The Lost World of May's Photo Studio
It’s the King Tut's tomb of Chinese-American photography.
Imagine finding hundreds of stunning photographs of San Franciso's Chinatown from the 1920s to the 1950s thrown in a dumpster. Who created these exquisite worlds of fantasy and imagination and why were they trashed?
What could have been the end of a story, instead became the beginning of another.
When widower Leo Chan Lee died in the mid-1970s, the contents of May's Photo Studio went into the trash. More than 700 photos and glass negatives were rescued from oblivion by then-penniless art student, Wylie Wong. Soon after, art collector George Berticevich found and purchased some 1,200 photographs and backdrops at a Sausalito flea market.
These arresting images by Leo and Isabelle May Chan Lee, proprietors of May’s Photo Studio, are the heart of our story. Their body of work presents a vibrant community that flourished despite racial discrimination and severely restrictive laws: family associations, sports teams, parades, raising money for famine victims in China, Chinese opera stars and productions, and the beginnings of a middle class. These images show Chinatown’s socio-political, economic, and cultural history from an insider’s perspective.