Chingwah Lee: San Francisco Chinatown's renaissance man.

Author:Fong, Atha

After looking into the matter, I have decided that Lee was one of the most influential San Franciscans of the 20th century--but also one of the most elusive, most reserved and subtle in the exercise of this influence.

--Kevin Starr, former California State Librarian


The Portola Festival of 1909 was a citywide, city-sponsored celebration that filled San Francisco with revelry and spectacle for five days. During the day, buildings adorned with bright red and yellow banners and flags colored the streets; at night, myriad lights illuminated the skyline. All of San Francisco came together for these few days to marvel at the festivities, which included warship displays, nightly fireworks, and auto races. With the shiny new buildings and--for the time being--a jubilant and cohesive population, there was a great sense of hope during this time. The Portola Festival represented a new San Francisco that was ripe and ready for success and economic development after the devastation of the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

The centerpiece and culmination of this festival was the closing act on the last night--the Historic Pageant Parade. In this extravagant nighttime spectacle that chronicled significant events in San Francisco's history, Chinatown was invited to participate with its own section. San Francisco's Chinese community enthusiastically accepted this invitation and wasted neither time nor effort in preparing for the parade. And the community delivered; according to a 1909 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "the Chinese more than sustained their reputation for superb pageants" with colorful lanterns, loud gongs, and dragon dances.

Given the decades of discrimination by San Francisco's White populations and Chinatown's deeply ingrained, sordid reputation as a ghetto filled with prostitution, gambling, and morally questionable bachelors, the San Francisco Chinese community saw this parade as a singular chance to reshape its image among neighbors and mainstream American society. This festival represented the beginning of the Chinese community's movement to "clean up" Chinatown. Community leaders believed that improving the image of Chinatown would improve the image of Chinese Americans, ameliorate long-standing discrimination and resentment against the Chinese American community, and allow better assimilation of Chinese people into mainstream American society. With the citywide changes after the 1906 earthquake, the Chinese American population began to assert not only its rightful belonging to the greater San Francisco and American communities, but also its own distinct identity, which was both Chinese and American.

What does the Portola Festival have to do with Chingwah Lee, the subject of this paper? The parade was where eight-year-old, San Francisco-born Chingwah had his first taste of the limelight. Colorfully dressed as the sea king atop one of Chinatown's floats, young Chingwah participated in the beginning of an era of reshaping Chinese American identities. The mentality embodied by this parade and festival--the hope and burning desire to improve the image of Chinese Americans in the mainstream American imagination through performance--mirrored the very ideals that motivated Chingwah Lee as he led his life through the twentieth century.

Throughout his lifetime, Chingwah was a well-known presence, both within Chinatown and elsewhere in San Francisco. In his many roles--founder and scoutmaster of San Francisco Chinatown's Boy Scouts Troop 3; cofounder of the first English-language publication written by and for Chinese Americans, the Chinese Digest; the man who essentially developed tourism in San Francisco Chinatown; one of the few Chinese American actors who made it in Hollywood; and cofounder of the Chinese Historical Society of America--he left behind legacies that live to this day. The driving force behind Chingwah's prolific activities was a desire to improve the image of the Chinese American community.

Despite his extraordinary energy and efforts, his extensive work for and dedication to the Chinese American community both inside and outside of Chinatown, there has only been one substantial piece of literature about Chingwah Lee himself: six pages dedicated to his accomplishments and contributions in Thomas W. Chinn's survey of San Francisco Chinatown, Bridging the Pacific.

Why isn't Chingwah, a popular and well-liked personality in his lifetime, a more prominent presence in the history of San Francisco Chinatown today? My research suggests two answers. First, Chingwah Lee, despite his great public presence, was an elusive character who kept his personal life extremely private. Second, the field of Asian American studies is relatively new, emerging only in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the literature about Asian American history has looked at its communities from the outside and on macroscopic, sociological levels; Asian American scholars have, until recently, largely overlooked the voices of individuals who defined, led, helped, and defended their communities. The academic rigor of these scholars, however, pioneered a new field of American study and provided the fundamental basis upon which we, today, can better and more deeply explore that field.

