13 August 2008

NEW RESOURCE - Kem Lee Photograph Archive Now Available

One of Two Major Asian American Photograph Collections Recently Processed and Made Available for Research

The Ethnic Studies Library at the University of California, Berkeley has recently completed the processing of a major archive of San Francisco Chinatown photographs. This is one of two significant photograph collections that the library owns. These two collections are most likely the two largest Asian American photograph collections held in a public institution. The Kem Lee Photograph Archive project received funding for two years from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to process approximately 200,000 images. The images document San Francisco’s Chinatown from the 1940s to the 1980s. The electronic finding aid for these images is in the Online Archive of California, which is maintained by the California Digital Library. The second major photograph archive contains over 240,000 images and was produced by Henry Woon, who documented Asian Americans in San Francisco and the East Bay from the 1950s to about 2000.

Mr. Kem Lee was an artist, a freelance professional photographer and a photojournalist for several Chinese community newspapers, such as Chinese World, Chinese Times and Young China, and official photographer for the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. and New Year pageant parades in San Francisco. Because he was also the owner of a photograph studio in Chinatown, he had an unparalleled opportunity to capture all aspects of the Chinese American experience in San Francisco, including beauty contests, businesses and businesspeople, family association events, festivals, movie stars, political and student organizations, prominent Chinese Americans, and wedding and family portraits. In particular, he captured one of the most important historical events for the Chinese American community, the naming of China as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Mr. Henry Woon was an amateur and freelance photographer and photojournalist for East West newspaper and Asian Week. In 1956, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, having majored in political science with a minor in art. After graduating from Technical High School, Mr. Woon joined the Army during World War II. During the Korean War, he re-entered the Army again as an Army Chinese interpreter. He experienced the harsh realities of racial prejudice and war in the army. The prejudice made him realize the importance of documenting the Asian American community and the people of color of the Bay area and how they contributed to the richness of the country they loved. In contrast to the Kem Lee archive, the Woon archive includes a broad coverage of various ethnic groups and topics in the Bay Area, including book talks at libraries, community street fairs, war protests, family association events, prominent people and politician visits, and UC Berkeley student and alumni activities among other topics.

Together the Lee and Woon photographic archives record the history of Asian American life in the Bay Area for a period of over sixty years. They also constitute a public record of events in this unique ethnic American community, whose history, though reminiscent of the history of many other groups in our nation of immigrants, has not yet been well-documented. Kem Lee and Henry Woon documented their struggles, their political growth, their changing culture, and their vanishing generations. They also preserved their accomplishments, their milestones, their faces, their family relationships, and their collective pride in their community.

There is a growing demand for Asian American primary documents, such as photographs, in university courses and among worldwide researchers. The completion of the project to process the Kem Lee photographs goes a long way to meet that need. However, the Ethnic Studies Library is actively seeking funding to process and preserve its second major photograph collection, the Henry Woon archive.

Please contact the Asian American Studies Librarian, Wei Chi Poon at wcpoon@library.berkeley.edu or 510-642-2000 for more information on how you can help the Ethnic Studies Library tell “the rest of the story.”