Diaspora diaries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am


Even in her wildest dreams, Maria Yee never thought she'd become the brand name of a contemporary furniture line - in California.

'I never give up. I want to do things nobody else could do,' says Yee, on a stay in Hong Kong, her first since she emigrated to the United States, in 1988. But it was in this city that, Yee says, she learned her first, hard lessons about self-worth.

In 1980, Yee passed through the Lo Wu border crossing with just a change of clothes and her life savings: HK$500. The Guangzhou native was spurned by her relatives here as a worthless burden, until she showed she had skills.

'I realised I needed to add value to my life,' says Yee, 58, 'then I could survive.'

She found work at a trading company and, through that, met her future husband, a Californian. Yee decided to leave Hong Kong for California, to start a new life as a wife and mother. Still, it wasn't easy to settle down.

'It was very hard to find out who I was, because I had pretended to be something else for so long.'

Yee had been forced to be many things during the Cultural Revolution, which began when she was 13. First she was sent to toil in a rock quarry, then she was assigned to the night shift at a machinery factory. She had learned to keep her head down, so when she was free to be anything she wanted to be, she felt lost.

That was until a San Francisco department store asked for her help in importing the kind of Ming dynasty-style furniture she had taken over from Beijing. Yee set about redesigning the wood joinery so that it could adjust to a vastly different climate, even though she was told that that couldn't be done.

Yee set up a 350,000 sq ft factory in Guangzhou, where she pioneered an environmentally friendly process to manufacture traditional handcrafted furniture. As an example of her company's approach, the factory's boilers are fuelled by sawdust swept from the workshop floor.

Yee's older brother, Owen, lives in the mainland and runs the factory, which sources wood from a bamboo plantation near Changsha, Hunan province.

'We're not fighting with the pandas,' she quips.

In 2008, her furniture line became the first to be internationally certified 'sustainable'. For Yee, the green certification is not a marketing tool but recognition of her efforts to help maintain the natural environs of her childhood.

'What does freedom mean?' asks Yee. 'It's the freedom to be yourself.'