Clothes and Heritage: Chinese American Clothes from the Virginia Lee Mead Collection

Lee B. Lok (1869—1942) immigrated to San Francisco from the Tai shan District, Guangdong Province, China in 1881. Soon after arrival he moved to New York City’s Chinatown where he worked in the Quong Yuen Shing & Co. general store. With some English skills he became head of the store in 1894 allowing him to upgrade his identity papers from “coolie” to “merchant.” This change in status exempted him from the restrictions imposed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which barred the entry of Chinese laborers who had not already been in the United States. This change enabled Lee to marry Ng Shee in China circa 1900 and return to New York. Living above the store at 32 Mott Street, the couple raised seven children.

A group of men stand around and behind a counter in a store
Mr. Lee behind the counter (in the center) of the Quong Yuen Shing & Co. store, around 1917.  Lee Chinese-American Family Papers, Archives Center (AC0555-0000001)

In New York, Lee founded the Chinese Merchants Association, and in 1918 he was recognized as a prominent member of the Chinese community; however U.S. laws prohibited him from becoming an American citizen. His children all attended college becoming teachers, doctors and business people.