GREELEY — Yukwan Lee looked out to the lights of the gambling city Macau before gazing down into the black, cold water that could take him there.
He’d hiked murky trails for four nights to get to the cliff, using maps drawn by the people who escaped before him. The wind blew north, away from the noses of the German shepherds trained to bark when they caught a swimmer’s scent. The dark took care of the rest. Now was the time to jump.
If he did not jump, he would continue to make the equivalent of a penny in American money, for a day of hard labor on a farm. It cost that much to mail a letter. A pound of rice cost twice that.
“No one wants that life,” Lee said. “They knew that.”
Thirty years later, he has a life many would want. It’s the American dream, but in this case it’s the Chinese dream, too. He’s a Greeley business owner, a homeowner with two grown children and a retired man at 67 who enjoys puttering around in his garden. It is all far more than he expected, and in some ways, he believes it’s far more than he deserves, as he is a man without much education.
“How lucky am I?” Lee said with a smile.
And yet, there are some downtown business owners who believe that Lee deserves everything he gets. They believe he’s a big reason for their success, and many have stories similar to Lee’s own, immigrants with harrowing tales of escaping with nothing but their skin. Lee gave them a boost, they said, maybe because he got one himself when he came to Greeley in the early 1980s.
No one would mistake downtown Greeley for Pearl Street or the 16th Street Mall, but buoyed by bars, pizza places, unique shops (one business calls itself “The Nerd Store”), a downtown hotel, a bakery, coffeehouses, a steakhouse, a music theater and famous breweries such as WeldWerks, it’s about as hip an area as Greeley offers.
However, until recently, 10th Street seemed a bit like the middle child, as festivals in Lincoln Park, across from Eighth Street, and Friday Fests one block over, on Ninth Street, drew traffic to downtown, but not to Aaron and Sarah Wooten’s Cranford Tea Tavern. “Nick,” Lee’s nickname, is the guy responsible for changing that, Aaron said.
“Five years ago, when we opened, people wouldn’t walk this block at night,” Aaron said. “Now it feels like this is the last piece of the renaissance of downtown Greeley. It’s a very cool and diverse part of downtown, and it’s got Nick’s fingerprints all over it.”
Lee was 22 when he stared into the water. He had every reason to jump. He wanted a better life, and that was all he had, save for a few clothes he would leave behind to swim the mile to Macau. He was tired of being cold and hungry, and cold and hungry was all he could afford.
He also had every reason not to jump. He spent two months in prison after Chinese authorities caught him that summer hiking those trails to the ocean. He promised he would not go again and signed with a fingerprint. They released him and told him if he was caught again, they would keep him in prison for a long time, maybe for the rest of his life.
He would have to swim an hour, in his skivvies, in water cold enough to numb his fingers. He thought he could make the swim: He was strong from the farm, and he remembered how to swim from his time as a child, when his parents tossed him in a lake and told him to survive. Even so, he knew that cold water had killed many swimmers in the past.
Macau was only the first step. He arranged through the underground market for a boat in Macau to take him to Hong Kong on the promise that he would pay for it later. He would have to find a job and a place to live on his own.
If it seems like a choice, Lee makes it clear, when he tells the story, that it wasn’t much of one. Lee wanted freedom, but he really wanted to eat.
Maybe it wasn’t a choice. But it was definitely a risk. Lee loved a risk. He still does.
So Lee popped a handful of black pepper in his mouth, chewed and swallowed, hoping that the heat from the spice would make him welcome the icy waves. He steadied himself, stripped off his clothes and, on Dec. 18, 1973, at 2 a.m., he jumped.
Why does Aaron Wooten call Lee the savior of 10th Street? These days, downtown Greeley is doing much better than anyone had hoped, even 10th Street, and there is little doubt Lee could make more money on the rent he charges for the three buildings he now owns. He could probably make twice as much.
He’d have good reason to charge more. Lee has a nice nest egg — those buildings are paid off — but rent and Social Security are his main sources of income.
“He could be raising me big time,” Wooten said. “That’s not who he is.”
The low rent and his hands-off approach empower Wooten and business owners in his buildings to take chances, the same kind of risks that Lee enjoys and respects, and that led to 10th Street’s comeback, Wooten said.
Tea houses, for instance, had failed many times in Greeley, but Lee was not only supportive, he let Wooten do it his way. He didn’t care that Wooten tore down a wall and changed the place to fit his needs.
“He allows us to work hard and make it on our own,” Wooten said, “and I don’t know many who are like that. I’m not sure I’d be like that.”
When Wooten says “us,” he means himself and Abdi Warsame Abdirahman, whose family owns the Daris Uroon as a part of an enterprise, and Luis Ochoa, the owner of Hispano Appliances who will soon open the Millennium Event Center in the same location upstairs, a project he’s worked on for 10 years.
