Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Ngoot Lee, Artist, Cook and Charter Member of the Group of the Oblong Table aka Chinese Gourmet Club aka Gourmet Eating Club aka Chinese Gourmet Society

At, there is a passenger list with Ngoot Lee, age eleven and born in “Toishan, China”. On September 29, 1939, he departed Hong Kong and arrived at Vancouver, British Columbia on October 19, 1939.

A train took Lee to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia where he departed by sea on October 27, 1939 and landed in Boston the next day. Waiting for him was his brother, Lin Lee who resided at 50 Beach Street in Chinatown.

Lee testified he was born on CR [Chinese Republic] 18-12-8 or January 7, 1930 at Goot Woo Village, Sun Ning District (Taishan), China. (Public records at have his birth date as July 1, 1930.)

Below are selected pages from Lee’s Chinese Exclusion Act case file number 2500/12886 at the National Archives’ Boston branch in Waltham, Massachusetts. 

Testimony was also given by Lee’s brother Lin and cousin Yoke Fung Lee.

Lee has not been found in the 1940 United States Census which was enumerated in April. In Lee’s file was a two-page school attendance letter, dated July 11, 1940, by Boston’s Office of Supervisor of Attendance. The second page said Lee was somewhere in New York City.

Joseph Heller and Speed Vogel’s No Laughing Matter (2004) said 
One of the people Zero [Mostel] introduced me to there was Ngoot Lee, a fine painter who soon became a good friend. When he was about ten, Ngoot left Canton to visit an uncle, a wealthy Chinatown merchant. Ngoot liked New York and decided to stay, attending school, then working in restaurants and at odd jobs until he moved to Twenty-eighth Street some ten years later. 
In 1950 Lee graduated from the School of Industrial Art in Manhattan. Also in the class of 1950 were future comic book artists Ernie Colon and Jim Infantino. A year behind them were Tony Tallarico and Angelo Torres.

The Palette yearbook

A photograph of Lee appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, June 17, 1950. 

The 1950 census recorded Lee (line 16) in Chinatown at 34–38 Mott Street in apartment 8. Of interest is one of the neighbors, in apartment 7, Virginia Lee who worked in advertising. His future career would include advertising.

Several New York City telephone directories are available at Lee was not listed in 1953. Directories for 1954 to 1956 and 1958 were not available. Lee was listed in 1957, 1959 and 1960 at 51 West 28th Street. 




The Detroit Times (Michigan), August 3, 1958, reported the new art gallery at Grinnell’s music store. Included in the exhibition was Lee’s watercolor of horses.

Arts, January 1960, said 
Ngoot Lee, Moura Chabor, William Harris: Chabor shows pastels, oils and gouaches of dancing peasants and children at play. Lee’s pastels and inks are of animals and natural scenes. Harris shows collages which are really cut-out and assembled pictures and which, because of the sharp contrast between figure and ground, have an effect like that of a drawing. (Dorona, Nov. 18–Dec. 16.)
Lee met Zero Mostel on West 28th Street where each had an art studio. Mostel taught some Yiddish to Lee.

Lee was mentioned in the syndicated column “The Lyons Den” that appeared in the Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 21, 1961. 
Zero Mostel, star of “Rhinoceros,” is an accomplished painter. He has a protege named Ngoot Lee who was born in Kung Tung. Mostel invited the youngster to his summer home in Provincetown but there wasn’t enough room. Ngoot Lee therefore was given a room in the spacious home of Lily Harmon the painter. On the first night she cooked chow mein for him. He sampled it and said: “Hmmmm just like Mother used to make.”
In the early 1960s Lee was a charter member of an eating club that included Mostel, Mel Brooks, Joseph Heller, Speed Vogel, George Mandel, Julius Green, Mario Puzo, Joseph Stein and Carl Reiner. The start of the club was told in Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22 (2011). The club had various names: Group of the Oblong Table and Chinese Gourmet Club in Kenneth Tynan’s profile of Mel Brooks in The New Yorker, October 30, 1978, page 101 (also here); Gourmet Club in The New York Times Magazine, Part 2, November 3, 1985, “Eating with Their Mouth’s Open”, page 62; Gourmet Eating Club in Carl Reiner’s My Anecdotal Life: A Memoir (2003), page 176; and Chinese Gourmet Society in Mel Brooks’ All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business (2021), page 139. Brooks said Lee 
... was a brilliant calligrapher and furniture designer who worked for Bloomingdale’s. He would set up some of their furniture displays and do framed calligraphy on the walls.
Lee in a detail of Victor Juhasz’s illustration
for “Eating with Their Mouth’s Open”

Excerpt from “Eating with Their Mouth’s Open”:
[Speed] Vogel: Ngoot, is it true that the first time you invited Zero Mostel to your studio for a meal, he ate so much he could not get off the chair?

Lee: It’s true. He fell asleep with his head on the plate. And when he woke up, he started teaching me Yiddish. The first thing he taught me was “Siz shver tzu zein a Yid  (It’s hard to be a Jew).”

[Joseph] Heller: What would Ngoot be if he had not come to New York and went to Kansas instead? He’d be Van Johnson, right?
In the New York Daily News, June 5, 1962, Charles McHarry, in his syndicated column, “On the Town”, said
Zero Mostel’s long-time buddy, painter Ngoot Lee, and pretty Sutiluck Kongkatong, a Siamese, were married Sunday at Zero’s house in Manhattan.
For the Friendship Press, Lee illustrated the 1962 book, Sun Hee and the Street Boy

Two years later he illustrated The Boy Who Couldn’t Talk, another Friendship Press book. 

Lee was in a group exhibition at De Mena Gallery which advertised in The Village Voice, December 16, 1965. 

At some point Lee retired and lives in Chinatown.

Further Reading and Viewing
Memories of NYC Chinatown, photographs of Ngoot Lee
Bronx Banter, The Group of the Oblong Table (aka The Chinese Gourmet Club)
Huff Post, Midnight at the Rickshaw Garage

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