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The Eighth Promise

September 17, 2009
by William Poy Lee
Chinese mother and adult son

When political rivalries, murder, and racism ensnare a Chinatown family, a mother reaches back to ancient traditions, and a promise she once made, to save her sons.

Their marriage arranged in advance, my mother left China to meet my father in San Francisco in 1950. Before departing her ancestral village, she made eight promises to her own mother, who was staying behind. The eighth promise was to teach her children the compassionate ways of the Toisanese farming people of the Pearl River delta, a way of life honed from living in one village for a millennium, and to look after her children, however desperate the circumstances. When she bore me in early 1951 and my brother Richard in late 1952, she could not know how severely, some 20 years later, her promise would be put to the test.

The new yellow peril

After the anti-chinese riots of the early 20th century, a group of China- town’s business leaders, the so-called Six Companies, struck a deal with the white San Francisco establishment. Chinese could not live outside of Chinatown and would stay out of city politics. Chinese would stop filing legal cases against discriminatory city acts and fighting all the way to the Supreme Court, as they had done throughout the decades, including the case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), a precedent-setting case still cited today. In return, the white power structure delegated Chinatown affairs to the Six Companies, as our own “separate but equal” city hall, with its own courts to settle internal disputes.

In the summer of 1968, that Jim Crow deal was as solid as the day it had been forged and as ruthlessly enforced by the Six Companies elders as by white city fathers. But inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s movement, several young Chinese Americans, including my brother and I, felt that Chinatown or no Chinatown, we had our own civil rights struggle to fight. With that realization, I felt connected and complete—that what was missing in Chinatown and in my life were one and the same.

By that time, the same kind of incompetent self-interest groups that had plagued the imperial system and taken control of Dr. Sun’s Nationalist Party now reigned in the halls of the ornate Chinese Six Companies headquarters on Stockton Street. Although Asian American veterans in Hawaii had aggressively ended Jim Crow by wresting political offices away from entrenched white politicians, Chinatown’s own veterans buckled under to the ironclad Nationalist Party/Six Companies policy of not rocking the boat. Squeezed into the straitjacket of “the model minority,” we added patriotic anti-Communism to our avid church-going Christianity and workaholic, quiescent, stay-in-our-place professions and businesses.

And who were the enforcers of this fealty? My newfound activist friends explained: the local tongs were—including ones whose headquarters loomed ominously across the alleyway from the café where we regularly met, Il Piccolo. From the 1850s to the early 1900s, the tongs openly ran Chinatown’s slave-girl brothels, gambling parlors, and opium smoke-easies— and regularly paid off cops and politicians. Because of their roots in China’s revolutionary underground network, nestling inside each tong was a secret society, now criminal in nature and known as hok seh wui, the dark-side organization or the “shadow society.” In the 1950s, the tongs trashed pro-mainland Chinese newspapers and ran their supporters out of town. By 1968, most tong members operated legitimate retail businesses. Still, my Il Piccolo friends portentously warned me not to discount them.

Although committed to Dr. King’s nonviolent tactics, the Il Piccolo leaders knew that in the collective DNA of our Chinese philosophy of governance, the Six Companies and the Nationalists had lost the mandate of heaven, that living balance of righteousness and harmony, of duty and reward, between ruler and ruled. Our history taught us that rebel forces inevitably arose to establish a new order under heaven, and the ruling group always responded violently. I felt it coming, the operation of this inexorable Chinese social law of reordering, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept its inevitability. I only hoped that the sophisticated Il Piccolo liberals could change conditions before the restless youth rebels—both American-born and recent immigrants now thronging our streets, and injected with the virulence of Red Guard righteousness and Black Panther militancy—could trigger the counterattack.

It was against this polarizing backdrop that I finally threw in my lot to organize the first Chinese American civil rights march along Grant Avenue. Perhaps we could keep the lid on, change the community without violence.

