Betty Jean Lee, who led the spouse and children small business that released Chinese takeout to Portland, dies at 88

Betty Jean Lee, heir to a household organization that released Chinese takeout to Portland when she was a teen and an advocate for the improvement of Chinese historical past, society and delicacies in Oregon, died Dec. 19. She was 88.

In 1979, at 45 and with 3 children, Lee unexpectedly took full control of the family members business enterprise, which by then experienced developed to incorporate an Asian import-export firm, when her husband of 25 several years, Fred G. Lee, died of a coronary heart attack.

As one particular of handful of women of all ages in foods service sales, Lee broke gender boundaries by proving that women of all ages could triumph in the field, producing partnerships with businesses like Sysco and Safeway, and winning the Oregon Condition College Spouse and children Compact Small business Award in 1993.

“It was a challenge, getting a girl in a extremely male-oriented enterprise,” longtime friend Gloria Lee explained. “She experienced to deal with a lot of racism, but it hardly ever stopped her.”

Betty Jean Lee was born and elevated in Portland as Betty Jean Chin by mother and father Leland Chin and Frances Coe Chin, founders of the well-liked Pagoda Restaurant in the Hollywood District. Though Frances Coe Chin was born in Dallas, Oregon, Leland Chin arrived to the United States from the Guangdong Province in south China as a “paper son.” The time period refers to immigrants who arrived in the United States in the course of the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act as fake small children of individuals who were being presently in the place.

Built in 1939, when Betty Jean was 5, the Pagoda was explained in The Oregonian as the to start with in the state built initially as a Chinese restaurant. When the enterprise expanded to incorporate Chin’s Kitchen, the Lee spouse and children marked one more 1st. In 1949, it was the first cafe in Portland to prepare meals completely for residence supply. Pagoda is now a Important Financial institution but Chin’s Kitchen area nevertheless stands, below new homeowners, after the Chins sold the cafe in the 1970s.

Lee, who labored for her dad and mom as a baby, graduated from Grant Higher School in 1952, just nine a long time immediately after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which sought to control the arrival of Chinese laborers who as soon as designed Oregon, comprising just about 4 percent of the state’s inhabitants in 1870, according to U.S. Census figures.

At Grant, Lee was one particular of two non-white learners amongst 2,000, and her mothers and fathers experienced to petition to be shown a home on Northeast Schuyler Avenue, in accordance to an oral background archived at the Oregon Historic Modern society.

As her parents’ small business grew from eating places to include things like Chin’s Import Export, which marketed Asian meals solutions to other restaurants, they inspired Lee to go to college – a progressive stance at the time. She analyzed small business at the University of Oregon, exactly where sororities rejected her owing to her race.

She married Fred Lee, whom she achieved though at Grant at a Chinese Young Women’s Club dance, in 1954. 7 a long time her senior, the Benson Large University graduate labored as a shopper service representative for the U.S. Postal Assistance. She joined her parents’ business in 1965, and he came alongside nine several years afterwards.

Her partner died in 1979, and that’s when Lee took total reins of the business and founded a faculty scholarship for Portland college students of Chinese descent in her late husband’s identify. The Oregonian approximated 5,000 to 6,000 Chinese Individuals referred to as Portland dwelling at the time.

She juggled business, household and neighborhood support deftly, pals reported. “She experienced 3 youngsters to increase, and she realized she was both likely to make it happen, or she wouldn’t,” her close friend Gloria Lee mentioned.

Betty Jean Lee

Betty Jean Lee, businesswoman and Chinese American activist, died Dec. 19. She was 88.

Her persistent attitude served her find achievement and share it. She served persuade Safeway grocery suppliers in Oregon to sell organized Chinese food items — and also qualified the personnel. Lee and dozens of Chinese American Citizen Alliance customers also printed a Cantonese cookbook, “Chinese Gourmet,” which noticed its eighth printing this 12 months.

Her late partner was lively in the local branch of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, a nationwide group focused to supporting Chinese People in america via scholarships and courses. Lee hadn’t been concerned although he was alive — the team excluded females till 1977 — but later on became a popular member of the business.

Lee aided arrange fundraisers with area Chinese places to eat to assistance youth sporting activities programs and the scholarship named for her spouse. As an avid basketball admirer, she also aided take care of the alliance’s basketball system.

She eventually grew to become the regional govt for the firm and sat on the board of what is now Lan Su Chinese Backyard garden and on the roundtable of former Portland Mayor Vera Katz. She served as a docent at the Portland Chinese Museum and aided translate materials for Chinese Us residents registering to vote, guiding them through the method and informing them on the troubles.

“She was most very pleased of becoming in a position to use her voice to make factors happen,” Gloria Lee reported.

Betty Jean Lee lobbied for Oregon Chinese historical past to be involved in Oregon social scientific studies curriculum as portion of the Ethnic Scientific tests bill handed in 2017. It essential the state’s K-12 community educational institutions to teach the record of diverse teams in Oregon.

Lee also aided increase funds by means of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance for a plaque in Previous Town commemorating the contributions of Portland’s early Chinese settlers. She ongoing to function as the Northwest director of the corporation up until eventually her last several years.

Her youngest daughter, Leiann Bonnet, claimed her mom urged others to go after what is significant to them, trust their instincts and under no circumstances give up. ”That’s truly how she lived,” Bonnet said.

Bonnet mentioned that her mom been given various awards for group assistance, such as the March of Dimes White Rose award. She had a talent for bringing people jointly, befriending volunteers and employing her affect to inspire other people, Bonnet mentioned.

No issue the degree of recognition, her mom stayed humble.

“I’m hoping that my women can remember that,” she explained. “That it is not generally about obtaining the shiny gold star or trophy. It’s about how you touched other people’s lives, and she truly did.”

Lee was diagnosed with thyroid most cancers in 2000. All-around 2018, doctors detected endometrial cancer, and just two years later on, she also formulated leukemia. Even at her worst, she taken care of her independent character, navigating Instacart to buy her own groceries, for instance.

Lisa Watson, director of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, described Lee as a steadfast leader whose compassionate nature helped shape Watson’s conclusion to go after a career in social justice. The two worked collectively at the Lan Su backyard garden even though Lee was on the board of administrators.

“I think each individual female who knew her was impacted by her capacity to be strong and gentle at the very same time,” Watson explained. “She experienced a large amount of electric power, but she did not have to wield it. It was just in who she was and how she was highly regarded.”

Lee is survived by Bonnet and two other small children — Greg Lee and Keith Lee — in addition seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, a sister and nephew.

– Austin De Dios adedios@oregonian.com @austindedios (503) 319-9744

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