In the early 1960’s, Johnny Kan commissioned Chinese American artist Jake Lee to paint a dozen watercolors depicting Chinese in America between 1860s to 1900s for Kan’s Restaurant in San Francisco. The paintings recall a bygone Chinatown era when the popular restaurant was frequented by Hollywood stars of the day such as Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. Kan’s Restaurant was one of the first establishments along with Cecilia Chiang’s restaurant The Mandarin that elevated Chinese cuisine as fine dining options. The paintings at the restaurant depicted Chinese immigrants helping to build the Transcontinental Railroad, working as shoe-makers, miners, cigar makers, farmers, fishermen and firefighters. Postcards of these paintings were sold as souvenirs.
In 2010, Guy Wong, the owner of the restaurant after Johnny Kan, donated this postcard along with 71 others to the Chinese Historical Society of America. This postcard is of Jake Lee’s painting Laborers Working on the Pacific Railroad linking the East Coast with the West Coast. Chinese laborers had performed amazing feats such as building of the fifteen tunnels in the Sierra Nevadas, the towing of locomotives and rails for 28 miles over the summit and the laying of ten miles of track in one day.
As 2019 marks the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Chinese are now being rightfully recognized for their contributions to building America.
This object was featured in the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)'s exhibit, "Gathering: Collecting and Documenting Chinese American History," October 17, 2019 - March 22, 2020.
– Chinese Historical Society of America