THE BLOG
08/08/2011 10:02 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2011

Rush to Art Exhibit at Chinese Historical Society: It's Gold!

Recently a friend brought to my attention the current exhibit of Jake Lee's vibrant water colors depicting unseen history to California's earliest days at the Chinese Historical Society of America (the oldest and largest in the U.S.) at 965 Clay St. in San Francisco. The name of the show is "Finding Jake Lee: The Paintings at Kan's". The paintings have been on view since February 12th and are up only until September 16, 2011, so that is why I say rush there before the exhibit ends!

I was mesmerized by the scenes of the Chinese in blue workers' suits, long black braids down their backs under straw hats, "1849 -- Lured by the magic of California's Gold Rush, Chinese disembarked on San Francisco's waterfront en route to the gold mines." There they were in 1869 building the Central Pacific railroad in the Sierras connecting tracks with the Union Pacific to link America together as never before. "Cigar makers in San Francisco," "Vineyard workers in Sonoma County," "Chinese New Year Celebration" in San Francisco before the earthquake, "Chinese Opera House, San Francisco," and more. I am telling you, they are mesmerizing. The history in the paintings alone could have been the focal point to the exhibit but there are layers of stories to this show.

So who painted them and why? The artist is Jake Lee, who arrived on Angel Island in 1914 at age two when his parents moved from Toi Shan City in Guang Dong Province to California. His artistic talent was evident early and Jake Lee would later study art at San Jose State College. He became a commercial artist, a teacher, and a gifted painter whose appreciation and emphasis on the important role the Chinese had in the formation of this country inspired what and how he painted. It is enlightening to see Jake Lee's work because he tells our history, too, showing us something perhaps we didn't know about those early California days. It is a privilege to see these cinematic paintings not only for what we learn from the content but also from Lee's integration of Chinese classical technique with western watercolors.

Of course, the story doesn't end there. These large glorious pictures were hung in Kan's restaurant on Grant Avenue in San Francisco, because Johnny Kan, the Chinatown "celebrity" restauranteur had commissioned or obtained them from Lee in 1959. So there the twelve paintings decorated the walls while a whole other story was going on. Johnny Kan was one of those forces of nature who created one of the original Chinese fine dining establishments in the U.S., and did that place swing! Like a Steve Rubell with Studio 54, or Glenn Birnbaum, of New York City's Mortimer's restaurant, Johnny Kan just happened to strike gold doing all the right things in the right place at the right time with his restaurant in Chinatown. Our own San Francisco Chronicle writer, Herb Caen, frequented Kan's and often wrote about it in his Chronicle column. The exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society has a wall of photographs from the grand old days at Kan's. There's Frank and Sammy and Dean (the Rat Pack), Marilyn, Kim Novak and Cary Grant. Johnny Kan wooed the stars to come up from Hollywood. He made them feel at home, gave them the best authentic Chinese food (not chop suey!) east of China, and had their photo on the wall. It was a go-to place, the real deal. See what I mean? There's a whole other story right there!

I mean it when I say, see this show of Jake Lee's paintings, only up until Sept. 16th. I know this is hard to believe but there is yet another storyline in how the CHSA Executive Director, Sue Lee, obtained the paintings. Sue Lee got an email out-of-the-blue saying these historic paintings were about to go on the auction block at John Moran's art auction house in Pasadena (Feb. 2011) in a week! Ms. Lee had to act quickly or the paintings would be dispersed and gone forever. You can read all about that thrilling story in a New York Times article that ran telling all about it, or get Sue Lee to tell you herself. It is a great story from beginning to end, a real heart-pounder to hear all she had to go through to get those priceless paintings!

If your interest in Chinatown history is lit, as mine is, treat yourself, or a group, to a walking tour with a true San Franciscan treasure, Charlie Chin. Mr. Chin's knowledge and historic references will forever transform your understanding (he certainly did mine!) of the workings of Chinatown and how integral the surge of Chinese who came here in the early days were to the building, formation and culture of our great city by the golden gate, San Francisco.

Rush over to the "Finding Jake Lee" exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society: It's gold!