Caroline Yee and Susan Yee

Recorded February 20, 2009 Archived February 20, 2009 01:28:55
0:00 / 0:00
Id: SFD000017


Susan, 35, interviews her mother Caroline, 64, about growing up in Oakland’s Chinatown, her work as a principal, and her family.

Subject Log / Time Code

Growing up, wished she didn’t live in Chinatown--wanted to be white like the families on TV--Ozzie and Harriet.
Chinese-American names.
Much of life was feeling not quite good enough. “Aside from wanting to be white, I was pretty happy.”
Always felt like a Chinatown girl, ashamed. Now, has come full circle.
Wishes mother was around to learn that she works in Chinatown.
Caroline asks Susan: Are you proud of me?


  • Caroline Yee
  • Susan Yee

Recording Location

Oakland Asian Cultural Center

Partnership Type



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00:00 All right. My name is Nona.

00:07 My name is Susan Elaine Yee, I am 35 today. Today's date is February 20th 09. We are in the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in Oakland Chinatown and my partner is my mother.

00:30 My name is Caroline chenyi age 64 today's date is February 20th. 2009 location is the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in Oakland Chinatown and my partner is my daughter Susan.

00:52 Hi, Mom.

00:54 So here we are in Chinatown. Thanks for coming with me on my birthday. It's really special present. Did you will starve casual so I heard a rumor that King Wah is closing.

01:11 Did you hear that? I've heard that rumor before but they seem to remain opens. Okay, so I don't know. I've seen the children.

01:23 The children of the owners operating and I happen to a disorder something from it just the other day. So they're not close not close yet to be at one time. We got fried 110 and I got that oyster wrap in a lettuce for new years for that little staff party that I had a nice nice nice. So we used to go to King Wah all the time with your family when when's your first memory of going there?

01:51 Jesus was way way back when cuz we used to go to the golden peacock around the corner where our church was we used to take you and Christopher and the waiter used to throw the menu at most people but he actually really love the two of you and was always very pleasant and we always has a good deal but their portions got very small. So we went around the corner to King why I don't remember when we started I would say a lot of Old-Timers still go there. You can still go there and see a lot of people from way back when yeah, it's definitely an institution. It's one of the only places that Auntie Jenny will go to Hawaii.

02:33 I don't know but even she's complaining now about the small size of the porch portions except for the Friday at 10. So the portion size has gone down a little bit very much to ask me because I always thought that it was your family that started going there. But you're saying that it was it was our immediate family me you Daddy was my my family, you know, we had we didn't live always live in Oakland.

03:02 At 1 Chris was born we were he was in North Dakota over. So I think that the closing happened probably sometime when we were gone so that when we came back to Oakland my family or somehow Chinatown had migrated over to quinoa with the clothes out of town.

03:22 You know favorite restaurants for Silver Dragon Lantern.

03:28 And then it moved over to King Wah when Silver Dragon, I think became a little more expensive and Lantern close down. Yeah, it was it just called Lantern. Yeah, that's where Ashley Russell and Lisa had their wedding reception was I there? Yes you are. There is actually a picture of you I think around somewhere with you there. So are there any restaurants here in Chinatown that you have not sampled at this point are there so many now so many and I think really that's how Chinatown has differ from when I was little because there was several key restaurants, but now there's you know hundreds I would say almost a hundred of restaurants, you know, what animes restaurants and some Cambodian restaurants and lots more Chinese restaurants all very competitive and

04:24 I love Chinatown now cuz it's so vibrant. So how is it different than back in the day? Cuz I I can't even imagine trying to town without a million restaurants New iteration older, you know old versions of the same thing Chinatown Was much smaller.

04:46 Then it is now and it seemed like smaller and at the same time we're spread out and that there weren't so many restaurants just and cubby holes right next to each other. So like if you're on 10th Street now, you have that Sean doing place and then you have quickie quickly anyways, and they all laughed at me because I said quickie is that there's just so many more and

05:21 Much more crowded, you know, it's actually hard to walk down the street without being for people of breast near next to each other now I can in the old days.

