The World of The May's Photo Studio
Devoid of frame and covered in dust, you can see the art . . . the spirit is right there.
VANISHING CHINATOWN: The World of The May’s Photo Studio is a film that tells the story of hundreds of photographs, serendipitously rescued from a San Francisco Chinatown dumpster, that show an immigrant community becoming westernized in the early to mid-1900s. Through these images we explore identity, immigrants being presented as they wanted to be remembered, family ties, and how the early Chinese in America were creatively resistant to racist laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act.
This legacy of Leo and Isabella May Chan Lee, owners of The May's Photo Studio, was thrown away. But then-art student Wylie Wong discovered the trashed treasure and rescued more than 700 images, and collector George Berticevich purchased hundreds more photographs and rare backdrops at a flea market.
These arresting images, a rare and intimate look at an immigrant people taken by The May’s Photo Studio, are the heart of our story. This body of work presents a vibrant community that flourished despite racial discrimination and severely restrictive laws: family associations, sports teams, parades, raising money for famine victims in China, Chinese opera stars and productions, and the beginnings of a middle class. These images show Chinatown’s socio-political, economic, and cultural history from an insider’s perspective, that of Chinese Americans capturing on film their own community for posterity.
These photos could have been lost forever. But what could have been the end of a story instead became the beginning of another: VANISHING CHINATOWN: The World of The May's Photo Studio.