The virtual exhibition, A Vision of Justice: Tyrus Wong and The Cultural Continuum of New Chinatown is set in the Law Office of You Chung Hong (1898-1977) in Central Plaza of New Chinatown, located in downtown Los Angeles. At the heart of this project is a solitary watercolor painting created by Tyrus Wong (1910-2016), entitled Confucius as a Justice. The painting has inhabited this space, above the mantle in Y. C. Hong’s private office, since its creation in 1938, and it has never been exhibited.
What can this artwork teach us about the cultural and historical moment in which it was made and the people whose lives it touched?
The origin story of Los Angeles’s New Chinatown community is one of agency, resilience, and self-determination. The fact is largely forgotten that it was also a bold experiment in community development. New Chinatown is known to most Angelenos as simply “Chinatown,” unaware that this ethnic-specific neighborhood was planned and conceived as the Chinese community’s solution to the problems that ailed its antecedent, LA’s Old Chinatown. Indeed, New Chinatown is full of hidden stories, not because these histories lack significance but because limited channels transmit these stories to broader audiences. History of the Chinese American community, like most immigrant communities and communities of color, remains far from common knowledge.
The founding of New Chinatown was feted with a highly-anticipated grand opening ceremony on June 25, 1938. The groundbreaking feat of its establishment was that it was the first planned Chinatown community development owned, built, and designed to meet the practical needs and cultural specifications of Los Angeles’s early Chinese American community–the first of its kind in the US. California modernist architects Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson designed the master plan for New Chinatown and were responsible for designing all three of Y. C. Hong’s buildings there. Mr. Webster’s wife, interior designer Honor Easton, designed Y. C.’s office and magnificent custom desk, proudly emblazoned with his name in Chinese. Ms. Easton made a petite version of this very desk for her friend, Y. C.’s wife Mabel, at the Hong Family home.
Specially commissioned by this pioneering lawyer and champion of Los Angeles’s early Chinese American community, Tyrus’s inspired painting signals more than just the confluence of East and West. It radiates the potent spirit of cultural tradition mingled with the crackling change that drove New Chinatown into being. This exhibition is but a small case study–one site-specific example–of how art and artists played a major role in the creation of a new neighborhood for the first Chinese American community in Los Angeles.
This exhibition shines a bright light upon the histories that course through this important historic neighborhood, and draws into focus how the complex intersections of individuals, families, and groups across time purposefully constructed and meaningfully activated New Chinatown. By examining a single site, this project presents an opportunity to take a closer look at not just what was accomplished there, but also the flow of ideas and of people who operated as agents of change. The exhibition will also examine the unique relationship between Tyrus and Y. C., two prominent Chinese American figures amid the changing currents of Los Angeles history and shifting US-China relations.
Dating back to the 1870s, less than 200 Chinese lived in Old Chinatown, a small urban quarter, which consisted of dirt roads flanked by men’s boarding halls, temples, a Chinese opera theater, restaurants, and establishments for gambling and other activities of ill repute. It had also been the site of the 1871 Chinese Massacre, whereby an angry mob of Angelenos had lynched 19 Chinese men and boys.
Chinese had been arriving en mass since 1840 and were soon met with an onslaught of coordinated racist legislation at the local, state, and federal levels to curtail and restrict many facets of their lives in America. Subsequently, Chinese immigration was tightly restricted under Chinese Exclusion by 1882, effectively stalling the growth of existing Chinese American populations, predominantly bachelors. Such laws also forbade Chinese women to immigrate, and ensured the Chinese already in American could not marry outside of their race. In conjunction with other anti-Chinese laws, those immigrants who were here could not testify in court against a White person, buy property, become citizens, nor vote.
To make way for the construction of the new Union Station Terminal, authorities from the City of Los Angeles began implementing evictions in Old Chinatown under the auspices of eminent domain in the early 1930s. The denizens of Old Chinatown had no legal recourse against such maneuvers. As individuals of Chinese descent, they had no legal options to purchase land of their own, per the California Alien Land Law, local restrictive covenants, and pervasive social code determined to keep neighborhoods White.