05:36 It was a nice cozy but not as thriving but at the same time it was one of my favorite things to do with my grandfather, you know on his days off with take us over there to the corner store and he's got his newspaper and he would buy me beef jerky little flat packets. I know it wasn't something salty. Very good at corner store still here at corner store is no longer there used to be on the corner of

06:12 Ace and Webster and it was a typical shop where the ra lot of newspapers and old men sitting around and the shooting the breeze and I love going with him. I did not like my cheeks pinched.

06:26 There's a little one I was not fun. So the old man at the the corner store where you would go to get the beef jerky with pictures. How old are you how little probably under 10?

06:47 I can remember I really don't know all the lights cuz I'm the youngest of the five. They told me about Grandpa taking them downtown or taking them out on his days off but it wasn't in my memory cuz I remember being the only one going with him cuz they were a little bit older. They were little bit over probably older probably into their own Teenage things and having fun. One of the things that I was always jealous of them because when they were growing up,

07:31 There were so many families inside of town and they all seem to be connected and the kids hung around and more often than not I will meet people.

07:43 Who tell me that they knew my sister or they know my sister and my brother because lots of families were just very close. In fact, I found out the other day going to a party and I was cousins with somebody but those family members knew each other more because they were

08:02 I live so close in proximity when it came to my age for growing up people were all moving out of Chinatown and I don't think the community ties were as thick as I was really always kind of wishing for that for myself. We had fun but you know, they were packs of teenagers and one of the pictures that I have to show you some time as my mom would open up her house and you know people would come just let your house people will your house we just come over and have Sunday dinner there and with my sister's friends and anybody could come in my grandfather was there on the dining room all of that. You know now have that I have to do it was so it's interesting because I know more of my sister's friends and brothers friends.

08:52 Dad my own friend because there weren't that many of as many of us in Chinatown and maybe cuz they're a little bit closer in age. Like they had a shared more friends. Is that oh, no, you really think it's because there were told the population the census in Chinatown was more Chinese families. So for example of laurels, uncle's family uncle Darlene's husband family Ashley live with our family for a while to families in one household for for a while. And so it was just that what you call it the the place to start your life in America. So there's a big wave it felt like your siblings like myself light is a 1/2 a generation really?

09:47 Yeah, like a half a generation. You understand that David was 9 years older than me. That's the closest siblings oldest sibling is Auntie Jenny, right? Yes, and how old is she right now? 77. Okay. So she's 12 years older than I'm doing right now. I don't know you can do the math 1313 9th grade. And so the all us families were together for the longest of time and a lot of them went to the Chinese Presbyterian church, but my auntie Janice and your auntie Janice went to the Chinese Baptist Church, and so

10:36 They just took a lot of things together. You know, they went dancing. I remember them telling me, you know, they're they're driving up to Sacramento to see friends are they would go to see remember when they went to see Oklahoma and I was home all by myself so I could if I go out on that date so, you know and their pictures of them go to Rome would be really the best source for those pictures things really had a ball. What year is that? Are we talkin like 1950s the 60s and then you grew up more in the sixties. Yes. Got it. So what were some of your who were some of your friends that did stick around or heard that were around will my friends were sure win and Earnest and two guys. So if you guys marry around the corner Allen behind me Janice

11:36 Across the street

11:38 And

11:41 Those were a couple other some other neighborhood kids to and Ashley Lester from Silver Dragon was live downstairs from us and there was your cousin or my cousin Jeffrey lives across the street and it's been A Hard Day's roller skating and riding on wagons and playing on the in the what's now the Train park. Can I remember just finally having picnics there with my cousin Jeffrey and Jennifer climbing trees that look climbing trees even then.

12:15 See what else do we do always go to each other's house to keep person in my life was probably my sister Janice cuz she helped to throw me birthday birthday parties and Ashley remember having a party at our small little house memes fun another thing.

12:38 That helps a lot was Chinese School, even though I hated it when I went to Chinese school with another social network and church with another social network. So life actually was pretty good. Even though I wished that I did live in Chinatown life in Chinatown was pretty happy. We will come back to that but I was curious about why did people come why didn't with your brothers and sisters and all of their friends why to your guys's house?

13:12 What was special.

13:17 You guys continue to throw the gigantic Gathering. But anyways, I'll but I mean with the family, I mean, yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's a lot of people I know my mom.

