Ying Lee, Berkeley’s first and only Asian American City Council member, has been a local fixture ever since she fled China in 1944 following a Japanese invasion.
Lee, who served on City Council from 1973 to 1977, has been a student, teacher, political activist and eventually a politician — all in the city of Berkeley. Her new book, “Ying Lee: From Shanghai to Berkeley,” which she displayed at the Berkeley Public Library on Sunday, reveals a series of interviews chronicling her experiences in political activism in the city.
Judith Scherr, Lee’s editor and longtime friend, said she was inspired to transcribe Lee’s life after hearing the stories Lee told friends as a political activist in Berkeley.
“What really fascinates me is that she is a very staunch activist,” Scherr said. “(Lee’s) whole life has been focused around war and peace.”
The interviews begin with her recollections of growing up in China under the Japanese threat in World War II. Though her father’s job with the Chinese government allowed her family to move to the United States, it came at significant financial costs, Lee said.
Despite being thrown in such a new environment, Lee quickly became established in Berkeley and the East Bay. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1953 with a degree in political science and became a teacher for 21 years at Berkeley High School and Willard Middle School.
But it was the anti-war movements during the Vietnam War in which she found a stronger calling.
“I really got enraged,” Lee said. “The U.S. had a casual — in fact rather murderous — approach to Asians disguised as friendship. I put it all together as a war against a people.”
Lee then took a break from teaching to become an activist within Berkeley. Her efforts eventually culminated in a successful City Council run in 1973, becoming Berkeley’s first and only Asian American council member.
“Our politics were quite opposite,” said former mayor Shirley Dean, who was then a council member. “Her behavior on the council was very polite, but she was always a forceful and strong advocate for her views.”
Lee fought intensely for rent control and increasing diversity on the City Council, according to Dean.
“The tough thing wasn’t being Asian as much as being in the political minority,” Lee said. “We needed to propose issues and legislation that would advance the needs of citizens, such as rent control and police review.”
Lee eventually ran for mayor in 1975 against then-incumbent Warren Widener, himself a political first as Berkeley’s first black mayor. It was a particularly bitter campaign, in Dean’s opinion, and one that ultimately ended in failure for Lee.
The most inspiring thing about Lee, now an 81-year-old grandmother, is that she has never stopped working as a political activist, said Scherr. Lee is currently involved in saving the Berkeley Post Office and is also active in Grandmothers Against The War.
“This isn’t like writing about somebody in the past,” Scherr said. “It’s her continuing energy and ability to lead that is really inspiring to everybody that meets her.”
Alyssa Neumann covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]