The Architect Who Melded Tradition and Modernism in New York’s Chinatown

Poy Gum Lee, On Leong Tong, 83-85 Mott Street. Presentation drawing, 1948, Ink and watercolor on paper, Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive
Poy Gum Lee, On Leong Tong, 83–85 Mott Street presentation drawing (1948), ink and watercolor on paper (courtesy the Poy Gum Lee Archive)

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) has created a wonderfully dense retrospective of Poy Gum Lee, a Chinatown native whose buildings still stand in Shanghai and New York City. Lee is a fascinating architect in his own right. But the great strength of Chinese Style: Rediscovering the Architecture of Poy Gum Lee, 1923–1968 is that its curator, Kerri Culhane, looks beyond Lee himself to examine the role of community in architecture, the ties between China and the West, and the influences that traveled in both directions.

Poy Gum Lee was born in 1900 on Mott Street, in New York’s Chinatown. MOCA’s exhibit opens with a set of photos of Chinatown around that time, when it was coming into its own as a community around the turn of the century. In 1883, the Chinese-American Benevolent Association, the first building constructed in the area in a recognizably Chinese style, was erected on Mott Street. Judging by the photos of old Mott Street, the Chinatown of 1905 already looked much like the Chinatown of today, albeit with horse-drawn carriages. Already, there are the familiar tenements and fire escapes, many hung with signs for Chinese restaurants.

Installation view of ‘Chinese Style: Rediscovering the Architecture of Poy Gum Lee, 1923–1968’ at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) (photo by Allison Meier for Hyperallergic)

Poy Gum Lee, pictured with his enormous family, comes across as an energetic, ambitious young man. Like Chinatown itself, Lee is a hybrid figure, the son of Chinese parents growing up in the US. He joined the Chinatown branch of the Boy Scouts (there are photos of him in uniform), attended Pratt Institute and Columbia University. Then, in 1923, he moved to Shanghai, where he found work as the in-house architect for the YMCA.

MOCA posits that until the late 19th century, the concept of architecture as an art form was virtually unheard of in China. Apart from tombs and monuments, buildings were constructed along traditional patterns and were considered purely functional. That began to change as Western missionaries flocked to China, and as more Chinese intellectuals traveled back and forth to the West. Poy Gum Lee arrived in Shanghai just as interest was growing in Western-style architecture.

MOCA vividly evokes the lost world of Shanghai that Lee inhabited — the Shanghai before the Japanese invasion and the Communist revolution. Alongside photos and sketches of his early buildings, there are newspaper articles, wedding pictures, and snapshots of Lee with his colleagues. The mood is one of wealth, movement, and possibility.

Photos featuring Poy Gum Lee (left) and one of his buildings (right) (photo by Allison Meier for Hyperallergic)

Lee’s Shanghai buildings are stunning. Softly rounded Art Deco buildings with traditional Chinese roofs and ornaments, these buildings are luminous; they speak to the influence of the Western community in Shanghai. The Cosmopolitan Apartments are gleaming white and generously proportioned; their walls and balconies are gently curved, their stone ornaments are luxurious. The broad stone entryway sets the building, and its wealthy residents, far from the crowded streets. The Bank of Canton (now a Shanghai Cultural Heritage Site) dominates most of its block, towering over the street below. Here, there are only a few, subtle reminders, on the windows and entry, that we are in China at all. For the most part, the white stone and straight, rhythmic lines speak of Western might.

On Leong Tong Chinese Merchants, based on Poy Gum Lee’s design (photo by Allison Meier for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

This golden period came to an end with the Japanese invasion. Lee stayed in Shanghai through the occupation, but work dried up. He finally returned to New York in 1946. There, he found a Chinese-American community that had become far wealthier and more powerful. Chinese Nationalists dominated Chinatown politics, and they favored “modern Chinese” architecture over anything that smacked of Communist China. Lee’s work reflects this. Over the course of the next 20 years, he built the Pagoda Theater, the Kimlau Monument, and a string of other buildings in Chinatown. He also likely designed the On Leong Tong, or Chinese Merchants Association on Mott Street.

Lee’s Chinatown buildings look worlds away from his Shanghai ones. That sweeping, luminous power is gone, replaced by buildings that are cultural hybrids, combining Western styles with stereotypically “Chinese” features, like pagoda roofs and projecting balconies. On Leong Tong is a flat-fronted, modernist building. Its main structure stands at the same height as the neighboring tenements, but it’s topped by a pagoda roof; its red columns also set it apart. The Pagoda Theater is another sturdy structure with a pagoda roof and Chinese ornamentation. This style can veer from charming to kitschy, depending on your sensibilities. But then, the beauty of MOCA’s exhibit is that it connects Lee’s life and work to the community that he operated within. Chinatown in the 1950s and ’60s was growing in power, but it would never have the might of Shanghai’s expat community. Nor did it have, any longer, the social cohesion of Chinatown around 1900. It was becoming Americanized, and its architecture reflected that trend. In this, too, Lee was a man of his time and place.

Poy Gum Lee, Perspective sketch of Ping-Wo Restaurant, 14 Mott Street, ca. 1967, Pencil on tracing paper, Courtesy of the Poy Gum Lee Archive
Poy Gum Lee, Perspective sketch of Ping-Wo Restaurant, 14 Mott Street (ca. 1967), pencil on tracing paper (courtesy the Poy Gum Lee Archive)

Chinatown is now diminished, another casualty of New York’s endless gentrification. Lee’s buildings still stand, as do the old tenements, and it is easy enough to take a nostalgic walk through the old Chinatown. But skyrocketing rents have driven most recent immigrants to Brooklyn and Queens; tourists fill up all the little Chinese restaurants and souvenir shops, and luxury high rises and European cafes are taking over the streets. Today, Lee’s time seems very far away indeed.

Chinese Style: Rediscovering the Architecture of Poy Gum Lee, 1923–1968 continues at the Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre St, Chinatown, Manhattan) through March 27. 

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