In pursuit of survival and opportunity, merchants and business owners from this disenfranchised community pooled their knowledge and resources to find a way forward, claim space for their livelihoods, and ensure a future for their families. Immigration lawyer Y. C. Hong identified a strategy to circumvent the legislated racism to which they had long been subject. Peter Soo Hoo, the first Chinese American engineer at the Department of Water and Power, mobilized the merchants of Old Chinatown by forming the Los Angeles Chinatown Project Association. Y. C. advised the group to form a corporation, a business entity that had a right to buy property and, by definition, had no race. This critical advice made the 1937 purchase of a Santa Fe Railway storage yard possible for this corporation of Chinese Americans looking for a place to build a community of their own making.
After a year of planning and construction, New Chinatown celebrated its grand opening on June 25, 1938, with community, civic leaders, and luminaries from the entertainment industry. The following month, construction began on Y. C.’s three buildings and East Gate in New Chinatown, designed by California modernist architects, Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson. By the end of 1938, Y. C.’s gateway dedicated to mothers and the Hong Office Building at 445 Gin Ling Way were completed, as was his newly commissioned painting, Confucius as a Justice, by Tyrus Wong.
In 1939, Webster & Wilson completed the Los Angeles New Chinatown Master Plan and Y. C. ‘s second building, 425 Gin Ling Way, just east of the Hong Office Building. His third building, the Hong Gallery at 951 North Broadway, was completed the following year.
The story of this painting starts with a friendship between an American-born Chinese lawyer and a foreign-born Chinese artist whose paths converged in Los Angeles’s Old Chinatown. No contract exists for this art commission nor the other commissions Tyrus would complete for Y. C. in the years that followed. Y. C.’s older son, Nowland, attributes the absence of this administrative formality to the friendship Tyrus and Y. C. shared. In fact, in the mid-1940s, Y. C. hired Tyrus to paint a large landscape mural featuring The Little Engine That Could above a soda fountain at the Hong Family residence. Tyrus happily refused payment and offered instead to complete the work in exchange for ice cream sodas.
Even though Tyrus and Y. C. were friends, extant photographs of the two men together have not been located in the research for this project. Nowland Hong, Y. C.’s older son, explained that his father and Tyrus were good friends, but that they moved in different social circles, due in large part to their different vocations. Perhaps the most pronounced commonality they shared is that each of them had endured tremendous poverty and manifold barriers. Tyrus had left China at the age of nine, never to see his mother again. Upon entry, he was held at Angel Island Immigration Station for three weeks before he could join his father He struggled in school and worked menial jobs throughout his younger years, from childhood and into young adulthood, during the Great Depression. “[Y. C.] had grown up extremely poor,” Nowland recounted,” and he rarely had enough to eat as a child, and struggled growing up with his mother, sister, and his younger brother passed away. Much of his success was due in part to marrying Mabel (1931). She brought a different dimension to my father’s life.”
From 1918 to 1927, Y. C. worked as a court interpreter for the U.S. Immigration Service. During that decade so formative to his legal career, he also passed the California State Bar in 1923, then went on to earn his LL.B. (1924) and LL.M. (1925) degrees at University of Southern California’s School of Law.
In 1928, Y. C. testified before Congress to bring an end to Chinese Exclusion, a series of federal laws that restricted Chinese immigration to only students and merchants. Already serving as President of the Los Angeles chapter of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, Y. C. also opened his immigration law office on Alameda Street in Old Chinatown. That same year, a 17-year-old Tyrus Wong began attending Otis Art Institute on scholarship; he had already been living with his father in a boarding house filled with bachelors on Ferguson Alley in Old Chinatown.
The 1930s were a time of tremendous activity for Tyrus. He continued his Western fine art studies at Otis with distinction, while the practice of Chinese calligraphy was a constant under his father’s guidance. He also studied books about the Chinese painting tradition, developing a love of Sung Dynasty painting in particular, on regular visits to the Los Angeles Library. Years before completing art school, Tyrus had already begun actively exhibiting his artwork. Of more than twenty shows during this period, he participated in six exhibitions whose specific purpose was to showcase Asian American artists, then commonly referred to as “Oriental.” He participated in shows with the Los Angeles Oriental Artists Group, as well as with individual artists, such as Hideo Date, Miki Hayakawa, Henry Sugimoto, Tokio Ueyama, Edward Terada, Chee Chin S. Cheung Lee, and his close friends Benji Okubo and Gilbert Leong.
