Conrad Lee: Born in Kunming, China, Engineer, Businessman, and New Mayor of Bellevue (Jan. 18, 2012)
Conrad Lee （李瑞麟） has been a familiar face in the Greater Seattle area for many years. To most people, including myself, he has always been a Bellevue City councilman. It's true. He has served Bellevue as a councilman for four terms since 1994, and now in his 5th term, is continuing as its mayor for the next two years. (Read the City of Bellevue news release on his election here:)
This interview, however, will show that Conrad Lee is much more than a councilman and his story much longer than Bellevue.
Mayor Lee is a very busy man as you can imagine. But he graciously agreed to let me interview him by email. Before you start reading the interview, here are some moving words he wrote on his LinkedIn page:
"I am a proud American by choice. My widowed mother brought my sister and me to Hong Kong from China. She single-handedly raised us and sent me to the U.S. to find the American Dream. I found much more. I found freedom, liberty and justice for all."
Part 1. From Kunming to Seattle
Wen: So you were born in Kunming, Yunnan province, China, in 1939, into a pretty well to do family, with your father being a banker. What's the one thing that stands out in your memory of your childhood in Kunming before your family moved?
Mayor Lee: I remember it snowed once which was not often. Kunming is called the city of eternal spring because of its mild climate all year round. Another was seeing brand new thousand dollar bills made into fans and everyone was carrying gold bars and coins in their purses.
The country was in deep financial crisis. Public had no confidence in its government. Currency printed by the government had no value. It was not even worth the paper it was printed on. That's why they were folded into fans for children to play with. No one would accept this deflated currency in exchange for goods and services. It became worthless as soon as it left the bank. People and businesses would only accept Gold and U.S. dollars.
Wen: You had a famous and legendary great uncle, Long Yun, a warlord-turned-governor of Yunnan. Appointed by Chiang Kai-shek, he later resisted Chiang, supported progressive groups, refused to go to Taiwan, and finally joined Mao's government in Beijing. What kind of influence did he have on you and your family?
Mayor Lee: I remember performing a martial art move he taught me in front of him. He rewarded me with a real soldier's helmet for doing it well. His family and mine supported and helped each other. I still see my cousins, his grandchildren, regularly since we grew up together in Hong Kong.
Wen: As a child in Kunming and then a year in Shanghai in the 1940s, did you know or do you remember anything about the war with Japan and then the war between the Nationalists and the Communists?
Mayor Lee: I did not know we were at war with Japan. My first impression of the war with Japan is when I saw and admired the tall handsome Flying Tigers in Kunming and later their heroic stories on the movie screen.
However, I experienced the war between the Nationalists and Communists first-hand because our family was up-rooted and had to flee Kunming as state-less refugees and spent the rest of my growing-up years in Hong Kong in a completely different environment and lifestyle.
Wen: You were 9, in 1949, the year Mao founded the People's Republic, when your family moved to Hong Kong, where you went to school, all the way through high school. All the time there, did you know why your family was there?
Mayor Lee: Yes. We were the landlords and capitalists, enemies of the people, and had to escape the regime.
Wen: In 1958, you came to the United States to go to college, first at Seattle Pacific College and then the University of Michigan. The same year, China started the Great Leap Forward, the radical and disastrous socialist construction movement. Did you have any knowledge at all about what was going on inside China?
Mayor Lee: I was too single-minded to get an education and simply just to survive another new environment and life style. I continued to be the state-less refugee seeking a place I could belong and call my country and my home.
Part 2. From Boeing Engineer to Bellevue Mayor
Wen: I read that you gave up your interest in economics, law and politics to study engineering for job opportunities. That was the case with many of the Second Wave Chinese immigrants, according to Doris Jones Yang, who wrote about them. Could you explain the situation then?
Mayor Lee: I had no choice but to study engineering to gain the necessary requirement to remain in the U.S. I believe I would have enjoyed more to study and excel in law, social science, medicine or oratory. U.S. immigration law at the time was very restrictive to Chinese. The "quota" system prevents any significant number of Chinese worldwide to become permanent residents and citizens of this country. The only practical way for legal immigration was to be granted special status through special congressional bills based on needs of this country, one of which at that time was engineering skill. That's why there were so many engineers among the Second Wave Chinese immigrants.
Wen: So with your electrical engineering degree from University of Michigan in 1962, you became an engineer at Boeing. You mentioned to the media once that you experienced racial discrimination in those days. Could you tell us what kind of discrimination, probably not work related, since most of you of this group got good jobs?
Mayor Lee: As budding newly minted engineers, making good money, my Chinese friend and I were turned down in our first apartment hunting in, and not even the best area of, south Seattle. We were told the apartment was already rented when we called on a place, which we phoned earlier and was told available. We knocked on the door with rental sign displayed. But as soon as the door opened, we were told the apartment was rented.
Wen: You left Boeing in 1978, got an MBA from UW in 1980 and then joined the City of Seattle as a project manager of its solid waste program. Did you make that move because you wanted to go back to your original interest or to seek public office down the road?
