On the Water

Chinese Immigrant’s Lacquer Trunk

This black lacquered box, which has a dark red interior, was made in China. It held some of the belongings of a Chinese woman who traveled to the United States to join her new husband, Lee B. Lok, in 1906.

Mr. Lee had immigrated to America with an uncle in 1881. He went to work as a dishwasher in New York City and by 1891 had worked his way into a position at a general store on Mott Street in Chinatown. The store sold dry goods, groceries, silks, porcelains, teas, and other supplies. It also served as a currency exchange, herbal pharmacy and mail drop for people in the surrounding community. In 1894 Mr. Lee became the store manager and was then able to upgrade his immigration papers to merchant status. As a merchant, he was allowed to travel freely to and from China at a time when travel by Chinese laborers was severely restricted by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

At this time the ratio of Chinese men to women in the United States was about 27 to 1. Around 1900, Mr. Lee took a steamship back to China, where he married a young woman, Ng Shee Lee. He returned to the United States and arranged for his wife to join him in 1906. Mrs. Lee made the voyage across the Pacific on her own, a journey that took 18 days by steamship. She traveled across Canada by train and entered the United States through Malone, an immigration station in upstate New York. The Lees lived above the store in Chinatown and raised seven children, all of whom attended college.

This trunk and thirty textiles, including a banner and clothing, were donated to the Smithsonian Institution by Virginia Lee Mead, a daughter of the Lees. At the time of the donation in 1992, an oral history interview was conducted with the donor, which is the source of the information provided.

ID Number:
leather, metal
ca 1906
70.000 x 46.000 x 34.000 cm

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