13:31 And I don't know whether it was because of.

13:36 You know our siblings popularity or we just kind of interesting cuz

13:43 Will you think about it now? I I think most of Jenny's friends came over. I don't know that Janice is friends came over that much David and Jerome Ashley were part of the Dragon Club, you know what the drum lion dancing club really which was totally cool. And that was the other thing that I wish that I could have done. That's why I love the drums so much now yeah. Yeah, but maybe maybe my sister was the ringleader. I'm not sure I can see that my mom also had two as soon as she came over. She has to cook for my grandfather and he would bring friends over home and and pleasant or not. You know, that's what she did and so she did a lot of cooking to what what kind of stuff would she make

14:34 I remember her once one memory I have of her in that house is I was pretty young. I think when she still had chickens, I do remember her going down those really steep stairs to that little little little concrete yard. So what what kind of things would she make that you remember her chicken was the best and you know, she just really was a great cook and I assumed everybody was a great cook but she actually everybody's not a great cook. She realized I loved her paper wrapped chicken. She just would top it all up really fast on that wooden chopping block. I remember this at a butcher knife and she had the best sauce and we would wrap it up in the wax paper and stick it in the broiler. That was so good. I roast chicken with egg.

15:34 She made good stew. She mostly cooked Chinese. She made really really good home Circle. Oh, man, she made them. They were all beautiful sheeps folder shape and pinched on the edges and she made the New Year's.

15:56 New Year do balls

15:59 Can the white I think they're the equivalent to a Jewish matzo ball soup for New Year's and then you can also have it just in kind of a sugar thing. She did a great voice to wrap. That was Gary's favorite. She always would cook it with a dried oysters with a dried scallops with the dried scallops in scallops. I think she made really good know my fun to she was really a Grey Cup.

16:36 Wow, he really really really really she had spinach with that for a minute tofu. That was actually very good to eat spinach with fermented tofu. I don't think I've ever had that, you know, you must have it sometime. Maybe you should make it for me, but I never

17:01 Took lessons from her unfortunately. Yeah. She came over. How old was she when she came over?

17:09 Young late teens late playing his I don't know the exact is married to your dad already.

17:15 Or did they get married? They got married over here? I think it was arranged to back there. Actually, Auntie Jenny and Auntie Jenison, Uncle Jerome and I are going to San Francisco to meet one of the matriarchs to get it all down and writing. You know, who's related to who when did this happen? When did that happen? Cuz she's the only one now that will remember what happened. Who is she related to she's to Myra Michael Chan her mother died Paul the mustache. Yes. Yeah, so we get it all down after March to see how how is she related to you guys? I know who Michael 10 is the chance Village.

18:02 I know there's only one chin Village there probably are more than one but it's that particular one in that particular district and toys and toys. Do you remember the name we went and visited didn't go we only went to my mother's partly because you know her there's this thing about my father that we're not so happy about right. So we all haven't come to terms with that in a way that's

18:33 We probably had that's healthy. Probably still need to work through some things. No, I got it. Right cuz the chain comes her dad side, but we did go see your mom's. What was the name of that Village again to do you remember american-born? I think it was called their friends like that you had and your siblings friends were the people that you were kind of your age where they also born here in the the Bay Area or at California. I think I've never asked him whether or but I'm assuming that cuz it's funny cuz I don't feel like I know that many Chinese Americans are my generation, which is, you know, American Born to american-born need to go to Chinese school that my fault. You know, she yelled at me.

19:32 Alicia Dove sent you to the other Chinese School the real tiny school everyday tinyschool. Yeah, you should have down here a true know I know I was weak. I was there I had no no thick-skinned. I just remember her being incredible that I didn't even know the the dino dig and asalee the easiest character because we didn't talk to you so, you know, a lot of people who are your generation who are born here. Yeah.

20:07 But I think the other thing is is my generation.

20:12 Probably didn't have as much Asian pride as we do now, you know that it wasn't language wasn't as important as then as it is now in Heritage wasn't as important then because throughout you know, I wanted to be white or a long long time and I was going to ask you why she cuz it when you said all your friends names, they're all super American names and your name

21:02 Jerome Caroline, who's pretty? There? Is there is no Chinese a correlation. And did you guys choose? I mean you didn't choose your name? I think the doctors probably did.

