Chinese Historical Society of America
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
*Included in the print edition
When Chinese American Wong Kim Ark returned to the United States from visiting parents overseas, immigration officials denied him entry because of his ancestry. This was a clear breach of the 14th Amendment but seemed acceptable in the late 1800s. Undaunted, he won the victory after taking the issue up to the Supreme Court. The Chinese immigration story juxtaposed to current events comes alive at the Chinese Historical Society of America museum. Eavesdrop on an Angel Island interrogation where authorities pummeled Chinese with questions designed to block their entry. View a dollhouse miniature of a crammed SRO apartment with rice cooker and half-smoked cigarettes. The first mural near the entry shows where it all began in Guangdong, at the Port of Canton where ships carried peasants to Gum San, Gold Mountain, America’s nickname. Through exhibits, films, books, and lectures, the CHSA tells it like it is. Founded in 1963, the organization is the first to promote the legacy and contributions of the Chinese in the United States. On the walls are watercolor paintings of early Chinese workers in America by the late Jake Lee (see first band of photos). These were rescued due to the efforts of then-CHSA executive director Sue Lee (no relation). Back in 1959, the sophisticated Kan’s Restaurant commissioned the Chinese American artist to paint twelve pieces for the dining room. Years after the restaurant changed hands, the masterpieces disappeared. After much sleuthing and fundraising, Sue Lee has reunited all the pieces that are both on loan and owned by the museum.
And in the CHSA learning center, the epic mural (below) “One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in America” is on permanent display. Measuring 5 feet high x 17.5 feet long, the colorful series of paintings was created by the late artist James Leong, who was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1929. The commissioned work was placed on the exterior of the Ping Yuen Housing Project in 1952. At the time, it was criticized by the community for being too oppressive in showing scenes of Chinese male and female laborers even though the depictions were historically accurate. Feeling rejected and misunderstood, Leong soon left America for Europe where he learned to speak five languages, lived for decades, and established his career as a respected painter.
Meanwhile, the mural was stashed in the Ping Yuen rec room where residents used it as a wall to play ping pong. The CHSA eventually recovered the mural, knowing it had historic significance. Next, the organization contacted Leong who lived in Seattle to restore the piece in 2000. By this time, he was 70 years old. Giving the artist his due respect, the CHSA showcased this many paintings and held a show dedicated to him in 2006. Leong passed away in 2011 at the age of 81.