Sue Lee, Executive Director of the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, is on a mission. Speaking at the Chinese Cultural Community Center in Washington D.C.’s Chinatown last Friday night, she echoed what she has been telling audiences across the country.
“Our job is to share our history with the recent immigrant community and also to make sure our story is imbedded in the American historical narrative.”
The job of finding places to share history and cultural heritage is not an easy one. Chinatowns and Asian-American communities in the suburbs can provide platforms for telling these stories. Finding a larger audience, however, has proven difficult for curators like Lee.
“Luck is the residue of design.” I’m sure there is a Chinese equivalent to that old adage. The wisdom came true for Lee two years ago, when she found a rather special vehicle she hopes will bring that wider audience. Browsing through emails to the CHSA’s museum, her heart leapt for joy when she read one from an art collector in Southern California.
A set of watercolors painted by the famed artist Jake Lee (1911-1991) were to be sold at auction in Los Angeles. Depicting early Chinese life in the United States, the dozen poster-size works of art graced the dining room walls of Johnny Kan’s iconic restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1953 until ownership changed in 1972. For the next 38 years, their whereabouts were unknown.
Springing into action, Lee secured last-minute donors. Her winning bid secured seven of the original twelve, with four others going to another collector.
Still missing was “Deadwood,” an eight-foot long mural. Upon returning to San Francisco, Lee found it in a car repair shop. Together again, the eight paintings then graced the Society’s museum on Grant Avenue. Three are currently in display at their Main Gallery. Lee said she hopes a touring exhibit is forthcoming for all of them, possibly with a launch here in Washington, D.C.
The majority of Jake Lee’s paintings commissioned by Kan emphasis the Chinese work ethic, while the others touch on cultural institutions such as Chinese New Year’s celebrations. “Deadwood” stands out not only by its long shape, but also its specific setting. Lee painted a snap shot of a “Hub-and-Hub” fire hose team racing past spectators in the South Dakota city in the summer of 1888.
The impact of re-introducing these iconic works to the public cannot be understated. In “Finding Jake Lee: The Paintings at Kan’s,” a booklet published by the CHSA, Mark Dean Johnson, Professor of Art and Gallery at San Francisco State University observes,
“They are significant stylistically as much as for their imagery. Watercolor paintings were especially popular in California during the early and mid-Twentieth Century; it signaled the influence of Chinese ink painting regionally…”
The Chinese Historical Society of America, the largest and oldest such organization in the country, was founded in 1963 to promote the stories of the Chinese-American experience. Jake Lee’s splendid watercolor paintings offer a great new opportunity for Americans and the world to discover some of this culture and history. Sue Lee invites you to come see them.