A scene of Megunticook Lake by I. Nee Lee, circa early 1930s
A scene of Megunticook Lake by I. Nee Lee, circa early 1930s
When I. Nee Lee emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. in 1902, it was not an easy time to be Chinese in America. It was the year that Congress made permanent the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned most Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Yet somehow Lee made his way to Camden in 1917, where he opened a laundry on Bayview Street and painted a series of striking depictions of local landscapes with a distinctive Chinese flair. Much about Lee remains a mystery, but the era of racism and xenophobia during which he lived is well documented and worth remembering.

"They say exclusion but they mean extermination"

The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived on the West Coast for the California Gold Rush in the late 1840s and '50s. Following instability caused by the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion against the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, a mass exodus of men left their families to seek a living on the other side of the world in California. But it wasn't long before racial tensions reached a fever pitch, and local white workers pressured state leaders to pass laws prohibiting Chinese from working in the mines. Many Chinese would become cigar makers until whites began boycotting Chinese-made cigars. Others would go to work on the First Transcontinental Railroad and on the flood levees in Sacramento.

As competition for jobs grew fierce and resentment built up toward "the coolies," more laws followed. Many whites saw the immigrant men with their foreign styles and customs as threatening. According to Gary Libby, a Portland-based attorney and author of the forthcoming "The History of Maine's Chinese Community," in 1862 California even enacted a "police tax" that was only applicable to Chinese.

"[Chinese] had to pay the tax every month so that the California government could theoretically hire policemen to watch them," said Libby.

As nativist fear and hatred toward the "yellow peril" burned hot, white workers led by labor groups like the Workingmen's Party of California blamed Chinese immigration for the decline in wages and job opportunities. Violent anti-Chinese pogroms were carried out against Chinese on the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle by white mobs with the battle cry, "The Chinese Must Go!"

University of California Riverside economist Susan Carter, in the new documentary film "The Search for General Tso," says, "They would have white mobs coming through their communities burning them out, tossing their stuff out into the streets.... There's a quote where they say, 'They say exclusion but they mean extermination.'"

Most Restrictive Immigration Law in History Is Born

With anti-immigrant fervor boiling over, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which became the most restrictive and discriminatory immigration law in U.S. history.

The law prohibited almost all Chinese immigration and excluded all Chinese immigrants who were permanent aliens from obtaining U.S. citizenship. As a result, Chinese immigration sharply declined. It was the first time a federal law was passed targeting immigration of a specific ethnic group based on the theory that they "endangered the good order of certain localities." The law was later expanded to ban all immigration from East Asia.

It's unknown how I. Nee Lee was able to enter the country at just 14 years old under such tight immigration restrictions in 1902. According to the law, Chinese laborers were outright banned entry and only selected groups of Chinese were allowed into the country, such as diplomats, merchants and tourists. As a result, some Chinese laborers would either try to enter the US illegally or pose as a merchant.

As Libby explains, people would claim to be one of a dozen partners in a grocery store, allowing each partner to classify themselves as a "merchant" even though the store would be unlikely to support all of the partners.

"The immigration people got wise to that whole thing and established minimum amounts of money in order to qualify as a merchant," said Libby.

While it's unlikely that I. Nee Lee arrived in the U.S. as a merchant, it's not out of the realm of possibility. As Libby has documented, the first Chinese laundry in Portland, Maine, was established in 1870 by a 14 year-old boy, who arrived in the U.S. by himself and unable to speak English. But perhaps a more likely scenario is that Lee found another loophole in the law and declared himself what was informally called a "paper son." Under the law, only resident aliens of Chinese descent were allowed to leave and return to the United States. If a Chinese man returned to China to visit his family and could claim that he had a child while in China, he could legally bring the child back to the U.S.

"What happened is that people would go back to China and they would claim that they had a kid, which they never did," said Libby. "Then they would sell the slot of that kid to people in China."

Eventually, immigration officials became wise to the paper-son practice and Libby describes a sort of "cat and mouse game" between the Chinese immigrants and immigration officials that ensued.

"Over a number of years, the immigration people built up a huge dossier about pretty much every village in Guandong Province, China," said Libby. "So they would ask you if you went out your door and you wanted to go to the village well, would you go left or right? How many steps is it? How many rooms in your house? These people who came here would spend the whole time from China to the U.S. studying the facts that would apply to them, assuming they were actually who they were claiming to be."

But once they arrived, the biggest challenge was simply finding a way to make a living. As Libby points out, since restrictive laws forced Chinese out of the labor force, they had to be creative.

"About the only thing they could do where they weren't competing directly with white folks and where they didn't need a lot of money to get into the business was laundry work," said Libby.

In order to escape persecution and find jobs, Chinese men fanned out all across the country in search of opportunities. Libby says that often Chinese immigrants would come from China through Vancouver, Canada, and then down through border crossings in Jackman and Calais into Maine.

It's not known whether I. Nee Lee entered the country legally, but he did register for the World War I draft in Camden in 1917, which Libby said was necessary because it was a small town and everyone would have known Lee.

"Chinese people who were born in China, although they were not eligible to become citizens of the United States and the Chinese Exclusion Act tried to keep people like them from coming into the country, were still required to register for the draft and they were subject to the draft," said Libby.
Struggles in the Land of Opportunity

In the mid teens, Maine and the rest of the country were experiencing a boom in Chinese laundries. In Portland alone, Libby has documented nearly 30 Chinese laundries at their peak, right after World War I. At the time, Lee would have been nearly 30 years old. In the 1920 census he described himself as an "alien," single and living alone at 45 Water Street in Camden. By the 1930 census, Lee, now 42 years old, was still listed as single, but also as a naturalized citizen. By that time, Libby says he was living at 43 Bayview Street, paying $9 a month in rent.