21:29 That isn't her name doesn't sound like a Chinese email.

21:40 Did you ever read that damn thing? I did because there's a part about this is kind of like, you know at Lincoln now it is interesting to see the kids wear the veil go by their regular name or the English sounding name. Like there's this wonderful wonderful attendance Clerk and her name is

22:15 Chin, and she still

22:22 And you know when you're I think when you're from an immigrant background, there's there's this need and desire to assimilate totally very much. So no, I mean I think that's like super that's really queer. You understand that I grew up in the age of Ozzie and Harriet so being, you know, I was almost like an only child because my brothers and sisters had gotten married have gone to work and got married and so I was left with a TV a lot except for chai.

23:07 Ozzie and Harriet, Nancy Drew

23:12 I did read about silver cheek who's in the Heidi I'll look at so I read a lot and a dog. I wanted a dog by they realize that they would get next to me. And the what else? I thought totally thought. I was going to get a car for graduation really watch. I want to watch a code from Ruth Adkins camel color coat man, you know.

24:04 But I think

24:06 Aside aside from wanting to be white. I was pretty happy and our school was pretty mixed the other African Americans and Anglo Americans and asian-americans and we mix pretty well and

24:30 Except for 1 tsp white which is interesting race was not an issue for me. I'm either when there was not anything about race that I felt one way or the other about except I guess wanting to be in Ozzie and Harriet's house so much of my life. I have to say

24:52 Is not feeling quite good enough not quite having it has clean or not quite having things in place this writer, you know his embarrassment to bring friends over when I was in Middle School and High School. We had roaches and ashamed of that.

25:18 But amazingly enough I did have friends. I mean, you know, that didn't live in that neighborhood Janice Chen who was Janice she she live by Westlake. She actually came over. She's an optometrist his daughter cuz our family wasn't professional.

25:42 She wasn't from Lincoln School, but we middle school with the most fun cuz middle school. Did you go to Westlake? Are you at Westside dance junior high school kids dinner is actually pretty amazing that

25:59 My mother trusted me more or less even let me have a dance at the house and I have finished and I was I was actually

26:10 You know people came so so you went to Westlake and Oakland Tech in Oakland was Oakland Tech where it is now and then a storage building and what you want.

26:21 Yeah, Westlake Intech are right where they were so crazy that we went to the same high school. I should say. Yeah, it's pretty it's pretty nice out of your own 10 years. I'm sure I'd like to go and see it. Looks like there's a trophy of me on it.

26:43 Wow, cuz every year they had a girl of the year, but my year they

26:50 Had we had a tie. So so there was I got the sense that when you first said who were your some of your closest friends are who are the people you hang out with are all these people who are right in the immediate area around your house, which is on 7th and Alice. Right? Right, but you know what, really

27:11 Did a lot for my growth as a young person I suppose is a nurturing. I got at church. So Genesis and a Janice took me there and

27:23 As I said had an occasion all that I learnt cuz I'm an educated all that I learned I learned it's in Bible School how to have fun with music and crafts and competitions. You're having a really fun time in school and then

27:42 The church also provided a social network. That's why I sure winner nacelle. And those guys are are my best friend and I'm trying to tell you I had a couple of other friends, but you know, we didn't continue growing up together as much in the church. And so

27:58 The church youth leaders and I just think they were the greatest for helping immigrant families when we kids to assimilate. I remember Sherwin sister took us to the ballet well about

28:24 You know what you do with Ybor e Bassy itself and Oasis how they really help the kids to assimilate the immigrants now really meant a lot, you know, for example if you were

28:38 In a suburban area you do car wash and you'd wash people's car while we had a car wash to pixels to raise money for Thanksgiving dinner. We had not that many cars are we went to the produce area?

28:54 The delivery trucks. Did they pay you for it? Yeah. I know. I'm having a really great time with my friends and I really really grateful to those youth leaders and the youth leaders of nowadays cuz it really makes a difference. So the people who were your youth leaders they were also born here. They were they were Chinese day. Where is Chinese? And I think they were born. You know, it's hard to tell friends you're saying, you know, you're really grateful to them for, you know, helping you assimilate, you know, and that they are really great for kind of immigrant kid to but you were born here and your whole you're all your siblings were born here. So it's interesting that you relate to the American Experience. So keenly will the family culture.

