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Chinatown, 1941. From 'Chinatown Dreams': Moon Lai Bok hangs at the Chee Kong Tong Temple.

Book of Dreams

How photographer George Lee's new book saves a piece of Santa Cruz history

By Geoffrey Dunn

Editor's Note: James D. Houston's article appears in the new book Chinatown Dreams: The Life and Photographs of George Lee. This introduction from Geoffrey Dunn provides some insight into Lee and the book itself. Both are reprinted by permission.

The photographs of George Lee constitute one of the most important collections of photographic images in the California archive. Taken over a period of more than 60 years, Lee's artistically rendered portraits and landscapes document a significant era and experience in California history. The son of Chinese immigrants, Lee constructed an inside--and profoundly intimate--view of a California Chinese-American community, one that would ultimately span five generations by the time of his untimely death in the summer of 1998.

George Lee lived and breathed photography. He was a consummate professional and a highly trained artist. He began his formal training in photography as a teenager and he would continue to earn a living in his beloved trade for six decades. He identified so closely with the profession that in literally hundreds of self-portraits and casual family snapshots, he is holding some form of photographic equipment, most often a camera. Three years after his death, it is all but impossible to think of him as separate from his craft. His brother-in-law, George Ow Sr., who arrived in Santa Cruz from China as a teenager in the 1930s and who was immediately befriended by Lee, noted that "[George] must have been born with a camera in his hand. That's just who he was."

In addition to being a widely celebrated, award-winning documentary photographer, Lee was additionally a photo news journalist for local newspapers and the Associated Press, and a commercial photographer for several other regional publications. He also won numerous awards for photographic equipment displays and taught photography at the collegiate level to several generations of students on the Central California coast.

While George Lee's life and artistic vision sprang from a California Chinatown--a vision that has both shaped and inspired this book--it should be duly noted that Lee's artistry transcended the Chinatown of his youth and early adulthood. The more than 100 photographs collected for this book reflect just a small sampling of his photographic oeuvre. He took landscape photographs of the Sierra Nevada, for instance, that rival those of Ansel Adams. He took travel photos on his journeys around the world that were suitable for publication in National Geographic. He documented the Miss California Pageant in Santa Cruz for decades and recorded floods and earthquakes and building demolitions. He also took thousands of Kodachrome "snapshots" that would fit comfortably into family scrapbooks across America.

The photographs collected in this book were chosen for their historic and artistic value, of course, but also because of the way in which they reflect the artist himself. For the most part, they chronicle Lee's life--and the lives of his extended family--from the 1930s through the 1980s. They reflect his dreams and aspirations, and they capture the spirit of those who loved and knew him best. Indeed, if there was one thing in George Lee's life that rivaled photography, it was his family--so much so that the two are inexorably linked in his photographs.

Modest and understated, perhaps to a fault, Lee was nevertheless proud of his photographic archive and fully recognized its significance. He kept extensive files of more than 3,000 prints and negatives, which were generally organized around themes and chronologies that have provided structure and direction to this book. His archive represents a unique and fascinating chronicle for much of the twentieth century -- and he intended it as such.

George Lee was born in San Francisco, on Dec. 19, 1922. As a young boy, he also was known by the Chinese nickname of "Go," Cantonese for "the tall one." His father, Lee Song Si, a native of Canton, China, had come to America some time around the turn of the century as a so-called "paper merchant," which allowed him entry into California during a period of profoundly limited Chinese immigration. His mother, Lee Gue She, who was born in a southern Chinese village near Macao in 1900, had arrived in San Francisco in the immediate aftermath of World War I. She was nearly two decades younger than her husband.

When Lee was 3 years old, the family relocated briefly to Tracy, in the sweltering San Joaquin Valley, then to the coastal fishing and farming community of Santa Cruz. His father took a job as a cook on the Wilder Dairy Ranch, on the coastal road north of the city, working six days a week on the ranch, then returning by train to the family home for Sunday dinners. The family eventually grew to seven children. George was followed by Emily, Rose, Wee, Young, Luella and Jun.