Lee doesn’t hand-pick his clients. Wooten is a white man who also owns the downtown steakhouse. Ochoa and Abdirahman are immigrants, and even if Ochoa says, admiringly, that Lee is “on his side,” Lee doesn’t treat any of his clients differently. In fact, in this age where immigrants are questioned harder than they’ve been in decades, Lee proudly says he gets along with everyone, “the black man, the white man, the yellow man and the brown man.”
Ochoa rented the building from Lee 13 years ago, and now Ochoa calls him a friend, not just a landlord. They got to know each other, he said, swapping stories of their escapes.
Lee emerged from the water, took a boat to Hong Kong and found a job delivering coffee in the daytime. At night, he slept on tables he pushed together.
It doesn’t sound glamorous, but life was good compared to the scraps in China. He went from $2.40 a month to $300. He sent some of the money to his parents and a chunk to a friend who helped him pay for the boat that got him there, and he still had enough left over to fill his belly every night and stay warm.
Hong Kong offered him political refuge, but his mother was scared for him to be so close to China. When he had a chance to go to America, after a friend from China offered to let him work in his restaurant in Jackson, California, he took it in 1977. He could not speak any English.
“I didn’t even know ‘sorry’ or ‘thank you,’” Lee said.
But he pieced enough together to work as a waiter, first with the Chinese customers, and then the Americans, and life got ridiculously better. He made $400 a month. It was an embarrassment of riches.
Two years later in 1979, he moved to Aurora and made $3,000 a month working as a cook for a restaurant called Yep’s Dynasty. And yet, that desire for a better life, and his penchant for a fun risk, never went away: A cafe for rent in downtown Greeley in 1982 tingled both those needs.
Lee became an American citizen that same year, and like most Americans, he had a dream. He wanted to be his own boss. He thought of himself as a self-disciplined person. He liked his life being up to him. He chose a restaurant because that was what he knew. There wasn’t much to it, he said. Make good food and charge a fair price.
He remodeled the cafe in two months at night and worked in Aurora during the day, and then he took all his vacation, two weeks, and gave himself an ultimatum. He would smile at customers, and he would cook 14 hours a day, and his wife, Mui Kuen, with a kid on her back, would chop vegetables in between feedings. He would serve Hong Kong food, and it would cost $2.50 a meal, about half of what the other Asian restaurant in town charged. They would need to do $50 a day in lunch. He had no money to advertise: He hoped, in two weeks, that the word would spread.
The first day, he did $100 in lunch, and he gave his two weeks notice to Yep’s Dynasty and began cooking for himself. He moved his family to downtown Greeley. He and his family stayed below the cafe. It was more like a dungeon from “Game of Thrones” than a home. Water dripped from the ceiling into their beds. There was no window. The conditions were awful and not really legal.
During the day, from his 9 a.m. start until the place closed 12 hours later, he cooked, his wife chopped and a waitress carried food to hungry customers. As he cooked, he called his customers by their names, and he sang happy Chinese songs, even on weekends and holidays such as Thanksgiving, when he let anyone eat at his place for free.
In 1982, when he opened that first cafe on Ninth Street, downtown Greeley was not hip. It was desolate. Yet he did well because most of those customers were students from the University of Northern Colorado who didn’t want luxurious, hip restaurants as much as cheap meals. Several wound up working for him when he moved to a larger place on 10th Street a couple years later. He let them do their homework during their shifts, as long as they got their work done, and he paid them by the day if that’s what they needed. His family stayed in that basement, too, which was nicer. It didn’t leak. When his wife got pregnant again, they moved into an apartment.
When he had a chance to buy the building in 1985, Lee thought it was a good price, even if downtown was dead. The building was near the courthouse, and since that wasn’t going anywhere, he thought downtown probably wouldn’t die, either, even if it looked like it might at the time.
He and his wife didn’t have much education, and in his mind, they already had more than they could reasonably expect. They had their freedom and their own restaurant in their own building and a place to sleep. Every day, as he sang, Lee said one thought went through his head: How lucky am I?
Ochoa, Lee’s friend and tenant for 13 years, has his own near-death dash for freedom, only the enemy was the Mexican cartel.
He was 38 and living in Juarez, a city just south of El Paso, Texas, with his wife and two daughters. Many agree that Juarez is one of the most dangerous in the world because of the cartels.
Ochoa ran an auto shop when members of a cartel grabbed him and told him to get in a van. Ochoa spotted two men in the van with machine guns, and his stomach clenched. He thought that if he got in, he probably wouldn’t survive the day.
