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Chinese In The Richmond: Lenore Chinn

A project of the Chinese Historical Society of America and Western Neighborhoods Project
A collaboration between the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) and Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP), Chinese in the Richmond illuminates the lives of Chinese Americans in San Francisco’s Richmond District from the community’s point of view.
Lenore Chinn was interviewed by Palma You and Steve Haines of the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) via Zoom on October 9, 2020 as part of Chinese in the Richmond—a collaboration with Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP) that illuminates the lives of Chinese Americans in San Francisco’s Richmond District.
“Lenore Chinn Remembers” is an expanded adaptation of the oral history interview conducted by CHSA. Written by Nicole Meldahl, Executive Director of WNP, it places Lenore Chinn’s story within the broader context of the neighborhood and is not verbatim. A transcript summary of Lenore Chinn’s interview can be read HERE. A digital recording of this interview and additional primary resources not available online are available for research at CHSA.
All uses of this transcript summary and adaptation are covered by a legal agreement between CHSA and Lenore Chinn. Copyright is shared between Lenore Chinn and CHSA. Excerpts up to 1000 words from this interview may be quoted for publication without seeking permission as long as the use is non-commercial and properly cited. Requests for permission to quote should be sent to CHSA.
Recommended Citation:
Transcript Summary - “Lenore Chinn” conducted by Palma You and Steve Haines, Chinese Historical Society of America, San Francisco, California, 2020.
Adaptation - “Lenore Chinn Remembers” written by Nicole Meldahl, Chinese in the Richmond, 2022.
Lenore Chinn Remembers
by Nicole Meldahl, Executive Director, Western Neighborhoods Project
Lenore Chinn is a second-generation Chinese American painter, photographer and activist whose family moved to the Richmond District in 1951. Her father, a veteran of World War II and a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, was a lifelong San Francisco Unified School District educator and esteemed mathematician. She’s known for her photorealistic paintings that depict a wide spectrum of members from her community–portraits that showcase her Chinese-american culture, LGBTQ relationships, and more. This is her story.
Her mother, Grace Quan Wong, was born in Oakland’s Chinatown. “Mother’s real surname was Quan. Dad restored that name when she passed; both parents are at Chapel of the Chimes; Cousin Germaine says Grandpa felt no need to maintain the name Quan because he sold the name to someone else, a paper name situation, so the name her family went by was Wong, her paper name.”
Lenore’s father, William G. Chinn, was born in San Francisco on May 26, 1919 and grew up as one of 12 children. In an oral history from 1994 held by the Briscoe Center, William remembered “My parents…were all educated in China. Actually, my father was here before the earthquake and during the quake, of course, he along with a lot of people, escaped over to Oakland in ferries.1” Because of this, Lenore remembers, “he said he was able to maintain the family name because of the 1906 earthquake. My grandfather claimed, as many did, that his papers were burned at City Hall. But my mom did not have that advantage because she lived in Oakland. Some family members used Chin as opposed to Chinn.”
William continued, “I think he went back to China in 1907 sometime and took my mother as his wife. Together they came back to the United States. My mother was born in central city of Canton. She went to school there, which of course was not the usual thing for girls in those days, but she was born in a family that were educated so she went to girls school in China. When she got to the States, both parents of course maintained the Chinese language completely. In fact, they depended on their older brothers and sisters to help them get along in case of questionnaires and things like that. So as we grew up, little by little we also put in our shares in helping answer questions dealing with different kinds of things. My father was a merchant and along with that he has other sidelines, depending on the occasions and so forth. Because in those days, if you don’t have other sidelines of such a sales and carry on the benevolent societies and so forth, you are most likely relegated to some very basic ways of living, such as laundry and so forth. My father was not into any labor like that. He was mainly a merchant which deals in commodities from China.2
His parents expected him to be academic and the Chinn children attended American school in the morning, come home for a bite to eat, and then attend Chinese school in the evenings during the week. They also attended Chinese school on the weekends. “The Chinese school included a lot of things, basically learning how to read, write, and so on. Plus as you move up the grades, some histories, and what they call usefulness in learning how to socialize and so forth. The types of things that kind of writing you would use in addressing formal occasions and so forth. And this goes on until about we get to high school and then by that time we still do have the Chinese school at the same time but our emphasis was mostly to try to get along well in the American school.3
The Chinn family lived “at 715 Commercial, right up the block from the R&G Lounge, you'll find the old family house and the plaque dedicated to my photographer uncle, Benjamin Chinn.” Benjamin and his brother John, who introduced him to photography, built a darkroom in the basement of the family home. After serving as an aerial and public relations photographer with the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, he returned to San Francisco where he attended the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA)—now the San Francisco Art Institute. Here he had access to some of the most prominent photographers of their day, learning from Ansel Adams, Minor White, Edward WEston, Imogen Cunninham, and Dorothea Lange, among others. After living and working in Paris in the early 1950s, he returned to San Francisco where he went to work for the U.S. Sixth Army Photo Lab in the Presidio of San Francisco in 1953. He worked there for 31 years, rising to the position of Chief of Photographic Services and eventually Chief of Training Aids & Services Division. He continued fine art photography throughout his life and is particularly well known for his views of Chinatown and his dark room prowess.4
William became interested in mathematics because of his father. “He was a very good mathematician in that he can add and subtract very quickly, and he can do that by doing more than one thing at a time. In that case he can do some addings fantastically, at the same time he’s always doing something like that. We are exposed to that type of thing,” William remembered. At Chinese school, he learned to work on an abacus. “When it came to doing serious problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and so forth, what the Chinese do with those kinds of things are that they have rhymes that they memorize and those rhymes help you to do some figuring–to teach you more or les show to move the beads in accord with the rhyme so that you can do those kinds of thinking in an automatic fashion.”