29:54 Connect with you. I mean even in the best of families of with parents and children born in the same country. There's sometimes a little friction. But if your butt if you're trying to assimilate and your parents don't speak English, they don't go to PTA meetings. Your father is a gambler, you know, and there's no discussion at the table. You could get your your fingers wrapped with chopsticks if you were out of line and so, you know, there's really no discussion about growing up or had a sit-in or we can do except to get good grades and so all those activities

30:41 You to help me not to be afraid of the bigger world can that's my concern right now actually for the kids at Lincoln if they're over shelter. When do they only see Chinese kids and how are they going to learn to Max and tell him I said hi. I worry about that was Lincoln back then mostly Chinese that was quite mix. It was more mixing. It is now much more African-American and I can remember Florentina Campos and some kid that gave me a Christmas present because we exchanged names but he was white kid. I think his name is Kenneth.

31:16 There is no just really mix. That's why I never thought race was such an issue real that's so interesting is Lincoln for as long as I've grown up which is 35 years in my memory is always been really Chinese in Chinese American but I think those days I wish there was more how shall I say? It efforts to promote pride and inclusion in an Asian Heritage, and now I think it's almost exclusive which is need to see the bigger picture enter preciate the whole world of people you feel like it's swelling a little bit too far cuz I thought I was going to ask you about that until you grew up. I mean, it's just it's I love your story, you know, you're my mom but it's fascinating because you know, you were born here your American Boy

32:16 Your siblings are american-born. They really helped raise you and yeah, I've known all my life, you know that you have always felt like as China Town girl, you know, which I think is probably, you know, a lot of class stuff as well as cultural stuff.

32:35 And I know you know, you gave me you guys gave me and Chris pretty very very white American names also and I've always kind of a sound trying to translate it's all so popular in the Asian cultures the nail salon identified with korean-american. Anyways, yeah. I know that there is a time where you were kind of running away from that and looking for the white picket fence in North Dakota for but you know at the end of your career, how amazing is it to be at Lincoln where you are trying to help people be proud to be, you know, these students and families the proud to be Chinese and Chinese American you really fiercely proud of that.

33:35 And also not exclusive and an insular.

33:41 Do you know I just it's just interesting to think about that trajectory and kind of returning back, you know, did you ever think when you were a kid that you would become be working back in Chinatown voluntarily know and I know and I wished and I wish my mother knew ya what do you think? She would say she wouldn't say much but she would point the article or she might tell her friends that I was the principal us at the school and so and such a thing cuz you know when I was growing up, but probably didn't pay much attention to her and

34:20 Wished for a different kind of relationship.

34:27 And I look back at pictures of her now and you she seems so young and to navigate coming over here and cooking for my grandfather father and finding a job as a seamstress and I don't know if you remember but she told us that all she wanted had her has a eulogy was that she's work for $0.75 an hour and that she really loved her kids can you know at that time? It didn't have a lot of meeting but no now

35:05 You know what? I would want to say to my kids. It's the same thing. I work for $0.75 an hour.

35:13 But I worked really hard to.

35:19 Where is really hard to?

35:24 To do good

35:29 To make a difference and to be inclusive.

35:33 And we are I also love you very much and

35:39 Now I know what you meant or how she felt.

35:43 Cuz those are the important things and I'm trying to figure out where that transition came from being ashamed.

35:54 Oh my goodness from from being ashamed of being proud. Yeah, I think that's what my question kind of was to.

36:11 I don't know.

36:13 I probably have to think about it more in and tell you more about it.

36:22 Probably after college probably when people were looking for their roots.

36:31 Probably having a master's degree.

36:34 And just a late-in-life finding my voice because that's the thing. You can be happy and you can be smart in Chinatown, but if you don't have a voice.

36:44 It's your lost. You can't get anybody's attention if you need to.

36:54 You can't stay in there forever. You can you can but the world is so much bigger and so so much there's so much to explore and be a part of as opposed to just what he called being isolated and going to work coming home. Actually. I have to say Revolutionary Road movie enjoyed.

