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In 1940, Lew Yoke Hing Lee was 17, one year into her arranged marriage, and already mother to the first of what would become ten children, when her husband left their Chinese village for the land of rich dreams in Quincy, Massachusetts. Over the next seven years, Lew remained in China, living in unappreciated servitude with her in-laws; washing their clothes, eating only after they had finished eating. When her husband finally returned, he couldn’t afford three passages back to Quincy. Lew immigrated with him. Their eldest daughter stayed behind.
Lew's husband opened The China Star, which became the first Chinese restaurant in Quincy. Lew, who spoke no English, cared for their growing family in a house with one bathroom. Then, in 1965, her husband was killed by a drunk driver, while ferrying his waiters back to Chinatown. There were eight children at home, between 5 and 16 years old. “I think she was out to prove everyone wrong," Lew's granddaughter Bonnie suggests. "And I think that resilience has been with her all her life, from where she was in China, to where she came. So I don't think giving up was in her make-up or anywhere to be found in her character."
Cooking became Lew’s livelihood and her life. Because she couldn’t drive, she walked to the restaurant, and firmly, unswervingly, took charge. “The nickname we had for her was 'the General' 'cause she'd have to keep everything in order, so we called her 'General Lee.' And we always laugh, 'cause we think that she secretly loved the name."
For the next 22 years, The General ran The China Star like a military campaign. Family was enlisted into every maneuver. They washed dishes, waitered, cashiered. One grandchild was stirring duck sauce by the age of 6. The restaurant opened 365 days, except (in a nod to one culture), on Chinese New Years, and (in a nod to another), on Thanksgiving. In a nod to both cultures, American Thanksgivings at The China Star were reserved for the Chinese. Doors were closed and locked (to keep bad spirits out) and up to 100 family members danced under a disco ball, played Mah Jongg until 3,4, 5 in the morning, and ate traditional turkey, but also traditional fried rice, and dumplings cooked untraditionally on a Mexican tortilla maker.
Lew’s assimilation was ambivalent. Though she learned English, she never spoke it with the Americans her children and grandchildren married. “She was pretty fluent, but she pretended not to be fluent, and that would force us to kind of use our Chinese with her. She understood everything you said, right, but she pretended not to sometimes."
When she had seen the last child through college, Lew retired. She didn’t stop cooking, but she took up another passion: “Oh, she loved the slot machines," Bonnie remembers. In her 80’s, Lew and a sister would travel to Vegas or Foxwoods, playing unstoppably through the night. After one marathon, her protective family brought her to the hotel room and insisted she rest. But after all the years as the loving but stern General, she was running free. “She snuck out of her room and they found her downstairs playing the slot machines."
Lew Lee died last September 24, 2014 in Duxbury and was buried beside her husband in Quincy. “Across the street from the restaurant," Bonnie notes. "So she's overlooking the restaurant still."
When she returned to The China Star, she was 92 years old.
Did you know Lew Lee? Share your memories in the comments section.
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