So very excited to share the Meet Me in Venice book cover! The book is also now featured on Amazon.com — pre-order your copy today!
For those of you wondering what MEET ME IN VENICE is all about, here’s my official book description. Also, please feel free to like my new Facebook Author’s Page to get frequent updates about the book! Thanks!
When Ye Pei dreamed of Venice as a girl, she imagined a magical floating city of canals and gondola rides. And she imagined her mother, successful in her new life and eager to embrace the daughter she had never forgotten. But when Ye Pei arrives in Italy, she learns her mother works on a farm far from the city. Her only connection, a mean-spirited Chinese auntie, puts Ye Pei to work in a small-town café. Rather than giving up and returning to China, a determined Ye Pei takes on a grueling schedule, resolving to save enough money to provide her family with a better future.
A groundbreaking work of journalism, Meet Me in Venice provides a personal, intimate account of Chinese individuals in the very act of migration. Suzanne Ma spent years in China and Europe to understand why Chinese people choose to immigrate to nations where they endure hardship, suspicion, manual labor and separation from their loved ones. Today all eyes are on China and its explosive economic growth. With the rise of the Chinese middle class, Chinese communities around the world are growing in size and prosperity, a development many westerners find unsettling, and even threatening. Following Ye Pei’s undaunted path, this inspiring book is an engrossing read for those eager to understand contemporary China and the enormous impact of Chinese emigrants around the world.
I’m thrilled to announce that my book, MEET ME IN VENICE, will be published in the U.S. in the Spring of 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield.
Here is the official announcement that went out today:
Journalist Suzanne Ma’s MEET ME IN VENICE: An Immigrant’s Journey from the Far East to the Faraway West, a story of immersion journalism taking readers deep into the misunderstood subculture of Chinese immigrant communities as Ma follows a Chinese teen’s journey to Italy and chronicles her determined search for la dolce vita in a strange and foreign land, to Susan McEachern at Rowman & Littlefield, for publication in Spring 2015, by Elizabeth Evans at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency (World English).
!!!!!!*happy happy happy dance*!!!!!!!
Thank you all for your support and interest in my research, which began way back in 2010 when I was awarded the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship upon graduation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
It’s been a long, but very fulfilling journey. I can’t wait to take these next steps into the book publishing world!! Please follow progress of my book on this website. It’s still under construction but I’ll be posting all book news there.
The following story appeared in two publications. The Dutch version in Saturday’s de Volkskrant newspaper.
The headline reads: CHINESE-DUTCH STAND UP Followed by a deck: “Gordon’s derogatory comments about a Chinese participant in a TV show is part of a long, Dutch tradition. Canadian-Chinese Suzanne Ma has had enough.”
It was also published today in English by The Huffington Post.
I wasn’t surprised by what I saw — it’s not like I haven’t heard those things before.
I knew what was going to happen as soon as I clicked on the link and watched a somewhat awkward, bespectacled Chinese man by the name of Xiao Wang wander onto the stage of Holland’s Got Talent.
The PhD student announced he would perform a rendition of “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto.
And that’s when Judge Cornelis Willem Heuckeroth, who goes by the nickname Gordon, cracked his first joke: “Which number are you singing? Number 39 with rice?”
Following Wang’s impressive performance, Gordon mocked the performer’s accent by referring to his voice as a “surplise.” And as the judges gave Wang their feedback, Gordon added: “Honestly, this is the best Chinese I’ve had in weeks. And it’s not a takeaway.”
After Wang left the stage Gordon continued, turning to the audience and chortling in Dutch: “He looks like a waiter from a Chinese restaurant.”
Finally, just before the commercial break, the show’s American judge Dan Karaty leaned over and said: “You’re really not supposed to say things like that to people.”
“What?” responded an apparently oblivious Gordon.
Butt of every joke
I’m a Canadian of Chinese heritage and I’m lucky enough that I’ve never been on the receiving end of such remarks in my own country, a place where I was born and raised and continue to live today. But I’ve heard similar words in the Netherlands, where my husband is from.
