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Andrew Singer's Movie Review of Vanishing Chinatown

This special issue is a review of the documentary Vanishing Chinatown: The World of The May's Photo Studio

Vanishing Chinatown: The World of The May’s Photo Studio captures “serendipity” in a dumpster. This documentary of an early-mid twentieth century photography studio in San Francisco’s Chinatown evocatively explores a lost piece of Chinese-American history. It is an emotionally-powerful experience with lively characters, quirky characters, and loving characters, all wrapped in mesmerizing music.

In the age of Zoom, I watched this twenty-eight-minute-long movie about the Chinatown in San Francisco, aired by the Chinese American Museum in Washington, DC, from my den on Cape Cod. Three times in fact. The presentation screening was followed by a conversation hosted by CAM Director David Uy with movie director (Emiko Omori), one of the producers (Lydia Tanji), and the artist-dumpster-diver-co-producer-interviewer who started it all (Wylie Wong). The film’s protagonists are not only Isabella May Lee and Leo Chan Lee, the sparks behind The May Studio, but also Corinne Chan Takayama, their enchanting granddaughter.

Isabella May, Leo, and Stanford Lee

Leo Chan Lee, a revolutionary fleeing the collapsing Qing Dynasty, emigrated to America as a paper son in 1911. He met Isabella May (known as May), the third of eight children whose father came to San Francisco in the 1870’s. Noting an unmet need, this entrepreneurial duo opened a commercial photography studio in Waverly Place in 1923, and relocated to its longtime home, 770 Sacramento Street, in 1931.

The May Studio “went beyond being just a commercial studio making images for money. What they created was a priceless archive of the Chinese in America.” They were artists and chroniclers of the residents, visitors, and life energy of Chinatown. I say they, but it is Corinne’s recollection of the later years that Leo ultimately ran the business, while May was a well-to-do housewife who shopped often, went out on lunch dates with her girlfriends, volunteered locally to help China, America, and Chinatown, and was her po po.

Isabella May Lee

The May Studio was in business for more than four decades. May died in 1968, and Leo in 1976. Once Leo died, their son, Stanford, sold the business. It was when the building was being cleaned out that then art-student Wylie Wong made his discovery. He lived in the area and had become acquainted with a nice old man at one of the remaining old Chinese stores, a man he is now convinced was none other than Leo. While walking by the former studio one day, he noticed an open dumpster and went to take a look. He pulled out a number of items, including photographs and this poster of a movie star with glitter hand-added by Leo to simulate the sequins on her dress.

The workmen noted Wylie’s interest and told him that there were many more inside and that they could be his for one dollar each. Jumping at the chance, Wylie soon owned 700 photographs, glass negative plates, and posters from The May Studio.

Glass plate negative

The Cantonese Opera photograph

While several thousand photographs have now been located and preserved, it was Wylie’s discovery and story that led to Vanishing Chinatown. The documentary also interviews photographer and collector, George Berticevich, who not only discovered his own troves of May Studio photographs while scouring flea markets, but also rare, elaborately-painted backdrops that were used in the studio. The backdrops below both reflected “memories of home and the dream of China” as well as allowed the Chinese in Chinatown to express “what they themselves wanted to be.”

The recovered photographs and backdrops are stunning, but what causes Vanishing Chinatown to really pop is another point of serendipity. Coming across many of these photographs that Wylie had donated to Stanford University, a Stamford alum realized that his mother, Corinne Chan Takayama, was May and Leo’s granddaughter. The dots were connected, and it is the interweaving of Corinne’s memories and her raw joy as she is shown her family history that is so stirring.

At one point, holding a previously unseen photograph of her grandfather in traditional Chinese clothes, she exclaims with the slightest catch in her voice, “You brought him alive for me again.”

Corinne Chan Takayama

Leo Chan Lee

The May Studio made family and individual portraits. The Studio created collages, the photoshopping of the time, in which family members separated by the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act could be reunited on paper. In these three photographs, a Chinese resident of San Francisco is joined first by his older son and ultimately by his wife and toddler in one family photo.

Leo lugged his special, 360-degree panoramic camera throughout Chinatown to document special events and group gatherings (weddings, parties, school bands, association meetings). He prepared countless images of opera stars and sceneries to be printed on handbills for the daily Cantonese opera and theater shows that enlivened Chinatown. At that time, the residents of Chinatown stayed in Chinatown. Entertainment and news came to them from visiting shows. Current events in China were acted on stage. Theater shows often included a blend of East and West, for example, productions of the Thief of Baghdad and Zorro.

Later in his career, Leo snapped headshots of local Chinese who were required to carry Identity Certificates during the McCarthy Era. One of the historians interviewed in the documentary speculates that it might have been FBI pressure on Leo to reveal information about the residents of Chinatown that led in part to the studio being closed.

Vanishing Chinatown: The World of The May’s Photo Studio is a story of art, of commerce, of daily life, of Asian American history, of a time both momentous and routine in the microcosm of San Francisco over several decades of the twentieth century.


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