Betty Jean Lee, the heir to the family business that introduced Chinese takeout to Portland when she was a teenager and an advocate for the advancement of Chinese history, culture and cuisine in Oregon, died Dec. 19. She was 88 years old.
In 1979, at the age of 45 with three children, Lee unexpectedly took full control of the family business, which had by then grown into an Asian import-export company, when her husband, Fred G. Lee, died of a heart attack. .
As one of the few women in food sales, Lee broke down gender barriers by proving that women can succeed in the industry, forming partnerships with companies such as Sysco and Safeway, and winning Oregon State University’s 1993 Family Small Business Award.
“It was a challenge to be a woman in a very male business,” said longtime friend Gloria Lee. “She had to deal with a lot of racism, but that never stopped her.”
Betty Jean Lee was born and raised in Portland as Betty Jean Chin to 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 Guangdong Province in southern China as a “paper son.” The term refers to immigrants who arrived in the United States during the Chinese Exclusion Act as the alleged children of people who were already in the country.
Built in 1939, when Betty Jean was 5, the Pagoda was described in the Oregonian as the first in the state originally designed as a Chinese restaurant. When the business expanded to 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. The Pagoda is now Key Bank, but Chin’s Kitchen still exists, under new ownership, 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 limit the arrival of Chinese workers who had once built Oregon, which consisted of nearly 4 percent of the state’s population in 1870, according to the U.S. Census.
At Grant, Lee was one of two non-white students among 2,000, and her parents had to ask to be shown the house on Northeast Schuyler Street, according to an oral history archived at the Oregon Historical Society.
As her parents’ business grew from a restaurant to Chin’s Import Export, which sold Asian food products to other restaurants, they encouraged Lee to go to college—a progressive attitude at the time. She studied business at the University of Oregon, where she was rejected by sororities because of her race.
She married Fred Lee, whom she met while in 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 US Postal Service. She joined her parents’ company in 1965, and he joined nine years later.
Her husband died in 1979, and Lee took full control of the company and established a scholarship for students of Chinese descent from Portland in her late husband’s name. The Oregonian estimated that 5,000 to 6,000 Chinese Americans called Portland home at the time.
She skillfully combined work, family and community service, friends said. “She had three kids to raise and she knew she was going to make it or she wasn’t going to make it,” said her friend Gloria Lee.
Her tenacious attitude helped her find success and share it. She helped convince Safeway grocery stores in Oregon to sell prepared Chinese food — and she also trained workers. Lee and dozens of members of the Alliance of Chinese American Citizens also printed the Cantonese cookbook “Chinese Gourmet,” which went into its eighth printing this year.
Her late husband was active in the local chapter of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, a national group dedicated to supporting Chinese Americans through scholarships and programs. Lee was not involved when 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 a scholarship named after her husband. An avid basketball fan, she also helped manage the association’s basketball program.
She eventually became the organization’s regional executive director and sat on the board of what is now the Lan Su Chinese Garden and on former Portland Mayor Vera Katz’s roundtable. She worked as a docent at the Portland Chinese Museum and helped translate materials for Chinese Americans who registered to vote, guiding them through the process and informing them of issues.
“She was most proud of being able to use her voice to get things going,” Gloria Lee said.
Betty Jean Lee lobbied to include Chinese history in Oregon’s social studies curriculum as part of a draft ethnic studies bill passed in 2017. It required K-12 public schools to teach the history of Oregon’s diverse groups.
Lee also helped raise funds through the Chinese American Civic Alliance for a plaque in Old Town commemorating the contributions of early Chinese settlers to Portland. She continued to work as the organization’s Northwest director until her final years.
Her youngest daughter, Leiann Bonnet, said her mother urged others to look for what’s important to them, trust their instincts and never give up. “That’s really how she lived,” Bonnet said.
Bonnet said her mother received numerous community service awards, 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.
Regardless of the level of recognition, her mother remained humble.
“I hope my girls remember that,” she said. “That it’s not always about getting a 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 discovered 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 Equality 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 Lan Su Garden while Lee was on the board of directors.
“I think every woman who knew her was influenced 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 use it. It was just about who she was and how they respected her.”
Lee is survived by Bonnet and two other children – Greg Lee and Keith Lee – plus seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, a sister and a nephew.
– Austin De Dios; [email protected]; @austindedios; (503) 319-9744
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