The roots of physician Rolland Choy Lowe (1932-2017) greatly shaped his lifetime of extraordinary community involvement. He was a pioneer in the medical profession and philanthropy and gave a lifetime of service to the Chinese community and Bay Area in general. At a time when few Asian Americans were in mainstream positions of influence, Dr. Lowe made a major impact on services for the community through many "firsts," such as being the first Asian American president of the San Francisco Medical Society and then the California Medical Association, and the first Asian American board member of the San Francisco Foundation and of the Council on Foundations, a prestigious national philanthropy organization. He was instrumental in modernizing Chinese Hospital in San Francisco's Chinatown and served thousands of patients there, and helped found several organizations in the Chinese American community.
Rolland's mother, Eva Chan Lowe (1909-2011), worked in a garment factory and restaurants, was involved in the Chinese Students Association, made soapbox speeches on behalf of China's efforts against Japan, spoke at demonstrations on behalf of the unemployed, and worked with Madame Sun Yat-sen in China. Dr. Lowe's birth father, Benjamin Fee (1908-1978), was a labor organizer and writer in the Chinese community in San Francisco and New York City. His mother's second husband, Lawrence Choy Lowe (1906-1962), who adopted Rolland, was active in the community and was brought before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities during the McCarthy era, a time of rampant red-baiting and paranoia.
Eva Chan Lowe was truly ahead of her time. She was born in Fort Bragg, California, in 1909, where her father was a cook at a lumber mill; her family moved to San Francisco when her father got a job there. Eva was the fourth girl of five children, and she faced a lot of tragedy in her youth. Soon after her brother was born, Eva's mother died of tuberculosis; then one of Eva's sisters and her baby brother died. Eva later stated that the disease was a result of the family living in the basement of the Lincoln Shrimp Company, which Eva's father ran on Sacramento Street in Chinatown. As a result, the family moved back to Fort Bragg to live with her aunt and uncle.
Eva told researcher Judy Yung about growing up in Fort Bragg, "not proud to be Chinese." She noted that her uncle knew a lot of English, so she could read his American newspapers. Eva became aware of how Chinese were drawn as inferior in newspaper cartoons and was picked on at school. Her aunt noticed bruises on Eva's back and asked her what happened. Eva told her that the faan gwaijai (foreign devil boys) had thrown rocks at her. Eva's uncle got mad and went to school with her to tell her teacher. The teacher asked Eva which boys hurt her, and she pointed them out. The boys were slapped with a ruler, and "Afterward, they were very good to me." (1) Eva did not share her sister's temperament of not talking back to her aunt. "If somebody accused me of something that wasn't right, I would say something right away. Being a girl, that's one strike against you. They always said girls shouldn't do this, girls shouldn't do that. So I had it in my mind when I was twelve years old, how come boys can do it and girls can't do it? I didn't say it because when we were small, we're not supposed to talk back. You talk back and you get a slap in the face."
Later Eva returned to San Francisco, moving in with her eldest sisters family. She went to Chinese school and became proud to be Chinese. At the age of nine or ten in 1919, she learned about boycotts of Japanese goods because of the Japanese takeover of German concessions in Shandong Province and protested this when she walked by a Japanese-run business. Eva fought to join her sister and brother-in-law when they went to China in 1922, because she wanted to learn Chinese. (2) While there she learned about how China had been divided up by imperialist European countries and cried. On her return to the United States in 1926, she met a woman on the ship who explained to Eva about inequality for women in China and socialism.
Eva attended high school in San Francisco and became involved in the Chinese Students Club. Members of the club would make speeches on the corner of Waverly Place, at the Chinese Catholic Center on Stockton Street, and in Oakland. Eva mentioned that several times she was the only young woman who would give speeches, and her own sister would say, "You talk too loud." Eva remembered coining the slogan, "If you have money, give money. If you have muscles, give muscles. I have neither money or muscles, but I can lend my voice to the cause." (3)
After graduation she worked in a Chinatown garment factor)' and later in a Chinese American restaurant downtown. She encountered discrimination in employment and housing but stood up for her rights. She became involved with the activist group Huaren Shiyehui, making soapbox speeches in 1931 and supporting demonstrations on behalf of the unemployed. (4) Her marriage to fellow activist Benjamin Fee was short-lived, but produced a son, Rolland, who was born on September 29, 1932, in San Francisco.
On August 28, 1937, Eva Chan married Lawrence Choy Lowe, who adopted Rolland. Lawrence's brother ran a sewing factory and sponsored his immigration. His real family name was Choy, but like thousands of other Chinese immigrants who came to America during the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Lawrence had to come to America as a "paper son," saying he was a member of the Lowe family and using a false identity. Rolland's name, Rolland Choy Lowe, includes his family's real name of Choy.
Lawrence's immigration name was Lowe Quai Bun, and at the age of fourteen, he arrived on Angel Island on November 22, 1929. Before he could be questioned, he was treated for liver fluke. He was questioned by a Board of Special Inquiry on Angel Island on December 17, 1929. (5) Lawrence's status was as the "Son of Son of Native," meaning that his grandfather said he was a native of the United States, which granted citizen status to his descendants. He was asked the usual lengthy questions about his grandparents and other family members, his village, and his home. "Alleged father" Lowe Hung Gong testified on Lawrence's behalf and the board admitted Lawrence after his testimony, on December 18, 1929.
In 1937 Eva, Lawrence, and Rolland went to live in Hong Kong, where Eva taught English. She met Mme. Sun Yat-Sen through a seaman named Tin Yut, who introduced her to Liao Mengxing, Mme. Sun's secretary. Eva was involved with the war effort against Japan, where she worked as a clerk-typist with the China Defense League, founded by Mme. Sun. (6)
After living in the Philippines around 1939-1940, the Lowes returned to California in 1941. In 1942 they bought a grocery store in Oakland, the Westend Grocery, from a Japanese American family being sent off to an incarceration camp. (7) Later they opened the Victory Market and then Sava-Lot. In 1949 Lawrence became a founder and manager of the World Theater in Chinatown, the first Chinese theater to present Chinese films with themes of social significance. (8) Lawrence died in an automobile accident in 1962 and Eva moved back to San Francisco. (9) She passed away in 2011 at the age of 101.
Rolland Lowe's birth father, Benjamin Fee, was the cofounder of San Francisco's Chinese Students Association, organized Chinese restaurant workers, was involved in anti-Japanese organizing, joined the Seamen's Union and pushed them to admit more Chinese members, and participated in the San Francisco general strike of 1934. He also played a leading role in the unionization of salmon cannery workers and helped found the Chinese Workers Mutual Aid Association. After Eva Chan and Fee divorced, he moved to New York in 1939 where he became a translator at the Chinese community newspaper National Salvation Times. He left or was expelled from the party in the 1940s or 1950, though he remained sympathetic to its principles and goals, according to Him Mark Lai. (10) Fee was very involved in literature, and his Collected Poems of Mu-yan was published by Hong Kong's Chih Luen Press in October 1974.
Lai said the FBI kept Fee under surveillance...