Tacoma Washington is coming to terms with its legacy of Chinese exclusion – and trying to attract more Chinese residents.
Obituary – Eric Fong Yee
by Joanne Fong Yee Robertson
Feb 13, 1932 – June 4, 2017
Sometimes it takes an arc of an entire lifetime to appreciate the expanse of one’s accomplishments. Just like it takes seeing all of you gathered here today—in one place, under one roof to realize all whose lives Daddy has touched.
It has been said that “A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.”
My father was an engineer—a builder. His life’s work was building a foundation for his family, his community--this nation.
He was born in Denham Town, West Kingston. On Wellington Street, to immigrant parents who spoke no English, who ran the Wellington Street Bakery. He was the youngest of 5 children—and the first and only in his family to go to university.
He was never the best student. Fr. McMullen the headmaster at St. Georges said he would never make it as an engineer—that maybe he should think about something else. It was Fr. Oches that believed in him and steered him to Tri State University in Angola Indiana. But it was Mommy who had to say the prayers that he would graduate—
let’s just say he cut it pretty close.
Academics never came easy to him but he managed to get by.
It set that chip on his shoulder that stayed there his entire life.
If he couldn’t be smarter—then it was simple: he would just work harder. It is how he lived his professional life from beginning to end.
It’s also why he placed such an emphasis on education. He knew how lucky he was that was able to go. And he knew that it that was the ticket out of Denham town.
My father—and his generation, was the first class of professional Chinese Jamaicans. And I make a point of saying Chinese Jamaicans because it is funny nowadays how all Chinese are lumped together—and we forget…
Those Chinese who were born here, whose educations were paid for by bakers and shopkeepers on Wellington Street, on Duke Street, on Slipe Road.
Those Chinese Jamaicans who fueled a newly independent Jamaica in the 60s; who never deserted even when things got tough in the 70s.
My father is one of those Chinese Jamaicans who helped build the foundation of this nation.
When he got sick and needed blood, we all trooped down to the Blood Bank in downtown Kingston. When we got back to the hospital after telling him where we went, he said “oh yes, I built that”.
When we went to dialysis on the stretcher, I would tell him: “look Poppa, look—we’re across from Mutual Life.” And I would boast to the nurses and the ambulance porters, “you see those aggregate panels” he built that.
The polar opposite of this example is not lost on me either.
He was proud to be part of many iconic buildings in Jamaica. Mutual Life--at the time, the tallest building in Jamaica, the modern Half Way Tree Transport Center, just to name a few.
But for every fancy building, there is a government building downtown, a clinic in Tivoli. Or a school: Immaculate’s Cafeteria for instance. Or a little school out in the country. These too were an important part of nation building—and Daddy was an instrumental part of that.
Despite his escape from Denham town he never forgot where he came from and he always gave back. His home may now have been in Norbrook but his office for the last 50+ years was in Riverton City.
Ericka is right. The original pair of bossy boots belonged to Poppa. At Rivertson, he created his own kingdom. Daddy was “the E”. Stevie is known as “Skipper”. Uncle Mikey was the brainiac “The Professor”—and Charlie, sorry for you--you know what that makes you—“Gilligan.”
At the office, Poppa was king. And the king ruled. When I showed up with Big City credentials and MBA in hand, well let’s just say this subject had a difficult time being under his rule.
We fought. A lot. However, I feel I got the ultimate and final upper hand when I popped out my secret weapon: Ericka. I would like to go on record to say that naming my first born--his first grandchild, was not brown nosing on my part--it was a was a brilliant strategic move! And instantly I won every argument that ensued since then.
Looking back I guess we fought so hard because we were probably so alike. And my MBA degree from that fancy school?—it paled in comparison to the lessons that I learned on the job by working alongside him.
His was the school of common sense business. Built on the foundation of hard work, loyalty and mutual respect.
- He taught me how to be tough. And showed me what could accomplish by sheer determination and force of will. When in doubt, just work harder and try harder than anyone else. If they say it will never work, just show them how and prove them wrong.
- He taught me that relationships matter. That loyalty matters. That relationship over long periods of time breeds loyalty. And those elements are central to running a successful business. He could talk to the bank president just as easily as he could the labourer in the construction yard.
- He taught me to be fearless . That it’s ok to take a chance. That even though you don’t know the way out—you know the way through.
