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East West Lifestyle

Treasure Hunt: The Huntington Library Acquires Papers of Chinese American Family

June 22, 2020
(Left): Gilbert Leong and Florence Leong, ca. 1943. Unknown photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens; (Right): Dragon’s Den menu cover, illustrated by Chinese American artist Tyrus Wong, ca. 1935. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

The story behind The Huntington’s never-before-seen collection of papers from the families featured in “On Gold Mountain”

Before pioneering Chinese American artist Tyrus Wong made history by leading art direction on Walt Disney Co.’s classic animated film “Bambi,” he drew nightly menus for his buddy Eddy See’s legendary Chinatown restaurant Dragon’s Den during the Great Depression, where Hollywood celebrities such as Anna May Wong and “Casablanca” stars Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet would dine on chow mein and char siu. Some of those menus and other never-before-seen original documents chronicling Chinese American history have just been acquired by The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

“Every menu had its own original Tyrus Wong painting or drawing. I'd say there are about 30 to 40 of them in the collection, and each one is different,” says Lisa See, author of the best-selling memoir about her kin, “On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of a Chinese American Family.”

The collection of papers was a gift from the family of Gilbert, Florence, and Leslee See Leong, members of two of the earliest and most prominent Chinese American families in Los Angeles, who are featured in See’s book. Other rare items include portrait photos of Fong See, the patriarch of the See family in Sacramento, along with other photos of See with his wife, Letticie Pruett, and their five children, and correspondence stretching from the 1870s to the 1960s.

“When I was growing up, the only [thing] you ever learned about Chinese Americans was that they came to work on the railroad. And maybe you got a line in your history book, maybe it was a paragraph, but that was it,” says See. “If you don't have people looking at the history, it disappears. So, then that just says, it doesn't matter. It didn't happen. It didn't exist.”

“I want researchers and future generations to have the opportunity to look at this amazing collection and to learn about the past,” says Li Wei Yang, curator of Pacific Rim collections at The Huntington. “It helps us learn about what was it like for the Chinese to live under the exclusion era from 1882 to 1943, and beyond. And it's really the only way for us to appreciate the present and to inspire us to work toward a better future.”

The collection also includes drawings by architect Gilbert Leong, who was the first Chinese American to graduate from the University of Southern California with an architecture degree, and whose designs helped shape the architecture of postwar Los Angeles and Chinatown. He also helped to found East West Bank, now one of the largest independent banks headquartered in Southern California.

“It was his proudest moment, I think. He loved the bank,” according to daughter Leslee Leong.

(Left): Portrait of the See Family, including Fong See (second from left) and Letticie “Ticie” Pruett (second from right) and their five children, 1914. Unknown photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens; (Right): Photo of Fong See standing in front of F. Suie One Company, located on 510 Los Angeles Street, ca. 1910s. Unknown photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

The accidental treasure hunt

When Gilbert Leong passed away in 1996, Leslee faced the formidable task of sorting through a mountain of possessions at his mid-century modern home in Pasadena, California.

“I came into the house, and it was floor-to-ceiling boxes. My father kept everything,” Leong says. “At first, I was swearing, you know, thinking—what am I gonna do with all of it?” she laughs, recalling her initial reaction.

And so began a painstaking scavenger hunt of sorts, one that lasted years. “It was like an archeological dig. I started at the top layer. And I went through those boxes, and I thought, you know, some of this is worthwhile,” Leong says.

In addition to numerous newspaper articles about the Chinese American community, there were documents related to Gilbert’s service in the army in World War II, photos of the family on a trip to China in the 1920s, and the passports they carried. Leong also uncovered family correspondence from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“I'd work at it, and I wouldn't work at it; I'd love it, and I'd get angry at it. But I think what the most important part about it, for me, was that I had a chance to live my whole life over again,” she says.

One day, as Leong was sorting through the stacks, she found something crumpled up in tissue at the bottom of a cigar box. It turned out to be one of her most interesting discoveries.

“It was a Chinatown telephone book from 1898. It had maybe six pages and was 4-by-3 inches, a tiny little telephone book with Chinese names in it, of businesses and people,” Leong says. “That was actual proof, you know, that we were there, where we occupied and what happened to our properties. So that was pretty important.”

(Left): Passport document issued by the Consulate-General of the Republic of China to Woo Shee, aka Mrs. J. Leong, 1919. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens; (Right): Soochow restaurant map, ca. 1940s. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

Have your cake and bank it too

Drop by Phoenix Bakery in Los Angeles’ Chinatown today, and you can still enjoy the trademark fresh strawberry whipped cream cake and almond cookies that made it famous. Fung Chow “F.C.” Chan founded the business in 1938 using family recipes and turned it into a multi-million-dollar business. He was so successful that he was able to buy a home in the ‘50s, not long after the California Alien Land Law of 1913 that banned property ownership by Asian immigrants was overturned in 1952. The man he hired to remodel his bakery and his home was Gilbert Leong.

“Gilbert was really one of the early architects that made building for Chinese immigrants possible,” Leong says. “They didn't know how to draw up a plan; they didn't know how to buy property; they didn't know real estate agents. They were just beginning,” Leong says. “I think F.C. saw that Gilbert was going to build for the Chinese people, be it warehouses or grocery stores or fish markets.”

Even though F.C. Chan was a highly successful businessman, he was still shut out of business loans from mainstream banks. At the same time, the Chinese American population was growing, especially after passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Access to credit and capital became critical, and Chan became convinced that having a Chinese-owned bank would be a game changer. He asked Leong to be one of the co-founders of a bank, and after overcoming many challenges, East-West Federal Savings finally received a federal charter in 1973. The opening of this and other Asian banks across the country made a lasting impact.

“One of the things that has helped to make Asian Americans relatively more successful was really the starting of those banks,” See says. “That helped people to buy houses; it helped people start businesses. And that really did help that transition.”

Gilbert Leong served on the board of East West Bank for 23 years. At company functions, he was known for getting on stage and singing “God Bless America.”

“He was proud to be American, and proud to be Chinese,” Leong says.

Some of the original founders of East West Federal Savings, Betty Tom Chu and F.C. Chan, at the opening in 1973. East West Bank Archives

What’s in your attic?

The Huntington continues to look for more papers to add to its collection. “As scholars have shown more and more interest in studying the migration and ethnicities of individuals and communities along the Pacific Rim, The Huntington has increased its focus on collecting materials that support such research,” says Sandra L. Brooke, Avery Director of the Library at The Huntington.

See has some treasures of her own that she is currently putting together for The Huntington. “I have some glass plate negatives taken in Chinatown, as well as portraits. These are 150 images that almost no one's seen before,” See says. “I've always surmised that when old Chinatown was torn down [in 1933], my father and grandfather went scavenging, and I think one of the buildings that was torn down was an old photography studio.” She also has a couple of unpublished interior photos of the Dragon’s Den restaurant where the walls were adorned with murals painted by Tyrus Wong.

“The most exciting part really is to learn about history through primary source of materials—the actual letters, artworks, documents and photos,” Yang says.

With that in mind, The Huntington is on the lookout for more important family collections like these. Yang is encouraging those who are in possession of family items of historical significance not seen elsewhere to reach out to The Huntington. If there is interest, the curators would conduct an extensive curatorial examination and see if the items may be of value to the collection.

“Once they start to get these other collections as well, The Huntington will be able to put on some really interesting shows for the public,” See says.