Saturday, November 28, 2015

Henry Yee

I was told that if I was going to do this blog, I had to interview Henry Yee. aka "Yee ji jik." (Chairman Yee) to anyone who passed through Woo Ching White Crane and the Kung Fu Federation. Everyone in Chinatown sort of knows Henry Yee on some level. "He was old when I was a kid." Mentioned a friend of mine who is a generation above me.

His voice is a very distinct high pitched and yes annoying voice. And it is everywhere. When I was a teenager it was telling me inside the lion head  "No don't throw away the orange give it over here." (come to think of it, his voice pierced right through the sound of the drum gong and cymbals.) Or, "Come help me post up flyers." which meant running around Tai Tung village.

That might be an interesting story to white people. People at my fancy prep school often wondered how to gain access to apartment buildings without a key. So easy. You push all the intercom buttons. Using fingers is too slow so we often utilized the bottoms of our sneakers in Kung Fu kicks which pushed many intercom buttons at once. It only takes one person to let us in. We would open the door to hear confused, "Wai Wai?  Ah sui ah?" from old Taishanese ladies.

Even boyscout work in Chinatown is done with Gu wak jai style. 

This is where I would learn that the elevator only stops on every 5th floor. So if you are a Senior Citizen that lives on the 12th floor, you have a choice. You can take the elevator and to the tenth floor and walk up two flights. Or you can take the elevator to the 15th floor and walk down to flights.

"It's not that bad," people will tell you, "They make sure the really old people live on a floor with elevator access." Indeed this may be the secret to old Chinese longevity.. the need to use stairs and calculate the easiest way to get home depending on distance vs. work.

But seriously, ask anyone OUTSIDE of Chinatown or this little Tai Tung world if they think it is normal for an elevator to stop on every 5th floor and they will think you are pulling their leg. They won't believe you. They will wait patiently for the punch line or the math problem you are about to give them. Shoot. Maybe that should be a tourist attraction. Does anyone know of ANOTHER group of buildings in the United States that has an elevator that only stops on every 5th floor?

Anyway, back to stuff Mr. Yee would make me do as a teenager.

  "Move this giant refrigerator that is no longer being used as a refrigerator but being used as a book shelf." I think I went to Chinese school with his granddaughter. I think she was even  older than me.

The point is he is old. And old people know everything that's gone on in a personal level. They lived it. Whereas I only heard or read about it. And Henry Yee not only lived it, but was involved in protesting and organizing the whole way through.

But old people are also senile.  I am told, that way back when, before I even joined Woo Ching White Crane, that Henry Yee was clear minded. He says he is 87 years old, and he is still a major figure at all the community events, going to protests, testifying etc. He's pretty strong fr that age. Independent. But since I was a teenager, he was always sort of idiosyncratic and strange, and telling me what to do in that old person kind of way.

Henry Yee came Boston from Hong Kong in 1966. He did restaurant work he didn't (and doesn't) speak English. "Da Jahp" bus boy? "Che Yi" Is that pushing dim sum carts? He lived on #6 Hudson Street before it was torn down. (So he was one of the people that actually got displaced and then moved into Tai Tung.
His wife worked  sewing clothes in a garment factory. Henry Yee was not that strong in body and the restaurant work almost killed him. He had a heart attack and had to have surgery. After that he weighed about 90 pounds. He stopped working. Instead he got involved in a whole host of community work. His business card lists 20 something organizations that he is a part of and he says he didn't even list a lot of organizations. All of it is volunteer work.

The Garment Factory closed down and his wife started to work for an airline.

That was as far as I got. A) I started to run into a wall here interviewing him because we had sort of made it up to the present and yet no anecdotal story had come up. B) Mr. Yee had also recently had a surgery and he is still recovering. So I have to call him some other time and continue to interview him. But what else is their to ask? I have to ask some really specific questions if I am going to get stories out of him instead of just lists.

Lydia Lowe mentioned three major chapters in Chinatown Activism, i.e. stuff to fight.

There was the Highways. Then there were Institutions (that's the Parcel C stuff where Tufts wanted to build a giant garage where BCNC now is. I remember  going to those protests. I must have been Dai Dai's age (4 or so, maybe 5) And then finally now the fight is against Luxury apartments and Condos. That's the activist view of Chinatown's history. And Henry Yee is definitely an activist. But he is also a resident.

I guess I want to ask more about his wife's work at the garment factory. (She, btw is very strong and healthy.) It's weird because I know we see the world very differently. But at the same time, it's almost like I', becoming this guy. I also don't work. I also am starting to be involved in all these organizations as a volunteer. And the more I do that, the more this blog sort of becomes boring.

For me Chinatown will always be more about Hing Yee than Henry Yee. I mean if you your going to be running all around, it's important to get some sort of enlightened world view out of it... or at least look cool.
As I start to morph into this person that has a bunch of organizations and cards and blogs, I need to make sure that I don't lose myself in meaningless volunteer titles.

Shoot this guy has a lot of stories, but I'm not asking the right questions. Help me out reader. Tell me what to ask? What do you want to know?

I also remember for the Kung Fu Federation, that Chan Buk Fahn (spelling) and him were a team. Together, they had a ton of stories. Chan was more Yang, hard and masculine, and Yee, was soft and Yin. It was a great team. I remember I made a rough Chinese Opera song about them because they just occupied so much of my time. Any time I was meditating or practicing they would barge into the school with something. In fact it was that constant Taishanese shouting in the background while I was trying to gain inner peace through Mein Lei Jum Chi Gung that is one of the reasons why I speak Taishanese.

"Gua Lun Chau!" Chan would say about some sort of paperwork with the Federation or some other Chinatown issue.

And Yee would say something back quietly... I don't know you always learn the swears in a language first.

Unfortunately, Chan passed away before I started even thinking about doing this blog. So it's important I get some sort of story from Yee.

"I want you to write this thing on the internet" he said. He didn't want me to think that he was pretending to be weak to get out of it. He gets that this blog can be a voice for residents. But the voice has to tell an interesting story, and that's where I am running into trouble on the activism side.

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