He and I shared a love of work. Not just a love—an intensity about work. I’ve been accused about that before. And in these last few weeks, behind my Mom’s back, in the middle of the night when it was dark and just the two of us, I still talked to him about work, and occupancy numbers, and guest comments and even yes, even about my bankers—he wanted to know if they were happy with our recent renovation.
He could always assemble the right team.
And there was usually a fair amount of yelling and fighting because he surrounded himself with people of opposing talents. With abilities that he knew he didn’t have—not that he would ever admit it.
Uncle Mikey – he loved you like a son. He always told Mommy “that man knows his concrete” I know that doesn’t sound like much to you—but trust me, to Engineers….that means a lot!
Mr Tenn Lyn – was the gold standard of mathematicians--the academic that Daddy never was.
Charlie – your hands could work magic to fix engines and equipment that Poppa never could.
And Stevie – he always lamented how you “didn’t talk”—when he himself wrote the book on “How to Lead Without Saying a Word.”
He was the most humble, unassuming man.
It would make him uncomfortable that you all interrupted your weekend to be here. He never liked drawing attention to himself or all the good deeds that he had done.
Many of you sitting in the room had your educations paid for, or your children’s education paid for. Or your doctor bills taken care. Or a loan, or a financial boost to give your business a little help.
Even land donated—outright.
Archbishop Dufour, that is how I met you…when Daddy donated the land at Albion for the AIDS Hospice. That same Good Shepherd Foundation—that is one of the beneficiaries of the donations collected in Daddy’s honour today.
There were countless other donations. But he never kept track and he never wanted us to keep track. He never gave because he expected to be recognized. He gave to build up his fellow man. He gave to build up his community.
He tried being “fancy” and “important”—but it didn’t come naturally, and so it never stuck. He never lived large.
He was generous to a fault and always gave his kids better things than he would even give himself.
- His experiences with Cadillacs and Mercedes were short lived. The grey diesel Cadillac goes down in family lore as the worst car he’s ever owned. And I’m told I’m not even to discuss the experience with the Mercedes. And yet, He would buy his children the fanciest of cars—and even race cars in Charlie’s case. When he himself was happiest in his little yellow VW or raggedy Suzuki that now sits in the garage at Norbrook.
- Ericka’s favourite restaurant: Sushi at NOBU. My father’s favorite meal? KFC. Two piece original recipe with fries and a Pepsi. I tried sneaking that in to the hospital but mommy wouldn’t let me.
- My sister’s password on her computer “Saks Fifth Avenue”…(joke) my father’s favorite store: Marshalls.
- Stevie’s hobbies: flying airplanes and playing polo. Daddy’s hobby—it was singular: watching TV.
- His idea of activity was lifting the TV remote and moving the lever on the arm chair. He was a simple man. It didn’t take much to make him happy. Donna prided herself on being the one to give him a fully automatic recliner recently—one where the seat lifted to help you stand and the feet went up with just the push of a button—now that was the ultimate in luxury!!!!!
- It wasn’t a hobby—(we’re grasping at straws people!), but he would love going to real estate open houses in Miami with Vicki and Charlie. Just going inside people’s houses to look--not to buy—because that would cost money. And he would search out the houses that had a free giveaway. A free umbrella was always a bonus.
I will tell you, the one thing he did acquire a taste for was expensive brandy. Remy Martin, Martell. Daddy would love nothing better that sitting around with a good brandy and talking about business and politics. Not much of a talker himself, he loved surrounding himself with people who “could chat”. Mr. Lyew that’s why you were on the top of the list. Uncle Cleve, Little Mikey, Derron Chung. The rest of you know who you areBut his
But his favourite person in the entire world was Mommy. The two of them made a formidable team.
This year they celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary. Their anniversary is on Valentine’s Day. I know what you’re thinking---awwww how romantic. But it wasn’t romance, it was practicality. Daddy’s birthday was Feb 13--so this way he would never have an excuse for forgetting their anniversary. She knew what she was dealing with from the get go.
In true Chinese fashion, their marriage was practical. He provided, she nurtured. Simple enough, but then complicated by the violence of the 70s; the decision to move my Mom and the 5 kids to Miami; the decision that began my Father’s 30 year commute from Kingston to Miami. It was a huge sacrifice they made for us kids. And especially difficult for Daddy as he was left alone.
But those obstacles, those bricks that life was throwing at them as they trying to build the foundation of our family, the distance that separated them? I think it made their union stronger.