For the last six years, I’ve been visiting Holland a lot. My husband was born and raised there. His Chinese immigrant parents run a takeaway selling Chinese food in Rotterdam, and while their bami (noodles) and nasi (rice) are much loved by their loyal and hungry customers, I’ve encountered rather peculiar behaviour every time I’ve visited the country.
I wouldn’t necessarily call the episodes racist. They were more perplexing at first. While biking in Rotterdam one day, a group of adolescents called to me: “Kroepoek!” they said, using the Dutch word for “shrimp crackers” before bursting into raucous laughter. Another time, while walking in a local park, a young passerby pointed and called me a spring roll. “Loempia!” the boy said. I pointed back at him and said: “Stroopwafel” (a Dutch caramel cookie).
And then more than once, while helping on a busy Sunday at the takeaway, a customer made a jeer about my mother-in-law’s accented Dutch. “Sambal bij?” he chuckled, referencing an all-too-typical joke that imitated the way she asked customers if they wanted hot sauce with their meals.
Marc, my husband, grew up in a small city in the south of Holland. He was the only Chinese kid in his class and sometimes, it was rough.
The jokes don’t translate well into English. “What do the Chinese call buttocks? Wang Snee Wang,” the children would taunt. The words literally mean “cheek cut cheek” but apparently to the Dutch, they also sound like a Chinese name. “What is Chinese and hangs on the wall? Witte lijst.” White rice, but rice said with an “l” means frame. They often sang a song called “Hanky Panky Shanghai” while pulling their eyelids to the side.
I was outraged when Marc told me these stories. But he simply shrugged and said it was a part of every Chinese kid’s experience growing up in the Netherlands. There were many others like him.
A silent minority
We have many friends in the Netherlands who are of Chinese heritage. Most of them were born and raised in the Netherlands, educated in the Netherlands and are now working professionals in the Netherlands. A lot of them speak Dutch better than they speak Chinese.
And yet, their responses to Gordon’s behaviour on Holland’s Got Talent were very similar to what Marc had said to me: We’re used to it. It happens all the time. There’s no point in getting angry. A lot of people think this will never change.
Growing up in this society, you do not realize there is a different way of being treated.
I can understand why my friends’ parents — first generation Chinese — might choose to lay low. As immigrants, they are focused on running their businesses, working hard and earning money. Many speak accented Dutch, and are reluctant to speak up. They don’t want to be seen as trouble makers. Many immigrants who come from mainland China are not accustomed to participating in public protests or speaking to journalists. Back home, that could land you in jail.
But what about the second generation? Surely they have the capacity to speak up? Many friends admitted that they did but explained that, from a young age, they had always been taught to simply brush aside racist jibes, to rise above it, to be the bigger person.
We “are taught to be kind, humble, submissive, polite and not to talk back to people,” one friend told me. “We ignore it instead of standing up for ourselves. Growing up in this society, you do not realize there is a different way of being treated.”
I won’t judge Dutch society based on off the cuff remarks made by one celebrity. But the reaction and responses of my Dutch-Chinese friends are an indication that while there is so much about Holland that is modern, tolerant and progressive, there is still a long way to go.
Marc, my husband, worried about the future. “Are we going to continue to ‘take the high road’, ignore it and yet leave the next generation to grow up in the same environment?” he asked. “Holland may be a tiny country, but it has deeply rooted habits. We do things a certain way, treat each other a certain way, because that’s the way it has always been; this is a sign of a stagnant society.”
Is Canada any better?
Some friends suggested that Canada might fare better, where “everyone knows how it feels to be some kind of minority.” But can we really hold my country up as an ideal? I’m not so sure. Here, we still struggle with issues of race.
In 2010, an article in a national magazine titled “Too Asian?” debated whether Canadian schools were being overrun by overachieving Asian students, leaving non-Asian students feeling they could no longer compete. And just last year, the Bank of Canada edited out a picture of what appeared to be an Asian woman peering though a microscope on the new $100 bill because focus groups objected to the scene.
Perhaps we can’t change Gordon and others like him, but we can change how we as a society react to his behaviour.
