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San Francisco Exhibit Showcases ‘Lost History’ Of Famed Restaurant

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Kan's Restaurant, Chinatown

Kan’s in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (F. Atkinson/Urbanspoon.com)

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SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) — A bit of lost San Francisco history has returned to the city and is now on full display in Chinatown.

A group of paintings by artist Jake Lee are being showcased at the Chinese Historical Society of America. They depict life for Chinese Americans when they first arrived on the West Coast, everything from building the railroads to crushing grapes in wine country.

“The paintings themselves were commissioned in 1959 by Johnny Kan,” said Sue Lee, Executive Director of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

KCBS’ Rebecca Corral Reports:

Kan owned the landmark Kan’s Restaurant in Chinatown, where the paintings were hung in the Gum Shan dining room.

“Kan’s Restaurant was the Chinatown destination restaurant in the 50’s and 60’s. Anybody who was a celebrity and came to San Francisco to visit Chinatown would dine or at least go to Kan’s for a drink,” Lee said.

Frank Sinatra dined at Kan’s regularly, as did Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Marilyn Monroe. Herb Caen was also a regular, writing tales from the restaurant in his column.

After Kan died and the restaurant changed hands, the paintings disappeared in the early 1990’s. But last year, Lee said she was able to track them down at an auction, raising money and purchasing some of them.

After doing more research, she discovered the 12th painting in the series was actually still in San Francisco.

“A former employee had been storing them and he was more than happy for us to be able to take that painting,” said Lee.

The paintings and other memorabilia from Kan’s Restaurant are part of an exhibit called “Finding Jake Lee” at the Chinese Historical Society of America, which runs through September 16.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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