May is Asian Pacific American Month
Charles Lee was born as Lee Gwe Sui in March 1855 in Canton, China. His name meant “Charmed Life” and according to family lore, his mother was 60 years old when he, her 16th child was born. Thinking he would die from dysentery as a child, his mother took him to an opium den, hoping the smoke would ease his pain. Charles did recover, but lost his hair and had to learn to walk again.
His father, a wealthy fisherman, owned many boats (junks). During a typhoon, Charles’s father and some of his brothers were lost during the storm. Charles survived by tying himself to a tree.
At the urging of a brother who was a potato grower in California, Charles immigrated to America in 1879 and worked for the railroad before heading north to live with Indians. Traveling to Utah, he stopped at a farm belonging to Brigham Young. Charles thought Young a very lucky man to have so many wives.
Charles’s wanderings led him to Missouri, Chicago and eventually to Columbia, South Carolina where he married Ella Jackson, who was 20 years younger. Their first son Thomas was born in May 1907. One of Charles’s “charmed” moments in life came when he was recovering at home from a ruptured appendix. When bricks from the house fell on his bed, Charles was thought to be dead, but he had survived the ordeal due to a trip to the outhouse just prior to the collapse.
Another move brought the family to Tampa, Florida; the family grew with the birth of a daughter Gertrude and another son Lawrence. Ella passed away in 1922, and Charles moved to Lakeland, Florida, where he took up farming. His final move in 1938 was to Kissimmee, Florida, where he continued farming with his sons, growing and shipping Chinese vegetables to northern markets.
Charles enjoyed going to downtown Kissimmee, a short walk from his home on Mabbette Street. He often took neighborhood kids to the afternoon movie and enjoyed a soda at Hunt Brothers Drug Store, but always drank it with no ice. Refusing to pay more than a nickel, no matter the cost, the drug store would run a tab; Tommy, his son would pay the bill at the end of the month.
On March 22, 1958, at the age of 103, Charles Lee passed away and was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery. He was one of Kissimmee’s notable citizens featured at the Osceola County Historical Society “Dine with the Departed” event held on March 9, 2019.
By: Anza Bast
Sources: census records from Ancestry.com; “Kissimmee Gazette” March 28, 1958; information provided by descendants of Charles Lee. Photo: provided by Lee family member