A lively group of around forty of us filed onto Grant Avenue, and as others joined along the route, we swelled to around two hundred. Our boldly lettered, bilingual picket signs proclaimed: “Equality for Chinese,” “Chinese Representation at City Hall,” “We’ve been here for a hundred years!” “We want unions,” “No more sweatshops,” “Chinese for Mayor—About Time.”

Then I saw the old-timers. They had turned out to watch us, these old men of another generation who had lived under the Six Companies regime. Gathered in clumps of two, three, or five, they idled curiously on street corners and in entryways or hunched over the ornate balconies of association headquarters. They tried to appear nonchalant. As we marched block after block, they seemed to number in the hundreds, watching us in silent amazement, with the neutral body postures they had learned to wear, like the drab suits they put on in the morning, to slip safely through another day. These were not the well-fed leadership, but the bent, wiry, wage earners—the survivors. I had expected them to boycott the march, but at that moment, I felt our connection—they had built this Chinatown for us, their next generation. They knew we were picking up their long-dormant fight for full acceptance in America. Walking tall already, I stretched my spine higher for them and chanted louder for them, as if reimbursing them for their quiet, shuffling dance, their tongues bitten still during a harsher time.

On that warm summer afternoon, Chinese Americans actually outnumbered tourists on Grant Avenue. We felt like one community, one village, and united. Perhaps the Six Companies would embrace my friends and their new vision after all!

Later that summer, we discovered that a contract had been placed with hit men from New York’s Chinatown targeting four of our Il Piccolo leaders. By chance, an alert security guard at San Francisco International Airport detained the triggermen after puzzling over their sharply tailored, pinstriped, double-breasted suits, so unlike those of the drably-dressed local Chinese Americans. The guard uncovered guns in their luggage and then alerted the police department to their final destination—San Francisco Chinatown. My reformist friends survived.

We also knew the tongs had been quietly wooing cliques of street youth. The tongs’ aggressive recruitment foreshadowed a potentially violent fight for control of the community.

But I was seventeen and I was zapped out. I was ready to ride out of Dodge. I’d been accepted into the 1969 freshman class at Berkeley. Maybe one day I would return with the knowledge and connections that could change conditions. Or not.

A wailing wall

On the morning of June 16, 1972, when I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that a young man named Richard Lee had been positively identified as the main suspect in the slaying of another young man, Poole Leong, I did not imagine for a moment that my brother was that suspect. I paused at the coincidence, but with scores of Richard Lees listed in the phone book, I was unconcerned and didn’t even call my parents to double-check. I flipped to the Doonesbury comic strip.

As a junior at Cal enjoying the trajectory of my rich student life and urban design aspirations, I had somehow compartmentalized Chinatown as the past. I muffled the alarm bells that must have been clanging inside as the media reported an alarming number of sensational murders in and around Chinatown. Police sources blamed a Chinese youth-gang war. Yet no one asked exactly what they were fighting about or whether the political power struggle and gambling racket/police- pay-off-system might be a cause. I was living large in Berkeley—my time, my life. I didn’t want anything to put the brakes on it, to force me to “slip back.” I wasn’t consciously aware of this filter, but in effect, I was long gone from Chinatown.

And then my brother Richard Lee was arrested and charged with the murder of Poole Leong.

Stunned, I clutched my one sure connection, Richard, and hoped that, like Ariadne’s cord, he could navigate me safely through the labyrinthine puzzle of a now unimaginable community to uncover the facts and ultimately to prove his innocence, if innocent he were.

That meant reacquainting myself with Richard in, of all places, the city jail. The young adult facing me through the thick Plexiglas window seemed distracted, lost, and disheveled in his prison-issued jumpsuit. His two dark eyes glowered at me, as if stripping away all notions of civility.

He seemed a stranger and yet we had grown up together as close as two brothers can. We had run together as street urchins—roaming Telegraph Hill and munching its wild raspberries, measuring our child’s hands against the fangs of great white sharks on display at Fisherman’s Wharf, and bicycling the length of Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach. We had organized a rag-tag Boy Scout troop in our apartment building because none of us could afford to join an official troop. Later, as teenagers, we weremainstays in the youth ministry of a pioneering evangelical church, speaking in tongues and preaching the gospel until we left. But as brothers are wont to do, we drifted steadily apart as we grew older. The truth was that I wasn’t sure I really knew this grown-up Richard.

