clara Elizabeth chan lee
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?
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."