(from the California
Chinatown Dreams: The Life and Photographs of George Lee
Geoffrey Dunn, Editor
Contributors: Lisa Liu Grady, Tony Hill, James D. Houston, Sandy Lydon,
Morton Marcus, George Ow, Jr.
(Capitola Book Company, Capitola, CA, 2002
140 pages, hardcover ISBN 0-932319-06-8,
softcover ISBN 0-932319-07-6)
Reviewed by Alyson Belcher
Program Manager, Legacy Oral History Project
San Francisco Performing Arts Museum and Library
Chinatown Dreams: The Life and Photographs of George
Lee is a beautiful collection of photographs and writings that provide
an intimate look at the history of the Chinese American community in Santa
Cruz. Photographer George Lee, his nephew George Ow, Jr., Tony Hill, Sandy
Lydon, Morton Marcus and Geoffrey Dunn conceived the idea of a book and
accompanying exhibit that would celebrate Lee's life and work. James D.
Houston and Lisa Liu Grady (Lee's cousin by marriage) soon joined the
project. Unfortunately, Lee died of a stroke in 1998, while he was in the
process of assembling his prints and slides. Through the dedication of his
family and friends, both the exhibit and the book were successfully
Lee was born in San Francisco in 1922 and grew up in the small Chinatown
community in Santa Cruz. In his early teens, a friend introduced him to
photography. Among Lee's first photographs were family portraits, including
those attached to the immigration documents of his parents. By the time he
died in 1998, Lee had used his camera to document five generations of family
and friends and to transcend the boundaries of hostility and racism that
challenged the Chinese American community in California.
Even though Santa Cruz was notoriously anti-Chinese, Lee befriended people
who had come from around the world in search of a better life. As a young
boy, he met some descendants of James Frazier Reed, a co-organizer of the
Donner Party. The family, which made its fortune in the candy business, was
supportive of Lee's interest in photography and gave him some equipment that
allowed him to set up a darkroom in his bedroom.
At the age of 20, Lee joined the Navy and served as a photographer during
World War II and later in the Korean War. When he returned to Santa Cruz, he
dedicated his professional life to photography. He worked as a photographer
for the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the Associated Press, in addition to
teaching photography classes to several generations of students at local
colleges. His wartime friend Eddie Webber opened a camera store in Santa
Cruz and hired Lee to work the front counter. Lee was one of the first
Chinese people to work a `visible job' in a white-owned business.
Lee was influenced early on by the photographers of the
Farm Security Administration. Like those photographers, Lee was documenting
the lives of people who were searching for a new beginning and often
struggling to survive. However, Lee was working within his own community and
his photographs have a feeling of intimacy and spontaneity. His photographs
reveal not so much the suffering and the challenges these people faced, but
the love and hope that kept them moving forward together.
This book is important because it documents a historically significant
community and because it is a vehicle for the optimism and artistry of
George Lee's life and work.