A New Dialog about Race?


Living in Seattle has been a much more positive experience for my family over the years since we first arrived here in 1997 from Naples, Florida – a place I half-jokingly described to some of my friends as the ‘Richest White Town in America.’ Our journey sometimes had subtle but profound effects for my son and daughter. Not the least of which was a much more diverse population and culture.

Even so, as we’ve assimilated into the Pacific Northwest culture, there were also other more subtle things that I’ve noticed over recent years. My daughter and I have talked about some of her experiences from having lived in Vancouver BC for the past 7 years. We’re Chinese but we were born over here. My brothers and I were first-generation born in the 50’s after Mom finally arrived with our much-older sister who was born in China 17 years earlier. But GrandDad arrived in 1906 and he brought Dad over to Canada at the age of 9 in 1916. As I’ve written about earlier, Dad was the only Chinese boy in all of Halifax at that time and lived through years of harsh racism growing up in Canada.

It was also our family’s early arrival at the turn of the last century that has empowered me to stand up to ignorant racist trolls who somehow always tend to think that simply because I look different, I must have just gotten off the boat. Most of them quickly find out that I can cuss and swear with the best of them! But I always save my best for the last: All too many of these mostly white racist shut down very quickly after I asked them when their boat arrived with their ancestors (because our Grandfather arrived over a century ago in 1906!). Even more hilarious is when some people bring up their family history dating back to the pilgrims and I counter that I’ve been in possession of Dad’s incredibly detailed Lee Family Tree that dates back over 25 generations to 900 a.d. when our family’s village was first founded! Instant shut down!

But I digress. Much of what set me down this path was some news that came out on the Seattle Seahawks this week. Most of my friends know that I don’t follow professional sports at all – at least in the traditional sense (but that’s another story). Still, the Seahawks Super Bowl victory earlier this year was cause for year-long celebration in Seattle because it seems that it was more than just a football win: For once, the good guys won! A young, unproven team of good guys actually pulled ahead of the other 31 teams and won, led by a very young quarterback, Russell Wilson. And he’s a nice young man who harkens to the olden days of sports role models who set a good example on and off the field for young kids to follow. Anyway, the news broke last week that the Seahawks had quickly and quietly traded wide receiver Percy Harvin to the New York Jets. The speculation about his trade was rampant and finally ended up as a full story about how he didn’t get along with Russell Wilson in particular. The earlier gossip included locker room fights with other players but the headlines that have been garnering the most attention focused on the fact that “Russell Wilson wasn’t black enough!



Russell Wilson isn’t “Black Enough,” Seahawks Players Allegedly Say

By: Ryan Glasspiegel

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson • USA Today Sports

After Percy Harvin was traded to the Jets, the leaks began almost immediately. Harvin physically fought teammates. Harvin pulled himself out of games. Harvin may have been about to “launch a mutiny” against Russell Wilson. Though (presumably) Wilson’s camp spread word through ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that Wilson wanted to keep Harvin aboard and help the troubled receiver through his “anger and trust” issues, it seemed, as someone watching from afar without inside access, that Harvin’s alleged issues with Wilson held the most efficacy in his ouster.

Today, Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman shed some light on issues that Harvin had with Wilson, and seemed to back Mike Florio’s assertion that the Seahawks feared the receiver would not be alone in a coalition against Wilson:

Read the rest of the Russell Wilson story at USA Today – click HERE.

Anyway, that’s part of the inspiration for this post. Then earlier tonight, a friend posted a link on his Facebook page to a site call The Whiteness Project.

Whiteness ProjectFrom their About section:

“The Whiteness Project is an interactive investigation into how Americans who identify as “white” experience their ethnicity.

“The project is conducting 1,000 interviews with white people from all walks of life and localities in which they are asked about their relationship to, and their understanding of, their own whiteness. It also includes data drawn from a variety of sources that highlights some quantitative aspects of what it means to be a white American.”

So this has me hopeful that we might finally be seeing an open dialog about racism. Within races.

