THE LEGACY OF MY FATHER, BILL KEE
THE LEGACY OF MY FATHER, BILL KEE
By Gerrye Wong August 2019
The one saving grace of taking time out to clean house and one’s office files is that I just found notes from an interview I did of my father in 1988, a year when he was bedridden from cancer at age 86 and a year before he passed away. Realizing it has been 30 years since he left the role of family patriarch, I felt it fitting I share his life story with the succeeding generations who never knew his legacy. I know there are voids between what I remember of my father because unfortunately, like a typical Chinese gentleman, he never shared with us the story of his life, and we neglectfully never thought to ask. So thankfully through that one day interview, here is a glimpse into the life of my father, Bill Kee I am happy to share.
Bill Kee was born in 1902 in the Gold Country town of Ione, California, the first son of Hee Sing, a Chinese immigrant laborer, and Emma Lee, an American citizen born in Madera, CA. His Chinese name was Huey Kee, but somewhere along the line, in possibly school records, his first name became his surname, and he was the only member of his Hee family to adopt Kee as his last name. In the gold country, his father and grandfather ran a dry goods store, serving Chinese gold miners and railroad workers. When the gold fields dried up, his grandfather and other family members returned to China, but he and parents moved to the central California city of Fowler, near where his mother’s family lived. A hard working man, his father became a labor contractor finding and transporting Chinese workers for local farmers, opened a Tuck Lee Company dry goods store and a restaurant to raise his subsequent family of 10 children.
Bill Kee began his business career at his first official job working for the National Dollar Store in Fresno, CA.
Bill graduated from high school in 1921 and attended Healds Business School for only one semester before money ran out and he had to work to help raise his younger siblings. The next five years he worked with his father’s labor contracting and even did ranch work himself, until he got a Christmas job working at the Fresno National Dollar Store, a Chinese owned retail department store. Showing his industriousness, he was offered a job with the Bank of America, something unique for a young Chinese man of that era, but he chose staying with the National Dollar Stores. In 1930, the President Joe Shoong asked him to come to San Francisco to help open a new store there. I can imagine what an exciting turn of his life this must have seemed for this young country boy who had lived in a poor, small town, hard working family all his life.
Life moved quickly there. In San Francisco, he met my mother, Helen Wong, a college student working one summer in the Dollar Store with him, who said she would marry him if and when he became a Manager. That happened quickly, so in the depth of the Depression, they married and he became the National Dollar Store Manager in Bakersfield, CA in 1931.
Helen and Bill Kee were married when he became Manager of the National Dollar Store in Bakersfield, CA in 1931.
I was born there and only remember the summers being so hot, my mother and I often returned to San Francisco to stay with her brother. Following a successful stint managing the Bakersfield store for eight years, Bill Kee was promoted to manage the National Dollar Store in San Jose, at that time, one of the largest department stores in the town of only 50,000 people.
Bill Kee’s arrival to San Jose was documented in the local San Jose Newspaper.
For the next seven years, 1939-1946, he led the store during the tumultuous times of the World War II years. He melded very well into the business community of San Jose, a feat unusual for a man in a predominantly white town of only about 100 Chinese citizens. Whereas all the other Chinese men were employed in their self-owned restaurant, grocery store and laundry businesses, my father, as Manager of a large San Jose department store, was the first Chinese in 1942 to be invited to join the San Jose Rotary Club, and was one of the first Chinese in California to be invited to join the Masonic Order Fraternity and became one of few Chinese men to belong to the Scottish Rite Organization. Proof of his keen community spirit and acceptance into the mainstream society , he told me he had once been directors of the local YMCA, American Heart Association, Cancer Society and Public Opinion Panelist of the local San Jose State College of Business Administration.
Active in the community, he joined fellow business men in leading many community causes, as noted in the newspaper clipping.
Although his life was spent working seven days a week for the National Dollar Stores, he was a leader in San Jose’s business community and proudly recalled being a member of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce’s Business committee soliciting and seeking to bring new business to San Jose, at that time still a predominantly farming community. He remembered the excitement that happened when their search committee’s success brought IBM as the first large company to come to the Santa Clara Valley. I myself grew up as the only Chinese student in the schools I attended in San Jose, and during the war years, remember my father forcing me to wear an “I am a Chinese American” button when anti-Japanese feeling was rampant then.
Kee was often the only Chinese to serve on community service projects but he worked hard to assimilate into the general population of San Jose.
Although well entrenched in the American society of San Jose, my father Bill Kee never forgot his own roots. In 1941, when approached by San Francisco Chinatown leaders to join the crusade to raise China War Relief funds, he formed a San Jose Rice Bowl Committee which produced the first Chinese parade in San Jose’s history and a fundraising Rice Bowl Ball where queen contestants were crowned. He recalled that realizing the Chinese community itself had little power or influence, he put himself down as only the treasurer knowing that the Caucasians with their more prestigious standing would serve the cause better in chairmanship positions other than himself. My own memory of the event was marching along with other Chinese ladies holding a block long Chinese flag which onlookers threw coins into to show support of the Chinese War Relief cause. Over 500 people came from all over the Bay Area to his Rice Bowl Ball, and he proudly said over $6000 was raised, a record amount for that day during the hard wartime years for a China cause.
