Miss Lily Yet Oi Soo-Hoo (司徒月愛)

Our next Soo-Hoo child is Lily Amabelle Yet Oi Soo-Hoo (Chinese name 司徒月愛, pinyin  Yài, Jyutping Cantonese Si1tou4 Jyut6oi3), born on 16 April 1899 in San Francisco (Oberlin Alumni Record Card). She was the sixth-oldest child and fourth-oldest daughter of Nam Art Soo-Hoo and his wife Quan, and the second to be born in California, after her older brother Andrew. We have the most information about her for two reasons – she went to Oberlin, and they keep very good records, and she also wrote the memoirs which I have been using as a source for my other posts on members of the Soo-Hoo family.

Miss Lily Soo-Hoo, Vice President of the Chinese Students' Alliance in 1921.
Miss Lily Soo-Hoo, Vice President of the Chinese Students’ Alliance in 1921.

Lily was barely a year old when she showed up on the 1900 Census at 920 Washington Street in San Francisco (link to ancestry.com copy). She, like the majority of her brothers and sisters, was listed by her Cantonese name: “Yut Oy”. Lily has idyllic memories of her childhood in San Francisco, and details celebrating Chinese New Year and “Ching Ming” (commonly spelled Qing Ming, or Tomb Sweeping Festival) in the then-vibrant Chinatown (Sung, 289). She also seems to have been very close to her father, going with him as he traveled around California for his missionary work:

“Riding on the trains with the red plush seats, tasting the delicious fruit in different areas, I was made much of wherever we went, for everyone loved Papa. Sometimes he would take me to his office at the church, next to the office of Miss Donaldina Cameron, with whom he went on trips to rescue girls who had been sold into slavery” (288).

Lily also writes about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, an event which made a large impression on her. She was only seven years old, but remembers fleeing with her 14-year-old sister [Paulina], one of her brothers, and a neighbor who had bound feet, along with the neighbor’s two children. Progress was slow, but they were able to reunite with their father at a refugee camp in Oakland, on the other side of the bay, three days later (289).


The family, like many others, lost everything in the fire and earthquake. According to Lily, the Soo-Hoo family stayed in Oakland from 1906 to 1908 before moving to San Rafael (290). She shows up as an 11-year-old on the 1910 Census (link to ancestry.com copy) and under her English name, like her other brothers and sisters. Lily has fond memories of this part of her childhood as well. In her memoirs, she mentions going one evening to stargaze and see Halley’s Comet in Sausalito, a trip arranged by Nam Art, who loved nature and imparted that love to Lily (Sung, 290).

By 1915, the family had moved again, this time to Berkeley. Lily shows up in the 1915 Chinese Students’ Association Directory as a student at Berkeley High and living at 2116 Channing Way. In the 1918 Directory she is in the same house (although the numbering is now 2114) and she is listed as a Premed student at the University of California. She was a freshman in the 1917-1918 academic year, and attended UCBerkeley at the same time as her younger brother Andrew, although she was in the College of Arts and Letters and he was in the College of Mechanics (Register 1917/18, 149). Her older sister Nettie was also in attendance, but she was a graduate student, having earned her bachelor’s the year before (31).


Three children in university at the same time makes for a difficult budget. Three children in university at the same time after having already put three previous children through college makes for an impossibility, especially on a minister’s salary. There simply wasn’t enough money to go around. Therefore, Lily jumped at the chance for a YWCA scholarship to go to Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio (Oberlin College Alumni File). She attended this school during the 1918-1919 academic year. Lily had mixed feelings about the Midwest. According to her memoirs, “[My father] wrote to me every week when I was away at school in the Mid-west, homesick and full of tears,” (Sung, 290). However, she adamantly did not want to go back to California, according to an undated letter regarding Lily’s financial situation.  “[Lily] is most anxious to remain East – where she is not treated as the Chinese are in California and where she will be near the Medical School when ready to enter it” (Oberlin College Alumni File).

This concern became more pressing at the end of the academic year. The previously-referenced letter mentions that at the end of the 1919 year, due to widespread “dissatisfaction with the administration”, nearly all of the Lake Erie College faculty members were leaving (or at least threatening to leave) the school. I don’t know if it actually happened, but the students at Lake Erie were understandably worried about their academic futures. Lily had no guarantee that Lake Erie would continue to give her a viable education, but at the same time she didn’t have any money to attend another school without that YWCA scholarship. She worked over the summer of 1919 as a waitress at the Shore Club in Cleveland, but that wasn’t enough to cover the cost of tuition and board, not when she had “… absolutely no help in money or clothing from home” (Oberlin College Alumni File).


Nevertheless, she enrolled as a student at Oberlin for her junior year in the 1919-1920 academic year (Catalogue Jan 1920, 214). She was active in both Oberlin student life and the wider CSA, serving as associate editor for Oberlin of the Chinese Students’ Monthly (v. 15, 1919) and the English Secretary for the Oberlin chapter of the CSA (Chinese Students’ Monthly, v. 16, 1920). She wrote several articles for the magazine as well, mostly on attending students’ conferences and the like. But she must have been anxious about money the entire time.