Still, he reassured me of his innocence, urging me to talk to his lawyer, James Martin McGuiness, instead. This was comforting news, for McGuiness was one of the city’s finest lawyers. If anyone could, surely James Martin McGuiness would rectify this nightmarish mistake.

McGuiness’s young associate and a recent law school graduate, Patrick Coyle, was of the view that Richard should never have been charged for Poole Leong’s murder. He had an alibi and the sole eyewitness evidence was weak at best. Coyle was confident he could preclude prejudicial and sensational gang innuendo. Besides, Richard didn’t fit the profile: He showed up to work every day in a bustling city hall bank branch serving cops, judges, and reporters until his arrest. He was entering San Francisco State University on scholarship in the fall. Clearly a case of mistaken identity.

At summer’s end, Richard was still in jail. He lost his bank job and his scholarship. As the November trial date approached, Coyle informed me that, given the weak case, the firm had decided that Coyle could proceed to trial and expected that the trial judge would dismiss the case for insufficient evidence.

My parents and I attended the five-day trial until the verdict was rendered on November 1, 1972. Except for watching Perry Mason on television, we had no experience with the court system. We simply assumed that the police would arrest the real killer at the last minute, and that—tah-dahhh!—with a magician’s flourish, Richard would be absolved and justice served.

As I watched this trial, however, a dense, sinking feeling pressed me farther back into the rigid, hard wooden bench of the spectators’ section. I recognized the vampires of anti-Chinese racism past rising from their coffins, gathering around for a blood feast, impatient to gorge themselves on the energy of someone at the prime of his vitality, as if the national civil rights movement were only a TV drama and as if we had never marched on Grant Avenue three years earlier, jump-starting our own stalled march for full citizenship.

And that’s how it went down.

Non-white jurors were dismissed. The judge wouldn’t allow the racial attitudes of the all-white jury to be probed. An uncertain teenage girl eyewitness had to be prodded hard by the prosecutor into identifying Richard with an uncertain and barely audible “I guess so.” In last minute surprise testimony, a cell-mate testified that Richard had confessed to him and that, no, he himself had been offered no deals in exchange for testimony.

The prosecutor then wrapped a gang war theory around this tenuous evidence. He appealed to public outrage at the unsolved Chinatown murders, which he said signaled theneed for society to send a message to the gangs that their day of terror was over.

As it turned out, Richard’s lawyer, schooled in the fairness of the Constitution and the system, so fresh to the practice of law, was not able to prevent, preclude, or defend against this inflammatory innuendo. Richard’s case was Coyle’s first murder trial. His innocence too was crumbling away from beneath him.

The final nail on Richard’s coffin, I thought. But I was wrong. The worst was yet to come.

On the eve of jury deliberations, California attorney general Evelle Younger called a major press conference to denounce Chinese youth gangs as the leading organized crime threat in the state, a story that played on major local TV and radio news broadcasts that evening and the next morning. On the morning jury deliberations began, the Chronicle reported:

“The Chinese youth gangs named in the California Department of Justice report on organized crime are believed to be responsible for at least 13, and probably 15, murders in the Bay Area since 1969 … Because of their widespread involvement in gangland killings … Chinese gangs are fast becoming threats in the state and other parts of the country in cities and towns having Chinese communities.”

We’ll never know for sure how the previous evening’s broadcasts and the morning paper may have influenced the unsequestered jurors. But after only a few hours of deliberation, the jury found my brother, Richard Wayne Lee, guilty of the charge of the first-degree murder of Poole Leong.

Mother was silent at first. She hadn’t understood enough English to comprehend the announcement of the verdict, and we were too stunned to tell her in the courtroom. It wasn’t until the bailiffs unceremoniously shooed us outside that I told her in Chinese, “Richard lost.”