The international community has the ability to create its own clout, uniting as one via social media to bear witness to racism, to call for change, and to demand better. It is through social media that I viewed the clip from Holland’s Got Talent, and through social media that I have the opportunity to address this now. A voice is a powerful tool. If you have it, I implore you to use it — even if your parents taught you otherwise.
I was invited to speak at a unique culinary event that combined supper and storytelling in Vancouver on Saturday.
Here’s my story:
This article appeared in the August 2013 edition of Saveur magazine.
By Suzanne Ma
For years the conductor of Rotterdam’s Tram No. 7 would make an extra long stop at Vlietlaan Street where—for nearly two decades—my in-laws’ take-out restaurant, Wha Kong 2, has served up the beloved Dutch staple known as Indo-Chinese food.
I remember how the conductor would call the restaurant five minutes before he arrived; and how my father-in-law, Tuful Kuo, and his staff would immediately fire up the woks. Succulent Indonesian-style grilled pork was doused in a crimson Chinese-style sweet and sour sauce to make the dish called babi pangang. Spring rolls, or loempias, were stuffed with leeks, cabbage, celery, pork, and shrimp just before they hit the deep fryer. Moments later, my father-in-law would dart across the street to hand the containers to the stalling conductor, just as the riders started to grow restless.
I realize these dishes might seem exotic in the land of Dutch pancakes and pickled herring. But, in fact, it’s part of a beloved cuisine that’s been here for about a century. Chinese immigrants, many of them working as stokers and sailors for Dutch shipping companies, were already running restaurants in port cities like Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the early 1900s. But the term, “Chinese Food” took on a whole new meaning when, in 1945—following more than three centuries of Dutch rule—Indonesia secured its independence.
Chinese restaurateurs saw an opportunity, tweaking their menus to appeal to returning Dutch expats who had developed an appetite for Indonesian food abroad. To their Cantonese menus, they added Indonesian specialties: crispy prawn crackers and atjar, a pickled cabbage dish; chunky chicken skewers called kip saté dunked in a simmering peanut sauce; pisang goreng, batter-fried banana sprinkled with powdered sugar, undoubtedly a Dutch touch. In essence, they were birthing a new style of cooking, one that combined the sugar and spice of Indonesian fare with their traditional Chinese recipes—fried rice called nasi goreng, red-hot sambal sauce, fragrant curries, loempias and other delicious fusions.
To the people of Rotterdam Wha Kong 2 and the cuisine it serves are now indispensable, a lesson I learned last summer when Tuful Kuo announced a week-long vacation.
“What will I eat while you’re gone?” one patron wailed.
“I consider this takeaway my best friend,” said another.
Clearly, the food has proven addictive to the Dutch. But it turns out they’re not the only ones. When you visit Wha Kong 2 (“Wha Kong” is the Dutch pronunciation of two Chinese words that mean “Chinese garden.”), you might wonder where Wha Kong 1 is. That restaurant opened in Madrid 20 years ago, when my husband’s uncle traveled to Southern Europe to capitalize on the growing popularity of Indo-Chinese cuisine among the Spaniards.
The two men saunter up to the counter towards the young, female barista. Her dark hair is piled into a pony tail, and her stylish fringe trimmed neatly above her brow, frames her face.
“Ni hao!” they say. “Ciao, ciao,” she replies with a smile.
Ye Pei is 17 years old and comes from China. She has been living in Italy for just a few months. While her vocabulary is limited, she has picked up just enough Italian to serve cappuccino and mix drinks at the bar here in Falconara, a seaside resort town on Italy’s eastern coast.
“Right now, the most important thing is for me to learn the language,” Ye explains. “That’s my priority. If I learn to speak Italian well, I can be independent. It’s difficult to learn Italian if you spend your entire day sewing.”
Like most of the Chinese in Italy, Ye comes from Zhejiang Province, in eastern China. Her home, Qingtian County, is land-locked and mountainous, with little industry or opportunity.
The Chinese started migrating to Italy 30 years ago. Most found work in garment factories subcontracted by Italian clothing companies. The work was simple – sewing buttons onto sweaters, attaching zippers to jeans – and soon, they started opening their own small workshops.
