Hong KongImmigrantMusicianStory

A Return to Her Roots

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

For as long as she could remember, Shirley Yee was enchanted with Cantonese opera. The emotion of its music, the grace of its performers, and the complexity of their  makeup spellbound her as a child in Hong Kong. Even when she moved away and lived abroad for over 40 years, the opera found its way back into her life, but not in the way she expected.

Yee was born in Hong Kong around 1950 to parents from Guangdong Province. She had a very happy childhood: her father was a partner in a large ice cream manufacturing business, and she got to choose the latest flavors whenever the ice cream truck was in town.

“The driver for my dad’s ice cream company would come by once and a while and let me pick whatever I wanted with fresh fruit,” Yee says, “because we bought fresh fruit to make mango, papaya, and pineapple ice creams.”

Yee was close with her father, who introduced her to Cantonese opera at a young age. Getting to the opera was no easy task: it was a two-hour trip one way, since the family had to take a boat from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and then catch a bus to the theater. But the journey was worth it.

“You’d see the beautiful actors, actresses, and musicians onstage,” Yee remembers. “I got excited when I heard the drum start the beat, and it put life into the whole thing. The opera always had good stories; good people always survived at the end.”

While Yee’s childhood was relatively idyllic, it didn’t last forever. During the 1950s and 1960s, Hong Kong was beset with political problems. The city was a British colony at the time, and most of its inhabitants were poor. Rampant corruption worsened poverty, as did the influx of thousands of refugees fleeing communist China.

“They swam across the water from China to Hong Kong,” Yee explains. “They came to Hong Kong, and if they were lucky, they got to stay. I remember that little kids had bellies that would bulge out and people had no place to live. They built tin huts on hillsides in Hong Kong and a lot of people were looking for jobs.”

In 1967, the political situation exploded into riots. People demonstrated against the British colonial government, and homemade bombs were widely used against the police. Yee was about to matriculate to the University of Hong Kong when the violence broke out. Wanting to keep their daughter out of danger, her parents sent her to the United States alone at the age of 17.

Despite the stressful nature of her immigration, Yee was excited about living in America. She recalls, “I was inspired by John Kennedy, in the sense that [America] was very different from Hong Kong. There were opportunities there, they were fair, there was law, it was just an open world.”

Yee attended the University of Kansas. However, life was not easy. “The people there were friendly,” she says, “but because of the fact that I totally knew nothing about the culture, how to make friends, and the language barrier, I was quite lonely… [Asians were] very few. There were maybe about ten in the entire university, and most of them were graduate students.”

Feeling isolated and disheartened, Yee transferred to Oregon State University in her junior year, following one of her friends. Almost immediately, her social life began to improve. 

“There were a lot more Chinese students, especially in undergraduate studies,” Yee remembers.

Oregon State also had an active Chinese students association, and during one of its political meetings, she met a man named Teng.

“He was from Southern China, in Toishan Province, and immigrated to Hong Kong when he was around ten years old,” Yee says. “He studied mathematics and electrical engineering.”

Teng was also good-looking, and after Yee graduated from Oregon State with a degree in chemistry, she married him in 1974.

Yee and Teng moved to Portland in 1975, starting a family and raising a son. She began working as a certified public accountant two years later. She pursued this career for decades until a phantom from her past wandered into her life.

Once her son left home, Yee befriended a Cantonese opera performer from Seattle. Yee’s new friend encouraged her to perform in the opera, and Yee agreed. Being asked to join the opera was like a childhood dream come true.

“It brought back the memories of many of the things that I saw [in the opera] when I was a kid,” she says. “So, it came very naturally.”

Yee joined the Yat Sing Music Club, a Portland-based organization that rehearses and performs Cantonese operas. The rehearsal process was intense, especially for Yee, who had never performed an opera in her life. 

“I did practice a lot,” she exclaims. “There were occasions where I spent 13 to 14 hours sitting in a chair and practicing!”

Ultimately, the practice paid off. Yee regularly performs Cantonese operas to this day, dressed head to toe in makeup and costumes and singing in a powerful voice. Whenever she’s on stage, Yee feels a heightened sense of connection to her Chinese heritage.

“I always enjoy music and singing, and now I can actually feel the influence of Chinese literature in it, too,” she says. “To be able to do the role of a famous Chinese character in past histories really makes me feel good.”

For Yee, Cantonese opera is more than an art form. It transports her back in time — back to her vibrant life in Hong Kong, where she and her father would be captivated by the spectacle.

It also offers a poignant sense of community, one in which all the performers can vanish together into a shared world.

“You have to put your mind into the role you’re playing,” Yee explains. “And everything is different, not just the vocals… It is a group activity, and I think that all human beings want to belong to a group that you can have friends in.”