Northside SF
Found: Jake Lee's paintings from Kan's Restaurant in Chinatown

Two of Jake Lee's watercolors currently on
display at the Chinese Historical Society of
America courtesy of CHSA
Where is Jake? Who is Jake? Finding Jake Lee: The Paintings at Kan’s is the title of an exhibition at the Chinese Historical Society of America.

Jake Lee was a painter who was commissioned in 1960 by famed restaurateur Johnny Kan to create a series of paintings for his restaurant on Grant Avenue. Here’s the mystery: The watercolors, depicting scenes from early Chinese-American history, vanished over the years. But last year they were located and acquired by the CHSA – they had managed to find Jake Lee.

Lee, a good friend, and protégé of artist Dong Kingman, grew up in Monterey and studied art at San Jose State University. Settling in Southern California, he worked as a commercial artist. He died in 1991.

Johnny Kan wanted paintings that showed scenes of San Francisco’s Chinatown, places where Chinese immigrants worked – cigar factories, lantern-making businesses, building the railroad in the Sierra, and being part of the labor force in the Wine Country.

Kan opened his restaurant in 1953. It drew all sorts of celebrities, politicians, and movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Kim Novak, Cary Grant, and Danny Kaye. Famed food writer James Beard described Johnny Kan’s as “the outstanding Chinese restaurant today.”

In addition to the paintings, artifacts from the era will also be on display – original plates, glasses, menus, postcards – and the guest book that was signed by all sorts of luminaries.

Finding Jake Lee: The Paintings at Kan’s: Chinese Historical Society of America, 965 Clay Street (at Powell) through Sept. 16. Admission $3 adults, $2 seniors/college students, free for children & CHSA members; 415- 391-1188 ext. 107,

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