The late 1930s ushered in major life-changing events for Tyrus, both personal and professional. Wong Sai Po, Tyrus’s father passed away in 1936–Tyrus’s only intimate connection to his childhood home and sole blood relative in America, an educated man who had been his constant guide and guardian. The following year, Tyrus participated in the Works Progress Administration (WPA), creating new works to collect a regular, albeit meager, income. American modernist Stanton MacDonald-Wright, who was the director of the WPA’s Southern California division as well as the Los Angeles Art Students League, included Tyrus’s work in the WPA exhibition at the Paris Exposition of 1937.
More significantly, Tyrus married Ruth Kim in June of 1937. She was an English major at UCLA and had worked as a secretary for Y. C. Hong in his Old Chinatown office. Ruth played an integral role in what would become Tyrus’s wide-ranging career by managing administrative matters, writing his correspondence as well as promotional and project-related materials, and conducting research. She also worked as a full-time mother rearing three girls, the first of whom, Kay, arrived in 1938! With a family to support, Tyrus found a steady job in March of 1938 as an in-betweener at Disney Studios, but he was quickly promoted as a lead concept artist for their forthcoming animated feature film, Bambi.
CONFUCIUS AS A JUSTICE
Tyrus Wong’s depiction of Confucius (551–479 BCE) brings this seminal figure from Chinese antiquity back to life and on the move, two-and-a-half millennia after he walked the earth. Striding along with a pensive grin on his face and a walking stick as his only companion, Wong’s energetic, calligraphic lines characterize the sage in his later years spent wandering, spirited in his pursuit of a life of conviction and acceptance. His long, unkempt hair, beard, and fingernails, and the absence of any belongings whatsoever attest to his nomadic existence as an outcast during a time of turmoil and unrest.
While it remains unknown who definitively selected the subject matter and decided the title for this impressive painting, we do know that ancient personages–mortal and mythic–appeared in Tyrus Wong’s oeuvre across fine art and commercial art contexts and time periods, even in this formative stage of his career. In February 1935, Tyrus had helped his close friend, artist Benji Okubo, paint the Eight Immortals in the basement at the See Family’s Dragon’s Den in Old Chinatown. In The Wood Gatherer of 1936, Tyrus’s bold yet sensuous calligraphic line encircles the rumpled form of a weary laborer curled in repose. This dynamic line reappears in 1938, modulated with vigor, to animate his compelling reimagining of Confucius.
Beyond the artist’s own penchant for painting recluses and philosophers, making present the great Confucius in a modernist vein in a modern immigration law office during the era of Chinese Exclusion made sense in many respects for the patron, Y. C. Hong. The majority of Y. C.’s clients were Chinese immigrants or, like himself, first-generation American-born Chinese with very limited financial means.
They came to him to unify their families separated by America’s anti-Chinese immigration laws. The opportunity to try to collect on America’s promises was too attractive an option to refuse, a complex scaffolding of legislated racism notwithstanding. By inviting Confucius to watch over the difficult conversations conducted in this private office, the lawyer allied himself with the Confucian principles of benevolence, knowledge, and duty. His position above the mantle also signaled the primacy of Chinese values and culture, attended by a complex, intercultural worldview experienced through a modern American lens.
No stranger to poverty and the struggle for acceptance, Y. C. sought to foster his clients’ trust in his unequalled expertise and high-profile devotion to his community. He also wanted to give them courage in spite of their vulnerable position and hope that their case held a chance at being won. Adept at cultural straddling and cultivating influence, Y. C. tethered his career trajectory and growing reputation to the values Confucius professed. In an office that would also host civic leaders, foreign diplomats, and elected officials, the sage’s presence communicated the message, “Our worldview reigns here.” For Y. C., who would look upon this portrait every work day for nearly four decades, Confucius was a companion and a role model in the lawyer’s struggle for justice and acceptance for his community.
In his own day, Confucius’ many efforts to bring peace, discipline, and balance to China’s warring factions were waylaid and ultimately rejected, but his radical teachings would make him one of the most important thinkers of all time. Because his philosophy was the progenitor of China’s most enduring humanistic ideals and cultural values, Confucius was a ready forebear and powerful role model for the resourceful leaders of Los Angeles’s Old Chinatown, seeking guidance as they grappled with growing displacement, dwindling time, and few legal strategies to achieve agency.
