Sai Ming & Suzette Lee

“Silence Is Golden”: A Conversation

   Silas Ming Lee was born in Kobe, Japan but came to San Francisco with his parents around the age of four. The eldest of nine children and the only one born outside the United States, he was the only one to receive a Chinese name until an English teacher gave him the name Silas after “silence.” He grew up in Chinatown and lived there for most of his young adult life. His passion for photography is shared with his children Suzette, Stephan, and Sean.

SUZETTE LEE: What was life like for grandpa and great grandpa?


SILAS LEE: My father’s parents ran a sewing factory in Ross Alley. After they retired and passed away, my uncle moved out of there and that became Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. When you walk inside today, you see the office area upstairs at the back. My uncle built that, and my grandmother and my grandfather slept there. My mom used to do the sewing there, but after she moved to Ping Yuen, people would still bring stuff to her and she would sew at home. My father used to work as a dishwasher at a famous French restaurant called Place Pigalle in Marina. The original sewing factory was across the street from the Bank of America at Kearny and California. Before that building was built, it was all Filipino stores on those three blocks. I used to go out there all the time to walk around and explore the stores or eat Filipino food.


What else can you tell me about your childhood?


I was born in Kobe, Japan in 1947 and we came here when I was about three or four. We lived at the Lafayette Hotel until we eventually moved into Ping Yuen, which was low- income housing. Baba used to walk me to kindergarten at Commodore Stockton in Chinatown. All the stores in Chinatown used to be on Grant Avenue, but now everything’s on Stockton Street. Grant Avenue is mostly just souvenir places for tourists now. There are no meat shops like the Italian meat market that was on Jackson and Grant. I used to walk around the whole block by myself even when I was five. Just roaming around and everyone knew me too. I’d just play on the street or buy some pickles from the big barrels outside the stores. 


What was it like fitting in at that time?


I do remember I used to get my ass kicked a lot by the ABCs (American-Born Chinese) because they thought I was a Japanese spy. In high school, I started hanging out with Black people more. There was one that used to come to the house all the time. He would back me up. I said, “My own people are picking on me,” and he protected me. Later on, I started hanging out with the fresh off the boat Hong Kong Chinese and I got along with them because I knew the Hong Kong slang and everything.

Where did you learn to speak Chinese so well?


I was just always speaking it. Dad spoke both Hoisanese and Hong Kong Cantonese, so I learned that way. I went to Chinese class and always spoke Chinese with your grandparents and your mom too.


At Chinese school? Is that how you met mom?


No. I met Mom when I went back to John Adams to get my GED, ‘cause I quit high school. I was a bad boy who didn’t like school. So I spent my time hanging out on the street, standing on a corner, you know, acting bad. But then I went to John Adams and they put me in an English class for foreign students.


Mom was sitting next to me but I didn’t know her that well. We never talked and I always spoke really good English with the teachers. Then one day, she heard me in the hallway talking Chinese and she said, “Oh, you speak Chinese? Your Chinese is so good! Are you from Hong Kong?” So we got to talking and I offered to drive her home. And that was the beginning. I started taking her out all the time. We used to go to those Chinese romance movies, you know, where the parents don’t like the guy or they don’t like the girl.


I feel like after you met Mom, a lot of your photography was focused on taking photos of her. I took a lot of pictures of her.


She liked taking pictures. And I always had my camera with me. We’d go for a walk, and all of a sudden I’d say, “Oh, stop a minute. I want to take a picture of the background with you in it.” Do you remember that tan raincoat?


The trench coat? Yeah. It’s in my closet now.


That’s the one. I bought that for her because I told her, “You look good in it.” And I took a picture of her, right? I wonder if Mommy still fits in it.


Probably not, because it barely fits me! But going back to photography. What struck up that passion and how did you learn?


I just liked taking pictures of everything when I was a kid. I bought a Kodak Instamatic when I was a teenager. In those days, there weren’t so many films to choose from, so I was shooting on Kodak like everyone else. I was the only one in my friend group into photography. I learned everything myself by reading books. I never went to a photography school. I had a dark room where I developed my own slides. Color here in this house, and black and white at Yun Yun’s.


Seeing as Stephan is a chef and both Sean and I are photographers, do you think you might have had something to do with us turning out creative?


Yeah, I was always taking pictures, then they started doing it and then you started. You all took after me!