Showdown With The ‘Chinese Cowboy’: Wrangling with the legacy of late Louisiana Sheriff Harry Lee

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Harry Lee, sheriff of Jefferson Parish, La., and its lead policymaker for nearly three decades, passed away on October 8 following a prolonged battle with leukemia.

The “Chinese Cowboy” was an ostentatious and controversial figure, but he was also an influential politician and lawman, and an admired leader within Louisiana’s Asian American community, which compromised 1.4 percent of the state’s population, according to the 2005 Census.

Lee was born in 1932 to Bing and Yip Shee Lee, Chinese immigrants who came to the United States from Guangdong, China, to start a laundry business in what is currently the Warehouse District in New Orleans.

“I was born in the back room of a Chinese laundry,” Lee said in a 2006 interview with National Public Radio.

Lee’s upbringing as one of nine siblings in a Chinese family in conservative Louisiana had its share of trials. For most of his life, Chinese Americans represented less than a fraction of a percent of Lee’s largely white hometown. “When I was a kid, I was called a ‘chink,’” Lee told National Public Radio.

But Lee was not deterred. Like many second-generation Asian Americans, Harry worked in his parents’ business from an early age, developing a strong work ethic that would eventually carry him through Louisiana State University and a turn in the Air Force.

“Harry had an aggressive personality. … He had to compete with white classmates,” said Mark Lee, Harry’s nephew, who is a tax lawyer in Houston. “Down here [in the South], your parents encouraged you to blend in because they knew how uncomfortable it was not being able to communicate with their own peer group.”

After returning to Louisiana from the Air Force in 1959, Harry Lee helped his family open the House of Lee restaurant in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb.

The project led Harry to a chance meeting with a local congressman, Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.), who introduced the young restaurateur to the world of politics.

After several years as Boggs’ protégé, Lee was inspired to pursue a career in public service.

Lee graduated from Loyola University Law School in 1967, and he became both a private attorney and a U.S. magistrate. However, former Rep. Lindy Boggs, Hale Boggs’ widow, said Harry had always had his eye on the sheriff’s office.

“I think … it was something he thought was directly helpful to people,” she said. “He admired the work that could be done.”

Harry Lee’s role as the brazen, controversial sheriff of mostly white Jefferson Parish was unusual for a son of Chinese immigrants with humble beginnings.

Yet, it was because of those beginnings that Lee could hardly be considered typical.

“Number one, [Harry’s attitude comes from] growing up in the South,” said Mark Lee. “Also, [Harry’s] father was a very outgoing person. … That had an impact.”

Indeed, the Lee clan seemed ordained to buck the stereotypes of the quiet, introverted Asian American. Harry’s younger sister, Margaret Lee, changed her name to China Lee and became the first Asian American “Playmate” in Playboy magazine in August 1964 at age 22. Though it was an achievement far removed from politics and law, the two siblings’ claims to fame were perhaps not so different: they flouted the popular expectations of Asian Americans, sharing an “anything you can do, I can do” mentality.

“There’s no such thing as a glass ceiling,” Harry Lee said of racial barriers in a 1998 AsianWeek interview. “If you believe certain doors are closed to you, then they are. … [But] you can go as far as you want to go.”

At times during his seven terms as sheriff, Lee drew ire over race relations in the parish, mainly related to racial profiling against African Americans (Jefferson Parish is 60 percent white, 27 percent black and 3 percent Asian American).

Actions that drew criticism included a 1987 incident when Lee erected barricades between white and black neighborhoods, and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when he suggested that “crime is in the black community” and that deputies should stop and question ?black guys on the corner milling around.”

The latter comment brought Lee heat from the NAACP, which bristled at the racist overtones.

Lee refuted claims that he was a bigot by pointing to his own minority background, which some saw as a weak defense.

However, despite the negative press, Harry Lee was not as ignorant to race relations as he may have been portrayed.

He was directly involved in the reintegration of restaurants in New Orleans after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a federal magistrate, he supported civil rights legislation, even joking in his typically brusque vernacular, “I let so many blacks out of jail, they nicknamed me ‘the slant-eyed Abe Lincoln.’”

Lee ultimately remained popular for keeping the crime rate down under his jurisdiction and for being a man of the people. Harry was a prominent member of his church, his general community and the Asian American community of greater New Orleans.

“Harry was a people person,” said Vatsana Chanthala, chairwoman of the Asian Pacific American Society in Metairie, La. “He was always at a community function … whether the function was Chinese, Japanese, Korean or whatever. He was always there to show his support.”

Shien Yen, of Jefferson Parish, called Lee “very real” and added that he was a source of pride for Chinese Americans.

Lee, who was running a re-election campaign at the time of his death, made arrangements for his campaign account to be donated to the church that he attended since childhood, Metairie’s Chinese Presbyterian Church.

According to Lee’s campaign manager, the church will receive between $250,000 and $300,000.

Lee is survived by his wife, Lai Lee; his daughter, Cynthia Lee Sheng; and two grandchildren.

Lee also specified that money from his charitable foundation, The Harry Lee Community Service Fund, would go to Loyola University Law School, his alma mater, and specifically to a scholarship he set up last year for Asian students.

“I’m saddened, delighted and not surprised,” Brian Bromberger, dean of the law school, told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans in October. “He’s often expressed his desire to help Asian Americans who needed assistance.”

However, Lee did not limit himself to Asian Americans in his community efforts. “He crossed all boundaries,” said Chanthala. “He wasn’t out there as an Asian American sheriff.”

Lee was known for his annual Chinese Cajun Cowboy Fais Do Do political fund-raisers, at which upwards of five thousand guests enjoyed both authentic Louisiana gumbo and Cantonese egg rolls. Lee was exceptional in his ability to integrate his Asian American identity into his everyday work without letting it define him, which might have proved an obstacle to a man of his political stature, particularly in the South.

“The way he would do things just made them memorable,” said Mark Lee. “He was always viewed as a caricature somewhat, but he had such a big heart. … He was a man of genuine warmth.”

When asked of one thing that Mark Lee wanted people to know about his uncle, he replied in a fittingly straightforward manner: “He was just bigger than life.”

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