From the Stage to the Stacks: Materials from the Library of Chingwah Lee

The Little Theatre Monthly, July 1917

The Newberry is well-known for its annual Book Fair, a large sale of used books that draws thousands to the library for a bustling weekend in July. To prepare for the event, the Newberry accepts book donations year-round. Volunteers sort these donations, organizing books by subject, marking price points, and—importantly—noticing when something unique comes in. Back in 2019, one such box appeared on the Newberry’s doorstep.

“The Book Fair sorters notified me that a mystery box of materials related to San Francisco’s Chinatown had come in. They asked if I wanted to take a look,” recalls Will Hansen, the Newberry’s Curator of Americana and Director of Reader Services. “I was curious and set aside time to go through the materials. As it turned out, much of the box came from the library of Chingwah Lee, an early Chinese American film actor and civic leader.”

Chingwah Lee (1901–80) was a groundbreaking figure: an Asian American actor who won roles on the stage and in Hollywood movies, including The Good Earth (1937) and Flower Drum Song (1961), all while conducting his own scholarly research, founding the first English-language publication written by and for Chinese Americans, and co-founding the Chinese Historical Society of America. He played a key role in making San Francisco’s Chinatown a tourist destination, giving guided tours and training the local Boy Scouts troop—which he’d founded at age 13—to do the same. Through these tours, Lee countered negative perceptions of his hometown by celebrating the neighborhood’s landmarks and the accomplishments of Chinese American people.

“It was a remarkable find,” says Hansen. “Somehow, these artifacts of Mr. Lee’s life ended up in the Newberry’s donation bin. Now, they’re being cataloged and added to the Newberry’s permanent collection.”

The Lee items were almost immediately requested in the reading room by Dr. Amy Huang, a 2021–22 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Newberry.

“Theater is a particularly material artform because it needs an actor’s voice, props, and scenery,” explains Huang. “My research examines how theater and its inherent materiality contributed to racial attitudes regarding Asian Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

Huang is particularly interested in two objects from Lee’s library. The first is an annotated script of A Scream in the Dark (1926), a comedy-mystery in two acts. Lee was cast in a San Francisco production of the play and, in preparation for his role, handwrote notes throughout his copy of the script, going so far as to sketch a stage diagram. The second is a short play by Adolf Lehmann called The Tongmen (1917). Printed in an edition of Little Theatre Monthly, this one-act play depicted Chinatown as a place rife with nihilism and violent exploitation—the very image that Lee sought to counter.

Huang explains that plays were often used in classrooms as learning tools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The materiality of the art form, which required students to bodily participate, could help create a sense of community. But, in the case of plays like The Tongmen, which were rooted in negative perceptions of people of color, such performances could also define who wasn’t a part of the community. “Plays were carving out the borders of belonging in America,” Huang explains.

Lee grew up at a pivotal time in American theater and filmmaking, and his work—on stage, on camera, and in his community—helped San Francisco’s Chinatown prosper. Today, San Francisco’s Boy Scouts of America Troop 3, begun by 13-year-old Lee and his friends, is still active. The Chinese Digest, a publication he established in his thirties, is held in collections across the United States. The Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), co-founded by Lee in 1963, provides cultural events, exhibitions, and research opportunities at the heart of Chinatown, and continues to offer guided tours.

How a box of materials from Lee’s personal library ended up in Chicago forty years after his death is unknown. But the Newberry is thrilled to be able to preserve and make available this collection for research, thanks not only to the anonymous donor who visited our back doors in 2019, but also to you—and all of our donors—who make it possible for us to process these items, care for them, and make them accessible to researchers like Dr. Huang.

Interested in learning more about the materials from Chingwah Lee’s library? Click here to view the items in our online catalog.

Interested in making a donation to Book Fair? Visit our Book Fair Information page to learn more.

Ready to once more shop Chicago’s favorite used book binge? Book Fair is back! Mark your calendars and prepare to join us in July.

This story is part of the Newberry's Donor Digest, Spring 2022. In this newsletter, we share with donors exciting stories of the work made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.