SAN FRANCISCO - When it comes to field of membership, the Lee Federal Credit Union may be one of a kind. Unlike community chartered credit unions open to members in a wide geographic area or credit unions that have a burgeoning list of select employee groups, Lee FCU is open only to members whose surname is Lee. Forget about film director Spike Lee being a member, or the family of the late singer Peggy Lee or rocker Tommy Lee. Even descendants of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Henry David Lee of Lee jeans fame don't quality. The only Lees at this credit union must have the Chinese surname of Lee or be related to one of those Lees. The Lee name, or some variant of it, is one of the most common in China. Translated, it means "plum." The unique field of membership is not the only thing that sets this credit union, located in the heart of San Francisco's Chinatown, apart from others. There are no ATMs, no checking accounts and few, if any, consumer loans on the books. Further, much of the business is conducted on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The credit union is also open Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. With nearly 950 members and almost $12 million in assets, Lee FCU has been a bulwark in Chinatown since it first opened in 1964 in the Lee Family Association building, which also serves as the Lee Family National Headquarters in the U.S. Originally known as "Lee Lung Se Tong" and established in 1866 by two brothers in the back of their Chinese arts goods store in San Francisco, the name was changed to the Lee Family Association in 1927. Five other affiliated but independent Lee FCUs are in operation around the country, in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Houston. They are the only federally chartered, family-based credit unions in the Chinese community. They are also housed in buildings of the Lee Family Association. "This is a family credit union," explains San Francisco manager Lily Lo, who has worked at the financial institution since 1981. "We run a kind of family business. The goal is just to serve the family." That being the case, most everybody knows everybody else here. It's not unusual for four generations of a family to be members. When prospective members come in, the first questions they're asked aren't about credit history and credit worthiness. One reason is that many new Chinese immigrants have no credit history in the U.S. "We look at who their grandfather is or who their father is," Lo said. "We find out who they are." Tradition continues to run high at the Lee Family Association and at the credit union. Because members prefer to pay their bills in cash, the credit union does not offer checking accounts, although Lo said that some members do maintain checking accounts at other financial institutions. Few, if any, members are interested in consumer loans, Lo said, noting that the bulk of the loans issued are for automobiles or home mortgages. Most members "don't believe in ATMs," she added. "We believe in saving," she explained. "A lot of our members like to save rather than borrow." Two part-time employees work at the credit union. Overhead is low since the operation is housed in the multi-story Lee Family Association building, which also serves as a family and community gathering spot. Afternoon Mah-jongg games are played on the floor above the credit union; the top floor has a shrine honoring the dead and photos of the association's leaders, most of whom are also members on the credit union's board. The credit union provides each of its members with a free $4,000 life insurance policy. About half of its members are retired. Members have little interest in taking out small loans, Lo said. "We have no problems with giving out loans," she noted. "We have problems with getting borrowers." Delinquencies on loans are pretty much non-existent, Lo said, noting that members would feel a sense of "shame" if they did not repay the credit union. "I have no problem with delinquents," she said. "They always pay us first." One of the challenges faced by the credit union is to attract younger members, Lo said. That has proven difficult because many of the elder members prefer to do business the old-fashioned way. "The way you want to change the family credit union is hard," she said. "Membership is a little bit unique here." While young people might want to see such things as checking accounts, ATMs and direct deposit, the credit union membership has turned thumbs down on such ideas. "It's hard for them to change," Lo said of the longtime members. "It's going to take time for them to change." Wing Lee, who served as president in 1997, did manage to put up a credit union Web site, although some criticized the effort. Lo and others questioned how many people actually visit the site. With another Lee Family Association based in Portland, Ore., Lo said there have been discussions about adding a Lee FCU in that location. Other locations for Lee Family Associations include Sacramento, Stockton and Oakland Calif., New York and Philadelphia. Lo said the credit union often receives telephone calls from people - some of them with the surname of Lee - who are interested in joining. "We have to tell them our charter is only for members of the Lee Family Association," she said, then laughed. "It's the Chinese Lee, and the Chinese Lee is not a Robert E. Lee." -firstname.lastname@example.org
Lee Federal Credit Union is a True Family Affair
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