Lee's letters, which ended up at the archive of the Camden Historical Society, tell a deeper story. In one letter, dated November 16, 1931, Lee's son Jian Xing informs his father that his mother is sick and his wife is pregnant. He begs his father to send more money home to help him pay for tuition to finish school to support his new family.

"Mom says that before you left home you were planning on making money and supporting the family, but now we don't even hear much from you anymore," said Jiang Xing, adding, "With the sharp, rising prices of commodities, and no money in the house, we hope, honorable father, that you will send some money, regardless of the amount, after you receive this letter. We have no place to borrow money. No one believes the urgent needs of our family."

But unlike most Chinese at the time, who had little chance of reuniting with their families in China due to the Exclusion Act, as a naturalized citizen, Lee would have been able to obtain a special certification for re-entry into the U.S.

But while Lee must have made some trips back to China to marry and start a family there, records show he spent most of his time after 1917 in Camden struggling to make a living. It was right in the middle of the Great Depression and times were tough on both sides of the world, but Lee's family likely had a skewed perception of "the land of opportunity." In another letter from 1931, Lee's older brother, Ting Lee, urged his younger brother to send money home and to stop smoking and wasting money.

"I hope all is well with your life and job as you are alone out there," wrote the older brother. "I recall it's been about 30 years since you've left home. You've left home to a foreign country to earn money, but the past few years have been tough. You have not been able to earn enough money to support your wife and family, plus mother is in her eighties now. I've been hoping you are doing better so mother doesn't need to worry about you anymore. I'm now 60 years old and I haven't been doing well. My business has been doing poorly and I haven't been able to take care of the family. I am hoping you can send back a few thousand dollars to help support the family and my business."

And for Lee, being alone in a foreign culture in a tiny Maine town with no other Chinese to talk to must have felt isolating. A 1999 press release in the Camden Herald about a showing of Lee's artwork paints a regrettable picture of racial prejudice at the time.

"Local youngsters reportedly harassed him on occasion, threatening to cut off his long pigtail or taunting him with the rhyme 'Chinaman, sitting on a fence, trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents,'" said the press release.

Other children would reportedly drop stones down Lee's chimney into his shop, which one elderly resident said would cause him to charge out yelling in Chinese and occasionally waving a flatiron.

"We were afraid of him," said the woman quoted in the Camden Herald. "He'd chase you."

But what made I. Nee Lee particularly unique among most Chinese laundrymen in Maine is that he never left Maine, said Libby. According to Libby's analysis of the Census every ten years, it's very seldom that a Chinese person shows up in two surveys in a row.

"There was never really a critical mass of Chinese people in Maine. I. Nee Lee stayed much longer than most of them did," said Libby. "What happened is they would get very lonely. They would make enough money so that they could either return to China or move to the Boston area or a place with a bigger Chinese community and sell their laundry to somebody else."

There are no known written accounts by Lee in existence, but his paintings, which he gave to his landlady in lieu of rent, allow a glimpse into the man. Lee's artwork primarily focuses on the the scenic landscapes, mountains and lakes of Camden. He liked to paint colorful pictures of farmers and fishermen on the lake or in Camden Harbor with seemingly little concern for accurate proportions. One painting is unmistakably the lake and mountains of Megunticook, yet filtered through a Chinese lens. Many of his houses look more like rural Chinese dwellings than homes in coastal Maine. Another painting shows a young woman with short, bobbed blond hair wearing high-water boots next to a fishing pole. She jumps back in fright at what appears to be a whale bursting out of the water. Her face is vaguely Asian in appearance.

It is known that Lee never did return to live in China, but it's unknown why. Judging from the letters Lee left behind, it could be that he felt ashamed to return due to his inability to fulfill his responsibilities to his family. A few years before his death, Lee's older brother Ting Lee warned the younger brother to make plans for his retirement."I have been worried about you a lot lately," wrote Ting Lee. "You have not been able to come home in the past ten years, nor have you been able to send money home for your wife and family. Also you are in your fifties now and you'll need to save some money for when you are old. I hope you are having the same thought as well. I understand you are not doing very well but you should be able to at least support your family and not let your wife starve. And also you need to save some money for your later years. I hope you will come home and spend your elder years back home so you don't end up still working and having a hard life in the foreign land when you are old."

Unfortunately, the older brother's warning proved to be prophetic. Eight years later, on July 21, 1939, Lee died at the age of 51 in Bangor. It's not known how long Lee had been living there, but Libby speculates that he had traveled up north to start another laundry. His final resting place is at a gravesite in the "Strangers Ground," the pauper graveyard in Mount Hope Cemetery.

Four years after Lee's death, as China and the U.S. joined forces to fight the Japanese in World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally lifted. However, even with passage of the immigration reform legislation known as the Magnuson Act, visa quotas for Chinese immigrants remained very low. It wasn't until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that quotas were gradually raised and it was made easier for Asian immigrants like I. Nee Lee to finally legally reunite with their families.

On June 18, 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution unanimously expressing regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act. At the time, Congresswoman Judy Chu of California said it was finally an acknowledgment of the ugly and un-American nature of laws that targeted Chinese immigrants.

"The Chinese Exclusion Act enshrined injustice into our legal code - it stopped the Chinese, and the Chinese alone, from immigrating, from ever becoming naturalized citizens and ever having the right to vote," said Chu. "The last generation of people personally affected by these laws is leaving us, and finally Congress has expressed the sincere regret that Chinese Americans deserve and reaffirmed our commitment to the civil rights of all people."