Mayor Lee: I came to this country to seek freedom. Boeing was a good place to work. People here used to call it "Mother Boeing" because it offered security. Generations from the same family used to work there. I wanted freedom and sought to leave the comfortable blanket of "Mother Boeing" and engineering. Working in solid waste gave me a taste and experience in public service and politics. I found out I liked it.
Wen: Your first run for Bellevue City Council was in 1991, and you lost. You ran again in 1993 and won, and kept winning every four years since. What was your motivation to run in 1991 and what is your goal now?
Mayor Lee: I ran to be in a position of influence, to make a difference. One has to learn the game, get into the game in order to change the rules of the game if need be to improve it for the common good. My goal remains the same – how to improve the world starting with our own and by ourselves for our own good. We have yet a long way to go.
Wen: Now you are mayor of Bellevue, second largest city and the most diverse in Washington state, with 40% of its population as ethnic minorities. And of course, we had Gary Locke, a Chinese-American, as our governor for two terms. So is there still racial discrimination?
Mayor Lee: Discrimination is subtle and comes in many forms. Use of race is one way to gain advantage. Differences are emphasized to gain advantage. Differences always exist. As long as people compete, there will be discrimination used as a tool to gain advantage. There are now laws to prohibit discrimination. Therefore, it has become more sophisticated and more subtler to get around the law.
Part 3. On U.S.-China relations
Wen: Bellevue has a number of sister cities. But its relations with Dalian of Liaoning Province and Qingdao of Shandong province of China was described as economic and trade, for the similarities in business and culture with those cities. Why not sister cities if there were similarities in business and culture?
Mayor Lee: The goal of sister cities or business and trade agreements is to build relationship. It can be through culture or business. Sister cities efforts are largely through volunteers who have no economic incentive. It has become apparent to me that they are hard to sustain without commitment from government and its support. Business and trade relationship has the built-in potential of economic incentive. The goal is to build relationships whether through culture or business and trade. I believe economic viability equals sustainability.
Wen: As a Chinese-American mayor and long-time councilman, do you naturally want to develop more relations with China for Bellevue than with other countries?
Mayor Lee: I believe in first gathering low-hanging fruit. Especially that Chinese now have abundant excess capital to invest and we have the relationship through our Chinese American connections in Bellevue to attract them. After that, the world is the limit. And, don't forget, U.S.-China relation is crucial to world peace.
Wen: When you deal with China, Chinese cities, or Chinese officials, do you ever think about some of the problem areas that the U.S. has with China, such as human rights, dissidents, etc. and why?
Mayor Lee: It's unavoidable. When you develop good and honest relationships, like in a family, you have frank conversations. We have our values; they have theirs. We may often disagree. But we share our opinions. As long as we have good intentions to help, we will grow in the relationship and mutually benefit when we learn from each other.
Wen: You served as a regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush. Does that mean you are Republican? What do you think of President Obama's dealing with China, as a Democrat?
Mayor Lee: I am identified as a Republican because I have run as a Republican candidate in a partisan race. I also identify with many important Republican values and characteristics such as small and accountable government, fiscal prudence, self-reliance and responsibility, family value and free market capitalism. I place my trust more on individual integrity and honesty than blind party affiliation. I supported George W. Bush because I liked him and was impressed with his straight-forwardness and personable attitude and openness. He appointed more Asian Americans to his administration than any previous Presidents. I was honored to serve him as the Regional Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
In Washington state, voters are not officially identified as Republican or Democrat. There is no official political Party registration. One identifies which Party to vote for when one votes on a specific ballot at an election. I am identified as a Republican and I'll proudly accept that just as I am proud to be an American. I do not like labels unless it serves a purpose. I do not see a purpose here. Therefore, my answer remains.
I do not have anything to say about President Obama's China policy.
Wen: You know there is a Chinese saying: 衣锦还乡, yi jin huan xiang or returning to one's homeland in glory. That's you, you can now return to Kunming in glory. Do you want to see Bellevue, your hometown for most of your life, and Kunming, your childhood home, establish a relationship someday?
Mayor Lee: I'd love to see that. There are many similarities, climate, people, and scenery. But it's not yet time. There are many low-hanging fruits yet to be picked before the plum is ripe to pick. Someday!
Wen: A bonus question: After living in the United States for more than 50 years, much longer than you lived in China, including Hong Kong, do you feel you are more American than Chinese?
Mayor Lee: Absolutely! Although I will always have the handsome, trustworthy, and diligent Chinese look, the good, warm and honest Chinese heart and the wise, smart and intelligent Chinese mind, I am an American true and true, by choice, and proud to be one! America is land of immigrants. What is an American? It is exactly someone like me who came before and after seeking the American Dream and found it! After being state-less for so many years, I finally found a country I can call home where I and many find what we all look for - Freedom, Liberty and Justice for All! That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. May God Bless America!
Wen: Thank you very much, Mayor Lee.