Certainly growing up Chinese in a predominantly white culture has a profound effect on each of us who has been there. And for my black friends, they can certainly concur with me. But finally, we’re beginning to hear talk about Russell Wilson not being black enough which certainly resonates with me and my family. And I’ll add this to the discussion: I encounter the same problem (as I also alluded to my daughter living in Vancouver). Living in Seattle, we have a very large and spread out Chinese population. There are those from the Mainland, some from Hong Kong and Taiwan. A large number of these Chinese are wealthy new arrivals (new money is an appropriate term as well) who often bring a sense of entitlement with them from the old country. I didn’t even learn to speak English until I started school when I was nearly 6; although Dad had a lifetime of Western education complete with a full degree in Civil Engineering and spoke and wrote perfect English and Chinese, Mom never truly learned any English at all. So we spoke Chinese at home until we started school. Of course, I picked up English very quickly, eventually also learning several other languages as well like French and Spanish because I’d started with two very different languages at a young age. But my Chinese skills were very rudimentary as I soon discovered. Our family village was a tiny place of fewer than 300 people who spoke a unique and simple dialect which we learned and spoke at home because of our Mother. So my Chinese language skills are not particularly good. I was thrilled when I went back to our village during a business trip to China in 2000 and realized that I could actually understand and speak with the people in the village. But my Chinese skills are not particularly academic. I was also sad the first time I arrived in Hong Kong in 1985 on a business trip when I eventually realized that I truly didn’t feel at home there either.

Because of this, I’ve realized that many of the overseas Chinese often shun or look down on those of us who were born here and grew up over here. In fact, at times, it almost feels like outright… racism! I’m not “Chinese enough!” Which brings me back to Russell Wilson’s story of not being black enough. And this leads me back to the Whiteness Project and a question I’m going to submit to them: Surely this also has to be an issue among white people as well: “You’re not white enough!” So what would make someone more white than someone else? Or less white? Do you need to be British? Would Irish or Scottish be considered not white enough? How about other white Europeans? Or how about Southern rednecks? (LoL! I guess that’s a racist joke?)

So here’s a closing thought: Globally, Asians – including over 1.5 billion Chinese – make up more than one third of the world’s population today. And it’s now projected that white people will become a minority in America by 2043. Could it be this fact that has help kick off dialogs like the Whiteness Project?

Hoping some of my friends will continue this dialog in the Comments section.

Who was General Tso?

My brother sent me a link to a documentary, The Search for General Tso, that premiered last April at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. I’d never thought much about the origins of this dish but the more I searched, the more I realized that the origins of this dish are really hazy. And apparently, this very popular dish has not been around very long relatively speaking (just a century or two). (From Wikipedia – click HERE.)

It’s also one of the dishes I order from time to time and the recipe seems to change from one restaurant to another. After learning more about this dish, I’m beginning to wonder if it wasn’t one more recipe that may well have been created as much for Western tastes when Chinese food first started to be acceptable to Western palates. I’m always surprised to run into people who still don’t realize that dishes like Chop Suey were actually created in America for American tastes.

This documentary explores the mainstreaming of Chinese cuisine into Western culture and expands into how the Chinese assimilated into Western society.

The Search for General Tso – Trailer from Wicked Delicate Films on Vimeo.

Premiering at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival
Directed by Ian Cheney
Produced by Jennifer 8 Lee & Amanda Murray

Growing Up with Archie Bunker Everywhere

Love this kid! Alex Dang on “What kind of Asian are You?”

For those who have never grown up with racism, it’s hard to comprehend if you’ve never experienced it.

Still remember my Dad running into our asinine principal in the hallway when I first started Junior High at Tower Road School. First thing out of Withrow’s mouth was, “And which restaurant do YOU own, Mr. Lee?”

Wrong question to ask the old man, who arrived in Canada at the age of 9 in 1916 and managed to learn English fluently and eventually graduate with a degree in Civil Engineering among other accomplishments.

Without even skipping a beat, Dad answered back – in perfect English, of course: “What restaurant?!! I burn water when I boil it!”

After an awkward moment, Withrow turned around and walked away… Don’t think he ever had a “conversation” with Dad again!

Chuck Lee: My Boyhood Days in China

Dad always had lots of stories and anecdotes from years gone by. Many were from his short childhood back in the village in China before his Father brought him over to join him in Canada at the ripe old age of 9 back in 1916. Many years ago when we were going through some of his old papers after he passed away in 1990, We came across an old typewritten recollection he’d composed probably some time back in the late 60’s. I managed to scan it and run it through an OCR program so I could save it in Word format. Finally sharing this today with friends and family.

My Boyhood Days in China

By Shew Chuck Lee

I was born in Long Tao (Dragon’s Head), a small village in the remote part of the District of Hoi Ping in Guangdong province. Our village and the other villages in the immediate area were inhabited by the Lee family. Like other rural areas in China, different families tended to cluster in different communities. Just beyond our Lee community, there were the Hums, Setos, Fongs and Kungs. You might say that China was a collection of communities.

