By Constance Wong
Northwest Asian Weekly
Award-winning artist James “Jim” Leong died on Thursday, April 21. He is perhaps most remembered for painting the first Chinese American historical mural in San Francisco. “One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in America” is a 5 by 17.5-foot mural that is exhibited in the Chinese Historical Society of America building of San Francisco. However, Leong’s international career drove him toward many other realms within the art community.
Leong was born on Nov. 27, 1929, in San Francisco. As a child, he was tutored by a painter hired by his father to help begin his art career. “He knew he was different. He wanted to paint,” said Dean Leong, Jim Leong’s widow.
“He always knew he wanted to be an artist from the time he was 3 years old. … He was always scribbling on the walls of his home.”
Leong and Dean met in Rome, after Leong’s brother, Tony, recommended that she meet with him in the city. “I worked with Jim’s brother, Tony, on projects in San Francisco, Chinatown. I heard all about Jim when I would visit his home and saw these great paintings on the wall. When I graduated from college, I went on this three-month trip to Europe. I stopped in Rome, and when I opened the door, I saw that he lived in this 15th century palazzo apartment. Within 15 minutes, I knew this man was going to be important in my life. I gave up everything and my entire life in America to be with him.”
From 1942 to 1945, Leong attended California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland to earn his Bachelor of Arts and Masters in Fine Arts. In 1955, he earned his second master’s degree in art education at San Francisco State College. Leong remained in the city until the mid-1950s.
In 1956, Leong was awarded a Fulbright grant and relocated to Norway. After two years in Norway, Leong was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation grant to teach and paint in Rome.
Leong was an international man when it came to his paintings, said Dean. He wanted to be recognized as an American painter — not a Chinese American painter. In Europe, he was welcomed as such.
“Everyone called him maestro wherever he went, and he was welcomed as the American painter that he was,” said Dean.
Since the early 1990s, Leong lived in Pioneer Square in Seattle.
“He loved the West Coast, but he didn’t want to live in San Francisco again. He moved to Seattle because that’s where he felt the East and West met. … He felt very much at home right from the start. Seattle reminded him of his life in San Francisco and Rome,” said friend Greg Sletteland.
Seattle is where Sletteland and Leong met, at a party in the summer of 2002. When asked what brought the pair together, Sletteland said, “We had a parallel life story… within a mirror image. We had cross-cultural interests.”
The two met every Tuesday for nearly nine years, and the friends bonded over experiences with discrimination, politics, and artistic interests.
Leong’s art is characterized as abstract expressionism. His interests changed over time. Leong transitioned from painting nature and how it relates to humans, to painting the history of East–West relations.
“He started doing paintings with greater historical and political platforms after the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989,” said Sletteland.
Sletteland describes Leong’s paintings as “his story of growing up in San Francisco, Chinatown. I saw a lot of emotion in his paintings.”
Dean explained that Leong had a hard childhood, saying, “Jim was often beaten by white children and chased by Japanese children. The kids would take away his badge that he wore. It would state that he’s Chinese. At the time, the sticker was $5, which is about $50 now. When he got home, his mother would beat him for losing his badge, too.”
Leong is most renowned for his paintings, but his art career included stints as a private art tutor, critic, and journalist. He has small roles in “The Godfather III” and “The Last Emperor.”
“[Leong] was a man of … well, he was a world-class conversationalist and story teller — a man of curiosity and a cosmopolitan,” said Sletteland.
In addition to his wife, Leong is survived by his brother, Dr. Tony Leong (Piedmont, Calif.); his sister, Helen Jueng (San Francisco, Calif.); his two sons Kim Leong (Hercules, Calif.) and Bo Leong (Seattle, Wash.); his two daughters, Mai Ann Cozzupoli (Rome, Italy) and Penelope Leong (Walnut Creek, Calif.); his former wife, Karen Paluzzi (Oakland, Calif.); and four grandchildren, as well as three great-grandchildren.
Leong’s memorial is pending. ♦
Constance Wong can be reached at email@example.com.