BY LIZA JAVIER
When painter James Leong left for Europe in 1956, he never expected to live in his native city of San Francisco again. Fifty years later, the prolific Seattle-based artist returns to his hometown to present his latest body of work in the exhibit “James Leong: Confronting My Roots” at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum.
In a show themed after his struggle and reconciliation with his Chinese American roots and his native town, Leong’s works meld his guiding themes of nature with the issue of Chinese ethnic identity in America.
Born in 1929 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Leong grew up during pre- and post-World War II, when Chinese Americans were often mistaken for Japanese or Korean Americans.
“I really felt there was a lot of misunderstanding on the part of the whites in San Francisco as to what being Chinese meant,” said Leong.
Despite his parents urging to become a scholar or pursue medicine, Leong pursued his childhood passion of painting, eventually winning a scholarship to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He later earned his master of fine arts degree at San Francisco State University.
At 23, when he worked briefly as a reporter for the Chinese Press, he was commissioned by several of Chinatown’s business leaders to paint a mural of the history of the Chinese in America for the first federally-funded public housing project, Ping Yuen, in Chinatown.
Leong depicted the journey of Chinese immigrants in a vibrant 17-foot-long mural titled “One Hundred Years, History of the Chinese in America.” But the mural was met by both criticism from the Chinese community and controversy.
“They were very mad that I did things like show women with backpacks, picking shrimp with babies on their backs, showing Chinese men toiling as coulees. This was all historical, but they didn’t want to be shown that,” said Leong. “It took many, many years before people realized that this was all part of history. But for many years, that mural was taken off the wall and hidden because Chinatown was ashamed of it.”
The mural was kept in a storage room in the Ping Yuen Public Housing Project for decades until Leong’s wife returned to San Francisco and helped to re-erect it in the late 1970s. The mural now hangs as a permanent piece at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, where it is regularly used to teach students the history of Chinese Americans.
The mural also aroused a great deal of suspicion since it was at the height of the McCarthy era. Leong says the FBI, the Kuonmintang and the Chinese Communist Party each suspected him of hiding secret messages inside the mural. While no conspiracy was proven, the oppressive political atmosphere and the community backlash Leong suffered left him wanting to leave San Francisco and paint elsewhere.
In 1956, Leong won a Fulbright Fellowship to live abroad in Norway. He left San Francisco for the Norwegian woods and fjords, where he focused his work on figurative painting and themes on human behavior. Shortly after, Leong was awarded a Guggenheim grant to work at the American Academy in Rome. Settling in a large studio near the Vatican, Leong stayed in Rome for 31 years where he continued to develop his painting, exploring landscapes and “Eurocentric” themes.
Leong felt liberated by the accepting attitudes of Italian people toward his Chinese American identity.
“I think more than anything else, it gave me a sense of self and assurance that you don’t have here,” said Leong. “People in America are constantly questioning who you are, what you are. There’s always a stratum here that you have to belong to. “
Leong began grappling with issues of his dormant Chinese American identity in his work during the 1989 Tiananmen Square student uprising in China.
“What affected me most were the reactions by the Italians and the Europeans to something that was so basically human,” said Leong. “It bridged all the gaps between my being an American and living in Norway, living in Italy and having my Chinese roots.”
“I started digging deeper and deeper into it until Tiananmen happened, then I realized that was something that I had to express,” added Leong. “That started my journey into my roots, what it meant to be Chinese. Up until then, I denied it.”
Leong began expressing his exploration of his Chinese American roots in his paintings. It was soon followed by a trip to China with his wife and son.
“That opened up all kinds of things,” said Leong. “I realized I was always Chinese, but there’s the duality of taking the next step. As an American, you can never really be Chinese, even if you speak it and know the culture. There’s a part of you that’s American that’s so different. And those are the things that came out of my paintings.”
Leong returned to the United States in 1991, settling in Seattle’s Pioneer Square where he continues his exploration of his Chinese and American roots in his work, experimenting with Chinese currency and scenes of nature to explore themes such as Chinese superstition.
His journey comes full circle to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he was recently scheduled to present his body of work at the Chinese Historical Society of America and Learning Center.
“James Leong: Confronting My Roots” runs through Aug. 20 at the Chinese Historical Society of America and Learning Center at 965 Clay Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For more information, call (415) 391-1188 or visit www.chsa.org.