In the last decade, the number of Chinese immigrants in Italy has more than tripled, to over 200,000. The Chinese now make up about 20 percent of the total immigrant population.
Many of those who arrived in Italy brought over family members, relatives and friends from China to work for them, and quickly gained a reputation for being flexible, fast and cheap.
Made in Italy, by Chinese hands
In China, garment factory bosses, called laoban, usually provide workers with room and board, but most don’t offer a monthly salary. Instead, workers are paid by the piece.
Jimmy Xu, who runs a workshop north of Falconara, explains why he thinks many workers prefer it this way. “The Chinese don’t like fixed salaries. They think, ‘even if I work fast, I still get paid the same.’ So workers, especially the fast ones, like to be paid by the piece. This way they can earn more,” Xu said.
Ye’s mother, Xue Fen, first came to Italy about six years ago. She got a job in a Chinese-run factory, working more than 15 hours every day and earning around 750 euros ($970) a month. It would take eight months of work in China to earn the same salary.
Fen agrees that laobans exploit workers, but she says the arrangement is also convenient for immigrants, especially those who have just arrived in Europe.
“If I work for an Italian boss, I have to pay rent, and I have to get my own groceries. That’s a hassle,” she said. “If I work for a Chinese boss, at least my housing and food is taken care of. This is how we do it in China.”
Italian police say they have uncovered Chinese workshops that operate like sweatshops. Some businesses employ undocumented workers and have them work at all hours of the day.
This way of life allowed the Chinese to stay invisible for a long time, explains one police officer who does not want to be named.
“The Chinese are very clever and very well organized,” she told DW. “They deliberately choose to stay silent, so the newspapers don’t write about them and police ignore them.”
As many Chinese immigrants have achieved economic success in the last decade, resentment has grown, says the police officer, and has only been exasperated as Italy continues to struggle with high unemployment and debt.
Many Italians complain the Chinese are breaking employment rules – exploiting workers, undercutting the market and putting Italian factories out of business.
Valter Zanin, a professor of sociology at the University of Padua, has researched Chinese garment factories in Italy. He says that the industry relies on the cheap labor to stay competitive and that some employees are forced to work more than 18 hours a day.
But as the economic crisis in Europe continues to unfold, Italy’s fashion industry is in decline, and the Chinese workshops are also getting less work.
Seeking alternatives, many Chinese immigrants like Ye are getting into the hospitality business. In this new line of work, the Chinese are no longer invisible.
Daily interaction with Italians is helping immigrants like Ye to integrate better and learn more about the Italian way of life.
“I will work hard to learn Italian and to acquire the skills necessary for running a bar,” Ye said. “One day, once I’ve saved enough money, I plan on opening my own bar so my mother and father can have an early retirement.”
Contact Suzanne Ma
Just north of the city, I sat in a room full of frustrated immigrants who had gathered to listen to promises made by Cécile Kyenge, who just last week made history when she was appointed Italy’s first black cabinet minister.
Kyenge, 48, was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and moved to Italy 30 years ago to study medicine. She’s an eye surgeon and lives with her Italian husband and their two children about 50 kilometers west of Bologna in the city of Modena, known for its legendary balsamic vinegar.
The group that had gathered that Saturday night in February, was made up of mostly Africans, Romanians, and Filipinos. At the time, Kyenge was gearing up for the election, and many looked to her to bring change to a nation plagued with an ugly race problem.
There was talk about unemployment and welfare, drugs and suicide rates. But mostly, people were eager to discuss what Kyenge and her centre-left Democratic Party would do about the country’s citizenship law.
That’s because in Italy, if you are a child of immigrant parents, you are considered extracomunitari, a “foreigner” before the law.
Blood-right or birthright?
It didn’t matter that you were born in Italy, spent your entire life going to school in the country, spoke Italian fluently and felt as Italian as the nonna living next door — if your parents were born in another country, then you don’t have the “right of blood” and you aren’t privy to Italian citizenship at birth.
The children of immigrants must wait until they turn 18 to apply, and the process is not easy. Meanwhile, the law gives citizenship to children born to at least one Italian parent, and it doesn’t matter whether they live in Italy or abroad.