Fortunately, Oberlin decided to interview her to consider her for a private scholarship. The notes someone made during that interview and subsequent research are still in Lily’s alumni file at the Oberlin Archives. The notes begin: “Splendid scholarship. Unusual strength and integrity of character. High ideals.” They detail her educational history and financial situation, noting that her father had been an invalid for many years, “but this winter getting better + hoping to do more [for the family]”. Then, there is a whole host of information; these notes must have been taken after January of 1920, because they go on to discuss her father’s death and the impact of that on the family.

According to the notes, Lily received a telegram upon her father’s death, which simply stated that it had happened and that a letter would soon be arriving with details (Remember that Nam Art was accidentally killed during an argument with his son Andrew. Yikes!). Both the letter and the telegram stressed that this event should not interfere with Lily’s studies. “Then came a call from the brother, older than she, at-home (a sophomore at University of California),” the notes go on, referencing Andrew, “saying he had taken an indefinite leave of absence from the university to help at home” (Oberlin College Alumni File). As the oldest child still at home, as well as the one responsible for his father’s death, I don’t imagine that Andrew had any other choice but to quit school, although I also can’t imagine that this helped him get over the trauma of the event any. He stressed again that Lily’s education was not to be interrupted and that she was to fulfill her educational dreams, which the scholarship notes mention was to go to Johns Hopkins Medical School (Oberlin College Alumni File).


Lily evidently got the scholarship, because she continued her education at Oberlin in 1920-1921 for her senior year. She shows up in the CSA publication “Who’s Who of the Chinese Students in America“, published in 1921 and containing much more information that the previous CSA directories. Lily’s entry gives the erroneous birth date of 16 March 1899, but lists her correct educational history, school, and major. In addition to her CSA duties, Lily was also a member of the Cosmopolitan Club when she was at the University of California, the Chinese Students’ Prohibition League and the Chinese Students’ Christian Association. She had won second prize in an English oratorical contest at the CSA conference in Ann Arbor, 1920, as well as the silver cup in the Prohibition Oration at the same conference. She lived at 195 South Professor Street in Oberlin and planned to go to China in around 1925-26 to do medical work, presumably after she had gone to Hopkins. Her senior yearbook lists her as a premed student in the class of 1921 as well (Oberlin College Yearbook, 1921).

However, Lily did not continue on to Johns Hopkins, nor any other medical school; her US educational journey ends here. The day after graduation – 22 June 1922 – she married fellow Oberlin student William Z. L. Sung. They were married at Christ Church in Oberlin (today Christ Episcopal Church) and left for China, where Bill was going to teach at St. John’s University in Shanghai (Oberlin News, 6/29/1921). Their oldest daughter was born almost exactly 10 months later (naturalization petition).


Both Bill and Lily began work at St. John’s University in the fall semester of 1921. Lily, drawing on her premed coursework, taught chemistry and biology (Sung, 292). In addition to his work as a professor at St. John’s, Bill also served as the Secretary of the China National Amateur Athletic Federation for many years (The China Press, 29 Oct 1926 ). This involved a lot of international travel, including to the 1936 Olympics . . . but more on that in his own blog post. The Sungs also traveled together as a family back to America in service of Bill’s day job: he did graduate work at Columbia  in college administration, paid for by St. John’s (Oberlin College Alumni File; 1944 Pott letter). The family, containing Lily, her husband, and four children, left Shanghai on 27 July 1929 (ship’s manifest) with various destinations: Bill was going to Columbia University while Lily and the girls seem to have been headed to Berkeley to visit Lily’s mother. Bill shows up in the 1930 Handbook of Chinese Students in the USA, the successor to the earlier CSA directories but with much less information. His address is listed as 500 Riverside Drive in New York City, a residence known as the International House, which was then and still is today a boarding house for students and other international visitors to New York. Lily did come out and visit Bill in New York at least once, because she, her husband, and her third oldest daughter vacationed in Niagara Falls in 1930  (border crossing documents).

When the Sungs returned from America, they had a few more idyllic years in Shanghai before the war began. The 1937 Battle of Shanghai caused major upheaval in the Sungs’ lives, closing down St. John’s and thrusting Bill into the role of acting president (The China Press, 3 Sept 1937). The school hoped to open again in October. This was the last anyone heard from the Sungs for almost 7 years.


The next information we have about Lily comes from a personal letter that, oddly enough, was printed in a local newspaper. The letter was sent “on the first boat out of freed Shanghai to her brother, Mr. Soohoo” – this could be any one of several people but I bet it was Andrew or Carroll. This brother “made six copies to send to the family’s closest friends in America.” One of the letters was sent to a woman named Eva Edwards, with whom Lily had written a children’s book in 1939. “Only 2 letters were received by Miss Edwards from her friends during their years of virtual imprisonment by the Japanese,” the article states. “These were smuggled out through the underground 6 and 7 years ago” (Covina Argus, 23 Nov 1945). This letter is just so fascinating to me, and the linked article is behind a paywall, so I’m going to quote the majority of it here.

