(Original Title: Racialized Images in 1920s and 1930s San Francisco: The Paintings of Eva Fong Chan)
Eva Fong Chan (1897-1991), a Chinese-American artist who actively painted and exhibited her work between 1925 and 1940, painted Bo Kay Chart Golfing, Thomas Kwan Watching (1931) and Portrait of Tom Yuk Lan (1930). Born in Sacramento, this California native studied art in San Francisco and exhibited in local institutions such as the San Francisco Art Association at the Palace of Fine Arts. (1) Though briefly affiliated with the Chinese Revolutionary Artists' Club, an avant-garde Chinatown-based painter's coalition that studied abstract painting, Chan's own work stuck closely to realistic landscapes, portraits, and flower paintings that betray the influence of American oil masters such as Winslow Homer.
The uniqueness of Chan's paintings lie in the strange everydayness of her style and subject matter and the way in which that everydayness engages visual constructions of race and class in California's 1930s Chinese American community Bo Kay Chart Golfing, Thomas Kwan Watching resembles images of golf outings that frequently appeared in period American newspapers and magazines such as McLure's and Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly. Chinese Americans, however, hardly populated California golf courses, much less golf courses in the larger United States. Portraits of beautiful Chinese women, like Chan's Portrait of Tom Yuk Lan, certainly flooded the Chinese and American retail market. The great majority of these images, however, were calendar posters: glossy lithographic advertisements for consumer products such as cigarettes, beauty products, and medication. Courtesans and actresses often modeled for these advertisements. This was hardly the demographic with whom Chan, a piano teacher, an organist and Sunday school teacher at the San Francisco Chinese Congregational Church, and the wife of a prominent Canton businessman, associated.
The contradictory choices and experiences that Chang paintings record eloquently project the privileges and constraints of a female, Chinese American, upwardly mobile, and fashionable individual. Chan's paintings carry on a nervous flirtation with contemporary images of privileged leisure and metropolitan life. They confront their audience with images that link Chinese Americans with that double-edged sword, sobriquet, "model minority."
The lived reality of Chinese Americans, like those Chinatown denizens of the Chinese Revolutionary Artist's Club, did not encompass the social mobility that Chan's paintings implied. Of all the members of the painting club, Chan was likely the only one who could afford to buy her own set of paints, canvases, and art classes--the rest were largely Chinatown laborers. The members' professional lives overlapped with the rowdy 1920s and 1930s employment disputes surrounding Asian laborers in California. Asian women in 1920s and 1930s California did not fare much better than Asian laborers. The 1924 Immigration Act kept Chinese women from entering the United States for permanent residence. By the 1930s, new marriage laws stripped citizenship from female citizens who married those without citizenship. (2) According to these laws, Asian American females, whose families may have resided in the States since the 1880s, could not retain their citizenship if they chose to marry an illegal immigrant or choose a mate from China. Asian females also received a particular sexualization in United States media, especially through films that highlighted prostitution. Despite social reformers' reports that, with the exception of San Francisco, the overwhelming number of prostitutes in American cities were white, "Chinese prostitutes" retained a larger-than-life notoriety in the United States. (3)
Compared to the vast majority of Asian Americans living in San Francisco's Chinatown during the early twentieth century, or even under today's standards, Chan belonged to a privileged class. Her family could afford her taking music lessons, going to art school, and attending a music college. Noted for her beauty, Chan won the 1915 Chinatown Queen contest. (4) Before her 1919 marriage to Bo Kay Chan, Eva spent a few years vacationing in Canton and Shanghai, two cities that were the hub of metropolitan life during the Early Republican Era. Her husband hailed from a prominent Canton family with nationalist affiliations. Together the Chans owned a restaurant and an export-import company with branches in San Francisco and China. In 1949, within a few years of their first daughter's birth, the family moved out of Chinatown and into a townhouse near San Francisco's affluent Russian Hill. In 1986, former mayor Willie Brown presented Chan with a California State Assembly resolution that commended Chan for her life achievements.
Indeed, the very subject and style of Chan's paintings betray the wide socioeconomic gap between her and her Chinese-American painting fellows. Members of the Chinese Revolutionary Artist's Club, including the well-known artist Yun Gee, painted Chinatown cityscapes, street musicians, and other subjects within close range of Chinatown's observable environment. (5) Chan's 1931 landscape, Bo Kay Chart Golfing, Thomas Kwan Watching, portrays her husband, Bo Kay Chan, playing golf with his friend on a beautiful green complete with mountains rolling in the background and lush pine trees framing the foreground (see Figure 1). (6) The specific dating of the painting (October 30, 1931) and Chan's own writing on the back of the canvas, "Bo Kay Chan Golfing, Thomas Kwan Watching," indicates that this painting portrays an actual event, not an imaginary outing. On October 30, 1931, accompanied by Chan, who recorded the event, and Kwan, a golfing buddy, Bo Kay Chan traveled to one of the many well-pruned golfing greens in California and played rounds of golf while his wife sketched on her canvas. In comparison, Chan's fellow painters rarely left Chinatown, and given their stretched economy, did not consider golf a viable option on their rare days off.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
During the turn of the twentieth century, golf was one of the dominant forces behind the creation of new country clubs in America. (7) The Scottish import began attracting members of the affluent American middle class by the 1920s. (8) By the 1930s, golf became an important part of privileged, white, middle-class, American culture; newspapers touted its contributions to physical health and published photographs of lithe, clean-cut young men enjoying a round of golf on a picturesque green. Country clubs around the country opened up membership quotas in order to draw more members and golf players onto their well-maintained grounds. (9) By recording this golf outing, Chan associated herself, her husband, and Thomas Kwan with this affluent, American cultural phenomenon and displayed that association to whoever examined her painting.
Chang very recording of this outing betrays the values of an upwardly mobile, middle-class, Chinese American family of the 1930s. Of Chan's ten or so extant works, this painting alone records an event--this event is not a birthday party, a wedding, or any other gathering that might mark significant events in modern family life; it is a leisurely afternoon of golf with friends. Something about this outing made it more worth recording than the myriad of other equally important vicissitudes in Chan's life in 1931. I believe that "something" was the privilege and middle-class stability that golf outings represent. Chan tells us, through this painting, that not only did the Chan family have the time and money to indulge in lengthy, leisurely activities, they indulged in affluent, white, middle-class American activities such as golf.
Positioning herself as an unseen observer who watches from behind the golf players, Chan offers the viewer two perspectives--that of her husband, the expert golf player, and that of herself, an accomplished woman, able to produce paintings comparable to those in classical American genre painting. Caught in the moment after he completed his swing, Bo Kay Chan expertly wields his club above his shoulder while he surveys the trajectory of his golf ball. He wears golf shoes, socks, and pants, as well as a hat, as does his partner Thomas Kwan. These accoutrements imply that Chan's husband regularly plays the game, enough to own the appropriate...