served in China. The Sunday school taught many Chinese children English and the girls learned household crafts, sewing, cooking and hygiene. It was a chance for upward mobility, from rural China to urban America. There Lillie found peace, comfort and security; as she accepted Christ as her personal Savior.
Since the St. Louis public schools were segregated, Lillie attended Madison elementary school located near Hop Alley. All of the Chinese children walked 11 blocks to school. They were exceptional students in math and sciences, however like many lower-class Chinese girls her age, Lillie left school after eighth grade as her parents did not believe in educating girls. She loved painting and won awards for her artwork. As the eldest daughter, she accepted her responsibilities to care for her brothers and sisters.
Businesses began to struggle due to the Great Depression and Frank Lee incurred a debt by gambling. In 1935, they setup an arranged marriage for their eldest daughter Lillie for the payment of $1,000. Frank and Gene Shee took their younger children and moved back to China, leaving Lillie alone in St. Louis.
Lillie, now age 17 was married to Chooey Hong, owner of a Chinese hand laundry. She worked the long and difficult days from 6am to 9pm. Here she raised her family of nine children. She taught them all to work hard; be good citizens, obey the laws; study to do their best in school; help the elderly neighbors; love the Lord and attend church.
Chooey and Lillie both worked hard and saved enough money to sponsor and support Lillie’s aging mother and siblings, and brought them back to America.
In January 1960, Lillie’s husband Chooey died. Lillie (age 41) was alone again, but this time with her nine children, ages 22 to the youngest age 8. To raise her family, Lillie kept them close to the church. Her faith in God provided that foundation to stay strong, hold on and to survive.
Lillie continued to operate the laundry. After all the children did their school homework, they pitched in doing their assigned chores. She was very frugal, saving and using whatever she had. She was ahead of her time and may have started the “recycling movement – reducing, reusing, and recycling”. She faithfully attended the Chinese Gospel Mission with all her children. Each Sunday, she opened her home to the international students for dinner as a place to get away from their studies and to be with a family. She understood their loneliness and shared whatever she had. The students came from St. Louis University, Washington University, University of Missouri, St. Louis College of Pharmacy and Covenant Theological Seminary.
With no future in the Chinese hand laundry business, each of her children studied hard. They completed school, started working outside the laundry, married and started their families. It was time for Lillie to close the laundry and move to the suburbs.
In her early 50’s she finally had to learn to drive. In 1969, she moved to Ballwin, MO and planted a Chinese vegetable garden in her backyard. She shared the proceeds from her “plentiful harvest” with the needy, the church, missions fund raising, and feeding the students. She continued working full-time at the Missouri Baptist Hospital cafeteria, until she “officially retired” early in 1984. Throughout her busy and hardworking life, she always greeted everyone with “that warm smile” and a friendly hello.
Coming from China with so little, her hard work and willingness to share what she had, showed she lived a Christ-like example. She grew from a “small mustard seed” to having a family of 9 children and 8 in-law spouses, 17 grand-children and 13 grand-spouses, 23 great-grandchildren and still counting. Many of them fulfilling Lillie’s American Dream as accountants, artists, administrators, architects, entrepreneurs, educators, PhDs, engineers (including helping design the electronics for the NASA space capsules and America’s space race to the Moon), computer engineers, international business executives, lawyers, legislators, medical doctors & nurses, 3 who served in the US Army & Marines (including a Vietnam veteran receiving a Bronze Star with Valor), ministers, musicians, pharmacists, photographers, researchers & technicians, but most importantly, they are dedicated Christian mothers & fathers raising their families.
She lived what she believed, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. And lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.” Proverbs 3: 5-6.
To her family, the St. Louis Chinese Gospel Church and the St. Louis Community she was loved and respected, and A.K.A. (Always Known As) Grandma Hong.
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