Yee Shee: establishing traditions, defying stereotypes

The Wong Family IV

Beloit underwent rapid growth during the era of British-sponsored globalization between 1896 and 1914, and its main industrial businesses were integrated into global markets prior to World War I in 1914, a factor that allowed for its industries to provide the highest per-capita wages in Wisconsin by 1902. According to the book, migrants from overseas territories and the U.S. south fueled this growth and prosperity in the early 1900s; by 1910, Italians and Greeks made up the largest immigrant numbers in the city, though segregation of neighborhoods due to race was less pronounced in Beloit than other midwestern cities.

As a result, Yee Shee and Charles Wong, Doo Set’s oldest son, moved to Beloit in 1923, a move that was also spurred by the unstable political tension at Guangdong and the looming threat that Congress was about to tighten immigration laws and permanently declare wives of citizens "ineligible to naturalize" as U.S. citizens.


Charles was a dedicated business owner of his family's Nan King Lo restaurant and a "family man," according to Mary. Through his goal of providing a better education and life for his children, he placed heavy emphasis on assimilating his children into Beloit through weekly sessions at the local church.

“The church provided the support of a known, repetitive, supportive activity and was a place with friends, including one friend my age, with whom I continue to keep in contact,” Mary said.

After his death, Yee Shee continued to support her children in America. In her decision to move to the U.S. with Charles, Yee Shee had already defied the stereotype for Chinese women to stay home in China; after Charles’ death, she further broke stereotypes by continuing to further educate herself and study Chinese to keep in touch with family in China. 

Mary said an important factor that encouraged Yee Shee to stay might have been her desire to carry out Charles’ goals, a quality that had been instilled in women of her generation since childhood. Although such characteristics in a patriarchal society often diminish the role of women in society — Confucian teachings emphasized that women were always to obey their husbands, and after they died, their sons — Yee Shee utilized these teachings to her strength, using them to fuel her efforts to stay in the U.S.

“Women in an arranged marriage such as my Mom, accepted and followed their husband’s lead,” Mary said. “Since my Mom knew WHY they immigrated to the U.S. Midwest, she felt she needed to fulfill his goals no matter how difficult and she saw how successful her oldest children were in school and community.” 

Yee Shee had no mother, sister or close friends to share her work, as she would have in China. Still, with support from her neighbors, she cooked every meal, cleaned, sewed, washed, ironed and mended clothes and established a small successful garden in her backyard, all while maintaining a strong image for her children.

“As I was 17 months old at the time, I was not aware of how great her grief was [after Charles’ death], wailing and crying so my older siblings and neighbors sadly remembered,” Mary said. “I did, upon reflecting, realize that as I got older, the only time she seemed sad was on or about the anniversary date of my father’s death. Otherwise, she had a pleasant disposition, working hard each day to complete her work, never complaining.”

With all her children, Yee Shee emphasized the passing on of traditional family values she had established — a respect for elders, frugality when possible and sharing during times of need. During the Great Depression, for example, Yee Shee shared her garden bounties with the neighbors. To keep food on the table, she sold shares of the family property in Hong Kong. 

After the U.S. repealed Chinese exclusion laws during World War II, Chinese citizens became eligible for naturalization; consequently, Yee Shee naturalized as an American citizen in 1959. She utilized her citizenship to her advantage, frequently visiting children and grandchildren across the country in California, Washington, Pennsylvania and Utah. As Mary recalled, Yee Shee had 22 grandchildren and remembered all their birthdays.

Mary’s brother, Frank Wong, likened his mother to a “Golden Chrysanthemum,” referencing the symbolic flower in Chinese culture that represents strength and unchanging virtue through a flower that survives the deathly first of autumn.

“So successfully had Yee Shee overcome the extraordinary circumstances of her life, including outrageous misfortune, that to those close to her, time seemed to have no grip on her destiny,” Frank wrote in his eulogy included in the novel. “Although she accomplished most of her life in America, she did so with simple Chinese virtues that are also universal virtues; courage and compassion, strength and love, honesty and justice, all nourished by the extended roots of the family. Neither time nor death shall conquer these.”

Photo courtesy of NARA San Bruno.