Nine generations before me, the founder of our village, Chung Len, moved from the district of Sun Wei to our present location. Before settling in Sun Wei, our forebears lived in Nantung, up in the northern part of our province near the border of Hunan province. Here in Long Tao, members of the Lee family grew up and tilled the land. When the father died, the son would carry on his work. This was the pattern of life from one generation to another. Since the founding of our village, there has been little or no change in our community. The roosters would crow at dawn, the dogs barked, the boys would recite their lessons at school and the farmers would work in the fields. The land was good to us. We grew out rice and vegetables. We caught fish in the rivers. We gathered grass and firewood in the hills. It was a hard life bit somehow we managed to eke out a living. Read the rest of this entry »

A Close Encounter from 50 Years Ago

Last Friday, August 8th was the fiftieth anniversary of one of the first mass shootings that I can recall from Canada or the States. Long before Columbine or any of the other shootings that followed, Edward Thomas Boutilier was a mentally-disturbed 18-year old who rode his bike around the South end of Halifax on that summer afternoon in 1964 and shot three young boys, killing two of them. After giving himself up days later, Boutilier was later diagnosed as mentally ill and institutionalized instead of being tried in a court of law. He subsequently killed himself 10 years later. There’s a link in the first paragraph to the article that spurred me to write this post for New Canadian Media.

This story is still as fresh in my mind today as it was when it happened. Or I should say two days after it happened, as you’ll soon understand after you read my post.

Remembering a Halifax Shooting Spree and a Narrow Escape

Written for  New Canadian Media Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Halifax Harbour, 1917 Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

by Robert Lee

Last week I came across an article in the Halifax Chronicle Herald memorializing a tragic day fifty years ago when three young boys were randomly gunned down by a man who was found to be mentally disturbed. My own memories of that time came flooding back, along with the realization that I had narrowly missed being a victim myself.

I was 13 that summer in 1964, the son of the first Chinese boy to live in Halifax. My dad had been there since 1916 and had grown up to be an important fixture in the community, eager to help anyone and everyone.

My younger brothers and I were accompanying our mother (who didn’t speak any English) on a cruise ship that would take us from Halifax to New York City in two days to visit our sister. Among other things, Dad would often book travel arrangements for many in the Halifax Chinese community because he spoke perfect English so he knew how to convey the details to the travel agent (who all too happily paid him a small fee for each ticket he sold).

Among other things, Dad would often book travel arrangements for many in the Halifax Chinese community …

As the oldest son in the family, I was in charge of our group, talking to the baggage handlers, the waiters and other staff on board. Dad dropped us off mid-afternoon hours before departure so he could head off and run a few errands before heading home to a quiet house. We were shown to our cabin and settled in when it suddenly hit me that I had forgotten my stash of vacation comic books back at home! With so much time left to wait for departure, I ran down the gangplank and off the ship, heading up South Street just a couple of blocks back to our house. Dad wasn’t home yet so I let myself back in and retrieved my comics and left him a note. Comics in hand, I dashed back to the ship and into our cabin with hours to spare!

The ship finally set sail into the Atlantic on to New York City. And not being accustomed to any kind of motion, Mom immediately got seasick and spent her entire time in our cabin throwing up. So my brothers and I would have the run of the ship. What a blast! It was one opportunity to enjoy some rare moments of freedom and independence. We’d eat our meals in the dining room enjoying being waited on by the staff and we’d take a little food back to Mom in the cabin, even though she couldn’t really eat much the whole time we were on the ship. We’d spend our days exploring the entire ship level by level and stopping here and there to look around with no adult supervision!

Two days later, we pulled into New York Harbor, passing the Statue of Liberty to pull into our dock. After disembarking, we cleared immigration and customs with our paperwork and were greeted by our sister and her family. We drove over to their house in Brooklyn and settled in to get our sea legs back.

Dutifully, I went over to the phone to call Dad as we had always been taught to do when I arrived anywhere – I placed a collect call for him to our number at home. He would typically decline the collect call, “I’m sorry. He’s not here right now. Could I take a message?” was always his response and the operator would do her job with no charge on either end. It was another one of his ways of being frugal and not wasting money, carried over from his days of living through the Great Depression. (How many of you remember this trick too? I always wondered how many operators would shake their heads each time a collect call came in.)

Close Call

But I couldn’t believe what happened next! This time, he actually said, “Yes, this is him. I will accept the call!” I fell back into my chair! “I need to talk to you about something,” he said.

He proceeded to tell me about the shooting spree that had just taken place in the South End of town, close to where we lived. Apparently someone had shot three children while riding his bike. It had happened around the time I had dashed home and back to the ship to grab my comic books!

“You could have been killed!” said my father.

That fact didn’t hit home until I read that Herald piece and saw the map showing the killer’s route through the South End. I could see that he had ridden along close to the railway line near the harbour. I would have been crossing through the same area right around the same time on my way back to our house.

I spent a lot of that summer vacation thinking about that horrific event and the death of the two young boys (the third survived). But, in our house, we never talked about it again.

