Jake Lee and Chinese American History

by Gordon H. Chang
(Essay excerpt from the catalog Finding Jake Lee: The Paintings at Kan’s.)


Though there is much still to learn about the history of Chinese America, Jake Lee is emerging as the visual chronicler of the Chinese American past. No other artist, of any background, has presented that history as richly and as evocatively as Lee did in his many, striking compositions. Completed over a lifetime of work, Lee’s paintings of historical sites, moments, and experiences give us an artistic vision that moves us, excites us, and intrigues us to this day. We see his paintings and we want to know more!

For much of his life, Lee was known primarily as a commercial artist who completed arresting illustrations for travel magazines, greeting cards, and book jackets. He was an art teacher, with many students who learned the use of water-soluble pigments to depict the many landscapes of mid-20th century California. Less well-known were his representations of the many places historically linked to the Chinese of the state and the West. To this day, few in America know about Chinese work in the fisheries, in the early wine industry, in 19th century urban industry, and in the colorful cultural life of San Francisco in the years before the Great Earthquake. But Jake knew about this history and brings these episodes to life for us to see and to make us think. At a time when most Americans thought Chinese Americans had just been laundrymen, houseboys, or Charlie Chan, characters they saw on television, Lee pushed audiences to go beyond and appreciate the Chinese as real, vital, historical actors. What kinds of lives did they live? Look at their contributions to the development of California. He would not let their imprint disappear.

As a visual historian, he connected us with the past, but foremost he was an artist. Yes, he presented appealing scenes for the visitor to San Francisco who wanted a visual memento and he was able to bring car club magazine stories about old California to life. This is the work that paid the bills. But he was also a thoughtful, gifted artist, and here we are just beginning to understand his aesthetic and sensibility. He mastered Western art techniques and visualizations, but also knew how to handle the Chinese ink brush, write Chinese calligraphy, and integrate the use of the Chinese brush with Western watercolors. These elements appear in his art, sometimes in hidden and sometimes in obvious ways, but how and where did he develop that style? What was he trying to do artistically in those paintings. As with much of his life and work, we don’t know yet.

It is now up to us to excavate his life and career to fully appreciate his accomplishments and learn what he wanted to say. We need to understand him as the artist of Chinese American life and history.

Gordon Chang is Professor of History at Stanford University.

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