Joy Lee Han remembered

Memorial service planned for area author

Joy Lee Han, who lived in Ishpeming for decades and was the author of “Rice Paper Memoirs,” is shown by Lake Superior in Marquette. Han recently passed away at age 89. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Han)

ISHPEMING — Escaping from Communist China and eventually spending half a century in Ishpeming can give you a wide range of experiences and memories.

That was the case with Joy Lee Han, a local author who passed away on Aug. 24 at age 89. She had been living with family members in the Milwaukee area since April.

She was born Joy Lee in Kaifeng, China, in 1930, and immigrated to the United States in 1950, according to her obituary. She obtained her bachelor of science degree in medical technology at Mary Hardin-Baylor College in Belton, Texas. In the United States, she met and married Tsu Ming Han in 1956, then moved to Ishpeming and became a naturalized American citizen in 1962.

She was a medical technologist at Bell Memorial Hospital until her retirement in 1994. She had lived along Duncan Avenue in Ishpeming for 50 years until moving to the Teal Lake Senior Living Community in Negaunee in 2019.

Joy kept an extensive journal, and eventually published an illustrated autobiography, “Rice Paper Memoirs,” that describes her life in China, her immigration experience and eventual settlement in the Upper Peninsula.

Her book, which was made available to the public in January 2018, is included with the Tsu Ming Han Papers that are stored in the Northern Michigan University Archives.

In 2019, she established the Tsu Ming and Joy L. Han Scholarship Fund with the Community Foundation of Marquette County for high school students pursuing higher education.

Her son, Dennis Han, M.D., who lives in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, reflected on his mother’s life in a phone interview with The Mining Journal.

That life, he said, was written about in great detail in “Rice Paper Memoirs.”

“She was a prolific journaler,” Han said. “She kept track of things — dates, times — since she was a teenager, on through her adulthood, so everything in the book is fairly factual.”

He guided his mother through the process, finding her an editor and designer, although she actually wrote the book.

The book is unique in that the cover has the texture of rice paper.

“We didn’t want to make it hardcover just because it wouldn’t really emulate what she wrote on,” Han said.

The book is available through Amazon and Birchview Press at birchviewpress.com.

The publisher’s description of the book reads in part: “In touching, heart-felt prose, Han recounts her early life in Kaifeng in north central China, describing both idyllic childhood days spent raising silkworms and tending her grandmother’s goats, and the terror of Pearl Harbor Day, when she was forced, with her parents and five siblings, to flee the American Baptist Compound where they lived. Nine years later, she would find herself on the run again, this time sneaking across the Chinese border into Hong Kong on her way to America.”

Priscilla Pardini of Shorewood, Wisconsin, a freelance editor and writer, edited the book, calling it a “captivating story.”

“I just think she had a very remarkable life,” Pardini said. “She was able to describe it in incredible detail.”

It also covers a wide range of emotions.

“It was tragic,” Pardini said. “It was joyful. It was all of those things.”

Being visually appealing is a plus as well. She noted the book is beautifully designed and includes more than 100 family photos.

“It’s not easy to write a book,” Pardini said. “She persevered and she did it.”

Since April, Han and his sister, Lisa Ellner, had been caring for their mother.

“That was very good for her because of the isolation that the residents are experiencing these days,” he said.

Joy Lee Han also had difficulties maintaining her weight because of a poor appetite, so they paid a lot of attention to her nutrition.

Their mother, though, remained intellectually active, having just finished reading “Jane Eyre” before her death.

“She did a lot of reading,” Han said. “That was one of her favorite activities. Even up until recently, she played Scrabble, and she actually beat me a few weeks before she passed away at the age of 89.”

Joy Lee Han had another dimension — one that is perhaps based in another realm.

“She was a very spiritual person, and that was one of her passions,” said her son, who noted she worked previously with the Ishpeming Salvation Army and was an active member of the Calvary Baptist Church in Negaunee.

“Those things, of course, tapered off towards the end,” Dennis Han said.

His mother, he said, most likely died of aspiration pneumonia, which wasn’t related to COVID-19.

Dennis’ father, who passed away in 2005, was accomplished as well.

“He’s pretty notable in the Upper Peninsula in the iron mining circles,” Han said. “He’s got an exhibit dedicated to him in the Michigan Iron Industry Museum. He came in the 1950s, and basically, he became the research scientist for Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company and helped develop their processes — really kept the mining industry in the Marquette area going because they had to deal with low-grade ores.

“So his scientific contributions allowed them to stay in business.”

Joy Lee Han’s legacy could be considered on several levels.

Her son considers one of them to be her belief that people could derive strength from their spiritual lives.

“If you hear about her accounts, you have almost little doubt that she had a blessed life,” Han said.

He mentioned she had a few other qualities: a determination and willingness to forge through extreme difficulties.

“She grew up in China that was rife with conflict,” Han said.

His mother also struggled with tuberculosis.

However, Joy Lee Han might not have believed her tale was the only one that needed telling.

“I think she also felt that people should try to write their own stories,” he said. “Everybody has their own story.”

Not everyone, though, has Joy Lee Han’s unique immigration experience.

She also had a lot of help and support along the way, from people she knew and from strangers — and from people who according to Han said things like, “Cross the border right now. Hurry. Now’s your chance to run across the border.”

That’s not exactly your everyday conversation.

Her father, as a Baptist minister, also developed connections in the United States that allowed his daughter to travel there and be treated for TB when her friends were dying in China, Han said.

The support worked both ways.

“She gave back, too,” he said. “When she was in China, she saw that (the) Salvation Army was helping people who were starving or in dire circumstances, and she’s always felt a connection with them and volunteered for them in Ishpeming.”

A memorial service for Joy Lee Han will be held on Oct. 31 at Calvary Baptist Church to mark what would have been her 90th birthday.


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