He took Taekwondo most of his life, and he used it to push his captor against the van doors, and then he just ran and prayed the bullets wouldn’t hit him.
He got away. He called his wife, Soledad, and told her to collect their two little girls because they were leaving that day.
“I left my shop, cars, everything and everyone,” Ochoa said. “I never went back. The cartel kills people like flies, man.”
Ochoa started his appliance business in downtown Greeley, and lifted by Lee’s low rent, he began to dream of the event center.
The low rent helps, but Lee has also paid for half of the repairs in the building, including a new heating system that dropped Ochoa’s gas bill from $3,500 a month to less than $500, to make the event center possible. Ochoa put the money he saved from Lee’s kindness to the event center.
“We’ve been working on it for 10 years,” he said. “We want it to be classy.”
As an example of their friendship, Ochoa spoke about a trip the two took together with their families to Cancun.
“He wanted to see the real Mexico,” Ochoa said and laughed, “so he said he wanted to go with a Mexican.”
It’s not lost on Ochoa that they have similar backgrounds. “He’s on our side,” Ochoa said. This is what Wooten loves about Lee. Wooten sees Lee in himself, too.
“He’s empowering people like himself,” Wooten said, even as he’s also empowering people such as Wooten, a white man who now owns the Chophouse steak house in addition to their thriving tea business.
Lee shrugs off the savior role. Charging them less was merely a business decision. He said the low rent helps him keep tenants, and if he keeps them long enough, they tend to take care of the building and maybe even improve it. Ochoa, he said, is a good example of that.
“Financially, I’m OK,” Lee said. “I’m not so greedy that I need to charge a lot.”
But maybe it’s more than that. After all, Lee’s never really forgotten where he came from.
When Lee opened his first restaurant, he had enough money to keep it open for two weeks. It’s doubtful he would have had that much time if it weren’t for Bob Gilbert.
Gilbert, a bank president in Greeley, owned downtown back then, in the early ’80s, and he charged Lee $150 a month in rent, which included water, gas and power. The gas itself, Lee said with a grin, cost more than that.
Downtown was depressed back then, but Gilbert could have, and maybe should have, charged Lee twice as much. He gave Lee a chance. Lee knew that, and he appreciated Gilbert for it. When he would drive by Gilbert’s large house, Lee looked at it with pride, not jealousy. The house, he thought to himself, was fitting for a great man.
Lee would eventually move his restaurant, and he bought the building from the owner, who also gave him a break: He financed it to Lee at no interest.
Lee loves uncertainty because it makes you work harder, he said. But he also considers himself a lucky person. He’s won practically every gamble he’s taken, and that’s because of the people around him as much as his own good business sense.
Those people, of course, include his first wife. She got breast cancer and died after 30 years of marriage. He is happily married again, to Jing Jing, who worked as a pediatrician in China before meeting Lee on the internet and marrying him three years ago.
But it still makes him sad to talk about his first wife. They had good times and raised two children, Cathy of Windsor and Jefferson of Portland, Oregon. She worked hard and was a sweet, loving wife and mother. When they bought their first house together, in 1986, it was a beautiful feeling, and every day, Lee walked around the house and thought about his good fortune.
He is lucky to be in America, he said, even at a time when immigrants are questioned by people as powerful as the president. He’s never felt people look down on him, save for one time, when he drove a beaten-down truck with a loose door into a downtown parking lot and later found a note on his windshield to keep that junk out of the lot.
He saw how different it was from China in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot. He expected chaos, but he went to work anyway and was shocked at the empty streets. Back in China, people would have rioted. By the time the 9/11 attack happened nearly 20 years later, Lee wasn’t worried.
“This country has such a strong foundation,” he said. “It is very strong. No one person can do anything to take it over.
“I feel safe here.”
He still tries to fit in as much as he can. He studies English at home, even though daily conversations aren’t really a problem anymore.
“I love audiobooks,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t understand all of it, but I love all of it.”
Lee left for China the first part of November. He returned in mid-January. That’s a long time to spend in a country that he once risked his life to escape, but China is much different now: Not many, he said, are cold or hungry.
“I don’t have any hatred at all,” Lee said. “It’s my home. My ancestors are all from there. They forced me out. They probably do me good, you know?”
Yes. China forced him to take a chance. He eventually got that chance, and now he is happy to give others a chance. All people need is a chance, he said. What they do with it is up to them.
He now owns a home, one he bought in 1996, with a deck he built with wood he gathered from the trash pile at construction sites, and a gate he made that tells people “welcome” on one side and “so long” on the other, and a big white truck out front, with a secure door. A hailstorm shredded his treasured garden last season, but that’s the kind of stuff that happens to homeowners. Hail, he said, is his biggest worry now.
“How lucky am I?” he said.