Julius Yee’s daughter Ivette Yee Tejedor called her father “a world traveler by accident.”
Yee, who died Tuesday at 79 after battling liver issues, was one-fourth owner of the landmark Fu Manchu Chinese restaurant off Collins Avenue and 71st Street in Miami Beach.
For 35 years, from 1971 to his retirement in 2006, Yee and his wife Lucy, and their partners, Jesus and Vicky Li, owned and ran the red and green neon-festooned Fu Manchu, a restaurant originally opened in 1935 and closed in 2006. (That 71-year run made Fu Manchu the second-oldest Beach restaurant behind Joe’s Stone Crab.)
The men handled the kitchen. Yee’s specialties: steak and seafood. “If you ever had a chicken wing or spare rib at Fu Manchu, my father made it,” his daughter said. The women ran the dining room.
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Yee, born in the Canton village of China on Oct. 19, 1937, and Li worked together at Fu Manchu as cooks before buying the business in 1971. Yee and Li were raised in the same village but would not meet until years later in Cuba after they fled Communist China.
At 12, Yee joined his father in a Chinatown neighborhood of Havana to help run a family feed/grocery store. There, Yee met his wife, Lucy. After Cuba turned Communist under Fidel Castro, Yee and Li fled the regime and moved to Spain.
In Madrid, both Yee and Li learned to cook Chinese food.
“I always thought it was interesting he learned to cook Chinese food in Spain,” said Yee Tejedor. “My father, he didn’t go to world-class cooking school, but he was definitely one of the best chefs in South Florida. He really knew Cantonese and Szechuan cuisine.”
Yee didn’t cook by recipe and wrote nothing down. With little more than an elementary school education, he just knew how to blend ingredients.
He really was all about impeccable work ethic, selflessness and education, even though he didn’t have one. That is what he instilled in my sister and me.
Ivette Yee Tejedor on her father, Julius Yee.
In 1984, a former Miami Herald food critic said of Fu Manchu, it had “some of the best Chinese food around, and has one of the most complete and varied menus in this part of Florida.”
Popular with a steady roster of regulars, no one had the real specialty, Yee Tejedor said. “For my sister and I, our favorite day of the week was Wednesday, his only day off, and we’d have a family meal and he would cook the most authentic Chinese food that he grew up eating — stuff you’d never find on any menu at any Chinese restaurant.
“My mom’s side is Cuban,” she added. “On any given day we’d have black beans and rice and lo mein — an interesting meal.” The restaurant, with its Buddha figurines and panorama mural of Asian scenes by South Florida artist Earl La Pan, also featured Chinese and Cuban dishes.
In the kitchen, the two men spoke Spanish, peppered with English and Cantonese. Their wives spoke English and Spanish.
A quirk of the restaurant was its black chairs with celebrity names scrawled in gold paint: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Jackie Gleason, Pearl Bailey and Lucy Ball, as the chair deemed her. The idea of imprinting chairs with the names of visiting celebs who dined there in the 1950s and ’60s belonged to the restaurant’s original owner, Al Goldman.
The Yees weren’t as celebrity conscious, adding just the names of visiting “Miami Vice” stars Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. What Yee was passionate about, however, was education for his children. He did not want them in the restaurant business.
“He knew the sacrifice, the hard days, the long hours,” said Yee Tejedor. “That is why he immigrated to the U.S. and leaped to so many countries. He wanted to provide more. My dad had an affinity for arts and culture. He loved going to museums and encouraged us to go to Broadway shows and listen to classical music even though he never had that exposure growing up. He envisioned us to be associated with higher education.”
Yee Tejedor is an associate director of student recruitment and marketing for Florida International University. His other daughter, Ivonne Amor, is a freelance writer and public relations executive.
Yee is survived by his wife Lucy Yee; daughters Ivonne Amor and Ivette Yee Tejedor; grandchildren Matthew, Ethan, Luke, Sabrina and Brooke; siblings Mary Wong, Verinder Lam and Stanley Yee. Services will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12, at Caballero Rivero Woodlawn, 8200 Bird Rd., Miami.