“Two thousand Chinese troops came to stay at our campus September 8 and the place is humming with activity. There will also be about a thousand U. S. troops here, so soon we shall see the last of the horrible Japs, I hope. They had finally taken three of our buildings again, and we are certainly thankful that the Atomic Bomb finished off the war before anything else happened around here. For the last eight years we never knew when we would have to vacate the next hour. The whole city was honeycombed with the Japs, and this city was G. H. Q. for them in this region, so in case of more fighting, we would surely have gotten at least one Atomic Bomb if the war had continued. Physically Shanghai has not suffered too much, but morally, spiritually, financially and nutritionally, it has not been so good. Those on top worked for the Japs (and there were hundreds of thousands of them in the commandeered factories, etc., making war supplies and goods, wherefore no servants since the war began) and have been sitting well, but our middle class, especially teachers and those who who did not work for the Japs have had a very hard time. We have sold all of our possessions which anyone was willing to buy to pay for food which reached such fantastic prices, as this funny money in which our salary is paid could not buy much…

It has been very beautiful these days to see and hear the U. S. planes zooming over us, bringing our troops from West China, and dropping food and supplies by parachute to the foreign internees in the Jap prison camp very near us (Da Sah Univ.) All of our U. S. and British teachers are now out and back on the campus or Jessfield compound …. The children are all fairly well, though all below par physically. We all need to gain weight before the winter comes. Billy having a continuous crop of sties in his eyes since his last illness. Eva’s (Miss Edward’s godchild) gaining weight but have to stay out of school another half year. Harriet Emily’s skin disease keeps coming back with each change of season. Ruth fairly well and the other two girls also. Bill is much better than he was—so thankful his burden is lifted now. I am gaining weight again. Lily.”

Amazingly, despite all those difficulties, the Sungs stayed in Shanghai for another 3 years before finally fleeing the war-torn city and immigrating to the United States.


The paperwork surrounding her return deserves a little explanation. She arrived in the US on a ship from Hong Kong on 25 February 1949, and her listed name was “Shen, nee Sau-th Yueh-Ai”. “Sau-th Yueh-Ai” is an alternative spelling of “Soo-Hoo Yuet-Oi”, and “Shen” is possibly an alternate pronunciation of her husband’s name “Sung”. However, the real story here is that all this information comes from her naturalization paperwork; in other words, a natural-born American had to apply for citizenship upon returning to the United States. This was due to two factors. First of all, before 1922, American women who married men of other nationalities became citizens of whatever country their new husbands were from. Before 1907, if the couple stayed in the United States, the woman could choose to remain a US citizen, but the Expatriation Act of 1907 changed this as well, mandating that regardless of where the new couple lived, the citizenship of both husband and wife would be that of the husband. So, when Lily married Bill, a citizen of the Republic of China, in 1921, and then moved to Shanghai, she automatically became a Chinese citizen.

After the passage of the Cable Act in 1922, married women would automatically retain the citizenship of their birth, but those who had already lost their citizenship prior to 1922 would have to re-apply to be citizens. But this brings me to the second factor: even so, Lily couldn’t do this, as the Cable Act did not apply to those women married to an alien who was not racially eligible to become a citizen, and at that time, Asians were not. This restriction wouldn’t be lifted until the 1930s, and the Chinese Exclusion Acts which would keep both Lily and Bill from moving to the US at all wouldn’t be repealed until 1943.



Lily resettled in California, living in the family home at 2116 Channing Way for a while before moving to Palo Alto. Throughout her life, she retained a strong connection to her alma mater, Oberlin. “We certainly think Oberlin a very fine college,” she commented on an alumni update form, “a truly Christian college, fine, true, loyal in ideals and in practice. We hope to send our children to study in Oberlin in the future. Oberlin has taught us how to live our fullest lives, and to love all people” (Oberlin College Alumni File). In June of 1989, Oberlin received word from Lily’s oldest daughter that Lily had had a stroke in January of 1987 but was recovered and recently celebrated her 89th birthday. “She is still a staunch Oberlin supporter,” her daughter wrote (Oberlin College Alumni File, Sung letter). None of her children ended up attending Oberlin, but two of her daughters attended Lake Erie College. On 11 September 1993, Lily Soo-Hoo died and was buried with her husband in San Mateo county, California (Find A Grave record).

6 thoughts on “Miss Lily Yet Oi Soo-Hoo (司徒月愛)

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. Lily was my Great-Grandma and I remember her well, as the oldest of my generation (first-born daughter of the first-born son of her fifth daughter, Eva). I do appreciate the thoroughness of your research as it helps me know more of my own story. I have a picture of myself with him and also remember my “Uncle Andy,” as we called her older brother, Andrew. Best to you!


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