Chinese American History Mural by James Leong

James Leong, (1929-2011) an internationally known Chinese American artist, was commissioned in 1952 to paint a mural depicting 100 years of the history of Chinese in America to be placed on a wall in the new federally-funded Ping Yuen housing project for low-income Chinese in the heart of San Francisco Chinatown. Starting on the left side of the 5 x 17.5 foot mural, he depicted Chinese immigrant farmers against the background of the Great Wall as they departed to California, leaving their wives and children, to mine for gold and work on building railroads,  followed by sections with iconic Chinese concepts,  such as a Lion dance during Chinese New Year, image of Chinese women who later came to the U.S.,  a WW II Chinese American soldier in front of a display of awarded combat  ribbons standing atop crumbled papers to symbolize the option to drop "paper names," an  image of a Chinese couple and child assimilated to American clothing and lifestyle, with the new Ping Yuen housing facility in Chinatown on the far right. Some traditional Chinese images such as a dragon, pagodas, and a woman wearing a cheongsam are mixed in American attire such as a business suit and tie for a man.

Unfortunately, his vibrant colored  mural was a controversial work, rejected because some Chinese felt it was "Uncle Tom-ish" or disliked the image of a Chinese wearing a pigtail or queue. Furthermore, the 1950s were a time of tense relations between Communist China and the U.S. and the American government thought the mural might have symbolism with political undertones.

Leong was disappointed, and went to Europe to continue as an artist for decades in Norway as well as in Italy, before returning to the U.S. and living in Seattle where he felt more accepted than in San Francisco where he was born. One Hundred Years of History remained at the Ping Yuen housing, not hanging on a wall in honor, but neglected and placed unceremoniously in a recreation room where children inadvertently spilled soda and food on it or hit it with misdirected ping pong balls.  Finally, in the late 1990s it was salvaged by the Chinese Historical Society of America and painstakingly restored by Leong in 2000, as he describes in the video below, and proudly hung on the wall in the Museum Learning Center since 2001.


The Ships That Brought Early Chinese to Gold Mountain

By 1867, the Pacific Mail Company was given authority by the U. S. government to operate steamships that transported the early generations of Chinese immigrants from Guangdong from Hong Kong to Pacific ports like San Francisco. These were large vessels, some with luxurious accommodations and  amenities for cabin passengers.

 Chinese could not occupy the upper cabin levels but travelled in the cheaper steerage class below the cabin levels next to the cargo hold, which was crowded, uncomfortable, and unsanitary, especially since the voyage could take several weeks for the earliest immigrants in the late 19th century.

 The Pacific Mail Company had financial difficulties by 1900 and the government transferred the route to the Dollar Steamship Lines.

From the early 1900s to early 1930s, the Dollar Steamship Line, named for the owner, Robert Dollar, operated the President line of ships, President Harrison, President Cleveland, President Wilson, and eight other ships named after Presidents.  The success of the company ended with the Great Depression when the high costs of new ships, the President Coolidge and President Hoover, proved its undoing, and the U. S. government transferred its ownership and operation to the American President Lines. 

Unlike the austere quarters for steerage passengers like our Chinese ancestors, the upper deck cabins of these ships were refined, if not luxurious, as the following images show. 

To see other photos and description of life on the ship for tourists, this link goes to an archive on the Dollar Steamship Line.

And while it is not stated what Chinese, and other passengers, in the crowded steerage section were provided by way of food, it was probably of poor quality, quantity, and taste.  

In contrast, the tourists in the cabin class had dining room service with elegant menu offerings as shown in the menu below on the President Hoover in 1932 with the artistic cover. 

Among the luncheon offerings were filet of rock cod, fricassee of lamb with dumplings, braised sirloin tips a la Jardiniere... and assorted pastries and cheeses for dessert.

At the top of the menu page is a picture of  two Chinese, one giving a fortune reading to the other man, an activity quite unrelated to the meal, but probably included to introduce the white diners to an unfamiliar exotic aspect of Orientals.

It is interesting also to see some of the 1940s advertising used by the American President Lines. So, while the cabin class tourists are wining, dining, and having fun, down below them are the Chinese immigrants stuffed in the steerage class on their way to Angel Island Immigration Station or to other immigration detention centers, hoping to enter Gold Mountain.



Chinese Business Directory excerpts 1882

Well Fargo Bank published a directory of Chinese businesses in the west as early as 1882. Excerpts of some of the listings are shown here from San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville, Virginia City in northern California and Los Angeles in southern California.  Also included are businesses in Portland, Oregon and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Even from this small sample, it is clear that laundries were the primary business for the Chinese followed by restaurants.  Merchants, cigar makers, and shoe makers, were also common.


White Writer Finds 1909 NY Chinatown Not As Bad As Its Reputation

       An adventuresome white writer ventured into New York City Chinatown in 1909 to report on life in this enclave. He noted that, "Mention Chinatown and Chinaman and what picture comes before your mental vision? A laundry __ an opium joint __ a chop suey restaurant or a mission where Chinamen become Christians through the efforts of zealous American females and __occasionally some happening that stirs up all the newspapers and public to a passing interest.  Rather a gloomy picture if taken as a complete view of the Chinese."
        He braced himself before making his visit, writing in the third person,  "It was quite natural that one should feel some trepidation in visiting Chinatown for the first time so the writer went there equipped with a letter from the police department but there was no need of any precaution for he was met everywhere with courtesy and hospitality."
        He focused on what types of clothing the Chinese men wore and concluded that clothing and menswear in general is not as important to Chinese as it is to Americans. There are very few changes of style, with the most radical changes occurring with the change of dynasties.
          The writer concluded after his visit to Chinatown that: “If you go to Chinatown looking for bad things you will find them—so you will on Fifth avenue or any other locality. If you expect to find some things uniquely bad you will be disappointed but if you go there to learn something of interest of a strange people , of a great empire in the far East, you will do so.”


Podcasting Asian America

A wealth of information about important topics ranging from historical to psychological to cultural aspects of Chinese- and other Asian Americans is available through interviews and discussions on many podcasts, freely downloadable, from itunes.

One podcast New Books in Asian American Studies features interviews of academic authors of important recent books on Asian Americans.

Another podcast, They Call Us Bruce, by Jeff Yang and Phil Yu features discussions and interviews of the work of contemporary artists, politicians, writers, and performers.  

Another podcast resource is the Potluck Podcast Collective

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