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More than Memories

Leslee See Leong and Lisa See

Li Wei Yang, The Huntington’s curator of Pacific Rim collections, remembers being astounded by the historical materials amassed and organized by Leslee See Leong, who had invited him to her home to view her family’s papers.

“I saw documents and artifacts that I didn’t know still existed,” Yang says of the trove of archives relating to Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown, which thrived from approximately 1890 to 1910 before being demolished in the 1930s to make way for Union Station. “I also learned how important it was to Leslee to find a partner like The Huntington to make sure that this history gets preserved.”

The materials feature two of the earliest and most prominent Chinese families in Los Angeles: the Sees and the Leongs.

“My father was a prodigious collector,” Leslee says. “When he died, my family moved into his house. I had to organize the papers or we wouldn’t have had a place to sit down,” she quips. “I treated it like an archaeological dig.”

Her father, Gilbert Leong, was the first Chinese American architect in Los Angeles and one of the founders of East West Bank. Her mother, Florence See Leong, was the daughter of Fong See, who witnessed many changes in Los Angeles and his home country, China, during his 100 years. Fong See established one of the first Chinese-owned businesses in California, F. Suie One Co., which specializes in Asian antiques. Located in Pasadena, the store has been in continuous operation since 1888.

In 2020, Leslee donated the Gilbert, Florence, and Leslee See Leong Collection to The Huntington. “The archive is not just full of my family’s memories,” Leslee says. “It has the stories of so many different families that ran through my family’s lives.”

Yang attests to the papers’ significance. “Having this collection gives scholars a unique look into a chapter of Chinese American history that is really not told anywhere else,” he says. “Scholars are using The Huntington’s archives to put together the puzzle pieces from this era—whether it’s census records, photographs, or the correspondence of residents.”

Another significant step in filling that knowledge gap came in 2021: Author Lisa See donated to The Huntington more than 200 rare glass plate negatives and photographs taken in and around Old Chinatown in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her family had held on to the collection over the years.

Lisa See, Fong See’s great-granddaughter, was motivated to give the collection to The Huntington when her neighborhood, located in a high-fire-risk area, was evacuated in 2017 and 2019. During the 2019 fire, 11 homes burned on her street.

“Glass plate negatives are very heavy and quite fragile,” she explains. “We have a list for what to grab when we are evacuated, and the box containing this collection was at the top of the list. I realized it was time to give it to The Huntington.”

Yang notes that the photographs are believed to have been taken by both Chinese American and white photographers doing business in Chinatown at the time. “The archive includes studio portraits of Chinese American residents in different costumes as well as very somber immigration shots,” he says. “This was actually quite important at the time, because the Chinese were the first group of immigrants required to carry photo documentation in the United States.”

Emphasizing The Huntington’s efforts to preserve historical collections and make them accessible, Yang says the Pacific Rim holdings that he curates are used for everything from peer-reviewed journal articles and news stories to documentaries and nonfiction books.

Years before the Gilbert, Florence, and Leslee See Leong Collection came to The Huntington, See used the archival materials to write her 1995 book, On Gold Mountain, which chronicles the family’s history.

Coming full circle, the opera based on her bestseller was presented for eight performances in May 2022 in The Huntington’s expanded Chinese Garden, Liu Fang Yuan 流芳園, or the Garden of Flowing Fragrance. The production was a partnership with LA Opera, which first performed the work in 2000. The staging at The Huntington was inspired by the appointment of Nathan Wang as the 2022–23 Cheng Family Foundation Visiting Artist in the Chinese Garden. He composed the musical score for the opera, with a libretto by See. The new production incorporated photographs and documents from The Huntington’s See-Leong family collections.

“We are passionate about bringing the Chinese Garden to life with artistic and educational programming, and we are committed to using our wonderful collections to their fullest potential,” says Phillip E. Bloom, the June and Simon K.C. Li Curator of the Chinese Garden and Director of the Center for East Asian Garden Studies. “The magic of this project lies in the collaborations and connections between the Library and the Botanical Gardens.”

To learn more about the Chinese Garden, please contact Sian Leong Adams, director of strategic initiatives, at 626-405-2277 or sadams@huntington.org.