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David Lee: From Man Jen Low To General Lee’s

Written by Annie Luong, Jenny Huynh & Sidney Vu

Around 1910, David Fon Lee’s parents immigrated to the United States. From the same origins as Sun Yat-sen, David’s parents were from Jung San, Canton. His grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in the days of the transcontinental railroad, opened a restaurant on 7th Street, Central Market and sent for David’s father. The family also had a small produce market near the restaurant. Unlike their parents, David and his siblings were born and raised in Old Chinatown. With the construction of Union Station, David’s family was one among the many that were forced to leave the area.


In 1931 David was sent back to China to attend boarding school in Canton when he was in the fifth grade. His grandfather had said, “you should always send one back to China to familiarize them with customs and Chinese and so forth in case America had a deportation.�? In 1937, David returned just before July and the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. At that time, his family was in the process of moving their restaurant, Man Jen Low, out of Old Chinatown. He recalls, “When I came back here it completely changed.�?


Due to his absence, he needed to readjust culturally and socially. After a few years at Central Jr. High School, David attended Lincoln High School. With few opportunities for after school jobs other than shoeshine boys, and a lack of activities and playgrounds, he looked forward to Chinese school. David states that Chinese school kept the “Chinese out of trouble because parents usually worked.�? Chinese School was one of the few times when the younger people were able to get together. When World War II came along, David and his three brothers entered the service. He had wanted to join the Navy so he learned parachute packing in San Diego. After basic training in Camp Pendleton, San Diego, he was sent to Bremerton, Washington to wait for carriers. He remembers, “I turned out to be a dry-end sailor because I got seasick as hell. After that, I ended up in the airbase instead of a carrier.


In 1945, David returned from the Navy and continued working for his parent’s restaurant business. In the meantime, he found work in the dry cleaning industry. He had no knowledge of dry cleaning, but he decided to invest in the business and it turned out to be quite profitable. In 1950, David and his brothers took over the restaurant and Man Jen Low was renamed General Lee’s at the suggestion of Paul Coats, an editor of Mirror Newspaper. After working for seven years straight without taking a vacation, David was advised by doctors to take a break. Heeding the doctor’s advice, he took the opportunity to travel to places such as Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, and England.


In 1963, David opened his travel agency and his sister, Jenny, helped him manage it. The motivation behind the travel agency stemmed from an encounter in the Chinatown of Piccadilly Square in England. He was sitting in a Chinese Restaurant and behind him sat a South American couple. David recalls one them saying, “You know, I traveled around the world…one place I can never forget is in Los Angeles. There’s a restaurant named General Lee’s.�? Shocked, David pulled out his card and handed it to one of them, telling them to come by anytime. After that experience, David stated, “That made my world…I came back and I never was the same.�?

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Irvin Lai

Written by Annie Luong

Irvin Lai was born in 1927 on a farm in the outskirts of Locke, California. His mother was born in San Francisco in 1904 and his father was the son of an American citizen, but was born in China and lived there until his twenties. Irvin remembers Locke being a small town, densely populated with Chinese from the Zhongshan district. Growing up, he attended Walnut Grove Oriental School. The school was exclusively for Asians and Pacific Islanders. He recalls, “Locke is a regimented area, it’s an area that we know everybody, you know, by their nickname, not just their name.�?

In 1942, when Irvin had just finished the eighth grade, he and his family moved to Los Angeles. His uncle was running a restaurant and had been drafted into the army, thus his mother thought moving to Los Angeles and taking over the restaurant would provide more opportunity for the family. Irvin attended Virgil Junior High School and later went to Belmont High School. At Belmont, Irvin was a part of the Chinese Club, ROTC and played varsity football. During his high school years he also organized the United Chinese Christian Youth Fellowship (UCCYA).

During his teen years, Irvin recalls going to Broadway and Main Street to watch movies, including those that featured Anna May Wong. He remembers listening to artists such as Bing Crosby and the radio show, “Your Hit Parade.�? Back in those days, “we used to sit and pick ten songs and send it in to Lucky Strike and if you get all ten, you get a premium, you get a tin of cigarettes free.�?


