Phoebe Shou-Heng Yu was born in Changsha, China in 1917. During World War II, Phoebe left China at the age of 24 to pursue a master’s degree in English at Wellesley College and met her future husband Homer Chen while completing her PhD at the University of Chicago. While the Chens intended to return to China, they were stranded in the U.S. due to the Communist takeover of China in 1949. After completing their studies they faced deportation but the Chens received derivative immigration status after the birth of their son allowing them to gain citizenship. While Phoebe never saw her mother again; it would be forty-some years before she reunited with her siblings.
The Chens formed a tightknit second family in Chicago with their Chinese expatriate friends before eventually settling in Skokie, Illinois, with their three children. Phoebe and Homer were active members of the Chinese American community, helping to found the Chinese American Educational Foundation and a Chinese language and culture school serving suburban North Chicago. Settling in the heartland of America to study, build a career, and start a family, Phoebe is both representative of many Chinese immigrants’ stories and contrasts the journeys bachelor immigrants like Shuck Wing Chin.
On her way to the U.S., Phoebe Chen made a stopover in Hong Kong, where she had approximately 60 qipaos hand-tailored for her while she waited to take a steamship to Massachusetts. The entirety of this unique wardrobe was graciously donated to MOCA by her daughter, Pamela Chen.