For Sun Wen-Long, the son of a Chinese immigrant in Italy and others like him who are part of the so-called “second generation”, the denial of citizenship has been a painful reminder that they are aliens in their own homeland.
Wen-Long, or Wen, was born and raised in Bologna. He’s a university student, speaks impeccable Italian with a distinct Bolognese accent. He enjoys pasta, loves to plays soccer, and he has fabulous long hair typical of Italian men.
Wen told me how tiring it is when fellow Italians continue to ask where he’s from. “The answer is Bologna,” he says.
For five years, Wen has been a part of the battle to reform the country’s citizenship law, joining an alliance of 22 civil society organizations that are campaigning for citizenship to be based more on “soil” than on “blood”. Their slogan: L’Italia sono anch’io. I am also Italian.
That day in February, Kyenge promised Wen and the crowd: If elected, she and the Democratic Party would address the citizenship law within 100 days of being sworn into office.
She kept true to her word. The day she was sworn in as minister, Kyenge told the media one of her top priorities was to make it easier for children of immigrants born in Italy to obtain Italian citizenship.
The backlash was swift and revolting, showing the world a side of Italy few outside of the country understand.
In the last week Kyenge has been the subject of racist taunts from far-right websites calling her “Congolese monkey”, “Zulu” and “the black anti-Italian.” A member of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, which has been allied in the past with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, warned in a radio interview that Kyenge would try to “impose tribal traditions” from her native Congo on Italy.
“This is sadly ordinary speech and words from media and Italian politicians,” Wen told me.
Immigration new to Italy
Millions of emigrants left Italy in the 19th and 20th centuries to start new lives in the Americas, but in the last three decades, the country has struggled to deal with an influx of citizens from other countries who have come to Italy looking for work.
Today, there’s an estimated 4.5 million foreign residents in Italy, which means 7.5 percent of the country’s 60 million people are immigrants. According to official statistics, nearly 80,000 babies were born to non-Italian parents last year. A total of 900,000 non-EU minors are living in Italy today (some of them were born in Italy, others arrived at a very young age).
Wen remembers, as a young teen, trying to sign up for something as simple as a local soccer league. As the children of immigrants are not granted Italian citizenship at birth, they adopt the citizenship of their parents. On paper, Wen was a citizen of China. In order for him to join the soccer league in Italy, he was told it was necessary to request a document from the government of China certifying that he wasn’t playing in a Chinese sports league. That of course, would be a conflict of interest.
It didn’t matter that Wen had never even been to China or that he couldn’t even speak Chinese very well. It took six months to get the right documents before he was finally allowed to join the team.
Wen recalls turning 18 and finally becoming eligible to apply for Italian citizenship. “It was like waiting 18 years to be officially Italian but I’ve felt Italian from the time I was a child,” he said.
Now 25, he has spent years volunteering with ASSOCINA, a group of second-generation Italian-born Chinese dedicated to creating dialogues and bridging the gap between Italian and Chinese cultures.
Wen was cynical but hopeful after Kyenge’s meeting back in February. But after the backlash last week, he seemed more exasperated than ever. “Nothing has changed. Italian society is still saying ‘no’ to this law,” he said.
Italians need to wake up and smell the cappuccino. With Kyenge and the new government in power, the world is now watching to see how the country, its politicians and its people will act.
Follow Suzanne Ma on Twitter: www.twitter.com/suzannebma
Last week I found out my friend, Paul J.Q. Lee, died. He was on a New York subway train on his way to work when he suffered a heart attack. He was unconscious when he was brought to the hospital, where he died three days later having never woken up. Paul was a popular guy — full of charisma, personality and spunk — and news of his hospitalization and subsequent death appeared on my Facebook feed as numerous friends began posting on his wall.