The Chinese in Vancouver

Hong Kong’s Pearl TV does a recent episode on the influx of Chinese to the city of Vancouver over the past decade.

Memories of Citadel Hill

One of the pages that I follow on Facebook is Vintage Halifax where they post a wide range of old pictures and postcards depicting Halifax from as far back as when photography was first invented. Their collection continues to grow and I’ve commented on a few when they bring back personal memories from over the years. Yesterday, they posted this old postcard from the 1920’s that was taken up on Citadel Hill where the original Halifax fortress was built for the British troops to watch and protect the expansive harbor that was – and still is – not only an important part of Halifax but the entire East Coast shipping routes.

This view definitely brought back an interesting memory of our Dad and I’m sharing it here as well.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Chinese in Cuba

Documentary maker Pok Chi Lau talks about his life in Canada and what he learned about how the Chinese arrived in Cuba. (Clicking on Watch on Vimeo will open the movie in a Vimeo tab.)

Cuban CHINESE from AMCNN on Vimeo.

A Century of Chinese Revolution

Just in time for your New Year’s viewing. Time to make some popcorn and sit down as the holidays wind down and watch some videos!

MaosRevolutiongifI recently came across this 3-part series China: A Century of Revolution 1911 – 2011 and decided this collection was worth posting and sharing with friends and family.

For our family, it has special meaning: Dad was born in 1906 and arrived in Canada at the age of 9 in 1916 to join his father in Halifax. So for most of his life from afar, Dad watched China evolve and undergo one revolution after another until Mao’s Communist revolution was complete at the end of World War II in late 40’s. In 1949, Mom and our sister, Nancy, made it out of China just as all of that was taking place after Chinese families were finally allowed to re-unite after nearly a century of extreme racial discrimination in North America. Watching Episode 1: 1911 – 1949 gave me a whole new perspective and historical context of what was going on during that period when Dad was living in Canada while Mom and Nancy were still back in China.

It staggers my mind when I try to imagine their lives in the last century: The village where Mom and Nancy lived hasn’t changed much in the years since they left; when I visited back in 2001, it was still a tiny village of around 200 people living off the land and farming in the rice fields. It was almost an hour’s drive down a dirt road from the nearest town (which would often flood during rainy season) where the children would go to school. Even in 2001, there was only minimal electricity and no running water or sewers so the water supply came from the same river where all the sewage runoff flowed and where they grew their rice. No telephones and certainly no mail service. Now go back to the turn of the last century and picture that AND no mail service to speak of, no telephones or telegraph. How Dad managed to stay in touch and send money home to support his family is unimaginable, let alone making all the arrangements to have them leave their village in 1949, take a train down to Hong Kong and then fly on an airplane to Canada – all for the first time in their lives. Mom had been anemic so they had an unexpected delay in Tokyo before getting on board a Canadian Pacific Airlines 4-prop Viscount plane to fly over to Vancouver BC where Dad planned to be waiting for them. Dad freaked out after arriving in Vancouver from his long train trip across Canada all the way from the East Coast only to realize that they weren’t on the plane he had booked for them! A frantic telegraph or two later, he was finally informed of Mom’s illness and the delay in their departure from Tokyo. When Mom and Nancy finally arrived in Vancouver, they joined Dad on another nearly 2-week train ride back East across Canada to arrive at their new home in Halifax NS after each spending almost a month of travel halfway around the world (and having come from a previous lifetime as nothing more than the experience of their simple village lives). When Nancy met her Father for the first time after stepping off that plane in Vancouver, she was already 15½ years old!

Each video is nearly 2 hours long so settle in for a Chinese History marathon. Happy New Year to everyone!

Reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover at 11

I still remember reading D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover when I was around the ripe old age of 11. And just how did a geeky little Chinese kid living in a very strict and controlled home end up reading such a lurid tome at such a tender age you ask?

Over his entire life for as long as we can remember, our Dad always had a strong lifelong commitment to helping most of the small Chinese community that lived in Halifax. Having the advantage of a college education and being able to speak, read and write perfect English, Dad would often be called upon to provide much-needed assistance to anyone who asked. If someone needed a translator in court, Dad was there. And every Fall, Dad would religiously canvas the entire Chinese community gathering donations for the United Way as his personal contribution for the help they provided our Mom with blood transfusions when she first arrived in Canada on the West Coast. Not that the Chinese population was very large back in the 50’s and 60’s as we were growing up. And so it was that one summer day when I was allowed to sit out on our front steps, I said ‘Hello’ to a young Chinese man who was walking past our house. It turned out that he was newly arrived with no relatives in the area. At the time, he was supporting himself as a waiter at a restaurant and saving his money to start a business. Dad took a liking to him and Jimmy would visit us from time to time.

Read the rest of this entry »