Chinatown Dreams: The Life and Photographs of George Lee edited by Geoffrey Dunn, essays by Lisa Liu Grady, Tony Hill, James D. Houston, Sandy Lydon, Morton Marcus, and George Ow, Jr. [in Bloomsbury Review]
If a single picture speaks a thousand words, then the timeless images captured in Chinatown Dreams: The Life and Photographs of George Lee make up the history of a community long gone. George Lee, a second generation Chinese American born in 1922, began taking pictures as a teenager in the 1930s and continued through six decades as a documentary photographer. He took pictures for the Santa Cruz Sentinel for 30 years, as well as contributed several award-winning images to Associated Press. He served in World War II, then the Korean War as a military photographer for the U.S. Navy. When he passed away at age 76 in 1998, he left a priceless legacy that captures multi-generations of Chinese Americans living in the fourth and final Chinatown in Santa Cruz, a seaside town just south of San Francisco along the magnificent Pacific Coast.
Begun four years before Lee’s death, the book sprouted during a weekly breakfast meeting among friends. Completed seven years later, Chinatown Dreams is a tribute lovingly compiled as a series of personal essays and two poems by family members George Ow. Jr. and Lisa Liu Grady, and friends Geoffrey Dunn, Tony Hill, James D. Houston, Sandy Lydon and Morton Marcus – who all agreed most readily to quick interviews about the project. Designed by San Francisco-based designer Mark Ong, the result is a stunning display of lingering images and loving text.
As edited by Dunn, a local award-winning filmmaker and writer whose own family ties to George Lee go back 80 years, the book is both evocative memory piece and solid historical reportage. “George Lee, I believe, is one of the premiere Chinese American documentary photographers,” says Dunn, “and his collected works are really unique to American documentary photography. I don’t know of any other collections, at least on the west coast, that document such an extensive array of Chinese American history from the inside.”
At the crux of the history is George Ow, Jr., a beloved prominent businessman who is also George Lee’s nephew, who grew up in Chinatown as a young boy surrounded by an extended legion of relatives. While the majority of the book’s pictures are reminiscent of a family album, the history captured within its pages is also very much the story of Chinese America. Perhaps the most powerful images are of the generation of Chinese American men who arrived in the late 19th century who, due to exclusionary racist immigration and anti-miscegenation laws, were condemned to live out their lives as isolated bachelors. Denied the chance to have a family, they served as elderly “uncles” to the newest generations of Chinese Americans. Pointing to the book’s cover, Ow says, “I can be with Ah Fook again as a five-year-old, as he imbues me – look at his hand on my arm – to be his champion in living out his unfulfilled dreams.” Indeed, Ow has not only fulfilled Ah Fook’s hopes, but he plays an instrumental role in fulfilling the dreams of others as a quiet philanthropist. “It’s payback,” he insists with his usual modesty. “It’s payback to all the generations before me that helped ensure my successes. I was born under a lucky star. I had the advantages the older generations never did. So I’m paying back by helping to ensure the success of others.”
Ow’s cousin, Lisa Liu Grady, was also affected by the same anti-Asian exclusion laws that victimized the oldest Chinese Americans. Grady’s favorite photo by Lee is of Grady’s grandmother and her two young sons in front of the house that she had just bought on her own: “the photo captured my grandmother’s pride in owning a piece of the American Dream,” says Grady. But the underlying tragedy is what is missing from the picture. Because of the exclusion laws, Grady’s grandfather was prevented as a Chinese citizen (albeit married to a U.S. citizen!) from entering the country and therefore separated from his family for seven years. “My Grandmother, therefore, was raising her children on her own, earning a living for the family, and to have saved enough to own a home was truly an accomplishment,” says Grady.
More than the Chinese American story, Dreams is also the universal immigrants’ tale. “As the son of destitute Russian Jewish immigrants, I am aware of the brutal early years in the U.S. for so many of our families – their sufferings, persecutions, humiliations and especially their dreams of the future for (and through) their children,” says Morton Marcus who contributed his poems “The Immigrant’s Lament” and “The Photographer Remembers.” “I was concerned … with the experience of exile – the sense of being a stranger in a strange land, an outsider who carries in his or her soul not only the old ways but now the lost ways of the old country, ways he or she will always long for but is gone forever. …Uncle George caught that estrangement in the faces of the old men and women, and it was that sense of being torn in two directions that I wanted to get across in both my poems,” he adds.
While Lee recognized the isolation of previous generations, he himself was a community magnet. Contributor Sandy Lydon, author of Chinese Gold: The Chinese In the Monterey Bay Region, remembers Lee as “the ‘public Chinese’ in Santa Cruz, the one that everyone knew, the one that every school kid pestered when doing a project about China, the one who was interviewed at the start of every lunar new year. He was the go-between, the conduit between the Chinese community and everyone else. But, his photographs elevated him to the position of a chronicler, preserving the memory of a community that would otherwise slid off into the dustbins of history.”
Lee found connections in the most unexpected corners of his life. Case in point: James D. Houston, co-author of Farewell to Manzanar with his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, currently lives in the house that Lee frequented as a youngster, in which Lee discovered a long-forgotten darkroom that he used as a teenager. The house, a sprawling Santa Cruz Victorian, was owned by candy maker James Frazier Reed, the grandson of one of the co-organizers of the ill-fated Donner Party, the most tragic of the westward migrations that began in 1846. Houston published Snow Mountain Passage in 2001, based on the family’s experience. Here the youngest Donner survivor lived her final years. And here, Lee often visited as a young child, the honorary grandson the family wished they had had.
These are the kind of connections most important to local diversity consultant Tony Hill, who draws similarities between the Chinese American experience and, in his case, the African American experience. Hill’s essay, “Sharing the American Dream,” refers to a single photo in Lee’s collection of the circa 1948 photo of smiling David Lee Ow (George Ow’s brother) with his friend, African American Oscar Presley. Hill calls it “an anomaly so significant, so immense, that I can think of no other similar image in the American experience.” The two young boys “are united by the ways in which Asian and African Americans were targeted at the time by mainstream white racism and everyday prejudices. They are ‘allies’ in their marginalization.” More than half a century later, says Hill, those “as yet unfulfilled dreams of equality and ‘justice for all’ [need to] be embraced and reframed.”
George Lee had a vision. “George Lee would have been very proud of the book,” says editor Dunn. Lee’s legacy lives on, not only within his extended family and local community, but now for all of posterity to come.
Review: The Bloomsbury Review, March/April 2003
Readers: Young Adult, Adult