focus: family

Yesterday during a sunny afternoon at Søernes, I watched a guy in his twenties help an older woman into one of our highly coveted outdoor seats. He then came down to the bar and asked for a nice, really light beer, saying, “Just make sure it’s not a Tuborg! It’s for my grandmother.” I gave him a taster glass of Amager Summer Fusion (3.5%), sort of expecting him to taste it himself and decide based on that, but he took it back outside, saying he had to make sure she liked it. He came back in, said she loved it, ordered an IPA for himself, and proceeded to have a lovely time chatting away the afternoon with his grandma over beer.


I never imagined I’d only see my family twice a year and that both times would be because of a hospitalized family member. I also never expected to have make an inter-continental journey home for a funeral. Booking a flight home to visit my grandmother in the hospital only to land in San Francisco just after she passed started off an extremely difficult week at home that was only made slightly easier by copious amounts of beer (thank you Tyler, Maddy, Ryan, Fraze, Alex, Anand, Dan, Julia, Katie, Dustin)… but regardless, it was unbelievably refreshing to spend some quality time with the Chan Clan. Mother’s Day this year was unlike any other.

a perfectly hipsterific picture of my grandmother.

In the interest of sparing you any more weird hyper-emotional stuff, I’ll instead let my cousin Jennifer sum up a tribute to our Mah Mah. She put together an incredibly moving funeral program and it was perfect. 

For Jennie Lai Chan, it was the simplest things in life that mattered most, especially the fact that she loved her family and her family loved her. At her core, she was a generous and giving person who considered the needs of others before her own. She lived to care for her husband, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The whole of her life could be seen as honest and ordinary but the kindness of her heart was immense and extraordinary.

On October 8, 1918, Jennie was born in a small apartment at 730 Washington Street in San Francisco. The First World War was coming to an end, the women’s suffrage movement had gained traction, and from her home base in Chinatown, Jennie would experience a world of changes during the 20th century.

Her parents, Alfred and Chan Shee Lai, raised her alongside her four siblings: Laura, Fannie, Daisy, and Edward. In 1937, Jennie graduated from Commerce High School in the Civic Center. That year, the Golden Gate Bridge opened and the soap opera “Guiding Light” premiered on radio. (Always a fan of soap operas, Chinese and otherwise, Jennie loved dramas and avidly followed her stories.) In her senior yearbook, Jennie wrote that she was a knitting sales- lady who enjoyed “telling yarns about her past.” She loved to knit and created beautiful and intricately worked sweaters and blankets for friends and family. As an eighteen-year- old graduate, she wrote of her hope to become a saleslady or bookkeeper and her plan to work to help support a future husband. Jennie would fulfill all those dreams during her lifetime.

In 1939, Jennie’s life changed when she met and married Frank Y. Chan. She moved around the corner to 827 Kearny Street, where she would live for the next 70 years. Situated above a bustling garment factory, home was an upstairs apartment filled with multiple generations of the Chan family: Frank’s parents, Yee and Mary Chan, and his younger siblings, Daniel, Phyllis, and Gloria, and later extended family members. During the Second World War, Jennie worked in the downstairs factory as uniforms were being sewn for soldiers. She and Frank raised four children – Karen, Curtis, Alan, and Gary – on Kearny Street, and, for many years, the home served as a gathering place for family dinners and celebrations. The kitchen fires were always burning, and countless pots of chicken soup and pigs’ feet were steeped and stewed over the years. Jennie and Frank were happily married for nearly 60 years; a partnership based on affection and respect was her greatest wish for her children and grandchildren.

Jennie’s first child was born in 1941, and her focus on her family never wavered thereafter. But she was also fiercely independent and contributed to the household through her work. She took a job as a secretary for a local lawyer who would become a court judge at City Hall and later became his wife’s caretaker. When her son Alan opened his optometry practice in the storefront of the old sewing factory, Jennie was the receptionist who greeted patients, scheduled appointments, and kept records. Only a stroke at age eighty-four could slow her down. She reluctantly retired from the front desk, and dutifully completed rehabilitative exercises so she could live on her own again.

Jennie was quiet in voice but strong in spirit and determination. She found great joy in witnessing new marriages and children in the family, and in attending graduations, holidays, birthdays, and church goings-on. As a founding member of Buddha’s Universal Church, she took comfort in her faith and dedicated much of her life to its mission. Her copy of Diamond Sutra was well worn and constantly with her as she sat in her favorite armchair. Always ready in her green smock full of safety pins, Jennie could be found coaching and costuming everyone in the “Boys’ Room.” She was immensely proud of her family for their dedication to the church, and especially for their roles in the annual play.

At the On Lok senior center where Jennie received health and wellness services, she was a prized friend. She could still see and hear well, her fluency in Cantonese and English made her invaluable, her mah jong skills were sharp, and she played for money (with a maximum of ten cents per hand!)

Raised at the turn of the century, Jennie held traditional views, yet her warmth and openness allowed her to accept people for who they were. She was happy when her boys were happy. She loved her wonderful daughters-in-law – Janice, Marina, and Jenny – and was satisfied to see everyone pairing up and settling down.

Jennie lived a simple but joyful life. She enjoyed buttered toast and instant coffee with milk for breakfast. She couldn’t resist a whole chicken on sale at the market. She had a sweet tooth; Kit-Kats and ice cream bars, presumably purchased for visiting children, were staples in her kitchen but she would sneak one, too.

Jennie took very few things with her when she moved into her first “very own apartment” several years ago, saying she had everything she needed. She did, however, keep careful track of her seemingly most valued possession: the stash of Tupperware containers she kept stacked neatly in her closet. She cooked for twenty when only two were expected, if only to provide her specialties to take home: fried chicken, won ton, pork hash, turkey stuffing, roast pork, and on and on. She smuggled home cartons of milk and cups of Jell-O for the little ones. She gave away her last meal.

In the end, she loved her family and her family loved her.


Jennie was devoted wife of the late Frank Y. Chan. She was the dearly loved mother of Curtis and his wife Janice, Alan and his wife Marina, Gary and his wife Jenny, and the late Karen Chan Lee. She was the treasured grandmother of Kevin and his wife Katie, Jennifer and her husband Calvin So, Brian, Craig, Noreen and her fiancé Ramon Sandino, Daphne, Lani and Tyler Chan. She was the adored great-grandmother of Brett and Wyatt Chan, and Eloise and Emerson So.

Rest in paradise, Mah Mah. You deserve it.



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