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Born on October 13, 1911, in Canton (now called Guangzhou), China, my Dad, Chen Teung Yee, was a petite gentleman, who stood tall in his children’s eyes. He was the sole surviving child in his family. His grandfather was a blacksmith and his father was a fisherman. The family farmed as well.
My Dad was an adventurer, who immigrated to City of San Francisco when he was seventeen. He arrived by ship and spent about six months on Angel Island before he was permitted to enter the United States. We were never told why he remained at the immigration center so long, although he knew others who stayed even longer, or who were returned to China.
Although he came as a student, my Dad was the typical sojourner who came to earn money in the United States (“Gold Mountain”). He worked at various jobs but spent most of his life working in a laundry for a relative on Webster Street and later owning his own laundry on Leavenworth Street in San Francisco. Customers considered my Dad a very friendly person, and he enjoyed having interesting conversations with them. He worked very long hours, earning a living for his family. Some of the family tried to start a poultry farm in Sonoma County, but they were not very successful.
Chen Teung Yee’s passion was cooking, and he was great at it. During some of his free time, he would hang out with the chefs at various Chinese restaurants in the City. He also appreciated the life in the United States, and eventually wanted to stay. He had dreams of owning a restaurant, but it never came to pass. So he shared his excellent cooking with family and friends. The family loved his crunchy bok choy and beef chow mein. Another favorite was his whole melon soup, which he made during Chinese New Year. He made delicious American meals as well.
Around 1937, he returned to China to marry my Mom, Suey Yeong Yee. His wife gave birth to a son (Benny) in January of 1938. Chen Teung Yee returned to the United States around late 1938. He sent money home to his family and wrote letters telling his family and about the events in his life, including going to Pacific Exposition on Treasure Island. World War II intervened, and he did not see his son and wife until their arrival in San Francisco in 1948 and 1952, respectively.
Chen Teung Yee and his family had three more children upon the arrival of his wife in the United States. They were William (born 1952), Helen (born in 1954) and Theodore (born 1956). Everyone in the family worked in the laundry on Leavenworth Street. He was able to buy a house in 1956. Although the family never traveled far because of the long hours worked, my Dad shared good times with his children by taking them to Chinatown and to the Marina Greens to fly kites or go fishing.
My Dad sadly died in April 1967. After years of fighting a thyroid condition, his heart gave out. Although he died young, he did enjoy life and was proud to be an American. He valued education and the American Dream, and instilled these values in his children.
Photos provided by Helen Yee
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