Angel Island Insight #2 : Lai Yong

“Lai Yong exhibits two portraits—tolerably good, but rather Chinese in style.”

San Francisco Chronicle, Mechanics’ Institute Fair. Ninth Day. Art Matters—Attendance—Receipts—Programme of Music for This Evening. September 24, 1869, page 3.

LAI YONG, according to historians, was the first known Chinese artist in California; his studio is listed in San Francisco directories as early as 1867, though his only surviving painting, dated 1870, is a portrait of future San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro, symbolic of his remarkable success in the white community, considering the restrictive social environment of the time. He was not timid about attacking racist treatment of his people, co-authoring an 1873 pamphlet, “The Chinese Question from a Chinese Standpoint”, read, in translation, to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and even featured in an article in the New York Times. Yong was also a notable photographer, his photos of Chinese subjects appearing at a Mechanics Institute exhibition in 1869, about the time that he opened his Washington Street studio. Historians have noted only four known carte-de-visite photos by Yong – of a Chinese man, a woman, two children, and one self-portrait which shows the artist at work on the portrait of a caucasian woman. The photo offered here appears to be an unknown fifth photo, portraying another Chinese man with similar, but not identical, clothing and accoutrements. It is not surprising that so little of Lai Yong’s work has survived, as he himself disappeared from San Francisco records in 1882 – at the height of the “Chinese exclusion” furor – when he apparently sold his business and may have returned to China.

from Stanford University Libraries

Portraits of Chinese men & women by Lai Yong, ca. 1855, from the Carl Mautz collection of cartes-de-visite photographs created by California photographers. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Library.

Lai Yong, photographer [two young performers in costume]. 1872.
From Chinese In California Collection, Courtesy of California Historical Society.

The Chinese Question from a Chinese StandpointAlternative Title: translated by Rev. O. Gibson. 1874. Chinese/Chinese American Communities : Ethnic Studies Library : Edwar Lee papers : Booklets [on the “Chinese Question”] “Chinese in California” Collection, Ethnic Studies Library, UC Berkeley.

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