Betty Jean Lee, heir to a family business that introduced Chinese takeout to Portland when she was a teen and an advocate for the advancement of Chinese history, culture and cuisine in Oregon, died Dec. 19. She was 88.In 1979, at 45 and with three children, Lee unexpectedly took full control of the family business, which by then had grown to include an Asian import-export company, when her husband of 25 years, Fred G.
Lee, died of a heart attack.As one of few women in food service sales, Lee broke gender barriers by proving that women could succeed in the industry, making partnerships with companies like Sysco and Safeway, and winning the Oregon State University Family Small Business Award in 1993. 'It was a challenge, being a woman in a very male-oriented business,' longtime friend Gloria Lee said. 'She had to deal with a lot of racism, but it never stopped her. 'Betty Jean Lee was born and raised in Portland as Betty Jean Chin by parents Leland Chin and Frances Coe Chin, founders of the popular Pagoda Restaurant in the Hollywood District. While Frances Coe Chin was born in Dallas, Oregon, Leland Chin came to the United States from the Guangdong Province in south China as a 'paper son.' The term refers to immigrants who arrived in the United States during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act as pretend children of people who were already in the country.Constructed in 1939, when Betty Jean was 5, the Pagoda was described in The Oregonian as the first in the state designed originally as a Chinese restaurant.
When the business expanded to include Chin's Kitchen, the Lee family marked another first. In 1949, it was the first restaurant in Portland to prepare food exclusively for home delivery. Pagoda is now a Key Bank but Chin's Kitchen still stands, under new owners, after the Chins sold the restaurant in the 1970s.Lee, who worked for her parents as a child, graduated from Grant High School in 1952, just nine years after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which sought to curb the arrival of Chinese laborers who once built Oregon, comprising nearly 4 percent of the state's population in 1870, according to U.S.
Census figures.At Grant, Lee was one of two non-white students among 2,000, and her parents had to petition to be shown a house on Northeast Schuyler Street, according to an oral history archived at the Oregon Historical Society.As her parents' business grew from restaurants to include Chin's Import Export, which sold Asian food products to other restaurants, they encouraged Lee to go to college - a progressive stance at the time. She studied business at the University of Oregon, where sororities rejected her due to her race.She married Fred Lee, whom she met while at Grant at a Chinese Young Women's Club dance, in 1954. Seven years her senior, the Benson High School graduate worked as a customer service representative for the U.S.
Postal Service. She joined her parents' business in 1965, and he came along nine years later.Her husband died in 1979, and that's when Lee took full reins of the company and established a college scholarship for Portland students of Chinese descent in her late husband's name. The Oregonian estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Chinese Americans called Portland home at the time.She juggled business, family and community service deftly, friends said.
'She had three kids to raise, and she knew she was either going to make it happen, or she wouldn't,' her friend Gloria Lee said.Betty Jean Lee, businesswoman and Chinese American activist, died Dec. 19. She was 88.Her persistent attitude helped her find success and share it.
She helped persuade Safeway grocery stores in Oregon to sell prepared Chinese food -- and also trained the workers. Lee and dozens of Chinese American Citizen Alliance members also printed a Cantonese cookbook, 'Chinese Gourmet,' which saw its eighth printing this year.Her late husband was active in the local branch of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, a nationwide group dedicated to supporting Chinese Americans through scholarships and programs. Lee hadn't been involved while he was alive -- the group excluded women until 1977 -- but later became a prominent member of the organization.Lee helped organize fundraisers with local Chinese restaurants to support youth sports programs and the scholarship named for her husband.
As an avid basketball fan, she also helped manage the alliance's basketball program.She eventually became the regional executive for the organization and sat on the board of what's now Lan Su Chinese Garden and on the roundtable of former Portland Mayor Vera Katz. She served as a docent at the Portland Chinese Museum and helped translate material for Chinese Americans registering to vote, guiding them through the process and informing them on the issues. 'She was most proud of being able to use her voice to make things happen,' Gloria Lee said.Betty Jean Lee lobbied for Oregon Chinese history to be included in Oregon social studies curriculum as part of the Ethnic Studies bill passed in 2017. It required the state's K-12 public schools to teach the history of diverse groups in Oregon.Lee also helped raise funds through the Chinese American Citizens Alliance for a plaque in Old Town commemorating the contributions of Portland's early Chinese settlers.
She continued to work as the Northwest director of the organization up until her final years.Her youngest daughter, Leiann Bonnet, said her mother urged others to pursue what's important to them, trust their instincts and never give up. 'That's really how she lived,' Bonnet said.Bonnet said that her mother received numerous awards for community service, including the March of Dimes White Rose award. She had a talent for bringing people together, befriending volunteers and using her influence to inspire others, Bonnet said.No matter the level of recognition, her mother stayed humble. 'I'm hoping that my girls can remember that,' she said.
'That it's not always about getting the shiny gold star or trophy. It's about how you touched other people's lives, and she really did. 'Lee was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2000. Around 2018, doctors detected endometrial cancer, and just two years later, she also developed leukemia.
Even at her worst, she maintained her independent nature, navigating Instacart to buy her own groceries, for example.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 decision to pursue a career in social justice. The two worked together at the Lan Su garden while Lee was on the board of directors. 'I think every woman who knew her was impacted by her ability to be strong and gentle at the same time,' Watson said. 'She had a lot of power, but she didn't have to wield it.
It was just in who she was and how she was respected. 'Lee is survived by Bonnet and two other children -- Greg Lee and Keith Lee -- plus seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, a sister and nephew.- Austin De Dios; EMAIL; URL; (503) 319-9744Our journalism needs your support.