Douglas Lee thought he knew just about everything about the family business.
Since the late 1930s, the Lee family has sold insurance at 31 Pell Street in New York City's Chinatown. Their entrepreneurial roots in the Chinese-American community stretch back to 1888, when the Lees opened a grocery store at the same location.
One hundred twenty-five years later, the family's longstanding history in Chinatown is on display in a new exhibit at New York's Museum of Chinese in America.
When Lee and his sister Sandra started gathering artifacts for the exhibit, they pored over old business records stored in the family's safe. That's when Lee, a film and TV executive who has worked at HBO and 20th Century Fox, discovered his career in the entertainment industry is not such a divergence from the family business after all.
An old ledger book is one of the few remnants of the New York Chinese Film Exchange, a business venture founded by Lee's grandfather Harold in the late 1920s — and long forgotten by his descendants. The company distributed Chinese-language films to theaters serving immigrant moviegoers.
"Everybody's mind is a little bit blown," Lee says of his family's reaction to the recent discovery. "It's part of my family history that nobody really knew about or talked about until I did this research."
He later found out that Harold Lee's uncle helped finance the Great Wall Film Company. Douglas and Sandra Lee write about the production company's history in the museum exhibit's companion journal:
"The studio was born when Chinese community leaders, outraged over the 1921 release of The First Born, a movie that depicted everyday Chinese life to be full of drugs, opium dens, brothels, foot binding ... protested to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. They were told to make their own pictures if they wanted to change the stereotypes and the Great Wall Film Company was the result, underwritten by Lee family money."
The company, which went out of business in 1930, produced about 30 films. In 1945, Harold Lee also transformed an English-language movie theater into the Silver Star Theater, one of the first to screen Chinese-language films from China and Hong Kong in New York's Chinatown. The theater was torn down in the late 1950s, but it was among a string of institutions that once served as a unique source of entertainment for immigrants.
For Douglas Lee, unearthing this lost family history in the movies has been reaffirming. "I felt like, 'OK, maybe it is in my blood,' because I've basically spent all of my career in film distribution," he says.
So far, Lee has tracked down one of the Great Wall Film Company's films online — a silent, black-and-white movie from 1928 called Poor Daddy. He says he's now on the hunt for others.