In the late 1940s, writer Lisa See’s father and grandfather discovered a cache of rare, antique photographs and glass plate negatives in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. The more than 100 pictures date from the late 19th and early 20th century and may have come from an old photography studio previously located in the area. The photos capture daily life during the years between LA’s tragic Anti-Chinese Massacre in 1871 and the 1930s, when the city’s original Chinatown was demolished to make way for Union Station. See’s collection of bustling street scenes and intimate photographic portraits offer a glimpse at an important but under-documented period in Chinese American history. And now, thanks to her recent donation to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, the images are available for public study and preservation.
In an era when Chinese Americans were largely excluded from mainstream American life, LA’s Old Chinatown was a crucial center for community and commerce. In one of the photos from See’s collection, a man in Chinese dress with a long braid crosses a major, still-unpaved thoroughfare, passing a horse-drawn wagon, bicycles, and telephone poles. In another, a bearded man with a Chinese tunic, a pork pie hat, and a carrying pole balanced on his shoulders pauses before the Lee Kwai Sing Chinese and Japanese Bazaar to face the photographer as he snaps the shot. “No one has seen these [images] in over 100 years,” See said on a recent video call with Hyperallergic. “I knew they were irreplaceable, and I knew no one else had them.”
The staged studio portraits of elegantly dressed sitters were often sent back to China as a way of keeping in touch with faraway family and friends. Other portraits were used for identification purposes in the wake of the 1882 Exclusion Act and other discriminatory policies that impacted early Chinese Americans.
While none of the photos in this collection are known to represent See’s own relatives, she has strong family ties to the place that the photos depict. Her great grandfather Fong See was a community leader and the founder of the F. Suie One Company, now one of the oldest Asian antique businesses in California. “History is something that happens to people, that happens to families,” See said, and her novel On Gold Mountain (1995) tells the history of the Chinese in the United States through her own family’s story.
After keeping the collection in the family for the past decades, See decided to gift it after wildfires have repeatedly destroyed a number of homes in her neighborhood. She hopes that the collection will shed light on this point in history for posterity, and that it will encourage others to reconsider found relics and family heirlooms. “So often our history is lost because no one thought it had any value at the time,” See noted. “This is stuff that when it disappears, it really does disappear forever, so I encourage people to think about where stuff should go. There’s so much that we can lose, but also so much that we can preserve.”