The oldest son of Chinese immigrants, vaudeville performer Lee Tung Foo is born on April 23, 1875 in Watsonville where his family owns a laundry and grocery business.. Shortly after the family moves, finally relocating to Ripon.
Lee’s father encourages his son to leave school and work as a hotel dishwasher, but Lee has other ideas. He runs away from home, hoping to get an education and take singing lessons.
Lee works as a cook and servant in Fresno and then moves to the Bay Area, where he attends Berkeley High School while again working as a servant – one of the few professions open to Chinese American men at the time..
Lee is one of the first Chinese American vaudevillians. Part of his act’s attraction is the “novelty.”
Through his church choir, he connects with a singing teacher, Margaret Blake Alverson, who helps him develop his voice. In 1905, with Alverson’s help, he makes his singing debut at the Empire Theater in Oakland. Success follows and Lee goes on to tour the United States and Europe singing songs in German and Latin as well as in English. Writes Alverson, in her memoir Sixty Years of California Song:
“He had the most indomitable will and determination to succeed, and he was the most faithful and conscientious and upright pupil I ever taught.“
Before he leaves Oakland, Lee presents Alverson with a gold-and-agate pin. She gives him two cats-eye opals, which he makes in to cuff-links.
At the beginning of the 20th Century in California, a person of Chinese descent is often thought inferior. Non-Chinese actors in “yellowface” reinforce racial stereotypes.
Lee plays to the “yellowface” expectations of his audiences about Chinese inferiority and then shatters them by singing opera or popular “American” tunes and engaging in comedic patter.
Reversing the stereotyping, Lee dresses in kilt and tam, spoofing the popular Scottish Highlander portrayed by Harry Lauder. “I don’t sing like Harry but I sing louder,” Lee jokes.
Eventually Lee leaves the stage, marries and opens several Chinese restaurants in New York City near Broadway. He still performs in several Broadway productions.
With the advent of “talkies,” Lee returns to California in the mid 1930s, makes his home in Los Angeles and spends the rest of his life playing minor roles — often uncredited — in dozens of films, including The General Dies at Dawn, Across the Pacific, Mission to Moscow, and, The Manchurian Candidate. His roles are mainly limited to waiter, cook, and servant, which are among the few roles offered to Chinese American actors at the time.
Ironically, in several films Lee plays the butler of fictional San Francisco detective James Lee Wong. “Mr. Wong” is portrayed by Boris Karloff, the British horror movie star.
Lee dies in 1966 at the age of 91 and is buried in the Chinese Cemetery in Los Angeles.