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.

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