When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, Chinese in the United States organized to support the war effort and send much-needed aid and supplies to China. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US and China became allies (which also led to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943). From New York’s Chinatown alone, over 1,000 Chinese men enlisted in the armed forces. Women like Anna Lee Chin (1901–1974) similarly sought to serve their country, joining the homefront war efforts. Pictured above, Chin and her father-in-law Chin On translated war posters into Chinese. Chin On was a prominent businessman and member of the Chin Family Association, and many in New York’s Chinatown looked to him and his family for guidance. Fluent in both English and Chinese, Baltimore-born Anna helped to mobilize local women and the larger community.
She and other women formed a Chinatown unit of the American Woman’s Voluntary Services, shown here with Anna on the left.
Anna Lee Chin not only took active part in public life and community work, but also in the family’s economic life. After the war, in 1947, she and her husband Hong Chin bought a produce and chicken farm in Englishtown, New Jersey. They joined other Chinese American farmers working in the area. The Chins grew Chinese vegetables and raised chickens and cattle, selling their produce at their store in New York’s Chinatown. They also distributed their yield to other grocers and restaurants in New York and Newark Chinatowns. Here, Anna is using an egg sizer to help sort eggs into small, medium, and large.
Hong Chin ran the Sugar Bowl, the family’s store and coffee shop, located at 35 Pell Street in New York’s Chinatown, while Anna ran the farm. She negotiated prices, cared for the land, and raised their children. Anna interacted regularly with farmers and locals in nearby towns, and learned to thrive in these predominantly non-Chinese communities.
Anna and Hong had five children, a daughter and four sons. All of Anna’s sons studied at Rutgers University while continuing to work on the farm. Donald Chin, the middle of the three boys seated at the table, went on to be a career Navy officer. In 1957, the family sold the farm to one of the boy’s classmates, who turned it into a horse farm, still in operation today.
After retirement in Arizona, Anna and Hong remained active, even responding to a film casting call to play extras in the 1960 war film Mountain Road, starring James Stewart. This picture of the couple dressed as Chinese laborers was taken on the set.
Anna’s grandchildren, Sandra and Douglas Lee, shared her story with us. Sandra Lee says of her grandmother: “She was rather inspirational and a very strong woman. While my grandfather stayed in Chinatown, she was the matriarch. She knew the local folk in New Jersey and dealt with non-Chinese farmers, who may not have been too friendly during those times. When I was a young girl, we would go to the farm in New Jersey every year. My grandmother taught me how to cook, plant a garden and helped me with my homework. Years later, when I saw the pictures of her involvement in World War II, I thought to myself, ‘She was not only a strong figure for the Chinese community, she was also accepted in mainstream America.’”
Images courtesy of Sandra K. Lee and Douglas A. Lee and Werner Wolff / Black Star.