MONTVILLE, NJ – “When I first got to New Jersey, there were very few active Chinese people or clubs,” says Montville Township resident Margaret Lam. “I came from Hong Kong. Most people who came here spoke Mandarin, but I speak Cantonese. So I founded the New Jersey Hong Kong Club. It felt like home.”
Lam, who has lived in Montville for about fifty years, is a major force in continuing Chinese culture in New Jersey.
It all started with a parade.
“I organized Chinese Montville residents and we created a float that featured Chinese cultural icons for the Montville Fourth of July parade, which won first prize. Mayor Eckhardt asked me to join the Fourth of July Committee, which I served on for about thirty years. Five years later, in 1989, Governor Kean invited me to start the New Jersey Chinese Festival,” she recalls. “I’m still the chairperson!"
Lam said the festival was held at the Garden State Arts Center the first ten years, but now it is held at Liberty State Park.
“I don’t know how we did it without cell phones or computers! We had more than 10,000 visitors each year at the Arts Center, and thousands of attendees each year since. It’s my favorite activity I’ve done through the years.”
Considering how many clubs she has started and activities she has chaired throughout the years, that’s a true compliment. Lam’s list includes five terms as president of the Northern NJ Chinese Association (read about their Chinese New Year Celebration HERE), she served on the Ethnic Advisory Council for Governor Florio, and is vice president of the NJ Chinese-American Chamber of Commerce.
But her list of achievements is not only related to the Chinese culture. She was commissioner of the School Ethics Commission for the NJ State Board of Education, and she was director of the Morristown chapter of the Girl Scouts of America.
But one of her favorite, current positions?
“I’m president of the NJ Chinese Tennis Association. I encourage them!” she says with a laugh.
Lam’s home is a testimony to her many years of service and the many awards she has received. Every room houses the paintings, sculptures and medals she has painted, achieved, or been gifted over the years.
But her dining room showcases, in her eyes, her most prestigious award.
“In 2004, I received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor,” she says.
Sponsored by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, the Ellis Island Medals of Honor are “presented annually to American citizens who have distinguished themselves within their own ethnic groups while exemplifying the values of the American way of life,” according to their website.
“Every year they honor about 100 people from different countries,” she said. “The ceremony was held on Ellis Island. Seven presidents have received this award.”
Lam also spent five years as the president of the Northern NJ Chinese Association (NNJCA), and says, “I’m still helping,” with a laugh. The club holds its Chinese School classes at Montville Township High School every Sunday. The school educates students in the Chinese language and culture, including dance, music and painting.
“We want to preserve Chinese culture for the community and for the younger generations. The school is the most important part of the NNJCA,” she said.
Lam said the club is very thankful to be housed in Montville.
“We’ve held our classes at the high school for about thirty years,” she said. “We are very grateful to the Montville Township Board of Education, which is very supportive of our association.”
Lam has gathered the Chinese community to perform for several years at the Montville Township Fourth of July Celebration event, bringing the lion dance, an ancient costume performance, and a Tai-Chi demonstration to the festivities. She is a sponsor for the event as well. Chinese groups also march in the parade.
But, while Lam volunteers and works many hours furthering the Chinese culture, she also spends a lot of time volunteering for Montville.
She founded the Republican Club Scholarship last year, which will continue this year. She was a member of the Montville Township Sustainability Committee and the Fair Housing Committee.
“I like friends who give back to the community. I am living at peace. People should do nice things and get along,” she says.
Lam is quick to point out that all of her culture-preserving activities are for all Chinese-Americans, or those who are interested in Chinese culture.
“The NNJCA is for all Chinese people. I don’t care where they’re from. The association is a non-profit, and is non-political,” she insists.
Lam lives in Montville with her husband, David Yen, and she is proud that both of her children graduated from Montville Township High School. The couple has two grandchildren. Lam is also a six-year breast cancer survivor.
“At my age, I have so many memories of the past. My belief is that we should not live in the memory. We need to go forward and accept younger people’s ideas, which are more creative,” she said. “I keep my mind and body busy, and that’s the way to fight any disease.”
In addition to the Chinese cultural items throughout her home, Lam has sculptures of all twelve animal symbols of the Chinese New Year on top of her kitchen cabinets.
“I’m the dragon,” she laughs.