It made my mother so very independent and strong as she raised 5 kids basically by herself in Miami. And it enabled Daddy to have single-minded focus on his work to grow his business in Jamaica.
The fact that they were able to keep our family intact and thriving despite this distance and separation is testament to the strength and depth of their marriage.
Marriage might have brought them together—but a commitment to a shared partnership is what kept them together all these years.
Mommy is quick to say that Daddy was never the romantic sort. And that’s true—but watching them weather the storms together—especially over these last few years, and particularly these last few months-- that has shown me what true commitment is.
I never once heard my father tell my mother he loved her. But he didn’t have to—because he spent a lifetime showing her—and showing us kids too.
This month Kevin and I celebrate our 30th anniversary. Kevin, I know you’re exhausted—but we’re only half way there. We’ve got a long way to go to fill their shoes.
If Daddy were here to tell me about his life’s work he would have said nothing of the above. He would have been too humble. He would simple tell you his life’s work is his kids.
I hope in these last 8 weeks he saw the strength of the foundation he built when he anchored this family. He has spent a lifetime cultivating this team and we all stepped up to the plate without him having to utter a word.
To begin with, the man was smart to have so many children:
- Stevie held down the fort at work
- Charlie was in charge of taking care of Mommy.
- At the hospital, he had Donna on day shift--his emotional touchstone. He would express to her the things he didn’t want Mommy to worry about. And she was his fiercest advocate. Let’s just say that that the nurses at Andrews are happy to have their ward back. Nurse Nation told my mother that she hopes she has a daughter who loves her as much as Donna loved Daddy; who would fight for her with as much passion as she did for Daddy.
- As for me, I had the night shift. It was my job to be practical one. To be brave—notice I’m the one they shove up here. To be steady, just like he had taught me in business.
- And Vicki, well as she puts it “I’m the entertainment—she just did what she does best; chatting. Poppa just loved that. He loved people who could chat. She’d tell him about what the grandkids were up to, all the drama going on at the new Zoetry. She’s amazing to watch really—she never runs out of material. She was even interviewed on camera for promo video they were filming for the hospital. It figures—as she was the only one of us to be dressed perfectly and have her lipstick “at the ready” in the hospital.
Yes, laugh!! Laughter helped us cope too—and is still helping us cope.
We never left his side. One of us was always there. Without having to say a word, he had his whole team at the ready for the fight of his life. And he fought till the end.
Mommy, I hope we did you proud. Because of all of this--all of us—us together—strong and determined. This is the masterpiece he created just for you.
We are so grateful to those who traveled this long road with us:
- To Dr. Chung who was the fearless captain of “Team Eric” for the last 15 years. And Dr. Jackson and Dr. Watson-Brown who came in as reinforcements.
- To the nurses and caregivers at Andrews Memorial and Cascade Dialysis.
- To Sunshine, and all the practical nurses.
- To Pansy, Devin and Henry for holding down the fort at Norbrook while we were all camped out at the hospital.
- To Auntie Del who can find a priest anywhere, anyday, anytime.
- To Carolyn for feeding us, and catering for us, and for letting use Golden Grocery as our Command Central.
You all joined in on our fight and Daddy couldn’t have asked for a more focused, dedicated team.
And so now it's time for the builder to be at rest.
As he watches from above, watches as the baton is being passed from one generation to the next: you grandkids make him so proud.
Mommy said he timed it well.
Tonight is when Usain Bolt has his final race in Jamaica.
Daddy was so looking forward to watching him TV—in his chair that Donna gave him.
And now he has the best seat in the house.
Thank you all or being here today, right now,
As we say farewell to this great Jamaican son.
Daddy you’ve taken an 8 week victory lap.
You gave us some extra time to say goodbye
But now its time for you to rest.
And just like Bolt has his signature pose
We kids can see you making that victory lap
With your signature wave, as you look out on this crowd
to the faces of people whose lives you have touched.
We hope that your humble shuffle has become a strong boasey stride. Because you deserve it
We hope you’re finding your people up there—assembling your team to surround you, the ones that have been waiting for you,
Especially Uncle Allan who keeps calling you home.
Tell them all to keep you company till we get there.
Have a good brandy till we do.
Enjoy as much KFC as you want.
Keep watch over us from on high.
Remember that we love you.
That we will never leave you.
We can’t wait till we see you again.
Tsung Tsin Association of Ontario Inaugural 2017
Part 1 Introductions & Speeches