On November 2nd, we lost our queen and our original women warrior, my grandmother Nancy Lee Chang, who died peacefully in San Francisco, surrounded by family members. She was 96.
Please join us for a celebration of my grandmother’s life on Friday, November 17th from 10am- 12noon at Tiffany Chapel at Cypress Lawn (main building)
1370 El Camino Real, Colma, CA 94014. The luncheon will follow her burial in the 2nd floor reception room above Tiffany Chapel.
My grandmother was a hardworking mother of two, holding down many roles in customer service to support her family until she retired at the age of 75.
Fiercely independent until the age of 86, my grandmother was a pioneering spirit, inspiring her family and many others.
She enjoyed dancing, playing mahjong, traveling, gambling, and working out at the YMCA. Her love for her family was unconditional. Her open door policy at 28 Homestead, gave her grandchildren and great grandchildren the opportunity to live with her and take advantage of her worldly wisdom.
Lee Bak Huen-Nancy Lee was born on July 12, 1921 in the Lee Ancestral Home in Foo Choong, HEUNG SHAN DISTRICT in Kwantong, China. In 1929 when her mother Louie Shee departed for “Gum San” (Gold Mountain in California) with Lee Bak Choon-John Lee, her maternal grandmother Ng Shee raised her at her home in Too Dow, (a 5 hour walk from Foo Choong Village) until 1937.
My great-grandparents Louie Shee & Lee Ah Kon had four children. My grandmother’s older sisters, Electra and Minerva, were named after Greek goddesses; my grandmother was named after a ship, the S.S. Nancy Lee; and their younger brother was named John.
My great-grandfather arrived in San Francisco in the late 1800’s as a teenager, traveling between China and San Francisco by ship as a merchant. He was instrumental in helping other Chinese immigrate to America He became a successful businessman in San Francisco opening general merchandise stores on Mission Street and in Chinatown.
My grandmother, whose Chinese name was Lee Bak Huen, was just one of over 175,000 Chinese detained for over a month at the Angel Island Immigration Station, the major port of entry to the U.S. for immigrants from the Pacific Rim.
I received an AAJA New Media Journalism Award for my grandmother’s first hand of account of coming to America, based on a series of her oral histories, originally published on A. Magazine’s online site in 2000. My grandmother was on hand to claim the award for her life story at the AAJA convention in San Francisco and enjoyed meeting all of my Asian American journalist colleagues that she had watched on television for so many years.
Below is an excerpt of her account:
“My name is Lee Bak Huen. In 1937, I was 15 years old when Japan bombed China and many of the people in my grandmother’s village were killed. At the time, my father, brother and two sisters lived in Locke, CA, and my father sold clothes to farmers to support us. Fearing for my life, he sent my passport and a booklet that detailed everything about my family and my home for me to study. He managed to scrape together $300 Hong Kong dollars, enough for third class passage on the SS President Hoover. My journey from Hong Kong to San Francisco took 18 days. I slept on a hammock and was seasick the entire time.
I expected to get off the ship in San Francisco, but was taken to Angel Island instead, and detained. My father hired a lawyer to facilitate the processing. The Chinese interpreter who interrogated me was so rude that she confused me with many questions. I was asked how many stones it took to build my house in China, how many sisters I had, the year I was born, why didn’t I come with my mother? She asked me to draw a picture of my house in China. My family home had four or five bedrooms, but I lived in my grandmother’s house in a different village five hours away. The officials wanted to make sure I wasn’t a “paper” person (someone with false identity papers), but I looked a lot like my brother and that was my saving grace. Once our pictures were compared, I was released.”
My grandmother was allowed to join her family in Locke, where she worked in a cannery.
In 2012, The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation added Lee Bak Heun to their website database of Chinese American Coming to America Stories.
From 1941-1944 during World War II, my grandmother worked as a ship fitter and was among the six million women who were being recruited to join the workforce. “Rosie the Riveter” and her “We Can Do It” motto came to symbolize all women Home Front workers. The war created liberation for women like my grandmother, who would leave early in the morning before dawn to catch the bus to Richmond, CA, where she worked at the Kaiser Richmond shipyards.
