The Uncle We Never Knew

Ron Chew June 6, 2012 0
The Uncle We Never Knew

Every Memorial Day since childhood, I faithfully go out to Evergreen Washelli Cemetery with my family to pay respects to my late uncle, Lee Hong Chew.

Uncle Lee was part of the famed 87th Infantry Battalion, sent to Italy to spearhead the Allied offensive to capture key mountain peaks in Italy and end the German resistance during World War II. Uncle Lee was killed in combat on February 20, 1945, gunned down while at the head of his battalion. The story I’m told by other Chinese American veterans is that he singlehandedly attacked a German submachine gun nest. I was told that he was also nominated for a Silver Star medal. He was 23 at the time of his death.

Our family also pays respects to Uncle Lee during Memorial Day at a ceremony sponsored by the Cathay Post #186 in Hing Hay Park in the International District. The Cathay Post veterans erected a memorial in 1950 in honor of my late uncle and the nine other Chinese Americans from Seattle who lost their lives in World War II.

Uncle Lee was my father’s younger brother, the youngest of four immigrant brothers. At the time he was drafted to fight overseas, he had been studying electrical engineering at the University of Washington.

I never knew Uncle Lee—I was born in 1953—but I grew up always wondering about him. Stacked on two basement shelves in our Beacon Hill home were his school papers, books, letters, yearbooks, slide rule, math compass and camera gear. When I was younger, I didn’t understand why my father still kept these things, especially since he hardly said a word about Uncle Lee, and these belongings just collected more and more dust over the years.

When I began attending college in the early 1970s—during the birth of the ethnic studies movement—I grew more curious about this missing uncle. I also began to encounter his former schoolmates who described his low-key manner and intelligence, his love of photography, his outings to the downtown YMCA to play pool and his swimming trips to Lake Washington.

I began to ask questions of my mother, the storyteller. She told me that Uncle Lee’s death had deeply saddened my father for a number of years because the two were so close. His death also devastated my grandmother in China who had high hopes for her youngest male child, the educated one who was expected to make real the promise of a better life in “Gold Mountain” for the Chew clan. Fearful of the grief that would come over my grandmother, family members didn’t even tell her that her beloved son had been killed for years.

In college, I finally decided to go down to the basement and look through Uncle Lee’s papers. I found a letter from Uncle Lee to my father, stating that he would soon be going into combat and imploring my father to “take care of the insurance” as soon as possible. The letter was signed “Your loving brother, Lee.” I also found a letter from the Veteran’s Administration, certifying that Lee Hong Chew had applied for $10,000 of insurance, payable in case of death. I also found a letter to a woman in Seattle, someone I presumed to be his girlfriend by the tone and content of the letter. These discoveries broke my heart.

One day, I finally summoned the nerve to ask my father—a taciturn man when it came to personal matters—more about his younger brother. He didn’t say much and his face filled with a kind of sadness I had never seen before. I felt awful opening this door to his past. My father gave me a few factoids about his brother, directed me to my Uncle Lee’s papers in the basement, and that was it. I never asked him more than a handful of questions about his brother after that.

But how could I not know how my father felt about Uncle Lee? My older brother had been given the middle name “Lee.” I had received the rather obscure middle name “Alpha.” I discovered—after talking to one of Uncle Lee’s old school chums—that Alpha was the nickname Uncle Lee had acquired because of a tuft of unruly hair in the back of his head, similar to the cowlick of Alfalfa, the character from the “Little Rascals.”

This year during Memorial Day, as my kids and their cousins gathered at Evergreen Washelli in front of Uncle Lee’s gravesite, I said, “Did you know that all of you wouldn’t be here today except for your grand-uncle Lee?”

I explained that the service of the Chinese American veterans in World War II had helped pave the way for the U.S. Congress to repeal the monstrous Chinese Exclusion Act, which had barred Chinese women from coming to their husbands in this country since the late 1800s.

I told them that their great-grandfather Quay Fong Chew, who immigrated to Seattle in 1911, could not bring his wife to this country. So he worked in the U.S. and went back to China to sire the next generation. My father, Soo Hong Chew, was therefore born in China. But when he came of age, he followed his father to Seattle in 1930, returning to China only briefly to marry my mother in 1937. While my mother stayed in China, my father lived and worked in the U.S. She was only able to join my father in 1950. They were separated for 13 long years.

The ultimate sacrifice of their granduncle Lee not only contributed to this country’s war effort in Europe, it also allowed my mother and my aunts to eventually join their husbands in America. As the Chew clan began to reunify in the U.S. after World War II, my two brothers, my sister and I were born in Seattle, as were a number of my cousins.

The birth of my children’s generation in this country—far from the harsh poverty of rural China, far from the brutal discrimination of the pre-Civil Rights era in the U.S.—was the culmination of a long journey, the final fulfillment of the American Dream, made possible, in one sense, by the sacrifice of my dad’s dearly beloved younger brother. Every year, at Memorial Day, we remember that we are blessed to live in the shadow of an uncle we never had the privilege of knowing.

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