Bringing 1920s San Francisco Chinatown to Life on Google Arts & Culture

1920s Chinatown Insider Google Arts and Culture

Close your eyes and imagine with me. What comes to mind when you think about the 1920s in America? Glittering dresses and elegant suits? Coiffed curls and slicked back hair? Big band performances and jazz clubs?

In the oldest American Chinatown located in San Francisco, this decade was a flourishing time period for the local community despite the difficulties Asians often faced. Together they gathered for store openings filled with beautiful floral arrangements; Cantonese opera performances which shed light on the latest fashions and news from home; portraits of both large group events and more intimate family units; and fundraising events and parades to raise money for local institutions and urgent needs abroad. Capturing the vibrant activity in this neighborhood was May’s Photo Studio, a cornerstone of the local Chinese community. 

According to Judy Yung, a historian of Asian American studies in the film Vanishing Chinatown, Leo Chan Lee and Isabelle May Lee founded May’s Photo Studio despite not being photographers by trade. Rather, they saw a need and sought to meet it, learning advanced techniques to use large format and panoramic cameras, and also adopting editing techniques in the darkroom to collage households together. These families could only reunite again through a fantasy world created by their portraits, neatly cut and combined together, a precursor to our modern day Photoshop. Headshots were also taken for identification papers, as Asians were the only race to be required to carry identification papers at all times, a relic of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), a federal immigration law that was later extended and modified to target other early Asian immigrants, including Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Indian communities. 

Pulling from an assortment of filmmakers, interviews, and lectures, we’ve compiled a four-part story series on Google Arts & Culture that explores this rich, crucial time period in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In part one, we go deeper into the history of this photo studio, its founders, and other people and places. In part two, we explore interiors, including a stunning 360 degree capture inside one of the family associations buildings, a time capsule of the past. In part three, we see how this generation of Overseas Chinese invested in future generations of Chinese Americans through fundraising for schools. In the last story, we learn more about the history of Chinese opera and the role May’s Photo Studio played in the Chinese opera renaissance

As Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month drew to a close, some CAAM staff and Board Member David Lei had the opportunity to celebrate the launch of our stories along with partners from the Stanford Asian American Art Initiative and the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative. Guests at this event experienced how the past, present, and future connect with a champagne toast at the historic Ning Que District Protective Association (寧僑會館), which was opened just for this event, and a reception that followed at the Edge on the Square, a contemporary art hub. 

These stories about May’s Photo Studio sit in a larger hub named Welcome to America’s Chinatowns with a collection of over 60 stories from 14 Asian American organizations across North America, in partnership with Google Arts & Culture and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

Visit the site and explore for yourself the tapestry of Chinatowns across America, starting with part one of our four-part story, the 1920s Chinatown Insider.


Waverly Chao-Scott is a Taiwanese American writer and creative producer in San Francisco. On days when she misses an abstract concept of home, she craves passionfruit green tea and popcorn chicken. You can find her on IG at @hey.itswaves.

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