The Ng Shing Gung, opened in 1889, in San Jose’s Chinatown, was the center of much of the Chinese community’s activity during the turn of the Century to the 1940s..
Another Chinese project my father Bill Kee played a key role in was trying to save the old Ng Shing Gung Temple building when the city bought the property that was once the Heinlenville Chinatown of San Jose and planned to tear the building down. In 1945, he was asked by the Chinatown leaders to represent them so my father went before the San Jose City Council, and being a very well versed speaker and respected citizen, he pleaded and won a one year reprieve to raise the needed property tax funds to save the building. He recalls trying to raise funds for its restoration, but unfortunately, he could not complete the task, as he was given the promotion to leave San Jose to become the Manager of the National Dollar Store headquarters store in San Francisco in 1946.
As a side note, the building was torn down ultimately, luckily its altar stored safely, and 40 years later, unknowing of my father’s involvement to save the building when I was only a teenager, I formed a committee to establish a museum of Chinese American history in a resurrection of that Ng Shing Gung building. Years later when the museum opened, I thought of the déjà vu that happened between my father’s unfinished task and my desire to restore the building’s history. Our Chinese Historical and Cultural Project group gifted the museum building to the City of San Jose’s History San Jose Park in 1991 where it still stands today and has been seen by thousands of visitors to this day. My dad was honored at the CHCP’s first museum fundraising event in 1989 for his part in leading the Chinese community’s campaign to save the original building. Too ill to attend, he sent my mother to accept the award. The following day, our family gathered at his bedside to show him the video of the event which was attended by over 400 people and we reassures him the museum project was on its way to completion. I remember his look of pride and smile at knowing we were continuing his work for the San Jose Chinese community. I think he was waiting to hear of this news as he passed away the following day.
The Museum of Chinese American History now stands proudly within a simulated Ng Shing Gung building, welcoming thousands of visitors annually to learn about Santa Clara Valley’s Chinese American history..
Back to 1947 he was obviously a star player in this solely Chinese owned and operated department store chain that had over 30 stores at that time located throughout the West Coast. A nice feat for the young country boy after devoting 20 years to his first and only job at an established company, I must say. His successful ascension in the National Dollar Stores had him managing the large headquarters store on active San Francisco’s Market Street for 10 years, becoming a Supervisor overseeing stores and eventually being the Menswear and Toy goods for the total 60 stores in 1960. He was assigned and destined to spread the National Dollar Stores to the Hawaiian Islands but a discovery of Tuberculosis unfortunately sidelined his booming career rise.
Here seen with younger brother Charles, he always felt family was important to remember.
Upon his recovery, a letter I found from President Joe Shoong requested his return to service and he became the General Manager of the National Dollar Stores’ Warehousing System, organizing the system for complete unit control which energized his keen business sense until he retired at age 70 in 1972. It was no surprise that after 46 years with the company, he was one of the National Dollar Stores employees capturing the title of most longevity in service. Finally having more time to get into the swing of the Oakland community where he and my mother now resided, in retirement he served on the Alameda County Grand Jury, the Senior Citizens Satellite Board, the Chinatown United Way Board, the Acacia Club of Chinese Masonic Order, the Chinese Sportsman Club and the Oakland Chinese Presbyterian Church.
A happy day occurred in Bill Kee’s life when he and wife Helen were surrounded by loving children and grandchildren to celebrate their 50th Anniversary in 1981.
My father’s life epitomizes that of a young Chinese man from meager means growing up in a large family trying to make a life in an America that was not always welcoming. With few opportunities, little formal education, and facing an unwelcoming American life during Depression years, the Hee family survived and my father, Bill Kee, as the eldest son would have made his parents proud to see what a success story he made of his life, both professionally and personally. Presented with discrimination throughout his life, as felt by Chinese Americans of his age, he, in his own small way, earned the respect of the outside world by his words and deeds. Discovering after 30 years these notes about his life, I too am proud of how he overcame subtle obstacles faced by all Chinese men of his times, never complaining but always looking forward to being a positive force in his career and personal life. He was a wonderful role model for his Hee family siblings, and their subsequent generations that have followed.
What began in 1900 when the Hee Family first formed has blossomed to many proud generations of Chinese Americans. A smiling Bill Kee sits in the center of them all as the patriarch leader at this 1980s reunion.
Thanks dad for the legacy you have left us, and here’s hoping you can look down and feel proud of the 6 grandchildren you helped develop, and the 14 great grandchildren who did not have the privilege of knowing you personally but carry on your Chinese American tradition of industriousness and community involvement as contributing American citizens. Thanks for the memories of your life well lived. We hope to live up to the standards you exemplified in your own life.