Mae Yih: A life devoted to building trust

By HONG XIAO in New York | | Updated: 2017-07-15 00:42

Mae Yih: A life devoted to building trust

Mae Yih (holding papers), a former member of both houses of Oregon's Legislature, is joined by members of her extended family on June 13 at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York. Xiao Hong / China Daily

A groundbreaking Chinese-American politician reflects on key to success

As the first Chinese American to serve in a state senate in the United States, Mae Yih believes that if you want to build cross-border trade relations, the first priority is to build trust.

Yih, a former member of both houses of Oregon's legislature, introduced and helped pass legislation that established a sister-state relationship between Oregon and Fujian province in 1983.

After many years of efforts to facilitate the relationship between "my adopted country the United States of America and my beloved mother land — the People's Republic of China," Yih said, "I think when you have trust and friendship, you can do a lot of work together."

Born in Shanghai in 1928, Yih grew up in a fairly well-off family. Her father owned two textile mills, a nightclub and hotel — which is now the Peace Hotel — and a car dealership.

In 1948, Yih transferred from St. John's University in Shanghai to Barnard College in New York City, majoring in economics.

The president of Barnard at the time, Millicent McIntosh, encouraged students to get involved in decision-making, "at the time when women were still not granted the same rights as men," said Yih.

"She would share important remarks at the weekly student assembly, she would always repeat the same message: ‘Use your education, be involved in the history-making process for the benefit of your community'," Yih recalled.

"Those words would have a profound impact on my life, because those were the words that later inspired me to begin the journey that would lead to my public service career," said Yih.

After finishing her studies, she married Stephen Yih in New York in 1953. Three years later, she moved with her husband to Albany, Oregon for his work.

"Believe it or not, my public service career started when my sons were in elementary school: one of their teachers called and asked if I could bake cookies for the class' volunteer day," Yih said with a laugh.

Yih volunteered at her children's school, eventually running for the local school board. She started service on the Clover Ridge Elementary School board in 1969, moving to the Albany Union High School board in 1975.

Yih's work on the school boards earned the respect of her colleagues and it was suggested she run for the Oregon House of Representatives.

In 1976, the local Democratic Party chairperson asked Yih to run for the Oregon State House. Yih won the election, defeating the 14-year incumbent Republican. Yih took office in 1977 and went on to serve three two-year terms in the House.

In 1982, Yih decided to run for the State Senate. She won the election and was re-elected to four more four-year terms, winning the seat of Senate President Pro Tempore for the 1993–1995 session.

In 2002, Yih decided not to seek re-election and retired at the end of her term in January 2003.

Yih said the reason she never lost an election was because she always put people first in her work.

Yih's many accomplishments included passage of laws establishing enterprise zones to promote job creation; legislation to expedite child support and reduce public assistance; property tax relief; appropriations for a regional adolescent drug and alcohol abuse treatment center; and school curriculum changes to encourage sexual abstinence to reduce teen pregnancy.

During her time in office, Yih made a concerted effort to enhance China-US relations and trade exchange. She sponsored legislation establishing an Oregon trade representative office in Shanghai in 1999. She also arranged for legislative trade delegations to visit Fujian province and other cities in China four times.

During the trips to China with her colleagues, she said their Chinese counterparts welcomed them with banquets.

"We drank mao-tai (a Chinese liquor) and in Xinjiang, we'd have to cross arms drinking when toasting," Yih recalled, explaining that's how the Chinese do business.

"We build friendship, then we work together."

"Grassroots exchange is always a good way to seek cooperation," she added.

Today, China is Oregon's largest export market. The US International Trade Administration estimates Oregon exports there $5.82 billion annually.

Yih said she is grateful she could act as a bridge to understanding, friendship, trust, peace and prosperity between her mother country and her adopted country.

"I cannot claim credit for all of those exports, but I know that my contacts and my efforts have made a positive difference," Yih said.

Following her retirement in 2003, Yih received a Distinguished Service Award from the Albany Chamber of Commerce.

The Albany street where her district office was located has been named Yih Lane.

Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349