Around 1945, Irvin entered the merchant marines and served for two years in food service. Since he was underage, his mother had to fill out a consent form. At the time Irvin was still in school, but being in ROTC increased his interest in the military. He felt that by joining, he could do more for his country. During his two years, he learned how to cook American food, bake, and cut up whole sides of beef. He recalls “when you buy a pound of hamburger, they give you a pound of hamburger [at the market]. When they do [in the military], they give you a whole side of beef. You cut up the beef, cut out the bone and grind the meat yourself. There you learn how to do butchering.�?

In 1950 Irvin was drafted in the Korean War and served in the 4th infantry division and 42nd field artillery. He was sent to Fort Ord and then transferred to Fort Benning for advanced infantry training and artillery training. In Germany, “every building, everything had a big hole in it. We shoot up everything. There’s not a big building that hadn’t a hole in it.�? When asked about discrimination in the service, Irvin responded, “Yes, it does bother me much of those prejudice, but I cannot do much about it and it still hurts.�?

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Esther Lee Johnson: Movie Extra

Written by Annie Luong

Esther Lee Johnson was born in 1930 during the Great Depression. In 1936, her family moved to Los Angeles’s old Chinatown and they would later on move into China City, where she would become one of the first Chinese Americans to participate in the film industry. One among four girls in her family, Esther recalls beginning work at a young age to help contribute to her family.


She reflects, “we were not wealthy but we always have food on the table… I give credit to my parents for raising us right to make us a hard workers and a good workers.�?

At the age of 12, Esther remembers working at Man Sing Bakery with her older sister. The bakery was run by a man named Mr. Lee. While working at the bakery, Esther also sold flowers on street corners to earn extra cash. Her introduction onto the big screen, as a movie extra, began with Tom Gubbins, a mustached and bearded man who was among one of the few Caucasian people in Chinatown. Esther recalls, “they would have a bus pick all of us up, loaded in the bus and then we worked in the studio.�?


The first movie she worked on was called “Good Earth.�? Work was assigned through word of mouth and in irregular intervals. Payments were made through vouchers and given to her parents. The Chinese usually played as coolies, restaurant workers, laundrymen, and other stereotypical roles. Esther recalls that at the time, many of the extras were just satisfied to have work. Besides “Good Earth,�? she worked on other films such as “Keys of the Kingdom�? and “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing.�? As well as several TV series, Esther also worked on a musical called “Flower Drum Song.”


She attended Castelar Elementary School and Central Junior High School. While Castelar was composed mainly of Chinese students, her years at Belmont High School would bring a more diverse environment. Esther did not recall much racial tension between the students. She remembers wearing badges displaying her Chinese origin after Pearl Harbor was attacked. She describes that “it had a Chinese flag and an American flag to let the Caucasian people know that we are Chinese… because lots of them couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese and then.�?


Growing up, it was a rare event for Esther and her sisters to watch movies or have materialistic things. They lived on the top floor of a gift shop in one big room, a kitchen, and a bathroom with no bathtub. She recalls, “my mother had a carpenter come in and partition two bedrooms and that big living room and so my mother and father and the younger sister slept in one room which was partition and then the other room is the three of us girls.�? Though life was certainly not easy, Esther states, “I really feel that in some ways we were blessed that we didn’t have a lot of material things [because it] makes us more humble.�?

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Ben Fong: American Soldier

Written by Annie Luong

Ben Fong was born in December 1921 in Sacramento, California. There, his father was a partner in a wholesale and retail meat market on the main city business street, Kay Street. His father had a skin allergy in 1936, and the family moved to the East Adams area in Los Angeles.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Fong tried to join the U.S. Marines, but was told, “only whites were accepted.�? At that point in time, he was a freshman at UCLA and was in the Infantry ROTC Program. In January 1942, the draft law changed from age 21 to 18. By July 1st, Fong was drafted into the army and sent to Fort McArthur. After several tests, he was sent to the infantry-training center at Camp Roberts for basic training.