37:19 Really? I think ask the question begs the question of you know, what kind of meaning are you going to describe to your life just want to settle down and have kids and that's and that's good in itself is not enough for you. Do you want to do more other things you want to explore? So anyway, long story short. I know I have come full circle not completely. There are times if I get on an airplane, I'm still thinking that any guy that comes in a white and a three piece suit and he's white is smarter or more important than I am. But at the same time, I'm a much more confident person.

38:00 Due to church my experiences as a teacher dad really encouraging me and opening up the world for me and pushing me to go for it. And so it's it's really wonderful to be where I am. I wonder if it's also just like I mean you've been an educator for all your life pretty much and like when you're a mean I talked for a little bit too and I think mean I still work with kids and I know the thing that gets me is seeing their vulnerabilities, you know, and I'd it seems like that's something that you so relate to you and I know you're you're so fiercely protective of those kids, you know.

38:43 It's true, but I did leave with my teachers. I might have left a lot of messages. But I said if there's anything anything I want to have left with you. It's not to be afraid cuz I even think a lot of the teachers are so afraid to stretch out right expose your kids and right not protective in a sheltered way. But yeah, or just Fierce, you know, just that you want them to get out there so badly and to know themselves, you know, and that's really did you do have her. Yeah. I love that. I mean, I think it's reflected in your life to you. Don't it's like it's just beautiful and I think you definitely have given that to me to thank you. It's funny. I never knew that you loved to climb trees and I love to climb trees. You know, I have not but yeah.

39:43 I really love that. I love that gift that you you know you found in yourself and gave that to others to for so many years. I mean how many years did you teach in Oakland work in Oakland? 35 35 years, but I say you think you know what makes me the happiest Ashley is my two kids and Susan and Christopher. I mean, I just need to say and that you guys have far exceeded in my my dreams in terms of being caring people creative people people that discover people that are inclusive for the most generous and beautiful inside and out and I just want to tell you that and

40:35 You know, it's it's

40:37 It's hard now is like your birthday and

40:42 I don't know how to show you that. I love you so much. And so sometimes maybe I go over the top and sometimes I get the wrong thing and I I need you know, I don't know how to tell you but you're living your own lives. And so sometimes I just need your help to tell me, how can I show you that? I love you doing. This is huge. I know you don't really want to do it.

41:05 It is huge and it's a gift to me as well. So thank you so much. No problem. No problem. We're not totally done yet. I wonder if I can get one last question. What's and we started with food and we can end with food? So if you had to recommend one place to go for an outsider a new person who just moved here from Brooklyn What place would you recommend for them to go to for dinner? Dim sum dim sum or dinner either one.

41:40 In Oakland Chinatown no going across the bridge to Alameda on New Chinatown go to I still like King of Kings cuz I like the atmosphere and I like the tablecloth The Fortunes are good size.

42:05 You know chat for time for dinner is really hard. I would go to Rainbow for dinner. I would go to shooting star for snacks is totally a fun place. Have you seen the shooting star was so much fun? It's like a Chinese soda fountain coffee shop all at the same time and I would take grandmother for breakfast sometimes.

42:35 Those places are really there are a lot of them are New Chinatown and shooting stars are really new place in Chinatown. And I love Anna flat screen TV. No stitches is very Charming cuz it has the most kind of town dinner. I don't know. I wouldn't go to King Wah silver. Will you go to King Wah for sore. When is The Challenge and then Kong fried through the Hong kong-style chow mein after two really good things and what's up pork and saltfish things so good.

43:20 Pretty good. Pretty good. Dish there they have some but I just wouldn't get the dinner special no more for the old atmosphere. Thanks so much. Don't get if you don't get our reservation. Maybe we'll go there. Are you just saying it to be nice? No, definitely not definitely not. Oh my God. That's why I wanted to get the how do you think we got this? Cuz I was talking bragging about you.

43:55 Cuz the thing is, you know.

43:59 Is Dad at the talker now, and I'm not.

44:04 But there's so much is tied and I'm learning. I'm proud of you too. I know I know that you do know that I know and I got to get better by showing you that I'm proud to I know I have to sign on Facebook.

44:19 Hypothetically

44:21 Cool, I think we're good. We're good.