Over 100,000 people flocked to the city of Richmond (original population 30,000) to work and were paid $1 per hour, $1.10 per hour for the graveyard shift, and $2 per hour on Sunday.
My grandmother wore the classic Rosie the Riveter uniform including a Red bandana, flannel shirt and blue bib overalls. She carried the classic lunch box with the thermos inside the rounded cover. Her duties as ship fitter included putting the pieces of a ship together. She worked with riggers, crane operators, welders and riveters. She made sure pieces were properly aligned, using hammers to nudge heavy pieces into position. It was very dangerous work and she wore a scarf so the flying sparks created by welders would not burn her hair.
Nancy’s granddaughter Marissa, who worked alongside Auntie Pauline to organize this celebration, obtained a certificate of acknowledgement for our grandmother’s contributions as a “WWII Rosie” from the Rosie the Riveter/WW II Home Front National Historic Park on November 9, 2017.
My grandmother met her future husband at her father’s Dry goods store located at 607 Jackson St. in San Francisco and took an instant liking to him. My grandfather, Harry Kai Chong Chang, was a dapper gent who grew up in Honolulu where he had attended Catholic schools. He spoke Chinese with an American accent. The chemistry was quite evident even though she didn’t speak much English.
In recounting their first meeting, my grandmother shared with her daughter Pauline, “I told him that his pant’s zipper was down in Chinese.” Imagine that was their first conversation.
As was customary of the times, my grandmother was supposed to have an arranged marriage, but true to form, she refused and insisted she would pick her own husband. She realized how fortunate she was that their families knew one another. The deal was sealed with her marriage to the man of her choice, two years her junior.
They had two daughters – my mother Beverly was born in 1945, and my Auntie Pauline was born in 1954.
During the late 40’s and 50’s, my grandmother worked as a beautician with a diverse group of women in the basement of Emporium. While her husband was at sea, she and her friends would get glammed up to go dancing at The Forbidden City. .
My grandmother and her friends loved mahjong and would play late in the evening or until the wee hours of the morning with her daughter in tow, as there were no baby sitters around. She could talk, knit, smoke and play mahjong all at the same time.
The family lived in several areas of Chinatown and North Beach including on Clay Street, on Jones Street and on Greenwich St. My Uncle Ronnie remembers the family gatherings at the Clay Street flat reminiscent of scenes straight out of the Joy Luck Club.
In the early 60’s my grandmother retired from Emporium and she opened her own salon. She and my grandfather signed a contract to rent Nan’s Palace of Beauty, a tiny storefront on Leavenworth between Sutter and Post, which she operated by herself for 10 years. Her customers loved her and she thrived in this atmosphere.
In 1963, my grandfather decided it was time to move out of Chinatown. They bought the newly built flats at 26-28 Homestead St in Noe Valley for $40,000. My grandfather wanted his wife and two daughters to be comfortable in their nice neighborhood and a brand new home.
During this time, my grandmother embraced Nichiren Shoshu, the denomination that follows the orthodox teachings of true Buddhism. My grandmother would chant daily, travel around the country and even to Japan, for meetings with her Buddhism group in search of enlightenment.
In 1970, my grandmother lost her husband and her father. My grandmother was generous to a fault and took my sister Tami and I to visit our grandfather’s relatives in Honolulu.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s, my grandmother worked at various Chinatown based stores owned by Sinclair Louie, including China Bazaar. During my grammar school years at St. Mary’s Chinese Day School in Chinatown, after class, I would walk a block to the shop where I met all of her young friends/co-workers, who affectionately called her “Grandma”.
She was an avid exercise buff and her workout routine at the Stonestown YMCA consisted of water aerobics, weight lifting and the Nordic Track.
She is survived by her daughter, Pauline and her sons-in-law Bob and Russell, her grandchildren, Kim, Tami, Marissa (Carlos), Eric, Alaina (Marcos), Karina (Jon), Leah & great-grandchildren, Asia, Tai, Mya, Mason, Myles and Indio.
My grandmother’s energetic personality & love of life spirit will be missed. We are so very lucky to have had her touch all of our lives.