After graduating from Lowell High School in 1937, William attended the University of California, Berkeley where he received a BA in Mathematics in 1941. His pursuit of a master’s degree was interrupted by U.S. entry into World War II.5 William remembered, “I was told to appear at the draft board the Monday after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. That was the day I was supposed to be taking the first examination of my first graduate school. But because of my missing, I asked for an extension to finish up my examinations. I did not catch up until I came back from the war in the middle of 1946.”
William remembered, “I’m not very good at fighting or being able to handle any Germans or whatever because of my size. I was sent to the Presidio of San Francisco and from there we were trucked down to the Presidio of Monterey for our assignments. And some of us were put into trains.” Here he was formally enlisted on January 6, 1942. Oddly, the digital version of his registration record lists his occupation as “Actors and actresses.6” The physical card notes he’s unemployed and that his guardian, Harry Brandford Chin, as a primary contact.7 William was sent to Camp Grant near Chicago, Illinois for six weeks of basic training to serve in a medical attachment as a pharmaceutical technician, returning to the Presidio of San Francisco upon completion. He said the Presidio “was a beautiful sight to me at that time.”
He would serve in the European and African Theaters, “But then after our maneuvering and so forth, I was about to go with the units and somebody found out that I had on the first of my draft indicated a desire to go into meteorological training. I had forgotten all about it until someone found it in my records. So they pulled me out of line. I was detached from the Medical Corp and pushed to the Air Corps. While I was waiting, I was assigned to some quarters near UCLA where someone approached me to help out with the cadets who are having difficulty with their physics or their mathematics. And I agreed to do that for them for a few weeks.” He was trained in meteorology and attached to the 8th Air Force as an aide to General Eugene Lowry Eubank. After the war ended, he was discharged with the rank of second lieutenant and returned to Berkeley in 1946. He received his teaching credential in 1947 and his first job was at a local junior high school.
Lenore remembered, “Dad and Mom met in church and got married in 1947 after the war, and lived in an apartment at 20 Allen Street on Russian Hill in a building owned by an uncle, Lawrence and Anne Jew; very involved with Chinatown community.” William began working as a teacher with the San Francisco Unified School District and Lenore was born on June 20, 1949, at St. Francis Memorial Hospital. She lived on the outskirts of Russian Hill at 20 Allen Street near Filbert and Hyde until the age of two, when the family moved to the Richmond District in 1951.
Moving to the Richmond
Lenore remembers that William first tried to buy a home in Santa Clara but “there was extreme resistance, threats. Dad decided to go through a third party to locate and find a home in the Richmond, and then purchase the house at 539 29th Avenue. He just wanted a single family house for the family.” The home had been on the market for a majority of 1948, first for sale by owner and then represented by Gordon & Talmadge.
“I don’t know if they anticipated all the difficulties they would face. My brother, Kevin, and I were shielded from the negative stories, but we found out later there were death threats. People would be shocked now because the neighborhood is so very different then what either of us grew up in. While the threats were happening, Dad decided he was not going to move. The real estate agent and the person that helped buy the house warned the parents to put a two-by-four in the back of your garage doors for protection. That’s how intense it was at the time. Dad didn’t talk about it so much. My mother was more revealing because she held in a lot of anger about many things, and she sort of revealed they had threats but she didn’t go into detail.”
