Tuesday, March 21, 2017

I Was a Stranger, Day 21: Mary Nom Lee Leong

Mary Nom Lee Leong of Beaverton, who died in January at age 95, was a historian of the Chinese-American experience in Oregon and one of the last people to grow up in Portland's Chinatown. Most of her life was dedicated to preserving the history of Chinese-Americans who fought to overcome discrimination in their adopted country. She also founded the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Museum in Portland.

Mary's son Robert said,
"My mom was passionate about helping us understand this. 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."
Born in Tualatin, Oregon, Mary's parents both came from China, her father a few years after Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred Chinese laborers from coming to the United States. It was the first law to target a specific ethnic group. Her family moved to Chinatown when she was 2. Robert Leong once 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."

Sadly, Oregon has a racist history. Chinese were not allowed to own property or become citizens under Oregon law. Consequently, Oregon's Chinese population decreased 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 The Exclusion Act and the state bans against property ownership were repealed during World War II when China was allied with the United States against Japan.

Racial segregation did not stop Mary Leong from contributing to her community. She graduated from high school and attended two years of college in California. She participated in the Portland Rose Festival on the Chinese float in the 1920s and sang Chinese opera to raise money for China's resistance to Japan during the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1939. And she also protested against U.S. sales of steel to Japan during that period. Mary and her husband George (who was born in Portland) also became agents for New York Life Insurance Co.

In the 1970s, Mary became inspired to capture Chinese-American history in Oregon. She felt that if she didn't write it down, it would be lost forever. She interviewed elders, advocated for preservation of Chinese buildings and memories, and began collecting and documenting artifacts and stories, which are now in the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Oregon Historical Society. In the 1990s, Governor Barbara Roberts appointed her as commissioner of elder services, and Taiwan named her as commissioner for overseas Chinese affairs in Oregon.

"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."

Because of Leong's leadership in the community, we have intact and unmelted memories of the Chinese experience in Oregon.

Read more of my "I Was a Stranger" entries here.

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