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South Florida woman shares family history during Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month

Lee and Tooey Yee with their daughter Shirley.
Posted at 12:19 PM, May 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-03 18:41:18-04

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

It recognizes the contributions and influence of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the country. One South Florida woman is sharing her family’s story and how she has helped many local young women achieve success.

The black and white picture depicts a Chinese couple who came to the U.S, Lee and Tooey Yee. The baby in the picture is Shirley Koo, who now lives in Palm Beach Gardens. Her father came to America around the 1940’s.

“When the war started, he was in the Army,” said Koo. “After the war, the veterans were allowed to go back to China, where he was from, and bring a bride over. That’s what he did.”

Koo’s parents started their family in the Bronx, New York. The unfamiliar pushed her parents to learn and grow.

“After he got out of the service he was trained as a mechanic,” said Koo. “However, there were a lot of discrimination at the time. So, a lot of the Chinese servicemen found jobs in laundries and restaurants. That’s what they ended up doing.”

Growing up, Shirley says she and her siblings always looked forward to a weekly tradition.

“Because we were in the Bronx, there weren’t that many Chinese food stores or anything. We would go down every Sunday, go down by train and go to Chinatown and Manhattan. We would have lunch there; we would buy food and bring it back home,” said Koo.

Eventually Shirley would finish high school and college, becoming a math teacher in New York. At the time Shirley says there were many Asian immigrant students who came due to the war. She would tutor and help them acclimate.

“I was the only Asian teacher there. So I’m sure they saw me as a role model and then they can see in the society where they could fit,” said Koo. “So that was really rewarding to see these students who just came to the country and succeed. Some of them went on to become teachers and it was good.”

Family vacations led them to relocate to Palm Beach County.

She became an active member of her church, getting involved in many charity organizations.

Now she's the president of the American Association of University Women for the Northern Palm Beach County chapter. They've helped hundreds of young women reach academic achievement and helped raise scholarships for them.

“It’s very important to give back to the community,” said Koo. “My husband and I really believe in giving back what you’ve gotten in the past.”

Koo looks back at the determination and obstacles overcome by her parents and the perseverance that has shaped every step of her journey of who she is today.

“Asians are really all different just like any other people,” said Koo. “When you come to it, all people want the same thing. No matter what color your skin is. You really want what’s best for your family, you want to be part of the community. Everyone wants to belong.”

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