This biography, with concise word limit , was published in 2021 in the Southern California Genealogical Society's The Stars in Your Family collection.
On October 1, 1972, just shy of seventy, Lily died of lung cancer. “Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it,” said the poem by Rabindranath Tagore that she left as her parting words. For someone proudly Chinese and American, the choice of the Bengali poet begins to make sense when one realizes what a sensation Tagore was when he visited China during Lily’s youth, and how it must have pained her, as her boundless energy flagged, to give up her many cross-cultural causes.
Lily was born in Honolulu on October 18, 1902. When her family moved to China in 1904, the stage was set for a life bridging cultures. They settled in Nanjing, a sleepy former capital. As the city’s only reliable dentist, her father developed a thriving practice catering to foreign missionaries and Westernized Chinese. Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek would be a patient, and legend has it that Dr. Ho, who believed in American egalitarianism, made the Generalissimo wait his turn like anybody else.
In Lily’s girlhood, civil unrest was still a distant specter. Her photo album depicts an idyllic life of picnics on Purple Mountain and gatherings in their ample garden, where ice cream churned from Carnation milk was served.
Fortuitously, China’s first degree-granting college for women - Ginling College - opened right in Nanjing, and Lily enrolled. She adored the school, became a music major, and made lifelong friendships. Lily also formed close bonds with her American teachers, who had chosen to work in China because of the scope it offered them to change lives. These capable women became Lily's first role models for civic engagement.
Continuing on to graduate school at University of Southern California, Lily met Albert Quon. They married in 1929 and settled in San Diego, then Los Angeles. As their first children arrived, Japan invaded China’s northeast. Fearing she might not have another chance, Lily took her daughters to visit her parents. Despite happy reunions with Ginling friends, this would be the last time she saw Nanjing and, until after China’s wars, her parents.
At one point, Lily lost touch with her family completely and threw herself into the war effort from afar. She spoke on the situation in China, mobilized friends to cook for Chinese-American troops, and raised funds for United China Relief to aid China’s internal refugees. One innovative scheme involved persuading a department store to donate its display windows. Her children and those of friends wore traditional clothing and sang Chinese songs. Outside, she and the other mothers rattled collection cans.
In 1944, to build bridges between the wider community and Chinese like herself, Lily founded the Los Angeles Chinese Women's Club. It became the ﬁrst non-Caucasian organization in the California Federation of Women's Clubs. In 1945, the Golden Rule Foundation named her "Mother of the Year". She also served on the LA Philharmonic’s International Committee.
Meanwhile Albert’s business purveying Chinese decorative items prospered, with his social entree helped by Lily’s sparkle. He and Lily set up scholarships at Ginling and USC. In 1964, she helped host Ginling’s first LA reunion, welcoming alumnae and former teachers to her show-stopping house.
The Quons considered themselves Beverly Hill’s first Chinese residents. Their friends were first-generation entrepreneurs and groundbreakers from diverse backgrounds. However, the same charms and smarts that made Lily and Albert successful in public made them stern taskmasters at home. Their children received constant reminders to be “ambassadors for their race”, but not every one of the four would find it easy to walk the path of model emissary that came so naturally to Lily Quon.