At first, it seems too convenient to connect these two men and their stories. And yes, it’s doubly cheesy to do it while Lunar New Year celebrations are going on in San Francisco. The timing is completely unintentional, I promise – but theirs are interesting stories that share some time and place elements, and even some common characters.
Lee Tung Foo was born in Watsonville in 1875. His father decided he should quit school and work full-time, so Lee ran away to Oakland. He worked for a time as a servant in the home of Zeno Mauvais and his wife Mae (the very same Mae mentioned in my previous post – here). Mae Mauvais did work for the Chinese Presbyterian Mission so Lee began singing in the mission choir where he caught the attention of Margaret Blake Alverson, a local voice teacher. Lee left the Mauvais home and went to work in Alverson’s household, and was thus able to train with her for several years.
Lee first hit the vaudeville stage in 1905. He performed in “yellow face”, reinforcing, but at the same time shattering, stereotypes with his accomplished classical singing voice and his stock Irish and Scots characters. After 14 very successful years on the Circuit, he bought a restaurant in New York City, married, moved to Los Angeles, and even made some film appearances. Not surprisingly for the time, he most often played cooks, laundrymen, and immigrant workers in B-movies. He’s in They Knew What They Wanted (1940), Across the Pacific (1942), did an episode of The Lone Ranger (1950), and made his final appearance at age 82, uncredited, as Man in Lobby in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). He died in 1966.
Dean Lung came to my attention through his professional attachment with former Oakland mayor Horace Walpole Carpentier. Dean was Carpentier’s butler for many years, mostly after 1888, when they left Oakland for New York City.
There are various accounts of their time together – but the details never quite jive. Dean Lung left Horace’s household (was beaten and fired… quit after a beating…), then returned for several years (because he offered to after Horace’s home burned… because he practiced Confucian ideals…), then, on his death bed (or not…) in 1901, Dean presented Horace with every nickel he’d ever been paid while in his employ.
Somehow (Horace in a fit of guilt and remorse… Dean in an inspired moment…) Dean’s money went to Columbia University for its East Asian Studies Department, and establishment of the Dean Lung Professorship (which still exists).
Awesome factoid: A few hours north of campus, in Galway, Saratoga County – long-time home of the Carpentier family – there is actually a Dean Lung Road. Local gossip carries on today – that the asylum-sanitarium ruin located on Dean Lung Road, on some old Carpentier property, is haunted by the ghost of Horace Carpentier.
For what it’s worth, Lee Tung Foo was very young, perhaps not even in Oakland yet, when Carpentier and Dean Lung returned to NYC. So those two may never have met.
But the Watson-Carpentier ties are legion, probably going back as far as their Saratoga County, New York boyhoods. Each of the three Watson brothers who moved to Oakland worked for Horace at one time or another. Clark Watson, the father of Frank Carpentier Watson, actually testified in several of the big Carpentier trials of the 1890s. So there’s little doubt my uncles knew Dean Lung. And there’s little doubt Frank in particular, given his wife’s family’s history with the man, knew Lee Tung Foo.
Frank was the son-in-law of Lee Tung Foo’s employers, AND he was named for Dean Lung’s employer. So there’s that.