Community remembrance set for Chinese-American leader Mary Nom Lee Leong
A memorial service is planned for Mary Nom Lee Leong of Beaverton, one of the last people to grow up in Portland's Chinatown and a historian of the Chinese-American experience in Oregon.
She was the principal founder of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Museum in Portland.
The service is scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, March 11, at Southwest Bible Church, 14055 SW Weir Road, Beaverton.
Leong died Jan. 31 at age 95.
"Much of the history and culture of the Chinese in Oregon since the 19th century was uniquely preserved by one person … whose influence will carry on for many more generations," Associate Pastor Larry Elliott said.
Elliott said her church attendance dates back to her early years in Chinatown, where she attended a Chinese church.
Robert Leong of Beaverton, one of her sons, will talk about his mother's life in the larger context of the long struggle by Chinese Americans to overcome discrimination in their adopted country.
"My mom was passionate about helping us understand this," Leong said in an interview.
"She was not bitter or angry about it. She was a light-hearted person. She said that (discrimination) was the way things were — it's not the way things are now — but we need to have an appreciation of where we came from, so we can celebrate the journey we have been on."
Leong said his mother subscribed to what the philosopher George Santayana said about history: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Mary Leong and her now-deceased husband, George, also were prominent in renovation of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association building at 315 NW Davis St., erection of the Chinatown Gate at NW Fourth Avenue at Burnside Street, and establishment of the Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Dragon Boat Races as part of the Portland Rose Festival.
Born in the USA
Mary Leong was born Nov. 4, 1921, in Tualatin to Jyp Lee and Wong Shee Lee. Both came from China, her father in the 1880s — when Congress passed the Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from coming to the United States, and was the first law to target a specific ethnic group — and her mother in 1918.
She was the youngest in a family with two brothers and three other sisters.
At age 2, the family moved to Portland and lived for two decades in what is known as Old Town-Chinatown.
When Robert Leong was young, he asked his parents why Chinese were confined to Chinatown.
"My father said I did not understand; it was not a choice," he said. "Chinatowns were in the poorest, nastiest sections of town, because they are where the non-Chinese people forced us to live."
Dating back to statehood in 1859, the Oregon Constitution specifically barred Chinese from owning property — and an Oregon law in 1923 extended that ban to anyone ineligible for citizenship.
Because of the federal and state bans, Oregon's Chinese population — mostly from the southern province of present-day Guangdong and city of Guangzhou (Canton) — dwindled from 10,000 at the start of the 20th century to about 2,000 by mid-century.
The Exclusion Act, and the state bans against property ownership, were repealed during World War II when China was allied with the United States against Japan.
But Mary Leong was able to take part in the community despite racial segregation. She attended Atkinson Grammar School, Lincoln High School, and the Girls' Polytechnic School, which moved to Portland's East Side in 1928. She also spent two years of college in California.
She later wrote about Chinese community participation in the Portland Rose Festival, based on her own experiences with the Chinese float in the 1920s.
As a teenager, she sang Chinese opera to raise money for China's resistance to Japan during the Sino-Japanese War, which preceded World War II from 1937 to 1939. She also took part in demonstrations against U.S. sales of steel and scrap iron that aided Japan's war against China.
Many years later, Robert Leong recalled his attendance at Chinese operas with his parents.
"When I look back, I can understand and appreciate it now," he said. "But as a kid of 12, I thought it was just weird. I said, 'Can't we just go home and watch Gilligan's Island?'" referring to a popular television show in the 1960s.
Mary and George Leong — he was born at Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland — became agents for New York Life Insurance Co.
"My parents had a saying: The American melting pot is great, but don't let it melt you away," Robert Leong said. "The melting pot is not evil, but you will have lost something — an appreciation of things that occurred before you."
In the 1970s, when ethnic history was emerging, Mary Leong acted on that belief.
"She got it in her head that if she did not chronicle this history, it would be lost forever, because no one was writing it down," Robert Leong said.
"Nowadays people are more willing to document the past. Back then, it was a little bit unusual."
She interviewed elders, including a man that Robert Leong recalls only as "Uncle Woody," who was in Portland in the early 1900s. He said he just rediscovered a load of cassette tapes of those interviews.
Later, when George Leong became president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, it became easier to advocate for historic preservation of both buildings and memories.
The CCBA Museum and the Oregon Historical Society are repositories of the artifacts, photos and stories she collected and composed.
Her work earned her an appointment by Gov. Barbara Roberts in the 1990s as commissioner of elder services. Taiwan also named her as a commissioner for overseas Chinese affairs in Oregon for four years.
George Leong preceded her in death in 2003.They were married 57 years.
In addition to Robert Leong and his wife Shan-Mei, Mary Leong is survived by a brother, Fred Lee; a daughter, Gigi; another son, Brandon, and his wife Kelli, and four grandchildren.