An appreciation of Leeann Chin

On Thursday, I’m filling in on MPR News for Kerri Miller, and in the 10 a.m. segment, I’ll be talking with Rob Schmitz, the former MPR staffer who is now the China correspondent for Marketplace. In his new book, “Street of Eternal Happiness“, he profiles the people and shop owners on his street in Shanghai.

It’s a funny and occasionally horrifying tale of what people have to do to survive in the country. In one case, a man was burned alive in the home he didn’t want to leave, because a demolition crew had come to take his house because some big-money with ties to a corrupt government wanted to put up a big building.

Despite a system that’s against them, people mostly survive, and it’s impossible to read the book without wondering what we’d do in the face of a tide that’s running against us.

That’s why last night’s The World segment on Leeann Chin was so fascinating to me.

She was married off by her family at 18 to a man in Hong Kong she’d never met and didn’t like. They eventually moved to the white, Scandinavian enclave of Minnesota, her daughter, Katie, recalled. And she didn’t even speak English.

She sold clothes she sewed out of her home in south Minneapolis.

“My mother was a seamstress,” says Katie Chin. “She had learned how to sew in China. She was making $0.05 an hour as a seamstress, working out of our home, with five small children. She would whip up these amazing Cantonese dishes for us, but we wanted hamburger helper.

“She decided to cook a luncheon for some of her sewing clients one day, and they couldn’t believe how delicious her food was. Because back in the day all they had was chow mein and chop suey. They encouraged her to start teaching classes, and to cater.”

The family all chipped in when Leeann started a catering business out of her home. “That’s the Chinese way,” her daughter said, a note she made several times through her essay on her mom.

“Through cooking together in the kitchen, she felt like she could open up and tell me about some of the hardships she’d endured: Being match-made to someone she didn’t like, having an overbearing, cruel mother-in-law, having a business as a minority woman and being discriminated against.

“All these things she never really talked about, because you don’t burden your children with these things in Chinese culture. But I think she felt like … becoming a bit more American actually, and opening up to me as her daughter.”

Leeann Chin, who sold her chain of restaurants to General Mills, died of liver cancer in 2010.

Rob’s book, it seems to me, is full of people like Leeann Chin, with one difference: They’re stuck in China.

Rob will be my guest in the 10 a.m. hour on Thursday.

Related: Is China Returning to the Madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution? (Foreign Policy)