This painting by Jake Lee is doubly significant, both because it captures a little-known aspect of Chinese American history and because the artwork itself was nearly lost to history. Vineyard Workers in Sonoma County is one of twelve Jake Lee canvases that once hung in Kan’s Restaurant of San Francisco, where celebrities like Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Kwan, and Marilyn Monroe frequently dined. The owner Johnny Kan commissioned the paintings to educate Chinese and non-Chinese about the long history of Chinese in America. When the restaurant closed in the 1990s, the paintings vanished, only to reappear at auction years later, where they were acquired by the Chinese Historical Society of America.
In addition to the mining and railroad work for which they are known, early Chinese immigrants to California played key roles in many other developing industries, including agriculture. Picking fruit, tending the soil, and applying techniques from China’s Pearl River Delta to build a system of levees and irrigation channels, Chinese laborers helped transform California into a productive farm region.