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Lee? Your party is here

Times Staff Writer

They came from every corner of the United States to Los Angeles’ Chinatown on Sunday to celebrate their kinship and their surname.

Hundreds of Lees from Boston, Oakland, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, to name a few places, marched down Broadway and officially commenced the 19th national convention of the Lee Family Assn.

Formed nearly a century and a half ago in San Francisco, the group flourished for more than 100 years, like many other Chinese family and village associations, by providing members a place of refuge in a country that long shunned and discriminated against the Chinese. They anchored the Chinatowns across the United States by offering members loans, securing burial plots and helping settle business disputes for a community denied access to most mainstream institutions.

But in modern times, with their aging ranks and challenges from newer and more prosperous Chinese communities in the suburbs, family associations such as the Lees face an uncertain future.

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Elders say many younger Chinese Americans are either too Americanized or have too many ties to the rapidly improving modern China to consider the associations relevant. Almost all the attendees Sunday were senior citizens uniformly dressed in dark suits and red ties.

“It’s a real problem,” said Cesar Lee, 70, a member of the Los Angeles chapter. “You don’t want the younger generation to lose their roots.”

What can’t be denied is the groups’ place in history. Buildings belonging to associations such as the Lees and the Wongs line the main thoroughfares of L.A.'s Chinatown and often bustle during the day with the sound of shuffling mah-jongg tiles.

Portraits of past association presidents hang on the walls, and red-and-gold shrines sit front and center for members to place offerings. The buildings are like relics of a bygone era when Chinese transplants needed to hang on to their customs and sought comfort in the company of their countrymen.

The Lee association, which has thousands of members and is rivaled in size by the Wong group, boasts one feature that other groups cannot: a credit union. Each of the roughly 20 Lee chapters across the U.S. offers its members mortgages or car loans at competitive interest rates.

When combined nationally, the Lee Federal Credit Union is said to have $30 million in funds. The San Francisco branch alone takes in $30,000 a month.

“We know each other, so people don’t ever default on loans,” said Cesar Lee. “In the old days, everything was done with just a handshake. But they’ve spent the last 20 years tightening the rules.”

This year’s convention, which ends Tuesday, is the 19th of its kind and is meant to represent the 100,000 Lees living in the U.S. The event takes place every three years, alternating between the coasts, and also draws representatives from China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

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There are believed to be more than 100 million Lees worldwide, the most being in China, where Lee is the most common surname.

Sunday’s opening ceremony began with all the pomp of a traditional Chinese New Year celebration. A lion dance troupe from San Francisco provided a raucous performance outside the L.A. Lee family association headquarters on Hill Street. A technician in protective gear carrying a blowtorch ignited 30,000 firecrackers.

Delegates and Chinese American elected officials then paraded through Chinatown waving at tourists, diners heading for dim sum brunches and Chinese cooks hovering outside their kitchens and smiling curiously at the passersby.

Roger Lee, 15, a French horn player in the marching band at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, which participated in the parade, said he and his mostly Asian band members knew next to nothing about the family associations.

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“I’m just here for the band,” he said.

When the part-Chinese, part-Taiwanese American was asked if he felt he was getting to his roots, he replied, “I guess.”

His mother, on the other hand, said she felt the historical significance.

“If you go back 500 years, I think you’d find we belong to the same family as these people,” said Helena Lee, 50. “At least some cousins.”

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Melvin Lee, national president of the Lee Family Assn., said one of the topics to be discussed this year was getting donations to buy a building for the Seattle chapter.

On Tuesday, as at every convention, a secret ballot will be held to determine who will be the next national president.

“It’s a way for us to regroup and re-energize,” said Melvin Lee, 70, a developer. “We’re trying to recruit younger members. You’ve got to be bilingual now. I speak both English and Chinese.”

It was only in recent years that convention material was translated into English. Despite some hesitation, it was deemed a significant sign of progress for the highly traditional organization that formed in 1866.

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“They finally recognized the generation gap,” said Richard Lee of Boston, one of the younger delegates at 58. “Each generation is only going to be more Americanized. You’re lucky now if your kids speak some Chinese. In my family, a sentence can start in Chinese and end in English.”

As the procession wound down, delegates headed into the auditorium of the Chinese school on Yale Street to listen to speeches from the heads of various chapters.

Elaine Lee, whose late father used to run the L.A. association, attended with her mother. She said the convention made her feel nostalgic for her childhood. The ceremonies have not changed much in 50 years, she said, and neither have the dishes served at the banquets.

“My father joined because he enjoyed the kinship,” said Elaine Lee, 56. “And he was able to be understood by his own people. They were family, which for Chinese is paramount.”

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With that, the association elders on stage parted a red curtain revealing a painting of the first Lee, a white-bearded man of Chinese folklore believed to have lived hundreds of years ago. In a tradition used to pay homage to all the Lee ancestors, the spectators packing the auditorium from wall to wall stood in unison, faced the painting and gave the customary three bows known as a kowtow.

“That,” Elaine Lee said, “was a major kowtow.”

david.pierson@latimes.com


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