When I first arrived in New York City in 2008, I immediately went to Manhattan’s Chinatown. I’ve always loved hanging around Chinatowns — neighbourhoods steeped in tradition, culture and history. Neighbourhoods with memorable characters. Paul was one of the first people I got in touch with. I remember thinking how funny it was that Paul, a Chinese-looking man, spoke with a thick New Yorker accent. Though I was a complete stranger to him at the time, he took me out for lunch and ordered a classic home-style dish: stir-fried beef with bitter melon. He said he ordered this comfort food for me because he knew I was a long way from home, and that I was probably missing my Mom’s cooking. We met many times after that, as Paul became a vital source for me as a journalist reporting on Manhattan’s Chinatown. I never met anyone so passionate about his neighbourhood and the people in it — even the newcomers like myself.
Paul’s wake was held today in Manhattan. I’m sorry I’m not able to be there. But I’ll go to the store tomorrow and buy some bitter melons for a stir fry. I’ll tell my husband all about Paul over dinner and we’ll remember him that way.
Paul Lee, circa 1988, in 32 Mott Street General Store. (Photo by Corky Lee)
The following article was written by Downtown Express reporter Josh Rogers. It is an excellent account of Paul’s life and, in many ways, captures the essence of his spirit.
Paul J.Q. Lee, a Chinatown small business owner and activist who seemed to relish in uphill fights against the establishment, died Jan. 18 at age 63.
Lee suffered a heart attack in the subway on the way to work Jan. 15, and died three days later at Beth Israel, said Keith Leung, who thought of Lee as a second father figure.
Lee and his family owned the 32 Mott Street General Store for over a century before he had to close the business in 2003, citing the loss of traffic from the N.Y.P.D. security closure of Park Row.
He became one of the leading voices in the neighborhood to reopen the thoroughfare, which passes under police headquarters and links Chinatown to the rest of Lower Manhattan.
Lee was also an actor with over a dozen film credits including small roles in “Big”(Executive # 4) with Tom Hanks and “Year of the Dragon” (Jackie Wong’s son), which was set in Chinatown, his home for all of his life.
Geoff Lee, a childhood friend who is unrelated, said Paul was known in the film industry as the “go-to man in Chinatown” and helped get jobs for him and others in the neighborhood, particularly for “Year of the Dragon” which was actually shot in North Carolina with a realistic set of New York’s Chinatown.
Photographer Corky Lee, also unrelated, remembers Paul brokering a meeting for him with “Dragon” director Michael Cimino to look at his photos of Chinatown. Lee said Paul knew when to interject during the meeting, and even though Cimino didn’t end up buying any photos, Paul was able to get work for many others on the film.
“He was the Chinese-American Al Sharpton,” Corky Lee added. “He’d say things that needed to be said that no one else would say.”
In 2004 when the city suggested moving Chinatown’s Chatham Square plaza without a plan to save the memorials to Chinese veterans, Paul Lee told Downtown Express “You’re in for a fire fight. I’ll get on the barricades with [veterans groups]. As a community member I’m not going to let my people be disrespected.”
Lee, a gregarious man who was quick with a joke, was always a staunch defender against any slights to the Chinese community, but he also had an independent streak a mile wide, never worrying about his popularity.
At least three times, he passed on supporting Chinese candidates for Lower Manhattan’s City Council seat.
“I even gave him an out and said ‘I don’t want to give you a problem with your community,’ but he stuck with me and stayed ‘til the very end,’” said John Fratta, who received Lee’s endorsement for unsuccessful Council campaigns in 1991 and 2001.
Fratta said “Paul loved Chinatown, but he also felt it was important to build relationships between all of the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan.’
Last year, Lee endorsed Jenifer Rajkumar in her unsuccessful effort to unseat City Councilmember Margaret Chin.
“I get a lot of hostility because I’m not supporting Margaret,” he said after Rajkumar’s announcement last year.
He said he thought Rajkumar would fight harder to reopen Park Row to general traffic.
He confided that he expected Chin to win the neighborhood convincingly, but he just wanted to help her opponent “get a piece of it.”
He was often frank about his chances in seemingly quixotic battles.
When he and neighbors convinced a judge to order the N.Y.P.D. to reopen a public park it had taken over for parking, James Madison Plaza, Lee said he was “shocked… .
