Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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IMMIGRANT VOICES

My Immigrant Story

by Helen Yee

I was born in San Francisco at St. Luke Hospital on June 26, 1923. When I was 4 months old, my parents took me to Detroit, Michigan to enable themselves to open a laundry there. Due to the fast progression of the Ford and the General Motors Corp. business had expanded. Thus, the laundry business was a good thriving business. My parents heard of it through word of mouth. However mom had bad health problems. Medical bills used up the earnings. My dad’s mother, Grandma Yee, who lives in a remote village in China, sent word for my dad to return to China to remarry, after my mother died at age 32. I was the oldest at 12 years old. There were six of us. The youngest was one year old, not yet two. We arrived in China on January 1936. I became ill, then bedridden for two years, during the latter part of my four-year stay in China.


Helen Yee

I left the village in China on a junk wooden boat by way of the Pearl River for Hong Kong when I was 16 years old to return to America. I was by myself with only a knap sack, which held a shirt, one pair of pants and six sheets of toilet paper. My stepmother’s brother, who met me in Hong Kong, assisted me in purchasing the ticket for the President Cleveland. Before I got on the ship, my uncle bought me a blanket and a pair of shoes. I left the village with only a slide in wooden sandal and no socks.

Aboard President Cleveland, I shared a room with three other women. Our meals were mess hall fashion. I spent my time on board walking the deck, most of the time, as my three roommates were sick most of the time. One ship engineer saw me always on deck like a deck fixture. He invited me to tour the engine room. That was a delightful adventure with huge gears in operation. The only port the ship stopped at on the way was Hawaii. I didn’t get off there and just stayed aboard. I arrived in San Francisco in January 1940 and got taken to Angel Island. I had to sit on a seat, around the rim of the boat with occasional splashes of sea water spraying at me.

When I arrived at San Francisco, I learned that my papers for reentry were at Seattle, Washington. We had left Detroit, Michigan, by train to Seattle, then over to Vancouver, to board the Canadian ship, “Blue Funnel,” a merchant ship that carries a limited amount of passengers to take us to Hong Kong. That was in December 1935.

Before I got off the President Cleveland to Angel Island, I overheard a conversation between the ship’s cook and a passenger who was to go to Angel Island too. The passenger sent a note with the cook to someone in San Francisco. I asked that same cook, if he would bring a message to my uncle, B. S. Fong, whose business was at 749 Clay Street, in San Francisco, Chinatown. Uncle Fong was to meet me getting off the President Cleveland.

During the stay at Angel Island, all the women were locked up in one large room with bath facilities only. It was wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling beds. The narrow beds were stacked in decks and close quarters. Someone had to unlock the dorm, and march us to eat our meals at a mess hall. Then they marched us back in single file, then we got locked up again. One woman I conversed with says she has been there two years. Now that I think back, what would have happened if a fire erupted?

My uncle contacted Seattle immigration authorities, and my papers came by Western Union the next morning. That morning, I had to go to the interrogation office to answer a few questions, and was approved to leave Angel Island. My uncle met me when I got off the boat from the Angel Island. He had me situated with my Grand Aunt and Grand Uncle who lived in San Francisco. My father was still in Detroit, working to pay off my mother’s medical debt. While living with my Grand Aunt, I attended Francisco Jr. High in San Francisco until I found a live-in babysitting job in Berkeley, and then went to school at a University High School in Berkeley. Then because my employers lost her job, and can’t afford me, she found me a job working for a family restaurant, 12 hours a day, with two days off a month. I had to quit University High in the 10th grade because the job took many hours.

I have waited on tables 54 years, until I had a heart attack, in 1995. I favor in working at dinner houses. Sometimes I had two jobs, working part time jobs with my regular full time job. I did one part time job at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco as cocktail waitress.

My first priority was for my two daughters to acquire college degrees, which they did.

Upon returning to the United States at 16 years old, I realized that I am on my own without support from my dad. I am thankful that my aunts and uncle provided me stepping stones to establish my life.

Place of Origin
Guangzhou, China

Place of Settlement
San Francisco, U.S.

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