Chin Bok Lain (1869-1938) - Unofficial Mayor SF Chinatown

View from a Hang Far Low Restaurant balcony above Grant Street look toward
the corner of Sacramento Street and St. Mary's Cathedral on the left (Lee Rashall)
"Down the Street of Bazaars in San Francisco's Chinatown on July 31[, 1938], more than 1,300 mourners followed the body of Chin Lain to its last resting place. Son of Cantonese immigrants, the late Chin Lain lived to become a millionaire merchant, philanthropist and unofficial mayor of the greatest Chinese colony in the Western Hemisphere. Because the Chin family embraces the ranks of Chen and Chan, "relatives" of Chin Lain stretched in grieving files for six blocks behind the flower-filled phaeton which bore his picture at the procession's head (below). Observers said his funeral was the biggest, most dignified, Chinatown had ever staged." -- Life Magazine, August 15, 1938, page 14
Phaeton bearing portrait of Chin Lain (Lee Rashall)

Public Persona

Who was Chin Lain? How did his funeral come to be featured in Life Magazine?

According to scholar Nancy Yunhwa Rao, "Chin Lain was part of a group of elite merchants who, starting in the second decade of the twentieth century, endeavored to modernize San Francisco's Chinatown and boost its image, in order to improve the lives of its residents and attract tourists." To this end, in 1924, Bok Lain opened San Francisco's second Chinese opera theater, the Mandarin, which he owned and operated.

Writing about Bok Lain during the period when he was applying to build and staff the Mandarin, Rao listed his entrepreneurial bona fides, as follows:

"Chin Lain was the President of the China Mail Steamship, a director of the Canton Bank of San Francisco, the proprietor of the famous Hang Far Low restaurant, and the president of a local newspaper, Chinese World (the official organ of the Constitutionalist Party). In addition, as a community leader, the fifty-four-year-old Chin headed the San Francisco branch of the Constitutionalist Party."

Chin Lain before his 1922 trip to the
Orient with Anna and his Daughters 
The China Mail Steamship Company was established in 1915 to fill the gap when the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. withdrew its ships from the Oriental service. The company eventually operated three steamers the SS China, SS Nanking, and SS Nile, and the China Mail service between San Francisco, Honolulu, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagasaki, Shanghai, and Hong Kong proved to be very popular. According to Rao, Bok Lain had assumed the presidency of the China Mail Steamship Company in 1918. The 1922 Moodys Manual of Railroads and Corporations recorded Chin Lain as the president and director of the China Mail Steamship Company. After World War I, competition along their routes became keener, and by 1923, burdened by growing debts, the China Mail went bankrupt. [Swiggum]

The Canton Bank of San Francisco was incorporated in 1907 to assist the Chinese community rebuild after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Within a year, the Canton Bank had become the main bank for over 100,000 Chinese in North America. According the the Federal Reserve, "in 1923, the Canton Bank was in financial trouble, and it was closed by the superintendent of banks in July 1926." This bank is not related to the Bank of Canton of California which served those in the San Francisco Chinese Community who could not obtain credit through mainstream banks from 1937 to 2002. [Federal Reserve]

The Chinese World Newspaper and the Constitutionalist Party

The Chinese World newspaper began publishing in 1892 and change names several times. In 1908 it was renamed Chinese World (Sai Gai Yat Bo 世界日報) which has no relation to the present overseas version of the Taiwanese United Daily News published under the same name. 

According to Him Mark Lai: 

"During this period the Chinese World was but one of a number of newspaper organs established by the reformers in major Chinese communities abroad. It advocated reform of the Chinese empire and establishment of a constitutial monarchy. At the same time it was a strong supporter of confucianism and tradition. The newspaper became the chief spokesman for moderate to conservative forces in the Chinese community. It often engaged in debates with Chinatown newspapers which supported more basic and, for a period, very radical changes, in Chinese society."

Following the Chinese Revolution in 1911, the Constitutionalist Party 憲政黨 (also know as the Progressive Party 進步黨) put their weight behind the Peking government, and opposed the Nationalist Kuomingtang 國民黨 revolutionaries who set-up their base in Canton. 

It is unclear when Bok Lain's affiliation with the Constitutionalist party began, but by the 1920's, he had become a local leader and the president of the Chinese World. The party and the Chinese World continued to oppose the Kuomintang even after they established a new government in Nanking in 1927. 

