A Local Life: Suey Ying Chin, 98, mainstay of Chinese Christian Church

September 10, 2011

Longtime riders of the S buses might remember Suey Ying Chin, a petite and modestly dressed woman who wore her short hair pulled back, sometimes with a bobby pin. She would board the bus weighed down by bags of ginkgo nuts she collected around the city and took back to her home on 16th Street NW to make traditional Chinese dishes.

Her family jokingly referred to her smelly loot as “stink-o” nuts — and wondered whether their medicinal properties helped her live such a long life.

Mrs. Chin, a respected elder at Washington’s Chinese Community Church, died Aug. 17 of pneumonia at the Arcola Health and Rehabilitation Center in Silver Spring, her son Lon Chin said. According to official records, she was 98.

Mrs. Chin immigrated to the United States in 1949, at the time of the Communist revolution in China, and lived in the Washington area until her death. She endured about two decades of separation from her husband, Darwin Chin, who had come to Washington first without knowing whether he would manage to raise enough money to send for her.

She outlived her husband, her siblings, her friends and a daughter, Gee Goon Moy. About 10 years ago, her eldest son, Juk Min Chin, whom family members say she adopted before immigrating to the United States, disappeared.

By all accounts, Mrs. Chin’s Christian faith sustained her. From the day she arrived in Washington, she dedicated herself to the Chinese Community Church,which her husband had helped found. It became a mainstay in her life and in those of other immigrants.

“I am supposed to bring words of encouragement,” said the Rev. Charles Koo, the church’s current pastor, who often visited Mrs. Chin in recent years. “More often than not, she ended up encouraging me.”

Mrs. Chin’s youngest sons, Lon and Kington Chin, said their mother spoke little about her life in China. She kept much of her story close to her heart.

She was born in Taishan, a coastal city in southern China, to a family of limited means. She was in her late teens when she married Darwin, said Jean Moy, a member of the Chinese Community Church who had known Mrs. Chin since she came to the United States.

Darwin’s family was one of the few Christian families in the village, Moy said. Not long after Mrs. Chin gave birth to their daughter, Darwin left for the United States in search of a Christian community and greater opportunity for his family. Mrs. Chin stayed behind with her in-laws, from whom she learned her Christian faith.

Darwin established himself in Washington. He started Stanley Hand Laundry on New York Avenue NW. With other Christian Chinese immigrants, he began raising money to build a house of worship.

The Chinese Community Church was founded in 1935 and met informally before opening its first independent location at 10th and L Streets NW. Today, it is on­
I Street NW.

With the income from the laundry, Darwin gathered enough money for Mrs. Chin, their daughter and their adopted son to join him in 1949.

“How he did that, it’s a mystery to all of us,” said Jodia Larsen, one of Mrs. Chin’s granddaughters.

When Mrs. Chin arrived, the family had its own “mini baby boom,” Lon Chin said. Kington was born in 1950; Lon followed two years later.

The family lived above the laundry and rented rooms to boarders, some of whom were visiting pastors and clergy, said Jennings Wong, a church board member. Mrs. Chin’s sons recall stuffing fabric in cracks in the windows and shutters to keep out the cold.

It wasn’t easy, but Mrs. Chin managed.

“She lived like she was still in China,” Kington said.

That meant a traditional life with few indulgences and always homemade food, especially steamed buns, winter melon soup and beef with bitter melon.

After Darwin died of an aneurysm in 1967, Mrs. Chin ran the laundry until the city bought the property in the late 1970s. Stanley Hand Laundry was an important gathering place for Chinese women, many of whom, like Mrs. Chin, spoke little English. One phrase she did use, her sons said, was “God knows.”

At the church, Mrs. Chin led a Bible study with new immigrants and helped them adjust to life in the United States. She was occasionally invited to give short sermons, Wong said, especially on Mother’s Day.

Survivors include her sons, Lon Chin of Arlington and Kington Chin of Silver Spring; 13 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

After the sale of the laundry, Mrs. Chin moved to a house on 16th Street NW and planted a fruit and vegetable garden in the back yard. Her sons said it was something of an eyesore. She made a spider-web construction of strips of old clothes, string and plastic — anything she could find — as a support for her vines.

About 15 years ago, she left the home to move in with her sons and abandoned the garden.

The family returned the following year to find the yard full of winter melons. Mrs. Chin called it a gift from God.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.