“People would be shocked today because the neighborhood is so different now than what I grew up in,” she continued. “My brother is five years younger (born in November 19538) so his experience is slightly different from mine. It was a segregated neighborhood. In retrospect, now that I’m 71, I realize some of the things that happened are normal, and most people who live in the area now do not know that those occurrences were normal.”
“Dad was a math teacher for the SFUSD, Portola Junior High School,” Lenore said. While living in the Richmond District, William eventually finished his MA in 1956. William G. Chinn was much more than just a math teacher. From 1956 to 1960, he was committee chairman of the California Mathematics Council and served as curriculum assistant for the San Francisco Unified Schools from 1960 to 1963, simultaneously working as a district consultant for the Monterey Unified School District from 1960 to 1961. He became a special consultant to the California Office of Education in 1965. Then, in 1966, he became an instructor of mathematics at City College of San Francisco where he worked until retiring in 1984.
At City College, he was less than enthusiastic about the labor unions. He remembered, “I can’t like this favor of labor because as a child I was already influenced by the fact that laborer has never been friendly to the Orientals. In fact, that was when Dennis Kearney preached his thing about keeping the Orientals out of the United States. And he was always known as being on the street corners making those talks and so forth. Although his days were before mine, the influence was still there when I was growing up.9
Throughout his career, he was a member of numerous local and national professional associations focused on math education and he was a widely published author in his field. His papers are now part of the Archives of American Mathematics (AA), a unit of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin.10
Lenore remembers “In the early days of my childhood Mom was mostly a stay at home worker but prior to that she did administrative work for a company called Delta. A little later when I was older, she went to work with a sister for the Immigration Naturalization Service as a translator on Sansome Street. They worked translating the language, either written or verbal, because they were fluent.”
Highlights of living in the neighborhood for Lenore included being “close to all the beaches and parks in the area and visited all of them: Playland at the Beach and surrounding popular sites, neighborhood theaters like the Balboa and Four Star where I attended childhood birthday parties, the Coliseum on Clement and Ninth Avenue, and the Coronet on Geary, were favorites.”
Not knowing about the racist real estate practices of the day, Chinn remembered in 2001 that she “accepted the fact that there were only a handful of Japanese and a sprinkling of Chinese in my early visual landscape and there were no Hispanics or African Americans, and very few families of mixed heritage. The monochromatic palette, which initially obscured my view of the world, was broadened only by sporadic introductions to new friends outside my immediate family. Over the years, the Richmond District’s sea of white inhabitants met with an influx of new tongues, cultures, ethnicities, races, and religions. This triggered a lifelong curiosity in me, together with a cultural challenge for my family, who was struggling to maintain its Chinese identity. It set the stage for a complex layering of cultural encounters and a personal odyssey which defied many of the labels, mores, and social limitations imposed on the ‘cultural others’ of my postwar, baby boom generation. These early explorations gave me the foundation for a more global perspective: I identified with others, prompting an insatiable appetite for understanding the rituals and traditions of people from very diverse backgrounds. Ultimately, this also became a part of my growth and development as a visual artist.”
She continued that, “as a very young child I always had an interest in drawing and painting, and experimented with different media to make things for my own entertainment. I have fond memories of my father taking me to the public library, where I was fascinated with books and drawing and constructing functional toys. Despite conflicting family expectations about the appropriateness of this interest extending beyond my earlier years, I continued to pursue these artistic inclinations.”
She was growing up in San Francisco during the pivotal counterculture movement of the 1960s, graduating from George Washington High School in the spring of 1967—just in time for the Summer of Love. She remembers a peace march passing by her home and onto the Polo Fields in 1969, where Buffy Sainte-Marie performed.
The November 15, 1969 march was organized by Terence Hallinan, then co-chairman of the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), and Donald Kalish, chairman of the UCLA Philosophy Department who was instrumental in hiring Angela Davis at UCLA. The Hallinan name might be familiar to San Franciscans. He was the son of attorney Vincent Hallinan who took on the Market Street Railway and defended labor leader Harry Bridges, among other notable (and infamous) achievements. Terence spent his early youth in-and-out of trouble and was known for frequent fistfights. But he seems to have turned over a new leaf as he became more politically engaged, joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963 and spending that summer working on Civil Rights issues in Mississippi. When he returned to San Francisco he helped to organize the local W.E.B. DeBois Club and joined the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination which staged sit-ins at Mel’s Drive In to end unfair and racially discriminatory hiring practices and the local chain in the Fall of 1963.
