Chinese immigrants helped rebuild San Francisco.

The Photographs That Revealed a Family Hero

By Karen Schwartz | Photography by Nils Ericson

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The Photographs That Revealed a Family Hero

It all began because Amazon was out of a book.

After her aunt in Hong Kong died, Coloradan Mona Look Mazza and her sisters reached out to cousins in Hong Kong with condolences. Look Mazza and her sisters, who were raised in Los Angeles, had grown up visiting family in their parents’ native Hong Kong, but the aunt had been her father’s brother’s wife, and relations with their father’s side of the family, while always cordial, had never really been close.

The condolence note changed that.

“My cousin in Hong Kong wrote us back,” she says. “He was very touched we’d reached out, and we started corresponding. It awakened in us a real desire to learn more about dad’s side of the family.”

Though Look Mazza and her sisters were born in America, their parents were born and raised in Hong Kong. They’d met, and ultimately married, while attending college in the United States. But they were not the first in her family to make a life in this country.

Look Mazza had always been dimly aware that the forbears on her father’s side had lived in America, but reconnecting with her cousins in Hong King spurred her and her sister to learn more.

“We’d known that our great-great grandfather came over during the Gold Rush and lived in Mendocino,” she explains. “My sister did some research and found a book—The Chinese of the Mendocino Coast—on Amazon. I told her, ‘get me one too!’ but it was an obscure book and she’d gotten the last copy.” Undeterred, Look Mazza decided to call the book’s publisher—the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino.

She explained who she was and asked if she could possibly get another copy. Instead, she got much more. “They told me they knew exactly who my ancestors were, and there was quite an interesting bit of history with my great grandfather, Look Tin Eli.”

Turning the Gold Rush into a Business

Look Tin Eli’s tale begins with his father, who was born in China and, like many Chinese, came to California during the Gold Rush period of roughly 1848 –1855.

“My great-great grandfather was very entrepreneurial,” Look Mazza explains. While he had come to America to prospect, “he realized very early on that it was better to have your own business than be a worker.” So he opened a shop in Mendocino which offered goods to fellow Chinese.

He soon married. His new wife was of Native American descent, but born in California and raised by a Chinese-American family. They had at least four children, including Look Mazza’s great grandfather, Look Tin Eli who was born in 1870.

Though quite established in America, Look Tin Eli’s father maintained his ties to China, sending each of his children back to learn Chinese. Look Tin Eli went back in 1879, at the age of 9.

Barred from Entry

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers. It was the first law preventing a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States, and was not repealed until 1943, when the U.S. and China allied in WWII.

In 1884, at age 14, Look Tin Eli tried to return to the United States. Under the Chinese Exclusion Act, in order to return, he need a Certificate of Return, which, having left the country prior to the Act, he did not possess. He was denied entry, and sued the U.S. Circuit Court for the Central District of California, claiming that he was a natural born United States citizen.

Look Tin Eli won his court battle—one of the earliest cases affirming that a native-born person is a U.S. citizen regardless of their ancestry or race.

Building Hope From Devastation

But Look Tin Eli’s contribution did not end there. In the 1890s, he moved with his Chinese-born wife from Mendocino to San Francisco, where he became a prosperous merchant, eventually founding the Bank of Canton, a western-style bank for Chinese workers.

At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit San Francisco. Buildings collapsed and fires spread. By nightfall flames had consumed much of the city, including Chinatown, home to the city’s 25,000 Chinese—Look Tin Eli and his wife and family among them.

Not only were the Chinese left homeless by the San Francisco earthquake, they also faced the threat of permanent displacement—a threat that, through the efforts of a group of merchants including Look Tin Eli, they managed to overcome.

Nativists mobilized to drive the Chinese from the city for good. With the goal to move the Chinese quarter from its prime location’and valuable land’next to the city’s central business district, Mayor Eugene Schmitz formed a committee to oversee Chinatown’s permanent relocation.

But the community’s merchant leadership group, of which Look Tin Eli was a prominent member, fought back. When cities like Oakland and Seattle began offering their ports, officials soon realized that San Francisco was at risk of losing the profitable China trade and abandoned the idea of relocation.

Free to return, community merchants decided to rebuild in a way that would promote Chinatown tourism. Look Tin Eli, in his words, wanted to create “veritable fairy palaces,” which would attract Westerners.

They hired American architects, who put Asian motifs inspired by pagodas on Western building facades, creating “Orient-inspired,” faux-Chinese streetscapes. Look Tin Eli’s building, at the intersection of Grant and California, was the first building to be rebuilt. Known as The Sing Chong Building, it quickly became a model for other cities’ Chinatowns. The building remains iconic, and continues to attract tourists to this day.

Connecting with the past

“It’s incredible to me to have learned this history,” Look Mazza says. She has deepened her bond with the Look branch of her family’so much so that they are even planning a reunion this summer in Mendocino and San Francisco, where roughly 30 family members will retrace their ancestor Look Tin Eli’s steps.

The Kelley House Museum is helping facilitate the trip. “We are so thrilled and honored to do so,” says Anne Cooper, the museum’s curator. “The Look family’s experience points to the really global impact of the California Gold Rush, which brought so many people here to make such broad contributions. We’re thrilled to be able to connect the Look family to their rich history.”

Look Mazza echoes these sentiments, but, unsurprisingly, feels them even more personally. “My dad passed in 2010,” she says. “He’d be really happy to know we’re doing this, and that we’ve reconnected, not just with each other, but with our family’s past.”

Despite early prejudices against them, the Chinese-American community plays a critical role in rebuilding San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

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