Editor’s Note: This is part nine in a series regarding historic Asian districts of Sacramento.Sacramento native Jimmie R. Yee, who will officially retire from his long run as a Sacramento County supervisor representing District 2 next week, has certainly had many experiences in his nearly 81 years of life.
Those experiences range from growing up near this city’s now-former Chinatown and building a career as a structural engineer to serving as Sacramento’s first Asian mayor and leaving his position on the county Board of Supervisors three days shy of his eight-year mark.
In an exclusive interview with this publication last week, Jimmie sat down to share some of his memories about his life.
During that interview, Jimmie began by speaking about his parents and siblings.
He initially noted that although he was an American-born Chinese person, his parents, Charles “Sam” Yee and Bau Jung Yee, experienced a much different life during their youth, as they were immigrants from Toishan, China.
Jimmie, who was the last born of his parents’ six children, attended Lincoln elementary and junior high schools at 4th and Q streets before beginning the first of his three years as a student at Sacramento High School. He graduated from the latter named school in February 1952.
Like many Chinese who grew up in the city’s Chinatown area, Jimmie also attended a Chinese language school during his youth.
In response to being asked to share some of his memories about Sacramento’s Chinatown, Jimmie said, “Well, it was a real Chinatown. Back then we all lived on the west end of town, and so, we frequented Chinatown all the time.
“Chinatown went from 2nd Street to around 6th Street, between I and L (streets). Actually, it went to I and J (streets) and then (there were) little small (Chinese) businesses (to the south). Yeah, it was mostly between I and J (streets).
“Well, there were a lot of restaurants, a couple of (poultry businesses, and Chinese) family associations were down in Chinatown. Back when I was young, I didn’t do too much (with the associations), but my dad was very active in the (Yee) family association. So, every time they had events, I attended the events with my dad.
“Chinatown had everything you needed as far as food is concerned. There was a lot of gambling going on in old Chinatown. They had the pai gow. A lot of the workers saved their money during the year just so they could gamble during Chinese New Year.”
And in regard to a particular Chinatown business, he said, “Hong King Lum (at 306 I St.) was one of the bigger restaurants, because that’s where we all celebrated Chinese New Year with dinners.”
After graduating from Sacramento High School, Jimmie attended the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated from the latter named institution with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1956.
In speaking about that post-high school period of his life, Jimmie said, “At the same time, I went through the ROTC program and was commissioned as a second lieutenant and I graduated. That would be the Army. I did eight years of reserve. It was six months active duty and seven and a half years reserves. My active duty was at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and then some of it was at Fort Ord.”
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Jimmie spent three years working for the state.
Jimmie said that his decision to leave his position with the Department of Water Resources came through a job offer from Walter D. Beuhler.
“I met this engineer, Walt Beuhler,” Jimmie said. “He and his dad had a structural engineering firm, and he asked me if I was interested in learning building design. So, I left (the position with) the state and went to work for Buehler & Buehler.”
Jimmie left Buehler & Buehler in 1966 to become the business partner of Eugene Cole, one of his former co-workers, who had established his own business.
After Jimmie joined Cole, that consulting structural engineering firm became known as Cole & Yee.
Jimmie said that his business partnership with Cole continued until 1988.
“(Cole) decided to retire (in 1988), and I said, ‘Hey, if you’re going to retire, I’m going to retire, too,’” Jimmie said. “So, we both sold our share in the firm. At that time, we had brought in another partner (named) Carl Schubert, so (the business) was called Cole, Yee & Schubert. And my desire was to stay on for another five years as an advisor. And they were so busy, I stayed on for another 12 years, right up to the year 2000.”
Certainly, no summary of Jimmie’s life would be complete without some details about his involvement in politics.
In speaking about his initial years as a local politician, Jimmie said, “What happened was I got involved in politics. In 1992, I was elected to the city council, and I was on the council for 12 years. When Joe Serna, (Jr.) died (on Nov. 7), 1999, he was the mayor of the city of Sacramento. I was selected by the city council to succeed the late Mayor Joe Serna, Jr.”
Jimmie said that he believed that his time as a politician had ended in 2004, following his service as a member of the city council.
“I figured I was retired in 2004,” Jimmie said. “That was my second retirement. I had already retired from my business, and I was enjoying (that second retirement) until a year later. Illa Collin, (District 2) county supervisor, after serving 28 years on the county board, decided that she would retire and she called me to ask me to come out of retirement and run for her position.”
Jimmie accepted the challenge and was elected to serve as the District 2 representative in June 2006. He was sworn into office on Jan. 9, 2007.
In speaking about the topic of the end of his political career, Jimmie said, “I enjoyed the political world. There are a lot of issues and you get a lot of heartburn on some of the more difficult ones, but I enjoyed it. There’s no question. There is a lot of power in it, but you don’t go into that seeking power. In fact, many times, I don’t even consider myself a politician. Well, I’m out of office at the (beginning) of this year, so I’m enjoying it right now.”
Jimmie, who has a wife named Mary, six children and 17 grandchildren, said that he plans to fill his additional leisure time during his third retirement with such activities as playing golf once a week and fishing with my son, Kenneth, and his grandson, Miles.