“I had all these plans, but none of them were predicated on us winning. I was saying if we lose, we can do plan B or C or D.”
“Lots of times Paul fought the fight because no one else was doing it,” said Geoff Lee, his childhood friend.
Lee was also not afraid to acknowledge agreement with his opponents. He had epic battles with the Bloomberg administration on the street closures, but in ’03 he expressed support for Mayor Bloomberg’s effort to replace primaries with non-partisan elections. The position also put him on the side of a community activist he often opposed, Margaret Chin, but at odds with almost all other local Democratic leaders.
“Nothing else has worked for Chinatown,” Lee said about the ballot referendum, which was later defeated overwhelmingly. “I don’t think we’re getting 10 percent of the attention we should.”
Leung, a surrogate son, said he was always inspired by Lee’s fights against tough odds. Leung’s father got him the job at Lee’s store at age 14 to help avoid the neighborhood’s gangs.
Now 30 and an advertising artist, Leung said Lee helped out many neighborhood kids like him.
Lee’s college roommate, Jonathan Atkin, said he took many professional headshots of Chinatown teens who got acting work through Lee.
Atkin, who met Lee at Lake Forest College in Illinois where Lee headed the Asian Students Alliance, said he was always amazed by the variety of Lee’s efforts — helping run the family business with lots of sideline efforts while staying active in politics and helping out neighborhood kids.
In the ‘80s, Lee promoted visits from China of table tennis and women’s basketball teams.
Atkin, said he went to JFK Airport one time to photograph a Chinese team’s arrival and was stopped by the N.Y.P.D., but the Chinese security detail quickly smoothed things over by saying ”he’s with Paul Lee.”
Lee also arranged bus tours to Atlantic City and Atkin remembered anther incident when a white casino official spoke to Lee in pigeon English.
Lee made his roots clear in a profanity-laced response.
“How dare you use this racist language with a person who’s a full-blooded American and New Yorker,” was the essence of Lee’s reply, said Atkin.
Paul Lee, a middle child, was born to Peter and Mildred Lee March 19, 1950.
“He learned to play handball on the walls of the Tombs,” Atkin said, referring to the city jail’s nickname.
The “J.Q.” initials abbreviate his Chinese name, and he adopted them as an adult to distinguish himself from other Paul Lee’s.
He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1966 before heading off to Lake Forest to earn a degree in history in 1972. He then went to work at the family business.
Undated historic photo of Quong Yuen Shing & Company store at 32 Mott St.
Lee’s grandfather, Lee Lok, opened the 32 Mott St. store, Quong Yuen Shing & Company, in 1891. It imported goods from China, reselling some to stores in other U.S. cities including Boston and Philadelphia, Lee said in a 2004 interview.
At the time, immigration laws prohibited Chinese women from entering the U.S., so the store also served as a social center for bachelors. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Paul ran the store with his father before taking over in the mid-‘80s. Paul eventually changed the name to the 32 Mott Street General Store, and sold Asian giftware.
Behind in rent, he closed in 2003, but he still lived on the same block. When Lee watched the store reopen the next year under a new owner he said, “It’s very, very painful. To lose the store — that was my family’s business for 113 years. It’s very shameful, very painful.”
Four years later in 2008, his wife of 29 years, Janny Lee, died of cancer, a loss, which friends say he took particularly hard.
Lee, who had no children, is survived by his older sister, Patricia Farley, and his younger brother, Warren Lee.
There will be a wake Thurs., Jan. 23from 3 p.m.- 6 p.m. and a service at 6 p.m. at True Light Lutheran Church, 195 Worth St. The church will also have a funeral Fri., Jan. 24, 9 a.m. Friends and family request donations be made to the church.
Lee worked his final years at the New York City Housing Authority, where he was a borough coordinator.
Through his setbacks, he often persevered with passion and humor.
He was the first speaker at a 2003 meeting with city officials that neighbors thought was a public hearing to get input on a possible unwanted traffic change, but they learned hours later that the change was already approved.
Perhaps sensing that there was no chance to stop the plan, Lee had simple advice to the speakers who would follow him: “Be loud.”
Rest in Peace, Paul