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  • Joining Our Community to Raise Funds for Relief Efforts in Japan

    Posted by benfongtorres

    Whole Lotta Phone Calls Goin’ On by Ben Fong-Torres

    In the Facebook box that asks “What’s on your mind?” I announced, the other day, “I'm supposed to be writing a book, but went & moderated a panel for the Broadcast Legends – including Hall of Famer Jon Miller. Fun. Tomorrow — Friday -- 5 to 7 pm -- I'm working the phones for KNTV (Ch. 3)'s fundraiser for the victims of the Japan earthquake. If you can, tune in, call in and ask for me. I'll do Elvis, Dino, 

    Dylan for you. Anything to get a few more dollars for the relief effort.”

    As always, I got lots of supportive comments, of which my favorite was this, from author Susanne Pari: “This is all good, Ben, but I know writing avoidance tactics when I see them.”

    Then Larry LeBlanc chipped in: “Yeah, we writers are like that.”

    Yes, we are. But the earthquake relief fund was well worth falling behind a few pages. When I showed up at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Northern California’s building, where the phone bank had been set up, the tote board showed about $77,000 donated since 7 a.m.

    It was now almost 5, and, as I took my seat, alongside TV journalists James Hattori and Wendy Tokuda, and playwright Philip Kan Gotanda and his wife, director Diane Takei (she directs plays; not her husband), and JCCNC board member Rumi Okabe, the phones went silent. It was 5 o’clock; the station hadn’t plugged the fundraiser; people were still at work or on the road.

    We socialized, and some of us made calls to friends to pull in donations. We practiced looking like we were on the phone, for when NBC Bay Area/KNTV’s reporter did a live report. But the station didn’t mention the phone number, so we twiddled our thumbs again until the 6 o’clock news. The number was flashed.

    Suddenly, the phones began ringing and we were at it non-stop, getting people’s credit card and other info and answering questions they might have about their donations. Runners took our completed forms...

  • FINDING JAKE LEE by Ben Fong-Torres

    Posted by benfongtorres

    A tale of lost and found Chinese American Art

    One of the more amazing stories regarding the acquisition of artwork is being told right now in a modest exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society of America’s museum in Chinatown, San Francisco.

    It is a fascinating, full-circle story of an exhilarating triumph at an auction house, and it began with an e-mail. Sue Lee, the executive director of CHSA, was at the office on a weekend last February. Soon it’d be St. Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day and the Year of the Tiger. She decided to check the museum’s general mailbox when she saw a note alerting CHSA to an auction, the next Tuesday, for eleven vivid watercolor paintings created some 50 years ago for the fabled Kan’s Restaurant on Grant Avenue. 

    The artist  was Jake Lee, who’d been commissioned by Johnny Kan, whose elegant restaurant catered to Hollywood stars as well as tourists. Kan prided himself on presenting real Chinese cuisine (no chop suey for him), and published one of the first important Chinese cookbooks, Eight Immortal Flavors, with a foreword by James Beard and a cover illustration by, who else, Jake Lee).

    Sue Lee (no relation, by the way), had seen postcard versions of some of the paintings, which depicted Chinese people of the mid- to late 19th Century – sans stereotypes. A commercial artist by trade, Lee painted Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849, working on the railroad, digging wine caves and working vineyards in Sonoma County, rolling cigars and creating lanterns in San Francisco shops.

    But, he showed, it wasn’t all work. There were beautiful renderings of an opera house in Chinatown; a lion dance, on a carpet of exploding firecrackers, on Grant Avenue. (Images in this column are shown courtesy of

    And now, the original paintings had a chance to return to Chinatown…if Lee could win them at the auction, in Pasadena. She began calling CHSA supporters and quickly raised $60,000. In...

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