Dr. Herbert Kee, 88, Chinatown leader

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Dr. Herbert Kee, a former Democratic district leader and a revered luminary of the Chinatown community, died on March 15 at Beth Israel Hospital. He was 88.

The cause of death was complications from Parkinson’s disease, which he had suffered from for the past four years.

His memorial service was Sat., April 7, in the Village at the First Presbyterian Church, on Fifth Ave. at W. 12th St., and attended by more than 300 people, including many top politicians. He and his wife, Virginia Kee, the former Democratic state committeewoman, were longtime members of the church, where Herbert served as a church elder.

Dr. Herbert Kee. Photos courtesy of Virginia Kee

Among the politicians at the memorial were State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Congressmembers Grace Meng, Nydia Velazquez and Carolyn Maloney, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson — who gave one of the remembrances — Comptroller Scott Stringer, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, former state Senator Tom Duane, former Councilmember Alan Gerson, former Comptroller John Liu and former Assemblymember Keith Wright.

“Everyone’s here. It’s wall-to-wall judges,” marveled John Quinn, the former Lower East Side state committeeman, speaking from the reception afterward. “All of Chinatown was here. A lot of people knew each other for 40 years.”

As Corky Lee, known as “the unofficial Asian-American photographer laureate,” put it, “The Kees are to Chinatown politics what the Kennedys are to American politics.”

 

Dr. Herbert Kee speaking at Gouverneur Hospital with then-Congressmember Ed Koch in 1976.

Herbert Kee was born in Chinatown and grew up on Mott St. Virginia grew up right across the street from him and they knew each other as children.

Herbert’s father, Sing Kee, was a World War I hero, according to Jenny Low, one of the Kees’ five godchildren and Herbert Kee’s former district co-leader.

“He kept communications going from a foxhole,” Low said of Kee’s father. “He received the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Medal from the French government.”

Originally from San Jose, Sing Kee relocated to New York’s Chinatown, where he opened a restaurant, and later had a travel agency. Virginia Kee’s father also had a restaurant in the neighborhood.

“If you were an Asian man back then, your job possibilities were limited,” Low noted.

Herbert’s mother was a homemaker.

“If you were an Asian woman, the possibilities were even more limited,” Low said.

Dr. Kee at his retirement in 1996.

Herbert and Virginia met again in high school at a dance and started dating. They married, at First Presbyterian Church, when he was 21 and she was 19.

A Renaissance man, Kee used his many abilities to positively impact the Chinatown community in multiple ways.

As a family physician, he treated patients in his Oliver St. brownstone regardless of their ability to pay. In addition to his private practice, he treated patients at Gouverneur Hospital.

He was an early supporter of the Chinatown Health Clinic, now the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center. He retired from medical practice in 1997, though continued to volunteer at the clinic into his 80s.

Herbert and Virginia Kee in 2015 after the United Democratic Organization’s slate of judicial delegates won at the polls. Virginia was given a bouquet of flowers because she got the highest vote count.

In 1965, he and Virginia founded the Chinese-American Planning Council, today the nation’s largest Asian-American social-services organization. Today, CPC serves 2,000 to 3,000 clients per year, with a total of 60,000 visits / interactions and an annual budget of $140 million. CPC provides family services, a free legal clinic, pre-K, a high school youth program, job training and classes and a senior center, among its many offerings.

The Kees donated an endowment fund to CPC. They also launched Chinatown’s first Head Start program.

A statement on the CPC Web site says, “Though Dr. Kee will be greatly missed, his immense contributions to New York City’s immigrant and low-income community members and his legacy of activism on their behalf will continue on beyond his life.”

Supporting Yuh-Line Niou’s bid in 2016 to succeed fallen former Speaker Sheldon Silver in the Assembly, from left, Herbert Kee, with Niou, Virginia Kee, U.D.O. President Chung Seto and Democratic District Leader Jenny Low, who is one of the Kees’ five godchildren.

A graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Penn State, Kee began his career as an engineer, but then decided to study medicine at age 36 after visiting the Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti. He graduated from Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

He and Virginia were founding members of the United Democratic Organization, Chinatown’s main political club, in the 1970s. His career in political office began in 1999 when he was elected Democratic district leader in the 64th Assembly District, Part D, a post he held until 2013.

Low noted that it was she who encouraged Herbert to run after her previous district co-leader had to resign after taking a government job.

“I asked Dr. Kee to be my running mate,” she recalled. “He contributed so much to our community, of course he got elected.”

Herbert was appointed a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 2000 and in 2008.

Virginia ran for City Council in 1985, losing by 2 percent to Miriam Friedlander.

“This was before they had Chinese [language] on the ballot, and she was running against a three-term incumbent, and she still only lost by 2 percent,” said Low.

“They recognized that without vote, without power in the voting booth, you have nothing,” Low said of the Kees.

Dr. Herbert Kee, with his wife, Virginia, in a photo from last year, was one half of a dynamic power couple in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Working together with Virginia on many issues, he helped the community in countless ways.

Herbert Kee was also a director of Hong Ning Housing for the Elderly, on Norfolk St., and a member of the M.T.A.’s Senior Citizens Advisory Board.

Herbert and Virginia founded several scholarships for needy students at his alma maters R.P.I. and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Herbert Kee was also instrumental in creating a bridge for scholarships for students from Brooklyn Tech to R.P.I.

Herbert was quiet but very engaged, Low said.

“He doesn’t say very much, but he is very observant,” she said. “And he has a great sense of humor. When you talk to him, it’s like you’re the most important thing in the world.”

In addition, he was both very handy and creative.

“He could fix anything around the house,” Low said. “He actually made a cabinet for his sound system, and ceramic pieces that look very nice.”

As a new immigrant, Low, like countless other Chinatown youth, was inspired by Virginia, who taught English as a Second Language and social studies for 35 years at J.H.S. 65, now known as I.S. 131. After a banking career, Low today is the City Council’s director of community engagement.

“Both of them became my lifetime mentors,” she said.

Herbert’s older brother, Norman, one of the first Chinese attorneys to practice in Chinatown, died this past November. A sister, Florence, also predeceased him.

Herbert Kee is survived by his beloved wife of 66 years, Virginia; sisters Margaret and Beatrice; and godchildren Glenn Lau-Kee, a former president of the New York State Bar Association; Josephine Ho, executive director of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce; Jenny Low, Chinatown’s female district co-leader; Jeffrey Oing, a New York State Supreme Court justice; and Terry Li, a computer engineer.

Low noted that Beth Israel, where Herbert Kee died, was the same hospital where he started his medical career in 1974.

“He was the chief resident there,” she said.

In lieu of flowers, checks for memorial donations to the First Presbyterian Church and the Chinese-American Planning Council may be mailed to LauKee Law Group, 354 Broome St., Suite 1, NY, NY 10013.

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