Mother let loose a wail that rose, dipped, and rose again in an aria of anguish. She placed her hands on the wall outside the Department 22 courtroom and, as if beseeching a god that had broken a promise to her that day, she banged her head against the marble, her private wailing wall.

Healing rites

Mother pressed us to visit Richard right away, assigning me the task of understanding the rules so as to maximize our visits. She wanted to surround Richard with the familiarity of family, a Toisan family, as often as possible. To have us rub off on him. Four times a year, we moved inside the prison for a three-night family visit. Mother transformed those dark, barren cottages into a Toisan sanctuary, subtly transporting us to our ancestral dining room in Suey Wan, where she herself had been loved in the simplest of settings, and nurtured through the horrors of the Japanese occupation. She strengthened Richard’s body and, as I could see, his spirit with his favorite foods.

She whipped up endless courses of the fresh, crunchy vegetables, thin-sliced meats, and steamed fish that had given both of us our healthy bodies. These patient, lavish preparations, far beyond satisfying hunger pangs and daily nourishment, created as normal a sense of family as was possible behind twenty-foot-tall electrified fences, a mere 30 feet from an armed guard tower whose klieg light—and gun sights—swept our family cottage all night long.

In the evenings, Richard sipped the herbal soups that had been brewing since early afternoon, the Ch’i soups that had girded both his Ch’i-body and internal fires through the changing seasons. Within Mother’s cocoon, Richard relaxed, found peace in the communal rituals of food preparation, family-style dining, and cleanup as he and Mother engaged in a kind of practiced dance of gentle gestures, softened Toisan words, and unhurried shared tasks.

These were the simple family practices that had been perfected and passed on from generation to generation over a millennium, which even I knew so well from childhood. Despite famine, drought, bandits, 20th-century warfare with its butterflies of death, and now imprisonment, generations just kept on living this way, grounding themselves against the harsh externalities, healing each other, squeezing vitality out of the good fruits of the earth, our alchemical culinary knowledge transmuting that harvest—however abundant or sparse, however sweet or bitter—into renewed spirit and unmarred hope for a better tomorrow. Ten thousand sorrows followed by ten thousand joys, and sometimes all mixed up in no discernable sequence—this is life, after all.

From her example, I came to realize that all I should do was what I could do. I was not a Toisan mother, but I was certainly a third-year student at Berkeley, with knowledge of and growing access to the institutions of power. I gathered the strength to confide my plight to my two faculty advisors, Professors Ken Simmons and Lars Lerup. I told them that maybe I should take a leave of absence to organize Richard’s legal appeals, that I might have to work two jobs to pay lawyers and needed to organize fundraisers. A leave often slides too readily into dropping out, so Professor Simmons, an African American who specialized in urban design solutions for the inner city, reminded me what the College of Environmental Design (CED) really taught—the skill of defining the parameters and solutions of a problem with all its possibilities and limitations.

“Treat what happened to your family as a design problem and go from there,” he told me. He clicked off the CED action litany: design practical solutions, but within society’s constraints— social, cultural, financial, and political. Research, hypothesize, and recheck your findings. Then and only then start formulating your working conclusions. Finally, engage the community in the implementation of the solution. Stay flexible. And, he told me, stay in school—any distinction between your life and your education is artificial. Professor Lerup, a tall, lanky Scandinavian with wispy blond hair falling to his shoulders, completely agreed. Both let me know that I still belonged at Berkeley.

Like Mother, I threw myself back into real life. Now there was no longer a rift between campus and Chinatown. My family spent peaceful days visiting with me in Berkeley, walking the campus, picnicking in the nearby hills, and barbecuing on my apartment balcony. I visited home more often, and Mother cooked my favorite foods.

So I was to apply these very tools I had sweated over in our student studios until 2 AM over so many nights. But what did designing such a solution really mean? It’s one thing to design a building, but how does one design justice and freedom? What my professors said made sense, but did I have it in me?