Lai continued:

"However with the ascendancy of Kuomingtang power in China, the fortunes of the Constitutionalist Party declined rapidly... One by one its newspaper organs in various cities closed. By the end of the 1930's only the New China Daily Press of Honolulu and the Chinese World remained." 

Following World War II, the newspaper would be revitalized under publisher and managing editor, Dai Ming Lee, who grew the newspaper into the community's leading daily in the late-1940's and early 1950's. The paper slowley declined after Lee's death in 1961 and shuttered in 1970.

Family Matters

Chin Lain before his 1905 trip to China
Chin Bok Lain 陳伯麟 was born in 1870. According to his daughter-in-law, Eva Chan, Bok Lain first came to the United States in 1896. In immigration records, Chin Lain claimed to have been born at 4th and I Streets in Sacramento, CA, but never proved his nativity to the Immigration Service's satisfaction. He visited China in 1905 and returned to the United States in 1906.

Bok Lain was a first cousin of my maternal grandfather Chin Pak Yick, and his senior by 24 years. Bok Lain is my first cousin twice removed. Eva wrote that Bok Lain gave assistance to Pak Yick, Pak Yick's older brother, and many other family members for them to come to San Francisco.

Their grandfather was Chin Sui Fan 陳肇蕃 who had four sons: Kee Kwong, Kee Soong, Kee Bing, and his youngest Kee Ben. When Kee Kwong died at a young age, Kee Soong's eldest son Bok Yu was chosen to be Kee Kwong's heir; Bok Lain was his second son. Kee Ben's second son was Pak Yick. According to William Chin, Bok Lain had two sons Albert Bo Kay Chan and Myron Bo Qu Chan, and a daughter Joong King Chan. 

"On hand to bid Clara Chan bon voyage on her boat trip to China in 1936 were (left to right)
sister Frances; parents Mr. and Mrs. Chin Lain; Clara; and brother Myron. Behind are sisters-in-law
Mrs. B. K. Chan and Mrs. Myron Chan. Brother Albert (B. K.) Chan could not make it."
(Bridging the Pacific (c) 1989 Thomas Chinn)

In Bridging the Pacific, Thomas Chinn wrote that Bok Lain and his wife Ann had two daughters Clara and Frances. In 1938, Ann passed away followed by Bok Lain a couple of months later. "He had requested a simple funeral, asking friends to donate money instead to the China's refugee fund. (Japan had invaded China the previous year.) Because of the great respect the community had for him, Chin Lain's funeral on July 24, 1938, was the best-attended in memory." Myron died in 1951 and was survived by his wife Pearl, while Albert passed away in 1972 and was survived by his wife Eva. [p.178].

The Chin family’s village records show that Chin Bok Lain was married to Liu Shee 廖 and had two sons Bo Kay and Bo Qu. According to their tombstones, Bo Kay and Eva Fong Chan were born in 1892 and 1897.  The 1940 census records that a 46 year-old Bo Kay Chan who was born in China and his wife 42 year-old Fong Shee Chan who was born in California were living at 364 Grant Street in San Francisco Chinatown. So, Liu Shee was probably Albert Bo Kay’s mother. Since Bok Lain’s American-born wife Anna was born in 1890, she would have been too young to be Albert’s mother.

Hang Far Low Restaurant 杏花樓

Hang Far Low restaurant was one of the oldest premier banquet halls in San Francisco Chinatown. 

Post-earthquake Exterior of Hang Far Low Restaurant
(photographer unknown, c.1907)

In an interview with Thomas Chinn, a co-founder of the Chinese Historical Society of America, Chinn stated that Hang Far Low was started 5 to 10 years prior to 1876. The San Francisco Directory of Residents and Business for 1868 lists a Hong Far Low Chinese restaurant at 713 Dupont Street. According to William Chin, the restaurant was established by Chin relatives just a year earlier in 1867.

By the 1880's, Hang Far Low had gained notoriety as "The Delmonico's of the West." In her pictorial book San Francisco Chinatown (2006), Judy Yung provides the following description of the early restaurant's interior: “The top floor of Hang Far Low Restaurant – replete with inlaid panels, carved screens, and hardwood tables and stools imported from China – was reserved for the Chinese elite and their guests.” The restaurant was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, then rebuilt roughly in the same location. 