Justice is invoked in equal measure in the painting’s title, conferring upon the Chinese philosopher the authoritative role of an esteemed judge appointed to preside over a high court. Unlike the idealized goddess of Justice from Greek and Roman mythology, whose blindfold signifies impartiality, scales evidence, and sword authority, Confucius’s teachings championed benevolence, righteousness, knowledge, loyalty, propriety, and filial piety. Could Tyrus have likened his friend Y. C. to a modern-day Confucius?
Tyrus went on to enjoy a long and lucrative career as a professional commercial artist. In May 1941, Tyrus’s career at Disney Studios came to an end as the company laid off many of its staff. Y. C. gave Tyrus a new commission: to paint a monumental Chinese dragon on the just-completed Hong Gallery building at 951 North Broadway. Tips from Disney Studio colleagues opened new professional doors for Tyrus. That same year, he embarked on a successful career designing Christmas cards, a liberating line of work that brought him fame and recognition, steady income, and unique creative freedoms for more than three decades. In 1942, Tyrus joined Warner Brothers Studios as a pre-production illustrator. His financial stability and relaxed enforcement of California’s Alien Land Law enabled him and Ruth to purchase a home in Sunland not far from the studio in 1950.
Tyrus built an impressive filmography over twenty-six years at Warner Brothers, including Key Largo (1948), April in Paris (1952), Rebel without A Cause (1955), The Music Man (1962), Camelot (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), and dozens more.
In his four decades of retirement, Tyrus garnered a great deal of public attention and accolades of all kinds. He was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2001, and received the Windsor McCay Award (2006), Hope of Los Angeles Award (2009), and National Watercolor Association Lifetime Achievement Award (2007). Major solo retrospective exhibitions at the Chinese American Museum (2003) and the Walt Disney Family Museum, as well as significant group exhibitions at the de Young Museum (2008) and Vincent Price Art Museum (2012) brought Tyrus’s many achievements more critical attention.
Over the course of Y. C. Hong’s career, he fought more than 7,600 immigration cases. He served fourteen consecutive terms as President of the Los Angeles chapter of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (1926-49) and two terms as national Grand Lodge President (1949-53). As a longtime community leader and dignitary, Y. C. hosted mayors, governors, and senators in New Chinatown and at his law offices, even Madame Chiang Kai Shek, as well as congressman Hiram Fong, California gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan and presidential hopeful Richard Nixon.
Why was this imagined portrayal of Confucius as A Justice significant, possibly even radical, for its time?
Confucius as a Justice is significant because it considers the salience of Los Angeles’s Chinese American community’s long history as hidden beneath broader and more visible histories. This convergence of disparate trajectories occurred in a not-yet-urban Los Angeles between the World Wars, worn thin by the Great Depression, and overshadowed by the spectre of Chinese Exclusion and a vast web of anti-Asian laws.
The painting marks the convergence of the lives of two pioneers in the Chinese American community. It also represents a pivotal moment of hyperlocal transition, pregnant with odds and opportunities, that activated the Chinese American community to mobilize like never before, as a motivated group with an agenda of resilience and self-determination. In this way, the artwork also signals the commencement of a bold cultural experiment: the first community development master plan, fully funded and conceived by an immigrant community and/or community of color in the U.S. Tyrus’s painting posits the radical notion in 1930s Los Angeles that justice is not blind. Y. C. Hong saw how justice had, in fact, little to do with the White privilege manufactured and preserved by the American legal system he knew well.
And while a community saga of threat and survival amid daunting factors is nothing new in American History, highlighting this story of Tyrus, Y. C., and New Chinatown foregrounds the long history of diverse Asian American communities fighting for equality, visibility, opportunity, and acceptance. Indeed, as only one among many immigrant communities and communities of color struggling to hold onto their stake in America’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, this Asian American story is far from over. Confucius as A Justice is a symbol of one early Chinese American community’s efforts to blueprint and safeguard its own future, a risk worth taking if they could gain greater access to America’s inalienable rights.