How a chance encounter led me to a long-forgotten star.
How a chance encounter led me to a long-forgotten star.
Let’s begin with her hat: large, white, wide-rimmed, feather-bedecked. The sight of a Chinese woman walking into an American courthouse in 1911 wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. She knows it; that’s the reason she amplifies her presence by pulling on that hat. She wants to be seen.
On November 8, 1911, just a month after women won suffrage, Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee enters a Bay Area courthouse and registers to vote, making her the first Asian woman in the country to do so. She was born into—and in 1911 lives still—in a world that prefers her, and those of her "kind," to be, if not gone, then invisible.
This is not a new or subtle erasure. At that very moment, as she takes up a pen, there are signs everywhere in San Francisco and greater the Bay Area that read: No Chinese Wanted.
Thirty-six years earlier, in 1875, Chinese women were banned from immigrating to the U.S. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act blocked all Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. Thirteen years after Lee casts her vote, the 1924 Immigration Act will pass, barring all immigration from all but the thinnest slivers of Northern Europe. Not until 1965 will America begin to see people like Lee as worthy of entry, much less the vote.
For Lee this November day is a beginning. She will become an organizer and activist. She will dedicate herself to helping other immigrants and Chinese Americans. She will live a long and memorable (if not always noted or remembered) life, dying in 1993 at the age of 107.
But let’s go back to that day when she stands in that courthouse in her enormous feathered hat. You can see it, can’t you? The vision and determination that have brought her to this moment, that infuse her from the tips of her shoes up to the top of her hat, that guide her hand as she writes her name?
clara elizabeth chan lee
Once upon a time, San Francisco had its own Harlem, and this Harlem had a queen. A “fast-talking,” “show-me-what-you-can-do" woman, one-part glamour and a million parts grit.
Her name was Leola King and she got her start running a barbeque pit at 1601 Geary Street. An homage to King’s native Oklahoma, it was built out of a log cabin and featured a fifty-foot smoke pit. The menu included smoked buffalo, deer, and quail.
How popular was Oklahoma King’s? Judging from the swanky Scott Street mansion Leola King eventually bought herself, it wasn’t just popular, it was epic.
Then one day she turned up to open the restaurant and saw that Oklahoma King’s had been laid to waste. Turns out the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency was fed up with trying to get King to sell her property. The restaurant was one of countless homes and businesses bulldozed into oblivion by the “urban renewal” projects that decimated the Fillmore jazz scene and eventually drove out many members of The City’s African American community.
Leola King rallied—as phenomenal women will do. The Blue Mirror, King’s new club at 935 Fillmore Street, was small, but like its owner, it packed a mighty punch. Lena Horne, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway were just a few musicians that passed through King’s place. And Josephine Baker, Nat "King" Cole, Elizabeth Taylor and Sugar Ray Robinson? Oh, they were all her friends.
And then the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency came a second time.
She built another jazz palace. That was stolen too. She built another one. Gone, like the rest. The last time, King refused to go quietly; she had to be forcibly removed by the sheriff. She spent the next quarter-century fighting for just compensation. She didn’t win, but when Leola King died in 2013, she died fighting.
Lance Burton, who grew up in the Fillmore and knew King in her heyday, wrote this about her in 2015: "Mrs. King was like a big movie star to many of us, a star who brought some very bright moments to our community—maybe the most golden period of years ever to have been seen in San Francisco by black folks before or since... Mrs. King gave our people a chance to dress up and shine in a Sunday evening of glory."
Leola King is one of the many fascinating people featured in HARLEM OF THE WEST, a book devoted to the Fillmore jazz era. The second picture here is from the book and shows King on the right, an unidentified (but quite debonair) male companion in the center, and Josephine Baker on the left. The first is of Leola King as a young woman.
King with Josephine Baker at far left
It’s done! This week I sent off the final manuscript of The Bohemians. It was a bittersweet moment. I started writing the novel three years ago, before Song of a Captive Bird came out, and along the way life did what life does: it threw me some real curveballs. There were a few months when I didn’t even open the file on my computer, but when I did get back into it, the book became my refuge. I fell back in love with my characters, back in love with 1920s San Francisco, back in love with the pleasure of storytelling.
This novel started with a place—a place that doesn’t exist anymore. In 2014, one of my MFA students submitted a workshop piece about Monkey Block, an artists’ colony that stood where the Transamerica Building is now in San Francisco. Eight hundred artists and writers lived there before it was torn down in 1959, including a red-haired, troublemaking scribbler called Mark Twain and a certain Madame Rivera, also known as Frida Kahlo.
Monkey Block in the 1930s
My curiosity about Monkey Block became an obsession. I knew I wanted to write about it, but first I needed a character to travel back there with me. I found it in Dorothea Lange. Today Lange is known for her searing images of the Depression, but in 1918 she was a young woman from Hoboken, New Jersey who’d managed to get stranded in San Francisco. No money, no friends, no connections. Within a year she was the city’s premiere portrait photographer and also a member of the glorious bohemian scene at Monkey Block.
I’m a sucker for stories about self-transformation. Add love and friendship to the mix and I’m all in. And that’s what I did with THE BOHEMIANS: I followed Toni Morrison’s advice about writing the book you want to read, and now I’m counting down to April 6, 2021, the day when I can share it with you!
Anna May Wong
Phenomenal Female Fridays
I’ve recently realized I’ll never have the chance to write books about all the women whose stories captivate me, but there are other ways of sharing their stories. First up is Anna May Wong, an inspiration for one of the heroines in The Bohemians. If you’re curious, pop over to Instagram, where I’ll be dedicating the first Friday of every month to a phenomenal woman from history who inspires me.
My office--primed and ready for the next book!
With The Bohemians off to the printers, it was time for a serious deep cleaning of my office. Years ago I read that Isabel Allende, one of my favorite writers of all time, begins every book on the same day of the year. She lights a candle, says a prayer, and begins. I love this idea! Inspired by Allende, I set aside a morning to organize and box up all the notebooks and books that had seen me through The Bohemians. Now that the scene is set, a new story can begin!
It’s a joy to reconnect with you, and I want to thank you again from the bottom of my heart for joining my writing journey. I’ll write again next month. In the meantime, I’d love to know more about what you’d like to hear about from me, so if you have ideas or suggestions please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'll immediately send you A Guide to Bohemian San Francisco, an introduction to one of the City's most enchanting eras. You’ll also get my (charming! occasional!) newsletter on all things books and writing, plus a sneak peek into current projects, first access to new releases and upcoming events, and more!