The season of ten thousand sorrows

I spent years working on Richard’s appeal and that of other youth wrongfully convicted. Like our fighting forbears of another generation, our family appealed Richard’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and lost. I even switched my career and entered law school. Partly through my efforts, the San Francisco Examiner eventually published an investigative series that filled in the blanks of what went wrong in Richard’s trial, uncovering new evidence that the prosecution may have committed acts that could well rise to the level of felony crimes in order to obtain the conviction.

In the wake of the Examiner series, the California Supreme Court unexpectedly ordered the recalcitrant local judiciary to hear Richard’s motion for a new trial. But the case ended up back before Richard’s trial judge, who refused to recuse himself from the case and, predictably, ruled against Richard. There would be no new and fair trial.

This ruling was, effectively, the death knell of Richard’s legal campaign.

I was devastated, but Richard had a somewhat different attitude. At the end of the Examiner series, Richard is quoted as saying:

“The way I see it, they put me here according to their law of the land. I can’t fight it because they’ve got me in a situation where, if you fight it, they’ll just get you more, lock you up, charge you…. I have resigned myself right now to being here…. They’ve got my body in here. Physically, they’ve got me but my mind is still free. As long as my mind can still function freely and think what I want to think and feel what I want to feel, it’s OK. I’ll make it.”

In all the years of working on Richard’s case, I had cut off parts of myself to just make it through another day. I did it to help Richard, of course. Now I was completely devastated. Yet here he was, not focused on the ups and downs of his own case, but solely on his internal journey. He was inside, I was outside, yet he possessed a clearer grasp of reality, was stronger in spirit and freer than I was. He was neither cynical nor embittered. Sounded like a blessed saint to boot.

How did he do it? It was Mother’s Toisan ways. She had wrapped Richard in those ways, and, so protected, he lived immanently, free of the fray of frustrating legal outcomes, the daily hell of prison, and interrupted personal ambitions. I was hurting because I was attached to another reality, of the outer victory of legal and public vindication—one that I had bet my life, my energy, money, and career on.

A private victory

During a 1983 visit, Richard casually dropped an admission. He quietly recounted an incident at DVI from some years back. An inmate had violated Richard’s honor. Under the rules of prison society, Richard had to retaliate or invite further victimization from one prison gang or another. Richard went so far as to hone a shank. He prepared to do “what a man has got to do.”

Then a countervailing impulse surfaced. Richard felt the presence of all his supporters. One by one, he recited their names, those who believed in his innocence and those who knew he deserved a new and fair trial. He remembered those kind strangers who had actually visited him in prison. One by one, he recalled their faces.

Slowly Richard released himself from the wicked spell of the fatalistic prison code. He put down the shank. In peaceful ways, he worked things out. The grudge was settled and the gangs left him alone.

I listened to Richard, but whether because of my own torpor or Richard’s casual way of speaking, I did not register the significance of his words during the actual visit. It wasn’t until I was about an hour into my four-hour drive home that the import of what Richard had said struck me fully.

Like the Cantonese martial arts heroes of our childhood Hong Kong movies and true to the ideals of the mythic Water Margin heroes—the vows of Chung Ching Yee, the fraternal values of Loyalty, Harmony, and Righteousness— Richard had made a moral choice under the direst circumstances.

Richard had reclaimed his own best self. As my wheels squealed around the tight curves of a rushing river that ran alongside the highway, a metaphor came to me of how well Richard had pressed through the treacherous whitewater of this internal moral passage, snatching the victory of staying human from its impossibly high drops and deepest whirlpools. I realized that the victory one seeks is not always the victory one needs. It could have felt so glorious to prevail in court, and certainly it was a victory I had yearned to taste. But at that moment, I overflowed with the joy of this private, unglamorous, internal victory. I knew this was immensely truer and longer lasting.

We lost the legal case, but not Richard. Richard had triumphed.

In 1985, Richard Lee was paroled for good behavior after serving 13 years of a life sentence. He returned to San Francisco and is married with two teenage children, a family dog, two mini-vans, and a mortgage.

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