David Lee grew up in Old Chinatown.
Written by Annie Luong, Jenny Huynh, and Sidney Vu
Around 1910, David Fon Lee’s parents immigrated to the United States. From the same origins as Sun Yat-sen, David’s parents were from Jung San, Canton. His grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in the days of the transcontinental railroad, opened a restaurant on 7th Street, Central Market and sent for David’s father. The family also had a small produce market near the restaurant. Unlike their parents, David and his siblings were born and raised in Old Chinatown. With the construction of Union Station, David’s family was one among the many that were forced to leave the area.
In 1931 David was sent back to China to attend boarding school in Canton when he was in the fifth grade. His grandfather had said, “you should always send one back to China to familiarize them with customs and Chinese and so forth in case America had a deportation.” In 1937, David returned just before July and the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. At that time, his family was in the process of moving their restaurant, Man Jen Low, out of Old Chinatown. He recalls, “When I came back here it completely changed.”
Due to his absence, he needed to readjust culturally and socially. After a few years at Central Jr. High School, David attended Lincoln High School. With few opportunities for after school jobs other than shoeshine boys, and a lack of activities and playgrounds, he looked forward to Chinese school. David states that Chinese school kept the “Chinese out of trouble because parents usually worked.” Chinese School was one of the few times when the younger people were able to get together. When World War II came along, David and his three brothers entered the service. He had wanted to join the Navy so he learned parachute packing in San Diego. After basic training in Camp Pendleton, San Diego, he was sent to Bremerton, Washington to wait for carriers. He remembers, “I turned out to be a dry-end sailor because I got seasick as hell. After that, I ended up in the airbase instead of a carrier.
In 1945, David returned from the Navy and continued working for his parent’s restaurant business. In the meantime, he found work in the dry cleaning industry. He had no knowledge of dry cleaning, but he decided to invest in the business and it turned out to be quite profitable. In 1950, David and his brothers took over the restaurant and Man Jen Low was renamed General Lee’s at the suggestion of Paul Coats, an editor of Mirror Newspaper. After working for seven years straight without taking a vacation, David was advised by doctors to take a break. Heeding the doctor’s advice, he took the opportunity to travel to places such as Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, and England.In 1963, David opened his travel agency and his sister, Jenny, helped him manage it. The motivation behind the travel agency stemmed from an encounter in the Chinatown of Piccadilly Square in England. He was sitting in a Chinese Restaurant and behind him sat a South American couple. David recalls one them saying, “You know, I traveled around the world…one place I can never forget is in Los Angeles. There’s a restaurant named General Lee’s.” Shocked, David pulled out his card and handed it to one of them, telling them to come by anytime. After that experience, David stated, “That made my world…I came back and I never was the same.”