Mae Yih, longest serving woman in the Oregon Legislature, returns

Mae Yih, the longest serving woman in the Oregon Legislature and the first Chinese woman elected to a state legislature in the United States, returned to the Oregon Capitol last week to say a few words.

Yih turned 96 on May 24. She was born in Shanghai in 1928 and came to the United States as a college student in 1948. After moving to Oregon and serving on Albany school boards, she was elected to the Oregon House in 1976 and to the Oregon Senate in 1982. Her combined 26 years makes her the longest serving woman in the Oregon Legislature, though Ginny Burdick holds the record for Senate tenure by a woman at 25 years.

Yih came at the invitation of Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, at the close of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Yih was among a handful of Asian American state legislators in Oregon prior to the current two-year cycle, which has five — all in the House.

The only senator in the current Legislature from Yih’s tenure was Republican Fred Girod of Lyons, who was a state representative back in 1993. Girod served in the House again in 2007, and began his Senate tenure in 2008.

In brief remarks to a session of the Senate, which met to review Gov. Tina Kotek’s appointments, Yih said she never considered holding public office in her adopted country until she heard some inspirational words while at Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts college that is part of Columbia University in New York.

“The college president, Millicent McIntosh, said to the students every week to use your education and be involved in the decision-making process for the benefit of your community,” Yih recalled.

She returned the favor in 2012, during the 60th annual reunion of her Barnard College classmates, and after she completed her public service that she attributed to McIntosh.

“Because of her inspirational message, when my two sons went to elementary school in Albany, I volunteered as a room mother, den mother, hot-lunch program coordinator, zoo chaperone, PTA vice president and PTA president,” Yih said to laughter.

From there, she said, she was recruited to run for local school boards and won — and then in 1976, as a Democrat who unseated a seven-term Republican incumbent in the Oregon House.

But Yih often reflected more conservative values: “I was working hard for maximum results in programs, minimal spending of tax dollars and my full dedication in representing citizens in my district.”

Yih’s two brothers came to the United States several months earlier, and Yih’s mother came with her to the United States in January 1948, not long before the Communists gained power in mainland China and forced the Nationalists to flee to Taiwan. Her father, however, was imprisoned by the Communists for five years — and Yih did not see him again until 1974.

She married Stephen Yih, who was a student at Columbia University, in 1953. He rose to become president of Wah Chung, a metals manufacturer in Albany. He died in 2009 at age 89.

In the Oregon Legislature, Yih was an advocate for preservation of Oregon’s covered bridges. She became the first Asian American to become president pro tem of the Oregon Senate in 1993.

“I was able to connect my mother country and my adopted country,” she said, first through establishment of a sister-state relationship in 1984 between Oregon and the Chinese province of Fujian, then through four Oregon trade missions to China.

Yih told her own story in a 2017 memoir, “East Meets West,” whose cover is a color photo of Yih greeting Zhao Ziyang, then the premier of China, during a 1984 reception by President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan at the White House. All of them signed the original photo.

Zhao was premier from 1980 to 1987, during China’s reform era, and then was Community Party general secretary. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, he was purged — though allowed to remain in the party — because he opposed sending tanks into the square to quell pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

“Prisoner of the State,” his memoir, was published in 2009, four years after his death. The manuscript was smuggled out of China.

Yih remains moderately active in current events.

“I still read newspapers every day,” she told the senators. “I still contact my legislators, city administrators, county commissioners and my local school board members if I see something that concerns me.”

And she told a reporter beforehand: “I walk 15 minutes a day.”

pwong@pamplinmedia.com

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