Dollmaker Lit Candles for Hope

By Mary Chandler
A Village Life Exclusive

"Michael Lee, Dollmaker," the sign above his shop at 117 Shanghai Street, Kowloon, Hong Kong read. My two sisters and I walked up a narrow staircase and knocked on the door.

A slight man, barely 4-feet tall, greeted us. He was wearing a worn green sweater over a green and red plaid shirt, topped with a blue coat vest.

"Come in," he said, nodding respectfully and smoothing his sparse grey beard. "Your other friends are waiting."

Six of us sat on tiny stools toward the back of Michael Lee's 700-square-foot living quarters which doubled as his doll factory. Boxes tied with rope were stacked to the ceiling. Doll faces, piled on top of each other, smiled at us. Scattered arms, legs, and hats poked out of every inch of space.

"I don't have much room," he said, "and for this I pay $1600.00 (HK) a month. Four other families also live on this floor." He shook his head. "It reminds me of the cages."

"What cages?" Kaye asked.

"When I left the refugee camp in Hong Kong, I shared a 4 foot by 6 foot space with another refugee. Only chicken wire separated us from other Chinese renters. Our beds, one on top of the other, took up most of the space. We either had to stand up or lie down."

"Did families live in cages, too?"

"Not in my building." He winked. "If they were married, the woman would dress like a man to get a cage." He stroked his pencil-thin mustache. "Some people in Hong Kong still live like this."

"You speak English very well, Mr. Lee," I said. "Did you learn the language here in Hong Kong?"

He smiled. "No," he said. "My first encounter with blue eyes and yellow hair were with the American missionaries. I learned English because of them. They came to Shanghai when I was 7-years-old and improved the conditions for the Chinese people." He rubbed his hands together. "I'll tell you what happened.

"The missionaries told me that I could go to school free, for a $2 entry fee. It was unheard of for poor children like me to attend school." He paused, bowed his head, and continues. "My mother packed up all our meager possessions to take to the pawn shop. I remember reaching high up to put something on the pawn shelf. I was little -- small for my age." Mr. Lee chuckled and tapped his balding head. "I used to be 4 feet 6 inches tall after I grew up, but now that I'm 88-years-old, I'm down to 4 feet. Chinese people shrink because of no milk. But, back to my story. Even after the family possessions were sold, we didn't have the $2 -- but we got lucky. That afternoon, a lady missionary gave us some tea cakes. My mother and I sold them. Finally, I had the $2."

Michael Lee told us how he went to school, learned English, finished high school, and then graduated from college. He then taught physical education for eight years.

"I came to Hong Kong when the communists took over Shanghai," Mr. Lee said. "A stranger paid my transportation." He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Had it not been for the kindness of this man, my whole life would have been different."

Mr. Lee told us about his experiences in the refugee camp in Hong Kong. "The people in the camps are the poorest of the poor. Everything they own can be carried on their backs." He paused, shook his head, and then continued. "These refugees are prone to goiter disease and sinus cancer. They don't get milk or meat. What they eat is rice -- much, much rice. Their meager diet is not nutritious; their suffering is intense." He looked at each of us in turn. "Only when you see people suffer like this," he said, resting his hand on his heart, "does your heart become 'soft.'"

"Who do you admire, Mr. Lee," Sylvia asked. "Who are your heroes?"

He looked at my sisters and me. "America's Abraham Lincoln," he answered, "Leo Tolstoy, and Albert Schweitzer -- all humanitarians." His deep brown eyes twinkled. "Only Schweitzer was LUCKY in love."

We laughed.

Mr. Lee told us he had no children of his own, and he did not mention a wife. He later told us that he employs only refugees from the camps to help him make his dolls, allowing them to bring their children to play in the doll factory while the parents are working.

"They are my 'adopted' children," he said. "I have sent some of them to college.

"How long have you been a dollmaker?" I asked.

"For many, many years -- since I left the camp in 1947."

Mr. Lee left us for a moment and returned holding two completed Chinese Character Dolls in his arms. "Mine is a small, small operation." He sighed. "Many people have told me that I should open a factory, mass produce my dolls, and get rich." He shook his head. "I will never do this. My HEART is rich, and I am happy." He nodded toward another Chinese man who was dressing a doll a few feet away and smiled. "After all," Mr. Lee said, "you are who you know."

Most of his income goes to others. He has given generously to refugees, but only when they leave the camp. "This money," he said, reaching into his pocket and holding up Hong Kong dollars, "gives them the chance to better themselves, just as I was able to do. If I gave the money while people were in the camp, that would give them more power, more influence there -- and it would not be good for them"

We nodded in agreement.

"Back to your dolls," Kaye said, "how many can you spare today?"

"How many do you need?"

My sisters and I offered to purchase just one apiece, in case there weren't enough to go around. Mr. Lee handed the two dolls he had been cradling to me and went to the front of his shop to get others.

"I need to paint their cheeks on," Mr. Lee said as he passed out the dolls, "and to sign them."

Using a long red brush, he painted a bright red dot on each side of the doll's smiling face. Then he wrote the date, his name, and added his chop to the doll's foot. No one asked the price until he had finished all of the dolls. A Chinese girl with a baby on her back sold for $350 HK ($45 U.S.); the smaller doll sold for $200 HK ($25 U.S.).

"I hope you have learned something today," he said. "I want to help educate the Westerners about the Easterners -- those in need, those who struggle and suffer and need our help. After all, we are all a part of humanity."

Kaye spoke for all of us. "Yes, we have learned much," she whispered. "Thank you."

Michael Lee held our money in his hand and grinned. "Now I can help someone else." He looked at each of us. Do you have a little more time?"

"Years ago," he said, "I had a friend who tried to convince me that Karl Marx and communism were right. My friend said that people were taken care of under communism because everyone worked; no one did without what they needed. 'You can't begin to help all the poor who are suffering in the refugee camps,' my friend told me."

"Well, I thought about that, and I almost became a communist. I almost was convinced. Then I heard about some Quakers who had gathered during the night at a baseball park in the United States. Each carried an unlighted candle. It was pitch black. At a given signal, all the Quakers lit their candles at once. Bright light illuminated the dark night."

Michael Lee held his right hand in front of him, as if he were holding a candle.

"I can be one candle," he said, lifting his head and straightening his stooped body to its full height. "If I can help, and you help, and you help," he added, pointing to each of us, "then there are many candles." He bowed, smiled, and showed us to the door.

Author's Note:

Michael Lee died in November 1996. He will be missed -- by me and by the many people whose lives he touched. During his long life, he "lit many candles" and inspired others to do the same. Although he is no longer with us, his "candles" are still burning here on earth, and I am sure that wherever he travels in the heavens, he will continue to brighten the lives of others through his love, his helpfulness, his inspiration, and his compassion. -- Mary Chandler

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