MOBE was defined by the San Francisco Examiner as “a loose alliance of ‘square citizens’ opposed to the national involvement in Vietnam, the Left, the Far Left, the Far Far Left, the Maoists, the Trotskyites, and other far out political believers.11” The committee's headquarters was located at 683 McAllister Street where they announced their intention for the rally as an outgrowth of the Moratorium Day demonstrations that had taken place on October 15, 1969. They were planning what the San Francisco Examiner called an “ambitious program” for the march to the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park that would include musical performances by Buffy St. Marie and Arlo Guthrie.12
Up to 100,000 people participated in the march which began at the Embarcadero and moved towards Golden Gate Park– “a distance of 7.5 miles through business and residential areas.” The Peace March was described as the “largest anti-war demonstration in the West;” they filled Cabrillo Street and 30th Avenue as the march went through the Richmond District before entering the park. It was attended by mostly young White people under the age of 30. Ken Finis, a Black trade unionist in attendance, was asked why it wasn’t a more diverse crowd; he said, “The black community is against the war, but may not be too sure of the effectiveness of a demonstration of this sort.13
Participants were described by a remarkably out-of-touch journalist at the San Francisco Examiner as “youthful” and “determined.” They were dressed as “Indians, as Buddhists…they wore pre-shrunk blue jeans and it could have been a bra-less march for many. The hair of both males and females was long, straight, or curled or natural. Boys and girls walked hand in hand and boys walked with their arms around boys. And in the middle of it all was one man beyond thirty who wore a gray flannel suit and a blue bow tie. He walked alone, a space all around him.” But, the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “not everyone who appeared to be marching for peace was a willing participant in the parade. Near the Sears store on Geary Street, a middle-aged woman was asked why she was marching. She replied: ‘I’m not. I’m just trying to get to Sears.’14
It was also described as “probably” the most peaceful demonstration out of a series of coordinated protests throughout the United States that day. MOBE had deployed monitors trained to identify and neutralize anyone looking to disrupt the peaceful events of the day. The program in the park was recorded by “live microphones and cameras of Educational TV Station KQED.15” Speakers included former United States Senator Wayne Morse, and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Conference, and David Hilliard of the Black Panther Party whose obscene remarks about President Richard Nixon were broadcast live by KQED. John Rice, the Programming Director for KQED, was asked to defend his actions the next day which he did, stating simply: “I didn’t know he was going to say it….It would not have been broadcast if I knew it was coming or if I had reacted faster.” But, he added, “We feel very strongly that the value of broadcasting an event like this in toto is to provide the public an opportunity to view for themselves the men and the ideas that are expressed. In the final analysis it is the public which must make the judgment of these speakers, these people, and their ideas.16” The San Francisco Examiner reported that those in attendance “listened to the speakers ‘do their thing’ without much enthusiasm until a popular rock band began to play. And members of the cast of ‘Hair,’ the so-called modern musical comedy, did a number–clothed–on the plywood podium.17
She followed her artistic inclinations into an AA in Advertising and Design from City College of San Francisco, thereafter earning her BA in Sociology from San Francisco State College in 1972. She remembered in 2001, “In my junior college years, in the mid- to late-1960s during the Vietnam War, there was a lot of student unrest and activity in response to it. This continued when I went to San Francisco State College. During this time period, the campus was a hotbed of all kinds of political activity. So this was the backdrop that shaped from here on my political thinking in terms of humanitarian issues, civil rights, and social justice issues. My major was sociology and...I think it led to a certain type of philosophical and sociological thinking that has influenced my work.”
She continued in 2001, “My work is based on ideas and ideologies that are...relevant to my personal life.” The technical skills she picked up while working in the advertising industry informed her work, even though commercial in origin. In 1977, she was included in the 31st annual San Francisco Arts Festival and awarded the Purchase Award for the San Francisco International Airport Competition. She remembered in a 2015 interview, “Out of oer 750 submissions, mine was one of ten selected in the nine Bay Area counties for installation at SFO in the North Terminal. But what began as a moment of excitement and celebrations became what one reporter called a Byzantine odyssey and for many reasons, including a stall in construction, that piece did not go up for eight years. Finally, it was discovered hidden in the back of a City office…by an uncle of mine whose work order there was to install the 4’ x 6’ canvas. Thus began my foray into the city’s bureaucracies. It finally went up at the airport and remained on view for several years until the new International Terminal was built. Alas, it disappeared again and then, as with another piece of mine which seemed to vanish, a series of circumstances brought it back to me. A friend in the arts discovered the deaccessioned work at a Butterfield auction and alerted me about its existence and location. More navigating and bureaucracy ensued until it came home.18
By the beginning of the 1980s, her work was shown around the world—including the first group exhibition at the Richmond Arts Center. In 1982, she moved to the Castro District with her first lover, living on Caselli off Douglass Street. She remembered in 2001, “this of course was a big step because I became entrenched in community activities, and my art evolved along with that.” Here she was introduced to community politics with the Harvey Milk Club and centered in the nascent AIDS epidemic.
