Walking through the bustling streets of Chinatown in New York, enveloped by the neighborhood’s distinct sights, smells, and sounds, have you wondered where some of its buildings got their oriental flairs? An exhibition now on view at the Museum of Chinese in America, “Chinese Style: Rediscovering the Architecture of Poy Gum Lee, 1923-1968”, reveals one part of the history. Through more than 80 artifacts including photographs, blueprints and architectural drawings accompanied by details of his work and historical context, we learn about the unique experiences of architect Poy Gum Lee (Li Jinpei, 李锦沛), a Chinatown native who was involved in some of China’s most prominent buildings and places and later became an important figure in the design of his hometown’s civic architecture.
Divided into three periods — Lee’s upbringing, his early professional career in China, and finally his return to the New York, the retrospective is the first major study of Lee, whose legacy is relatively unknown in the United States.
Poy Gum Lee was born in 1900 on Mott Street to a merchant family and was educated at Pratt Institute, M.I.T., and Columbia University. After establishing his background, a rare look into the life of a Chinese-American in the early 20th century, the show unfolds chronologically, highlighting stages of his professional development in China and the United States.
In 1923, he moved to Shanghai on contract as the first staff architect of the YMCA’s China Building Bureau. He eventually moved to private practice and along with other first generation Chinese architects, helped introduce architecture as a discipline and profession in China, where it did not exist before, and contributed to the “hybrid modern architecture” that curator Kerri Culhane says was “fully reflective of the political and cultural ferment in China during the Nationalist era”.
“The Golden Decade 1927-1937” section of the exhibition demonstrates this fusion of styles by a variety of bank, hospital, and school buildings created in Republican China, such as Lee’s YMCA building in Shanghai (1931) where the overall form of the building consists of a modern geometric facade with a simple modest level of decoration in Ming and Qing styles upon the windows and entrance, and the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing (1926-1929) designed by University of Pennsylvania graduate Lu Yanzhi and completed by Lee. Culhane notes that “[t]he Chinese style of the 1920s and 30s descended, ironically, from a picturesque Oriental revivalism promoted by American and European missionary architects in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century” and the “Chinese Adaptive” style used by one of the “foremost architectural proponent of the incorporation of Chinese architectural elements” basically added Chinese-style roofs to western-style buildings.
After the breakout of Chinese Civil War, Lee fled China and returned to New York where he worked for private clients and later was also employed as a Senior Architect with the New York City Housing Authority. By this time in the 1940s, the modern Chinese style with its pagoda roofs lost favor with Lee and his peers, but in Chinatown, where Lee was actively engaged in the planning and consultation of new architectural projects, “his patrons, the civic leaders of Chinatown, were keen to distinguish themselves from the Communists” by embracing “the National style of China, the modern Chinese style of architecture—big roofs, temple tiles, colorful paintings—[as] a cultural bulwark against accusations of Communism, which was associated more closely with a stripped Soviet modernism.”
His most recognizable projects in New York include the Kimlau War Memorial (1962) which we can still see in Chatham Square, and the former Pagoda Theater (1963-1964) on East Broadway, which was torn down in 1992. His legacy as an architectural consultant is visible in the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association’s building at 62 Mott Street (1959) and the On Leong Tong Merchant’s Association at Mott & Canal Street (1948-50). Lee’s prolificacy is seen in exhibited drafts and plans of many unrealized designs in China and New York.
The most intriguing part of this exhibition is the juxtaposition of his projects in Chinatown against those in Chinese cities. In my first encounter with New York Chinatown, it struck me as more Chinese than Shanghai where I grew up and more like 1980s Hong Kong because of the use of traditional Chinese characters and traditional Chinese architectural ornamental motifs such as pagoda roofs, brackets, balconies and latticework. Meanwhile, back in China, urban spaces are refreshed by glassy skyscrapers with designs that shout out modernity.
After seeing one of Lee’s early designs after returning to the United States, his brother-in-law congratulated him for having “the honour to introduce Chinese architecture to the United States.” Yet, before Lee was born, there were already many “genuine Chinese” buildings in Chinatown. “Chinese architectural motifs and ornament have been used to manifest Chinese presence” since 1888. The ostentatiously sinified look of New York Chinatown is credited to carpenters, artisans, and craftsmen whose handiwork were more appendages to existing buildings than holistic calculated designs. Professional architects such as Lee only came to play later and employed their professional knowledge of western techniques as a foundation while intentionally keeping the Chinese symbols to reinforce the identity and establishing a purposeful defining design.
Culane writes: “A son of Chinatown, Lee brought western modern architecture and technology to China, and reimported them to Chinatown, inflected with the ideals of the Chinese Republic—a celebration the achievements of Chinese culture and its embrace of modernity.” The “Chinese modernism” is more than a hybrid form of architecture, and it is interesting to trace how Lee’s contributions to the nascent Republic of China were repeated in Chinatown.
The show goes beyond the stylistic dichotomy of East meets West and presents the topic in a broader cultural discourse. Today’s Chinatown has become a happening place where after-hour pop-up parties with hip DJ sets are held in daytime dim sum restaurants. New storefronts and residential buildings attract diverse crowds and house people from mixed backgrounds with a changing pace that is faster than the lives of the architectures. Identity can be fluid, evolving. It means this place is alive. We relate Chinese architectures to the visual symbols of the past rather than the present. What should Chinatown look like? Why does San Francisco’s Chinatown, where the buildings also bear traditional Chinese flourishes, look more like a spectacle than New York’s Chinatown?
The exhibition continues at Museum of Chinese in America through March 27, 2016. Curator Kerri Culhane will host a tour on March 24.
For more information about Lee, see MOCA’s brochure.
Lead image: Poy Gum Lee, On Leong Tong, 83-85 Mott Street. Presentation Drawing., 1948, Ink and watercolor on paper. Images courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive and Museum of Chinese in America unless otherwise noted.