This essay is a twofold effort to add to the growing literature about Chinese American history. It is a microhistorical biography of one influential, yet historically forgotten, man. It also examines Chinese American identity as a whole through the uncommon lens of a man who actively participated in the continuous redefinition and reshaping of that identity throughout the twentieth century.

After conducting numerous interviews with his family members, friends, and acquaintances; poring over papers and books in hopes of finding even the slightest mention of his name; and digging through a box of old newspaper clippings, letters, and papers that was kept in a forgotten corner of a relative's basement for decades, I share in this article my research and findings about the life of Chingwah Lee, the Chinese American community as he understood it, and the San Francisco he called home. Although this paper only scratches the surface of Chingwah's life, I hope his family and friends find that the story I have pieced together at the very least gives Chingwah fair recognition for his inspiring accomplishments. Moreover, I hope this essay compels others to continue developing a deeper historical appreciation of Chingwah Lee and the other individuals who, together, shaped a collective Chinese American experience.


In 1877, Kam Chuen Lee, Chingwah's father, emigrated to San Francisco as a merchant, thus avoiding the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He established himself as a reputable doctor of Chinese medicine in Chinatown and in 1887 returned to his hometown to marry Yoke Lum, a wealthy merchant's daughter. They returned to San Francisco that same year to settle down and start their family. In 1898, Mrs. Lee gave birth to Changwah, their eldest son. Like the eight siblings that would follow, Changwah was born at home. On June 28, 1901, the Lee family welcomed their second child, Chingwah. The younger sons were Edwar, Kingwah, Horace, and Elmer. The three daughters were Agnes, Cora, and Marion.

In 1906, the great earthquake and fire destroyed the city, but from the destruction emerged the promise of refashioning San Francisco and its communities--Chinatown included. However, although the rebuilding and the Portola parade of 1909 offered the Chinese community hope that it could assert more rights for itself, subsequent events were more discouraging. The Chinese community tried its best to take advantage of the seeming shift in attitudes, but the situation more or less remained the same. In 1910, the establishment of the Angel Island Immigration Station institutionalized the stringent policies toward Chinese immigration, and the Chinese community remained basically constrained to the few blocks that made up Chinatown. The area still had a sordid reputation, and few opportunities existed for the youth, such as Chingwah and his brothers. If they ever left Chinatown, they faced taunting and the threat of violence. When asked in his later years what factors contributed to a "distinctive Chinese American culture," Chingwah himself stated: "One factor which bound the Chinese together in the early days was a certain loneliness. They felt that the people here were not too interested in them, except as a curiosity." (1)

The reopening of the Chinese Primary School, which was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake, as the Oriental School represented the regression that accompanied apparent progression. (2) Chingwah and all his siblings attended this segregated school for San Francisco's Chinese, Japanese, and Korean children. This blatant segregation defined Chingwah's childhood and would shape his lifelong passion for creating a positive image for Chinese Americans. Furthermore, in describing his youth, Chingwah especially criticized the poor quality of education available to the children of San Francisco Chinatown when he was growing up. According to Chingwah, schools in San Francisco were "absolutely segregated" and "so corrupt." The teachers were "inadequate" and "not well-prepared to teach children." (3) Chingwah commented that he and the other Chinese children never did any of the homework: "It was so ... corrupt that none of us worried about it!" (4)

Despite the discrimination and segregation he faced, his unique background as a second-generation Chinese American and as a relatively privileged member of one of the wealthier and more respected families within the Chinatown community planted in young Chingwah a sense of responsibility to the community and an industrious attitude.

His father was a thriving herbalist and a major partner in a firm called Sun Gum Wah. Located at 736 Grant Avenue, the business, according to...

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