In the 1980s, she said “I was painting in my general network of friends...My signature paintings, with their super realistic, crisply rendered compositions convey a subtle message of visibility for the socially and politically disenfranchised peoples in my personal social landscape—people of color, women, lesbians, and gay men. In my oversized acrylics on canvas I explore a genre that is largely invisible in the fine arts. Through character studies in contemporary themes I restore cultural difference to center stage, creating a presence which resonates in its luminosity, texture, color, and light. While enticing the view with a non-confrontational aesthetic, these narratives simultaneously challenge old world views and compel a rethinking of how we define society’s others.”
From 1988 to 1992, she served on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and is also a co-founder of the Queer Cultural Center in addition to being an original member of Lesbians in the Visual arts. In 1990, she co-curated The Lesbian and Gay Fine Art Exhibition in San Francisco’s City Hall Rotunda and participated in the first annual Open Studios of San Francisco. She was also a panelist on KQED’s Forum, subject: “Talking about Lesbian and Gay Issues.” She would appear consistently on KQED and in local galleries throughout the 1990s. Co-curating exhibitions at the South of Market Cultural Center in San Francisco would lead to her own retrospective at SOMARTS in the Spring/Summer of 2001.
She remembers, “I had gotten to chatting with Carlos Loarca, the gallery director down at SOMARTS. We had discussed putting a show together. He asked me, would I ever consider having a show there if they had an opening? I said, ‘That sounds like a great idea.’ Meanwhile I kind of parked it. I had talked to other people about the idea, and we had decided that it really was time to create some kind of mini-retrospective of my work, spanning over two decades. So these were little ideas, little seeds in the back of my mind. And then one day I thought, I’ll just go ahead and call Carlos and see if we could start to plan, maybe a year or so in advance -- perhaps in the year 2001 or so. He agreed, so we tentatively penciled in a show."
"Then I started thinking about what kind of show would this look like. What kind of images do I want to include? Do I want to have everything? Do I want to concentrate on something thematic? I decided that I wanted to do some sort of homage to Bernice Bing (who was a good friend of mine and a founding member of the Asian American Women Artists Association), using some of the ideas that she had in her journals, and incorporating images that make references to her life and work.” Bing was a “noted Bay Area pioneer artist of the Beat era, a founder of SomArts and its first Executive Director.19
She continued, “I had this in mind to be on one of the walls as a centerpiece, and then I had another piece, which is called “Before the Wedding of Kim Anno and her lover, Ellen Meyers”, and this would be another anchor piece. That led me to concentrate on the evolution of the queer community as I have documented it over the years.”
She continued, “As I talked it over with various friends within my art network, including friends and board members from QCC and the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, as well as SOMARTS, we decided that to capture a wider audience. We had the idea of starting this exhibition under the United States of Asian America Festival being presented by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center and letting it bled into the beginning of the Queer Cultural Festival as well. This way we can capture a wider audience of lesibans, gays, bis, transgenders, and other communities, along with the Asian community during that time frame.”
The retrospective would be called “Portraits of a Community” and included 20 pieces that presented a portrait of the Queer community as it had developed before Lenore’s eyes over the previous 30 years.
Lenore’s mother, Grace, passed away in 199820 and her father passed away in 2004. In his obituary published by the San Francisco Chronicle, he was remembered as a “noted scholar, writer and past president of the Mathematics Association of America” as well as a “long time supporter of the Chinese Historical Society of America” as an “avid collector of Asian art and antiquities.21
In 2001, Chinn recalled. “My parents' decision to leave the safety and familiarity of Chinatown led to experiences which were almost unprecedented for that era, and certainly were rare for Asian Americans. This path, forged by my father in pursuit of his professional goals as an educator and mathematician, opened the door to a new way of life. My younger brother and I grew up with a family model, which offered simultaneously a traditional Chinese cultural framework of community and family, along with the opportunity to embrace non-traditional and non-Asian ideas. In short, my life's journey became a cross-pollination of other worldviews."
As text from her 2017 GLBT History Society Museum and Archives exhibition, “Picturing Kinship: Portraits by Lenore Chinn” states, “her paintings are based in the Bay ARea tradition of photo realism, with its practice of creating large=scale acrylics inspired by photographs of everyday life.” However, her perspective is unique in that it focuses on “LGBTQA relationships, racial and ethnic diversity, and Chinese-American culture and kinship.22
21. "William G. "Bill" Chinn Obituary," SFGate.com, March 28, 2004.
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