After three months of basic training, Fong had his final Classified Secret interview. He recalls, “instead of five officers, there was a major and six captains, seven of them. And then after the interview, the major looked to his left and they all nodded, and then looked to his right and they all nodded.�? Fong was given the choice: go to the infantry school in Fort Benning, Georgia; go to North Africa; or go to the South Pacific as a replacement. He chose infantry school.

In infantry school, Fong recalls the general saying, “Your job is to train and lead men into battle and there will be casualties…you can leave at any time when you figure this is not for you.�? By the end of the infantry school, only one hundred and eighty graduated out of the original two hundred and sixty. After graduation, Fong was assigned to Camp Ritchie, Maryland. When he went to buy a ticket at Union Station, he was told, that the location was a secret and was given a ticket to Baltimore instead.


At Camp Ritchie, the Military Intelligence Training Center for the European Theater, they trained the personnel as interrogators of Prisoners of War. Fong was assigned to take a Counter Intelligence Course, but was not able to attend after hearing the news of his younger brother’s death. After Sam’s funeral, he was assigned to help with the training at the combat section of the school. For three months he helped with weapons and field training to prepare soldiers for the service and was reassigned to this section after he completed the next Counter Intelligence Course.


In the last major operation in Okinawa in September, Fong’s detachment was sent to regroup in Quezon City in the Philippines for the invasion of Japan. From preliminary sources, they knew that the Japanese had released training manuals telling women and old men that were left in the villages were to take sharpened bamboo sticks and defend the beaches. Children were instructed to take hand grenades and dash in front of American vehicles and blow themselves up. Fong knew that they would have to kill many of the villagers so, “when the second bomb was bombed in Nagasaki, we know that we’re not going to have to do that. We’re just going to be walking in instead.�?

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Richard Chee

Written by Ali Haeri

In many ways, Richard Chee exemplifies the life of a  2nd generation Chinese-American  growing up in Los Angeles, California, in the 1930s and 40s.

Chee’s mother grew up in Los Angeles, while his father grew up in his native Canton, China. In accordance to their arranged marriage, Chee’s mother moved to Canton to meet and subsequently marry his father. After attending Peking University (now called Beijing University), Chee’’s parents moved to Los Angeles, where his father completed his education at the University of Southern California (USC). Upon graduating, his father began his long career as a teller at the Security-First National Bank on Main Street.

Richard Chee was born in 1927, the third of eight children (four boys, four girls), during the Great Depression. His family lived in the back of his grandfather’s general merchandise store on Los Angeles Avenue, in the heart of modern Chinatown.

Like many growing up at the time in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Chee’s life was ripe in multiculturalism. At both Central Junior High School and Belmont High School, Chee described the student population as being diverse, much as it is like today. “Mexicans, Italians, Filipinos, Koreans,�? Chee described, “they were all there.�? And also similar to the lives of many modern Chinese-American teenagers, Chee’s life consisted much of school, Chinese school, and Sunday school. For leisure, times were rough, so the only form of entertainment the teens were able to pay for was a trip to the local theater—a nickel got one admission to catch a western movie on the big screen.

Chee grew up in a pivotal time, not just in the Los Angeles community, but in America as a whole, as Japanese Americans (many of which lived locally) were being interned during World War II. One instance of internment that affected Chee personally was that of a childhood friend, who was sent to the Manzanar internment camp in California’s Owens Valley. “We were all kind of sad,�? Chee said about the internment of the Japanese, “we didn’t see any reason for this to be done.�? Admittedly, Chee further explained that there was not much time to reflect over the internment of the Japanese Americans, as many local Chinese-Americans began worrying about their own fate—an impending draft for the men, and the even more skeptical were afraid of a possible internment of the Chinese as well.

Towards the end of his high school years, Chee made a commitment to the United States many ethnic minorities did, showing to his fellow countrymen and the world that Caucasians were not the only ones willing to fight for their country—Chee entered the military. He was selected to be part of the respected Navy V program to eventually become a naval aviator. While training, he volleyed between the University of Northern Arizona, Texas Christian University, and the University of Texas, Austin. Despite completing the program, Chee was never deployed as he became commissioned in 1944, towards the end of the war.