Chin Pak Yick's son William Chin wrote that family members including Pak Yick and others lent money to Bok Lain and his brother Bok Hing to start their businesses including their buy out of other owners for the Hang Far Low. William worked at Hang Far Low during the weekends and summers of 1939 and 1940. William was 8 to 9 years old at that time, and the Bok Lain's very young sons, Myron Bo Kay Chan and Albert Bo Qu Chan, were managers. William made $1.00 a day, all of which he gave to his father. He worked 16 hour shifts from 6am to 10pm, and slept on "under the stairs on a wooden plank two feet wide".

The west side of the 700-block of Grant Avenue, March 30, 1945.
Street level north of photo from Chin Lain's funeral procession 
Hang Far Low and T. Iwata Kimonos in the distance
(OpenSFHistory / wnp27.5585)

Hang Far Low was sold in 1960 and renamed The Four Seas Restaurant. In 2016, chef Brandon Jew took over the space and established the contemporary Chinese restaurant, Mister Jiu's. [Hang Far Low: Banquet Culture Starts Here]

Immigration Files

In most historical and genealogical research, finding something written down in a document is usually considered to be the gold standard for establishing facts. However, because of the restrictions of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its even harsher successors, late 19th century and early 20th century Chinese immigrants to the United States went to extraordinary lengths to construct stories that would convince wary immigration inspectors of their legal status to reside in the United States. Some became paper sons of legal residents. Others took advantage of fact that the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed all of San Francisco's birth records to claim native-born status.

Here are some of the "facts" about Chin Lain from his immigration files:

  • Born in 1869 or 70 in Sacramento, CA, at the corner of 4th and I Streets.
  • He worked at Tong Wo Chan & Co at 3rd and I Streets.
  • He traveled to China for the first time in March 1905 aboard the S.S. Doric.
  • Chin Lain signed immigration documents as 陳連. and was also know as Chin Oon Pak. 
    • [He did not indicate that he was known as Chin Bok Lain 陳伯麟 as my family knew him.]
    • [Our village genealogy does show his married name as 敦樸 which could be romanized from Taishanese as Oon Pak.]
  • He married Char Shee in April 1906 in Canton City according to Chinese custom.
  • Chin Lain and Char Shee returned to the Port of San Francisco on November 8, 1906 on board the S.S. Korea.
  • Chin Lain was allowed to land as a merchant.
[He does not seem to have needed to exploit the 1906 earthquake which occurred while he was on this trip.]
  • Char Shee died unexpectedly at a hospital in Oakland, CA, 9 days after they arrived.
  • Chin Lain married Choy Siew, a native of Oakland, CA, in March 21,1907.
  • Their son Chin Bow Kew was born in September 1908.
  • Their first daughter Chin Cheung Leun was born May 28, 1910 at 117 Waverly Place, SF.
  • Their second daughter Chin Cheung Ching was born April 30, 1919 at 772 Commercial Street, SF.
  • In 1920, Chin Lain applied to receive a merchant return certificate which would allow him to proceed to Mexico via Calexico, Cal. and to return without further investigation of his merchant status.
  • During this process it was established that 
    • Chin Lain had been the President of the china Mail Steamship Company, Limited since November 29, 1919. (Establishing his merchant status)
    • No evidence had been offered regarding his nativity (calling into question his native-born status)
    • He did not register during 1893-4 after the 1882 Exclusion Act was renewed with the requirement for all Chinese regardless of status or citizenship to register with the Immigration Service.
    • Partnership files for Tong Wo Chan & Co. failed to list Chin Lain as a partner on November 15, 1893, and January 2, 1985, during which times Chin Lain claimed to be a salesman and assistant bookkeeper for the firm.
  • In 1922, the family lived at 1915 Franklin Street, SF.
  • In March 1922, Chin Lain's son Chin Bow Kew, born September 1908, traveled by himself to China. 
  • On August 24, 1922, Chin Lain, Choy Siew, and his two daughters, Chin Cheung Leun, 12 years old, and Chin Cheung Luen, 3 years old, traveled to the Orient on business aboard the S.S. Nile.
  • Chin Cheung Leun was attending the Pacific Heights School at the time of their trip.
  • This trip was Choy Siew's first time traveling outside the United States.
  • In 1922, Chin Lain was President of the China Mail Steamship Co, 510 Montgomery Street., San Francisco, owning 50 shares at $50 a share in Chinese money. He was also a director of the Canton Bank, S. F., and had various interests in different places.
  • Chin Lain’s immigration file does not mention his son Bo Kay or any marriages prior to his marriage to Char Shee in 1906 and Choy Siew in 1907. 


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