Immigrant Stories: Chinese make a life in ‘gold mountain’ |

Immigrant Stories: Chinese make a life in ‘gold mountain’

Calvin Lee

Intro: Calvin Lee came to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1980 to work for the Colorado Public Defender’s Office. In 1984, he opened his own office and practiced law for another 28 years. Today, he lives in Denver and pursues his other passions: art and the great outdoors.

Lee: My parents were both born in the southern part of China. They lived 30 miles apart. They didn’t know each other. When they were 12 years old, they both came over to the United States, again not knowing each other.

At that time, the United States was known as “Gam Saan,” or gold mountain. The Chinese believed that, if you came to America, you’d pick gold off the streets, become wealthy and send money back to the family in China, and eventually also return to China. The Chinese were the first immigrants the United States government imposed a quota on. The government was afraid of the “yellow peril.” And so, only those people who had a permit could come over.

It was the 1920s, and my father’s family didn’t have a permit. So they paid a family who had one $1,500 so my father could pretend to be their son. That family’s last name was Lee. My real last name is not Lee. It’s the last name of the family my father pretended to be the son of. My real last name is Yee, Y-E-E. So my father became a “paper son” — a son on paper only, not a real son.

Before my father left for the United States, the paper family wrote a 10-page family biography in a little notebook that my father studied, so he could answer questions when he went through customs on Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco. He was held in a barracks on the island for three months, where he was questioned repeatedly by the immigration officials. He was eventually released and allowed to enter the United States.

My mother came over legally. She was 12 years old. She also was held on Angel Island and questioned. They both vividly remember being there as little kids for several months before they were allowed into San Francisco.

Instead of picking gold off the streets, my father worked in a shipyard during World War II building battleships for the Navy. My mother worked in a hardware store. When they were in their early 20s, they met, and got married, and had me and my brother.

Gallacher: Did your parents eventually become naturalized citizens?

Lee: Yes. There was a time when the government offered amnesty to immigrants who would confess that you came here illegally. My father didn’t trust the U.S. government, so he never went in to confess.

Gallacher: You grew up in Arizona. When did your family move from San Francisco?

Lee: In 1951, when I was 4 years old, I had bad allergies, bad asthma. The doctor told my parents we had to move. So I grew up in Arizona from the time I was 4 until I graduated from college in 1969.

The first year that we were there, my parents leased and ran a grocery store in the Mexican barrio of Tucson. And then they found a store to buy in the suburbs. At that time, there were only 40,000 people. There were no 7-11s, no Safeways, or King Supers. And so my father was the butcher shop and grocery store for the neighborhood. My parents did very well. They paid off the mortgage in two years and ran the store for 30 years.

They were open 365 days a year, including Christmas. We opened from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. On Christmas, we opened at 11 in the morning, so we could open Christmas gifts.

Gallacher: What are your memories of that time?

Lee: I don’t have any recollection of San Francisco. My first recollection is arriving in Tucson. My aunt had a grocery store there in the Black downtown neighborhood of Tucson. Her family had had that store since the 1920s. I remember dirt streets, pool halls and prostitutes hanging out in doors.

My aunt had several rentals behind the grocery store. My first memory, as a child, was being in that little apartment with a mud floor and mosquito netting over the bed. It was a rough neighborhood. They had a crowbar and a gun behind the counter in case someone tried to steal some Gallo sherry. Gallo was the liquor du jour of people who didn’t have a lot of money to get drunk on.

Gallacher: What did you learn from that experience?

Lee: I learned to value hard work. We lived behind the grocery store. Our living room door opened up into the grocery store. When you opened the living room door, there was the cash register and the counter where we served the customers. My parents were always around and always working. That gave my brother and me the values of hard work and stability.

Gallacher: Did you experience prejudice growing up?

Lee: Yes. I recall, in sixth grade, the entire sixth grade class was asked to this private dance studio to allow children to experience a dance class. I was the only one who was not invited. I recall riding my bike to a junior high class, and these little kids were running behind my bicycle yelling, “Ching-a-ling.”

But it was mixed. When we moved to the suburbs from the Mexican barrio, there were not a whole lot of Chinese in Tucson. There were maybe 10 families, and they were all spread out. All our neighbors were Anglo kids, and they were my best friends. All the neighbors that we had really liked my parents. We had barbecues and were pretty much accepted in the neighborhood.

I experienced some prejudice as a young man. When one of my girlfriends told her parents and grandparents that she had a Chinese boyfriend, they wouldn’t speak to her for a month. But then they warmed up to me.

Gallacher: Did your father and mother, experience prejudice when they first came?

Lee: They told me that, during World War II in San Francisco Chinatown, they had to wear yellow arm bands that identified them as Chinese, so that they wouldn’t be mistaken for Japanese and assaulted or killed. They weren’t really allowed to leave Chinatown or venture into Anglo neighborhoods like Market Street.

Gallacher: Did they miss China?

Lee: No. They didn’t miss China. What my mother really missed, when they moved to Tucson, was San Francisco, because there were virtually no Chinese in Tucson in the 1950s. They were about to go back to San Francisco after two years when my father found this grocery store that he wanted to buy. And, without really consulting with my mother, he bought it. They almost got divorced over that, because my mother was so unhappy being in Tucson.

My father tried for years to get his mother into the United States. She was in China when Mao and the communists took over. She had two houses and was considered wealthy. The communists held public trials and tortured wealthy people. When it was my grandmother’s turn to have her public trial, the poor people said that although she was rich, she was always kind to them. So she wasn’t tortured or made to crawl on her hands and knees through broken glass. But they did take away her two houses.

Three years later, they allowed her to go to Hong Kong. She lived there for 10 years in a one-room apartment with three other people. She had to stay 10 years because it took us that long to prove that she was my father’s mother because she had a different last name than my father. By the time she arrived, I was in high school. She was in her 60s, and she lived with us until she died. She never did learn English.

Gallacher: Have you been back to the villages where your parents came from?

Lee: In 1990, my brother and his family, and my parents and I, went to China and found each of the houses my parents were born and grew up in until they were 12. In fact, when we were walking around, a man rode by on a bicycle, and he and my father recognized each other as being classmates back when they were little kids. That was interesting.

Gallacher: What was it like for you to watch your parents reconnect with their pasts?

Lee: Oh, it was something. The beam on my father’s face when he saw the house that he grew up in was very special. He just lit up and had all these memories. My mother also. My mother’s house was just an empty lot. It had been destroyed. But she started telling stories about her memories of being in that village.

I had this thought as I watched a group of little kids, they were maybe 2 or 3 years old, running around this remote farming village. I thought, “What if my parents had met here in this village when they were in their 20s and never came to America? I would have been born here.” The stark contrast between being a little raggedy kid in this rural agricultural village and being a kid riding the gondola on Aspen Mountain was very stark.

About Immigrant Stories

Immigrant Stories is a transcription of radio broadcasts by Walter Gallacher, a photojournalist and independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email To read past Immigrant Stories, visit

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