(Next post on Friday: Tyrus Wong at the Art Institute of Chicago)
Most biographies begin with a date and place of birth, but Jake Lee’s story begins with a question mark. Lee informed his friends, colleagues, and students that he born in 1915 in Monterey, California. When he died in 1991, his death certificate and memorial service program confirmed the date of birth, but provided new information as to the location: Lee was born in Guangzhou, China.Pages eighteen and nineteen had a few more details.
A photograph of Lee as a toddler (left) in California indicates that he left China at a very young age. He grew up in Monterey, where many of the small Chinese American community relied on fishing for their livelihood….Lee’s father ran a grocery-delivery business; he loaded a truck in Monterey with produce, canned goods, and dried fish, and sold to the Chinese communities along the Sacramento Delta.
Much of the mystery surrounding Lee continues to prevail. None of Lee’s family members could be located during this effort to uncover the basic facts of his life. They are only revealed through indirect reference: the return address of a sister in living in San Antonio, Texas; the name of a brother in Castro Valley, California; the names of his parents, Dea Sing and Chin Shee, on Lee’s death certificate; an early photograph that presumably shows Lee’s family. Those who knew him recall that Lee did not mention his family….With this information, I searched Ancstry.com. The U.S. Federal Census yielded one hit: the 1920 census enumerated January 7.
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Success Story: A dozen years or so ago, against rather pastoral backdrop of the Watsonville scene, three youngsters went around together, played football and basketball together and shared A.W.O.L. afternoons from their high school classes. Two were Chinese and one was an inquisitive Irish lad named Gallagher.
In their more serious moments they used to hang around the office of the local daily paper, the Watsonville Register. Gallagher wrote sports, and one of the Chinese boys, Charlie Leong, spent his time there trying to find out what makes a newspaper tick. The third lad, jake Lee, painted signs and sketched everything he could find to sketch.
College separated them and they went their ways, but now today they have something else in common besides their school dals [sic]: they have all arrived. Gallagher—J. Wes Gallagher—is one of the A.P.’s crack European was correspondents. Leong, who puts out the English-language Chinese Press here, is one of the best-known Chinese editors on the Coast. An last week the other member of the trio achieved the recognition of the nationally established art dealers, Raymond & Raymond. The firm’s San Francisco branch on Sutter street is sponsoring a one-man water-color exhibition—of the works of Jake Lee.
A day or two ago I was talking to my friend Jake Lee, who is taking a course in commercial art.The Spartan Daily, January 10, 1938, published an article, “A New Flag to Wave”, about its name-plate. On page two the editor said Lee designed a new name-plate.
“You must meet Mickey Slingluff sometime,” I said. “He is majoring in the same thing.”
“I had a course with him last quarter,” Lee replied. “There were only the two of us in the class.’
“Oh, then you know him already.”
“No,” he said, “Slingluff was always absent.”
Wilbur Korsmeier, present Daily head has had Jake Lee, (incidentally a bonified [sic] art major) at work making a new streamlined nameplate. It will boast the very latest style of design, a “Gothic Script” by name. It’s definitely scheduled to make its first appearance in tomorrow’s Daily. Watch for it.The new Spartan Daily name-plate appeared the next day.
Two SJS alumni, whose footprints have drifted together from time to time since their college days, have collaborated once more in the February issue of Ford Times. With words by Charles Leong and paintings by Jake Lee, they describe the life and times of old Chinatown in San Francisco.
Charles Leong is well-known for editing and publishing various American-Chinese editions. Jake Lee was graduated as a commercial artist, but has earned his fame as a top depicter of Western scenes in watercolor.
Lee has just completed a successful show Jan. 27 to Feb. 3 at the San Francisco Chinese YMCA. Many of the pictures were loaned by the Ford Motor Co., which owns quite a large collection of Lee’s works.Lee signed his work as Jake Lee, but sometimes he was credited or referred to as Jake W. Lee.
Jake Lee was born and raised in Monterey, California. As a young lad he spent much of his time watching artists painting. Sometimes he would make pencil sketches along with them. He brought these drawings home to his mother, and she bought him a set of crayons. He said he was the only one in his class that had a set of 45 different colors.
When he got to high school, he was thrilled to enroll in an art class and to be introduced to watercolors. They were better than crayons because they sparkled and were much faster. He learned to work very rapidly in order to capture the movement of the surf around Pacific Grove and Carmel. His father frequently took him on trips to San Francisco. The city fascinated him—the noise, the pace, the color—everything desirable for watercolor painting. He was too shy to sketch in the stores, so he drew looking out of windows.
When it was time to go to college, he has an important decision to make. Art, after all, was a love with him, but was it a career? His father didn’t think so, and urged Jake to study architecture. He started out that way, but more and more art classes filled his curriculum. He graduated from San Jose State with as A.B., and later moved to San Francisco. Here he worked for a newspaper, but every chance he had he painted. One day, when he was painting on Telegraph Hill, he chose a quaint building as a subject. It was Shadow Restaurant, and when he was partially finished, a man came over and stood by watching. He asked what Jake was going to do with it when he finished. Jake had stacks of paintings at home and never given a thought as to what to do with them. He asked him if he would sell it. Jake was so surprised, he didn’t know what to say, and the man offered him $35. He owned the restaurant. Twenty years later, when Jake went to visit the restaurant, he met the owner again. He told him the restaurant had a fire, but one of the first things he saved was the painting. He still has it in his dining room.
Jake had his first one-man show in 1943, and has had many since. After the service, he moved to L.A., and there he played in the movies, because there were many shows using orientals. He became interested in set designing and did many stage sets for little theater groups. He also has designed murals, covers for books and Westways Magazine, illustrated stories, and has contributed over thirty paintings to Ford Times.