BERKELEY -- Ying Lee isn't slowing down. The former city councilwoman is 80 now, but she has a limited amount of time to talk because she's heading downtown to a protest at the historic Berkeley Post Office building.
She's worried about the impending closure of branches across the country, both because of the service and the jobs that will be lost.
"I really think of the post office as being one of the fundamental institutions of the United States," Lee says. "Not only in terms of providing basic services but also in terms of work opportunities. Job opportunities for African-Americans."
A post office may seem like a small thing, especially in light of Lee's anti-war activism and her years working as a legislative director for Congressman Ron Dellums and Congresswoman Barbara Lee in Washington, D.C. But those "small" things are connected to the larger issues, she says.
Lee will speak about her life at 3 p.m. Sunday at Eastwind Books of Berkeley, 2066 University Ave. to promote the newly published "Ying Lee: From Shanghai to Berkeley: the story of an amazing woman facing war, waging peace, fighting disillusionment and inspiring action (an oral history)." The book is the story of Lee's life, compiled in collaboration with and edited by Berkeley journalist Judith Scherr.
Lee's work to save post offices serves as a metaphor for her long career as an activist. She first got interested in post offices through the WPA murals inside
She realized the important role in the community that post offices play, even as Congress pushes for major financial cuts to the U.S. Postal Service that would lead to reductions in mail delivery as well as the closure of branches and regional centers.
"We were a lot more conscious in the '60s that the government was an opportunity for African-Americans to get a job," she says. "It has been the same way the Pullman porters were an opportunity for African-Americans to get a job with decent pay. I felt I had to do something."
Lee has been doing something almost from the time she emigrated to the United States in 1945. She was born in China, the middle child of a middle class family. Her father, an employee of the Chinese government, moved to the United States around 1940 and the family, left behind struggled to get by in the war-torn country.
"I remember from my babyhood that there were bombs being dropped, people were in a state of hysteria and a lot of misery," Lee says.
Lee became aware of income disparity from an early age.
"In 1941, when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, where I was living at the time, we were very poor," Lee says. "My sympathies were always with the poor people. It always bothered me there were so many people who were poor when there were so many people who were rich. We were middle class. My sister and I were in school with girls who wore diamond broaches and had a lot of money. The contrast was so stark that it stayed with me my entire life."
Lee graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco, then worked her way through college, something that she worries students today cannot do.
"I went to San Francisco Junior College (now City College of San Francisco) and I didn't have to pay any registration fees and it gave me a wonderful education," she says. "Then, when I went to Cal in 1953, I paid $27.50 per semester. I could get into lab classes. If I became ill, I could go to Powell Hospital. We recognized how wonderful that was. I don't think we ever took it for granted."
She recalls that her the first apartment she rented after college was $35 a month, saying "This is one of the reasons that I struggle politically because I would like to see young people with no money and the need for a lot of training to be able to go to junior college."
Lee was a supporter of America's involvement in World War II -- understandable given she had escaped a war of aggression, and that she loved American war movies with John Wayne and Randall Scott. She also admits she struggled with her own prejudices.
"There was so much to learn and so much to unlearn," Lee says. "Some of the Japanese who were interned, the Nissei, returned to San Francisco. I remember in my chemistry lab, there was a Japanese girl, and I bristled. I considered her Japanese, I did not consider her American. I just froze. She was born in America. It took me two or three weeks to get over that."
Two things helped to change that, one personal, the other political. The personal happened during the Korean War, when the Chinese were supporting what became North Korea.
"I remember being on a bus in San Francisco and being yelled at by a white man saying, 'Chink, go home,'" Lee says. "I was pretty horrified. The bus was full. I don't quite remember my reaction but the other passengers just shouted back at the man, told the bus driver to stop and told the man to get off the bus. That was quite remarkable and makes me cry to think of that."
The political came during the Vietnam War.
"As we got into Vietnam, particularly with the invasion of Cambodia, I put together all of the foreign history of the United States," she says. "I looked back at the Monroe doctrine, it didn't matter if you were a country in Latin America that wanted its independence. I learned about the Philippines. Then I looked back at Shanghai. There were places the Chinese could not go, because it was a foreign reserve. It was a painful history in a slightly different way."
The process "has been a long education," she says.
"When I finally realized the bombs that were being dropped on Vietnam, the napalm, the bombing of the villages, that was when I really felt I have an obligation as a patriotic American," she says. "I love this country too much to stand by."
Lee served as a delegate to the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami, then ran for Berkeley City Council the next year, becoming its first and, to date, only Asian-American member.
She ran for mayor in 1975, losing by just 600 votes. She lost her race for re-election in 1977, but continued to fight for social justice. She taught in the Berkeley Unified School District until 1982, when she took a job in Dellums' office. She moved to Washington, D.C. in 1993, and worked there until 2000.
Lee has a son and a daughter and three grandchildren, all living in the Bay Area. Her second husband died in 1999. She continues to demonstrate with Grandmothers Against the War and continues to fight for economic justice.
"One of my guideposts is FDR's inaugural address in 1944," Lee says. "The economic bill of rights. Everyone in the United States has a right to adequate housing, opportunities for jobs, the right to farm and make a living at it, adequate health care. The living New Deal. I think that Roosevelt's approach to government responsibility and social responsibility is something that can become alive again."
And Lee is amazed that her story is worth telling to the world through Scherr's book.
"I think that deep inside me is that second Chinese daughter," she says. "Part of my persona is that child that has no right to be here. That's the amazing thing about my life, the life of a woman with my background in the last 80 years, is that there were so many girls who were considered insignificant in the same way that the Middle East has so many girls who are considered insignificant. Chinese women have always been strong -- in order to survive we have to be strong."