FINDING JAKE LEE by Ben Fong-Torres
A tale of lost and found Chinese American Art
One of the more amazing stories regarding the acquisition of artwork is being told right now in a modest exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society of America’s museum in Chinatown, San Francisco.
It is a fascinating, full-circle story of an exhilarating triumph at an auction house, and it began with an e-mail. Sue Lee, the executive director of CHSA, was at the office on a weekend last February. Soon it’d be St. Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day and the Year of the Tiger. She decided to check the museum’s general mailbox when she saw a note alerting CHSA to an auction, the next Tuesday, for eleven vivid watercolor paintings created some 50 years ago for the fabled Kan’s Restaurant on Grant Avenue.
The artist was Jake Lee, who’d been commissioned by Johnny Kan, whose elegant restaurant catered to Hollywood stars as well as tourists. Kan prided himself on presenting real Chinese cuisine (no chop suey for him), and published one of the first important Chinese cookbooks, Eight Immortal Flavors, with a foreword by James Beard and a cover illustration by, who else, Jake Lee).
Sue Lee (no relation, by the way), had seen postcard versions of some of the paintings, which depicted Chinese people of the mid- to late 19th Century – sans stereotypes. A commercial artist by trade, Lee painted Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849, working on the railroad, digging wine caves and working vineyards in Sonoma County, rolling cigars and creating lanterns in San Francisco shops.
But, he showed, it wasn’t all work. There were beautiful renderings of an opera house in Chinatown; a lion dance, on a carpet of exploding firecrackers, on Grant Avenue. (Images in this column are shown courtesy of CHSA.org)
And now, the original paintings had a chance to return to Chinatown…if Lee could win them at the auction, in Pasadena. She began calling CHSA supporters and quickly raised $60,000. In Pasadena three days later, she found herself amidst several bidders for the works, but walked away with seven of the 11. The other four went to a Jake Lee collector in Bakersfield.
Lee was pretty satisfied, but knew that Kan had 12 originals displayed at his restaurant. The still-missing one was a mural of a Chinese firehouse team winning a race in Deadwood, S.D., on the Fourth of July in 1888 (check those lucky numbers!).
Lunar New Year fortune continued to side with her, as she received info that the painting had wound up with a former busboy at Kan’s. Lee tracked him down to an auto repair garage in town, and there, on a wall, was the Deadwood race. (No one knows, or is saying, how the 11 other paintings, all created in 1959, found their way to Southern California.)
Of course, there are four Jake Lees still away from home, but the CHSA is optimistic about putting all 12 together for a special exhibit. For now, it’s the lucky eight, and the museum has embellished the exhibit with mementos from Kan’s.
There are menus, a dinner plate, a cocktail glass and napkins, and photographs of celebrities – Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe (with Joe DiMaggio), Nat “King” Cole, Pat Morita, Paul Newman, Kim Novak, the Andrews Sisters – and a copy of guest book messages from Yul Brynner, Groucho Marx (“To the best Jewish restaurant I ever ate in”) and Sinatra (“The food’s the most!”).
And it was. From Peking duck to lichee ice cream (which Kan invented), all presented on a lazy susan (another Kan innovation), with Chinese American history gracing the walls of the Gum Shan (“golden mountains”) room.
Now, Jake Lee’s work is home. Giving me a quick tour around the exhibit gallery, Sue Lee sounded proud, for good reason. “We’re recovering our artistic and historical heritage,” she said.
For more on the exhibit, “Finding Jake Lee,” visit www.chsa.org. A 32-page catalog containing all 12 paintings and appreciations of Mssrs. Lee and Kan, is available through the CHSA. The museum is at 965 Clay Street, San Francisco CA 94108.