Chingwah Lee: San Francisco Chinatown's Renaissance Man

Article excerpt

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

INTRODUCTION

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. …