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Building a Better Life in Gold Mountain

On orders from his father, Ging Chuck Yee leaves China for the United States when he is just 14 years old.  Ging is a paper son to a San Francisco man who eventually becomes my godfather. Ging comes to the United States in search of a better life to provide for his pre-arranged bride Soo and their future family.  One might say he is an undocumented immigrant.

With only a grade-school education and no proficiency in English, Ging apprentices in the laundry business in San Francisco’s Chinatown for several years, mastering the craft.

There is a path to citizenship for Ging and he places himself on it. He becomes a naturalized citizen after enlisting in the United States Army and serving in Europe during World War II.  It i decades after my childhood before I learn about his wartime experience as a munitions specialist, feeding artillery through a machine gun.

After the war, Ging marries Soo Sum Lee in China.  I remember the first time I see a copy of their wedding license, noting my father’s occupation as “Merchant” and my mother’s as “Spinster.”

Ging returns to the United States. Soo and my older sister Nancy escape from China into Hong Kong, then a British colony, after the Communists take control. In order to convince the Communists to allow my grandfather to escape with them, my mother must surrender all her valuables and money. They stay with a sister in Hong Kong.

Looking west from San Francisco’s Financial District July 2, 1959. Duke Downey / San Francisco Chronicle

In 1956, Soo and Nancy reunite with Ging in San Francisco.  I am born a year later.  My parents settle on the West Side because my father is determined to make a go of his own business, not in Chinatown but in what’s then a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood.  It is a struggle to succeed.

My father works long days and nights at our laundry and dry cleaning business.  He stops only for a quick lunch break and dinner promptly at 6:00 p.m. each night with the family, before returning to finishing the men’s shirts for customer pick-up the next day.

I remember as a child looking at my father, who rarely smiled and wore the stress of how-to-make-ends-meet on his face.  Is this the promise of Gim San, the Gold Mountain, my grandfather dreamed of for his son?

My earliest memory of my mother is her holding me and rocking me is saying to her: “A Ma, ngoi um heng gein ne gong” — “Ma, I can’t hear when you speak.” I can tell she is singing to me from the flow of her lips and mouth and her reassuring smile but an ear infection prevents me from hearing.

My mother is a seamstress, and we share a love of the clothes women bring in for cleaning or alterations. Clothes we can only dream of ever owning.

At the laundry counter: Ging and Soo with daughters Sharon, Betty, Doris, and Ginnie. Courtesy of Betty Yee

Eventually there are six children. I share a sofa bed with my sisters. “How will we make it?” I often hear my father ask my mother from the other side of the accordion door that separates us from my parents’ bedroom.

Soo soothes Ging’s worries, yet also faces the brunt of his anxieties.  The more confident of the two, my mother is a risk taker.  She has experienced rationing in China. She has left siblings behind in China. And she sacrificed everything — just to be able to leave China.

Here in the land of the Gold Mountain, Soo experiences a unique freedom that allows her to dream about possibilities, about a better future.   You can work hard and have something to show for it.  Here on the west side of San Francisco, California, neighbors from Europe and the Middle East and China share that same dream of a better life for their children — yes, with struggle, but buoyed by a strong sense of community.

State Controller Betty T. Yee

I grow up never knowing I’m poor because our family is rich in values.  One of our strongest held values — and one of my strongest held values today – is community and the knowledge that if anyone is left behind, it is a stain on the entire community.

Betty Yee was elected State Controller in November 2014, following two terms on the California Board of Equalization.  She was re-elected for a second term as Controller in 2018 and is the tenth woman in California history to be elected to statewide office.