Jon Y. Lee

Photo courtesy of Anthony Bak Buccitelli

Chinese American Fieldworker and Writer

Jon Y. Lee


Jon Y. Lee (also known as Jon Leyim) was the son of Chinese immigrants who settled in Oakland, California. As a recent high school graduate of Oakland Technical High School, he was hired by Paul Radin as a fieldworker for the Federal Writers Project (FWP) to collect Chinatown traditions in Oakland, California. Not academically trained as a folklorist, he was hired because his gift for writing and his multilingual skills—in his heritage Cantonese as well as Mandarin and English—might allow him to provide for the project a reliable view of the Chinese community of which he was a part. Lee would eventually become one of the most active fieldworkers in a series of federally funded ethnographic and folkloristic projects directed by Paul Radin, an anthropologist, in the Bay Area between 1934 and 1937. Radin built on the work of his teacher, Franz Boas, who was interested in documenting the adaptation and assimilation of immigrant and ethnic communities, and introduced Lee to Boas’ fieldwork and anthropological theories.

Lee was an aspiring writer who saw literary writing as more elevated than the ethnographic work he was hired to do. However, he provided some of the earliest, most detailed ethnographic work of Chinese American traditions and often framed his research through the lens of comparison with American traditions. Lee has been credited as producing the first collection of Chinese American folk narratives. Some scholars surmise that Radin edited and published much of Lee’s research under his own name without Lee’s input, allowing Lee’s contributions to remain invisible until recently. As his contributions have been reclaimed, folklorists are beginning to recognize Lee as the first Asian American to work professionally as a folklorist. A significant portion of his groundbreaking FWP research has been published in:

The Golden Mountain: Chinese Tales Told in California, edited by Paul Radin ([1940] 1971)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)