By MARY UYEMATSU KAO
The recent passing of Anna Gee, as I knew her, brings many thoughts on selflessness and personal independence. I spent the last week talking with Anna’s sister Lana, who shared many stories about Anna, as well as her own concerns for women who live alone. Anna was most recently teaching qi gong classes at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute before the pandemic. And Lana said Anna loved the elders who joined her classes.
I write of Anna today as she represented our Asian American Movement generation. Now in our senior years, we are witnessing many of our comrades transitioning into the next “phase” — whatever that may be. Just shy of 72 years old, Anna’s last day was Aug. 20, 2022. She lived by herself, a divorcé, with an adult daughter. Anna was a dutiful daughter who cut her own path. While assuming the responsibilities of the first daughter in the family, i.e. taking care of her parents in their old age along with her mother-in-law, she did not restrict her life by traditional dictates.
At Anna’s memorial on Sept. 10 at the GVJCI, Lana gave highlights of their lives together. The Gee family lived in a two-bedroom house a half-block away from Manual Arts High School. Eight people lived under one roof: grandparents, parents, and four kids. The Gees ran a “ma-and-pa” market near Jefferson High School — a Chinese family living and running a market in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Lana recounted the time a robber had struck their father over the head, while Mr. Gee managed to knock a gun out of his hands. Anna and Lana, followed by their mother, ran from the backroom and jumped on the robber. But small as they were, the robber easily flung them off. It was Anna’s innate “knowing-what-to-do” that followed the robber with her eyes, and memorized the license plate of his getaway car, leading to a successful arrest.
Lana described their life in the ’hood in an email to me:
“My dad had built relationships with people in the community, buying ‘soul food’ dinners from church fundraisers, trading secrets on how to make the best fried chicken. He extended credit to some who were not able to pay for groceries until their monthly checks arrived. . . . During the Watts riots, my parents were not allowed to go to work because it was part of the area partitioned off. When my parents were allowed to check on the store, they found that customers and community members had protected rioters from burning down the store.” (By the way, Mr. Gee did a mean fried chicken!)
There was a Los Angeles Times article on Anna, as daughter of an immigrant Chinese who graduated Manual Arts High School to go on to Smith College with a full scholarship. Anna was president of her house at Smith. Smith had such notable alums as: Gloria Steinem, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagen, Betty Friedan, Julia Child, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Margaret Mitchell, and Otelia Cromwell – the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from Yale. (https://www.smith.edu/about-smith/notable-alums)
Despite an Ivy-League education at Smith, Anna was already grounded in grassroots work in L.A. and Boston Chinatown. I remember her from the first meeting of women who wanted to publish the first women’s issue of Gidra, the Asian movement newspaper coming out of Los Angeles.
After graduating Smith and returning to L.A., Anna was one of the early Asian American women to break the gender lines of the phone company — climbing telephone poles as part of her job. Anna’s friend Liz Chikuami remembers that time 50 years ago:
“When Anna first applied to AT&T after graduating from Smith, they wanted to fast track her in a management position. Anna insisted she wanted to be a lineman in a non-traditional job. I still remember when we went to purchase her steel-toed leather shoes. The sales associate was stunned that a small Asian woman was going to work in this capacity and asked why . . . Anna was fiercely loyal to her friends and family. I miss her dearly.”
After raising her daughter, which included home-schooling, Anna spent years learning the healing arts. She also spent about two decades developing oral history programs with the Chinese community in Los Angeles. Her work with Southwest Oral History Association, the Southern California Genealogy Association, Huntington Library, Cal State L.A. (CSULA), and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California was the kind of behind-the-scenes selfless work to document first-hand accounts of Chinese immigrant lives in Los Angeles. Lana proudly states that Anna did an excellent job in getting their mother’s oral history documented.
Selflessness was the way that Anna lived her life. How much of that is due to being a Chinese woman, whose lives were traditionally known to not matter as much as boys — coupled with a deep embrace of the former movement mantra of “serve the people” — Anna did not seek recognition for the work that she did. And ironically, despite the oral history work that she accomplished with dogged determination, she failed to do her own oral history. Or those around her failed to do her oral history.
Lana described Anna as:
“Brave and quick-thinking. Adventurous. Raising an independent and strong daughter, keeping connections with family, caring for parents and mother-in-law, improving community. Encouraging and humorous.”
Lana quoted Anna’s own words from a card Anna had sent her:
“There is only one minute in which you are alive, this minute, here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle. Which is exactly what it is — a miracle and unrepeatable.”
Lana spoke for all of us who knew Anna with these parting words: “Anna, you were a gift. We will miss you.”
Anna’s daughter lovingly writes on Anna’s website, http://annayinglaigee.net:
“You can remember Anna by: taking a peaceful walk at the beach, trying a new restaurant or dish, planting drought-resistant plants native to your region, by donating to North East Trees, and/or treating the women and girls in your life fairly and with respect.”
Mary Uyematsu Kao worked for 30 years as the publications coordinator of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She is currently retired, and a self-described photojournalist who published her book of photographs titled “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. She welcomes comments and feedback at: email@example.com.