Life in the express lane

Alfred Yee

Photo By Larry Dalton

Growing up in Sacramento, Alfred Yee worked in his family’s small Chinese grocery store, which specialized in regular American products. He moved on to a larger Chinese supermarket before attending Ohio State University to pursue his Ph.D. in Chinese history. After finishing his education and spending a year in China as a Fulbright scholar, Yee returned to Sacramento. He’s now an adjunct lecturer at California State University, Sacramento, when he’s not busy fishing. He’s also a first-time author. With his insider’s perspective on how supermarkets provided Chinese immigrants with the opportunity to join the American middle class, he recently published Shopping at Giant Foods: Chinese American Supermarkets in Northern California.

What do you miss from your early years in Sacramento?

I don’t know. … The good old days are the product of a bad memory. The Chinese always say that. It’s true. My family was in the grocery business. My father was. My brother retired from it. My younger brother’s still in the grocery business, delivering stuff. I was in it. I worked in the family store when I was in high school. Then, when I was in college at UC Davis, I returned home for the weekends and worked on Saturdays and Sundays and then during the summers.

Where was the store?

Florin Road. And what happened was, while I was looking for my profession, I worked part time in a supermarket. Part time ended up full time. Full time ended up 15 years. Every year, I would say, “I’m out of here.” The life was pretty easy, though. I got in, actually, toward the end of the golden era of the supermarkets. Because, in the 1950s and ‘60s, the supermarket business, the income from it and the fringe benefits were above average. It started changing in the mid-'70s, right when I got in.

That phrase, the “golden age of supermarkets"— were they all like Corti Bros. is now?

No. Well, Corti Bros, they have the characteristics of many of the family-run supermarkets. They have the family conflict, which is not a secret. Raley’s had their problems. Raley’s was the big supermarket in the Sacramento area. Right now, with the stores in the Bay Area, they have well over 100 stores. But, you know, Tom Raley almost went out of business twice, back in the late ‘60s and sometime during the ‘70s.

They started here?

Actually, they started in Placerville. Everybody thinks, well, it’s this success story, progressive. It’s always been linear. It’s always going up. Well, no. You had big drops, too. It had its problems. But, you know, the modern supermarket, which we recognize today, started in the 1930s. You had a lot of room for trial and error. Mistakes didn’t cost you that much. Like most businesses now, even a technology business or media business, your mistakes are really going to cost you, especially in larger organizations. They just multiply.

Why write this book?

I try to explain how the supermarket business grew and was successful for the Chinese-Americans. For example, Chinese-American supermarkets accounted for about 20 percent of all the grocery-business enterprises in Sacramento in 1960. Its heyday was in the 1960s. It started post-World War II, not only in Sacramento but throughout Northern California. They were everywhere. Just about everybody shopped in or knew about Chinese-American grocery stores. I wanted to write about how they were able to rise into prominence. About one out of three employed Chinese-Americans, during that time, was working in grocery stores. At that time also, it provided income, or profits, comparable to the rising middle class. Before that, Chinese-Americans worked in laundries, restaurants and farms.

Why were markets more profitable?

Well, you have to eat. You don’t have to go to a restaurant. Now, everybody goes out to eat once or twice a week or out to lunch. In the 1950s and ‘60s, it was because it was a particular special occasion. There were some Chinese restaurants, but most, in the 1930s, ‘40s or ‘50s, were like coffee shops: ham and eggs. They’re diners with Chinese cooks, Chinese-owned. Why? Because you want to serve food which people come to eat. American food.

What did you learn about human nature by working in markets?

People are people. Class, race, ethnicity—people are people. Their actions might be manifested in different ways, but they have the same basic drives or wants.

Is your family’s market still open?

No, they’re all closed. Most Chinese-American supermarkets are closed.

Why did your family’s store close?

It just went out of business, gradually went out of business—1974 or 1975—which I didn’t mind anyway. My father was ready to retire, too. … You don’t want your kids working at [a market] the rest of their lives. You don’t want to pass it on. You want your kids to do better. It’s hard work. It’s seven days a week. If you’re in business, you’re married to your business.