The family lived in what was the fourth of Santa Cruz's Chinatown communities, commonly referred to as Birkenseer's Chinatown, on Bellevue Place. Nestled between the San Lorenzo River and Santa Cruz's downtown business district, the Santa Cruz Chinatown of Lee's childhood and adolescence was one marginalized from Santa Cruz's northern European mainstream. It was also bordered on the north by the landmark Garibaldi Hotel, a colorful rooming house, saloon and restaurant frequented by working-class Italian immigrants of the region. Later in his life Lee observed that "most of my childhood friends were Italians."

Indeed, it was one such childhood friend, Frank Del Bianco, who introduced him to photography as a young teenager. "He was the smart one," Lee would later quip. "He went into banking."

The first photographic images in Lee's life were family portraits and those attached to the immigration documents of his mother and father. He and his family were also photographed by Lee's elementary school teacher, Alice Halsey, in the early 1930s. These rare photographic images assumed a special place in the visual fabric of Lee's early childhood. He took special care to preserve them throughout his life.

Lee was educated in local schools--Laurel Elementary and Mission Hill Junior High--before entering Santa Cruz High School in the fall of 1936. He had already developed a reputation as a solid photographer by then, working after school and during the summer for the Camera Shop, an early photography business on Walnut Avenue. After graduating from high school in January of 1941, Lee continued his studies--including photography--at the nearby junior college in Salinas.

American photography had experienced a major renaissance during the 1930s with the formation of the Federal Photography Division of the Resettlement Administration, later to become the Farm Security Administration (FSA), under the direction of Roy Emerson Stryker. Photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and John Vachon were all hired by Stryker during the height of the Depression, and their photographs came to dominate the visual landscape of the nation for the better part of a decade.

The teenage Lee was clearly influenced by these photographers. In an interview I conducted with him in the 1980s, Lee noted that the images of the FSA photographers, along with those of Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who was taking photos in nearby Point Lobos at the time, had indeed had an impact on him.

Unlike the FSA photographers, however, who traveled around the country in search of poverty, or what anthropologists call "the other," Lee photographed his own community in Santa Cruz's Chinatown. The men--named Chin Lai, Lee Lam Bok, Yee Hen Bok, Ah Fook, and Moon Lai Bok--were the last of a generation that had come at the end of the 19th century to Gum She, as they called it, the Land of Gold Mountain, working in the fields and laundries and gambling halls of the Central California coast. They had come from China with dreams and aspirations for a better life, but had found instead an institutionalized racism that relegated them to the periphery of mainstream American society.

Lee, who had recently saved up enough money to purchase a high-grade, German-made Rolleicord camera, knew and loved the men he photographed. Indeed, they were a part of the very fabric of his life. Many years later, Lee told me that he viewed the aging men as "natural subject matter" for his burgeoning interest in photography. "They probably wouldn't let anybody else take pictures of them."

Lee took literally thousands of family photographs during the next four decades. He also became a beloved teacher of photography throughout the region. He taught hundreds of local students at Cabrillo College, Harbor High and Santa Cruz Adult School, and was instrumental in bringing dark rooms to Harbor High and Mission Hill Junior High School. He took courses and kept up with innovations in the profession until he died.

During the 1980s, with the publication of Sandy Lydon's seminal work, Chinese Gold: The Chinese of the Monterey Bay Region, Lee was inspired to pull out his old prints and negatives for inclusion in Lydon's book, a subsequent museum exhibit and a documentary film. "I knew back then that my photos would be of historical value," he told me shortly before he died. "I knew they were worth saving. I just didn't know it would all fly by so quickly."

Chinatown Dreams: The Life and Photographs of George Lee: James D. Houston, Geoffrey Dunn and all of the book's contributing authors host a book release party Wed., Dec. 11, at 7pm at Holy Cross Parish Hall, 170 High St., Santa Cruz. A booksigning precedes the event at 6:30pm.

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From the December 11-18, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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