'A pioneer': How 101-year-old Lillie Wong built her real estate empire in San Francisco

"The women were the ones doing the looking" for homes, and Wong capitalized on that trend.

Lillie Wong around 1950.
Courtesy Frances Lee

Centenarian Lillie Wong vividly remembers being told she was inferior. "My father, when I was maybe 8 or 9, he said, 'I have no money for your schooling,'" recalls Wong, now 101. She found out later he did have money for her education. He just didn't want to pay.

Another time, a guest asked her father which of his children — Wong or her three younger brothers — was the "best." Wong knew she had the highest grades among them, both in their regular American school and in the Chinese after-school program they attended. Still, "he looked at me," she says, and "he said my brother."

These early instances of disparity lit a fire in Wong, who recounted these childhood stories while she sat in the lobby of Fook Hong senior home in San Francisco in August 2019, a day after celebrating her 100th birthday. She still wore the red birthday sash her niece had given her the day before, when five generations of the Wong family got together over dim sum, pea shoots, and Buddha's Delight to celebrate Wong's long and storied life — one that, she says, "proved" she was not inferior.

When she heard her father suggest she was less capable all of those years ago, "I got mad," she says. That passion to prove herself ultimately helped her overcome external obstacles to become both a real estate agent and a real estate mogul in San Francisco. At her peak, Wong owned more than 50 properties in the Bay Area, according to her family.

"I would call her a pioneer," says Pam Wong, deputy director of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

Wong started out selling magazines in Chinatown for 10 cents each

At the former dock on Angel Island, once a bustling immigration station for those coming to the States, is the Immigrant Heritage Wall. lt features the names of some of those passing through during the station's years of operation from 1910 to 1940, the Wongs among them.

Their plaque reads: "Wong Lai Sun, Wong Yee Shee, emigrated from Bak Sek, Toishan, children raised in family laundry at 637 Clay Street, San Francisco, Lillie, Henry, Harvey, and William."

Wong family photo, 1928.
Courtesy Frances Lee

Wong was born in San Francisco on August 19, 1919, and grew up at the family's hand laundry on Clay Street. Today it's an aging Italian restaurant on the border between Chinatown and the Financial District.

Wong was enterprising even as a child. She went to barber shops nearby, says daughter Christine Lee, where she collected used magazines and then she sold them on the streets of Chinatown for 10 cents each.

When Wong's first marriage didn't last, she found herself a single mother of two in her early 20s. She took on work as a seamstress, all the while continuing her education and life above the laundry.

Lillie Wong, 1932.
Courtesy Frances Lee

In the '40s, after her brothers returned from fighting in World War II and started their own families, Wong helped her father buy a pink-tinted, three-story building in their neighborhood, on Jackson Street. There, each family member finally had an apartment of their own.

The purchase became Wong's first foray into the real estate market, though as buyers, not brokers or sellers. The building still remains in the family.

'They don't sell to Chinese here': Overcoming racism in real estate

Wong got remarried in 1949 and started attending law school, knowing the immigrant community always needed legal help and that she could earn more practicing law. At this time, talking with a friend at school, she discovered a new career opportunity.

Wong's friend told her he'd recently earned $5,000 selling property. She realized there was money to be made in real estate — and likely more easily than in law. So she switched her course of studies and, within a year, she had her real estate license.

Soon, however, she encountered the racism prevalent in her new profession.

Jackson Street, San Francisco, where Lillie Wong helped her father buy a home.
Photo by Gili Malinsky

The Chinese had for decades been barred from owning property by legislation such as California's Alien Land Law of 1913. Property listings did not shy away from reminding them of that.

At the bottom of page nine of the January 22, 1916, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, an ad for homes for purchase in the city's Sunset neighborhood promises "eight blocks of homes, nothing but homes," with "bungalows" and "no home without a front lawn." It adds: "no Africans or Asiatics."

Ad in San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 1916.

Though the Supreme Court banned racial deed restrictions in 1948, and California's various Alien Land Laws were struck down by the California Supreme Court in 1952, clauses restricting home ownership by race were still quietly in effect in midcentury America, says Lorri Ungaretti, former administrative manager of the San Francisco Historical Society.

Wong came up against those prejudices when she began her job search in the real estate world in San Francisco's same Sunset District. "I wanna hire you," the man at the first brokerage firm said, as she tells it, "but I can't because they don't sell to Chinese here."

Undeterred, she kept looking, and the second firm she went to, the Mission District's Kish & Co., did hire her. Her next challenge was to find buyers for the properties it sold.

'Women were the ones doing the looking and the buying'

In seeking clients, Wong turned to the people and places she knew best: her local Chinese and Chinese American community. She placed Cantonese-language ads for Kish's listings in San Francisco's Chinese papers, featuring her name and contact info. She was flooded with responses.

Wong entered the real estate market at an opportune time. As the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, and other more welcoming laws, such as the War Brides Act of 1945 and Refugee Relief Act of 1953, were newly in place, more Chinese immigrants were making their way to the U.S.

In 1940, there were 12,225 Chinese American women in California, according to the CHSA. By 1960, that number had more than tripled to 41,973.

"The women were the ones doing the looking and the buying," says daughter Frances Lee. "And the men go along, of course."

The faded sign on Lillie Wong's old office at 688 Guerrero Street.
Photo by Gili Malinsky

While Wong was likely not the only Chinese real estate agent at the time, even within her local market, the fact that she was female proved an advantage. Driving around with an agent was a prerequisite to finding properties, and women "would not go in the man's car," says Wong. It might have also helped that Wong's rides were classy. Beginning in the '60s, she stuck to Cadillacs.

How did Wong bypass those discriminatory housing tenets still in place at the onset of her career? Well, she says, sellers don't always know who's buying their properties, but "the agent knows." In other words, she could find the right buyer, regardless of the seller's biases, even if she had to temporarily obscure the buyer's identity.

She was so successful as an agent that she soon decided to go into business for herself.

Homes in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.

Wong founded Skyway Realty within a year of joining the industry, according to her family, leasing an office at the first floor of 688 Guerrero Street in the Mission. Though Skyway has since moved a few doors down, the outlines of her name could still be seen on the boarded-up storefront windows of the building for years: "Lillie Wong — Broker."

Once she had the capital, Wong started buying properties herself, beginning with a house in Daly City for her family. She compiled a Bay Area portfolio of real estate investments that, by the '90s, comprised dozens of homes and buildings.

Today, many of those have been sold, but her portfolio still includes homes like one on Downey Street in the once-hippie-centric neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. The family is currently renting that property out. The typical value of the grand, pastel homes in the Haight is $1.6 million, according to Zillow's home value index.

Lillie Wong, April 4, 2021.
Courtesy Frances Lee

Success has no gender: 'I have proved it'

Sitting in the lobby of Fook Hong senior home a day after her 100th birthday, Wong held a gift in her lap. It was a plaque stating, "In grateful recognition of Lillie Wong for her distinguished dedication to Chinese Hospital." Wong had donated a building to the hospital a decade or so before.

She reflects on the very beginnings of her life, including memorizing passages for Chinese school, opening her first bank account with her mother, and hearing those first messages that boys were superior to girls. "I thought they were born naturally that way," she says.

"It's not true," she adds. "I have proved it."

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