Look Tin Eli

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Look Tin Eli (left) and Look Poong-San, largest stockholder of Canton Bank[1]

Look Tin Eli (1870–1919) (Chinese: 陸潤卿, Lù Rùnqīng; also Luk Tin-Sun,[2] Look Tin Sing[3]: 28 ) was a Chinese-American businessman, born in Mendocino, California, who achieved much success in San Francisco's Chinatown, especially after the 1906 earthquake.[4]

Mendocino beginnings[edit]

1910 signatures: phoneticized Look Tin Eli in Cantonese
1918 signatures: used Chinese name 陸潤卿

Born May 5, 1870, in the back of the store operated by his father on the south side of Mendocino's Main Street,[4] Look Tin Eli was the firstborn in Mendocino's Look family (陸 Lù, also Luk or Loke in Cantonese). The Look family was headed by his Chinese immigrant father from Heung-san (香山), Luk Bing-Tai[2] (aka Eli Tia Key), and his mother, Su Wang, who had four children.[5][6]

As a boy, he was sent to China in 1879, prior to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, to learn the Chinese language and culture.[4] Upon his return to San Francisco in 1884, he was denied entry at age 14 back to the United States because he lacked the necessary certificate under the 1882 Act. He challenged the decision at the federal level and won his case at the U.S. Circuit Court of San Francisco.[4][7]

This was the celebrated case[8][9] of Look Tin Sing, which was Look Tin Eli's childhood name.[3]: 28  In court, he was represented by two lawyers: Thomas Riordan, a prominent San Francisco attorney retained by the Chinese consulate and perhaps the Chinese Six Companies,[10] and William M. Stewart, a prominent railroad attorney and former attorney general of California.[11]: 64  The 1884 ruling[12] by Justice Stephen Field, who declared that children born in U.S. jurisdictions are U.S. citizens regardless of ancestry, was an important decision that preceded and later cited at the landmark 1898 U.S. Supreme Court citizenship case.[11]: 107 

"Look Tin Sing is my childhood name." -- Look Tin Eli (1910)[3]: 28 

After completing his education, he took over the management of what was his father's store, which had been sold in 1881.[5] Reportedly, he and his younger brother, Lee Eli, "capably ran the Mendocino store in the 1890s".[6] As a merchant, he visited China twice, returning to the U.S. in July 1891 and November 1895.[3]

San Francisco career[edit]

In the 1890s, Look Tin Eli, with his China-born wife (surname Jeong) and one child,[3] moved to San Francisco.[7]

In February 1904, Tin Eli, with his younger brother, Lee Eli, as his assistant, helped establish a San Francisco branch of the Russo-Chinese Bank at 417 Montgomery Street, the only branch in the United States. He was the "confidential adviser to the bank" and managed the Chinese negotiations and loans, abroad and locally.[13]

c.1910: post-quake rebuild
2006: 100 years after quake
Looking north along Grant from the intersection of Grant and Pine. The distinctive pagoda-topped roofs of the Sing Fat and Sing Chong buildings on the left side of each picture are icons of San Francisco's Chinatown.

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed Chinatown, including the Russo-Chinese Bank, Look Tin Eli became "the public face of the post-quake rebuilding of Chinatown".[2] As general manager of the Sing Chong bazaar, he articulated a vision of post-quake Chinatown as an "ideal Oriental City". Already a skilled negotiator, he secured substantial loans from his Hong Kong and Canton partners for the rebuilding and persuaded Chinese merchants to hire western architects to rebuild Chinatown in an "Oriental" style in order to promote tourism and social change.[14] In this way, his grand vision of "veritable fairy palaces filled with the choicest treasures of the Orient"[15] was realized by the design (by T. Paterson Ross) and construction of the pagoda-topped buildings of the Sing Chong and Sing Fat bazaars on the west corners of Grant Ave (then Dupont St) and California St, which have since become icons of San Francisco Chinatown.[16]

In 1907, Tin Eli also helped found and operate, in partnership with cannery magnate Lew Hing, the Canton Bank of San Francisco (金山廣東銀行), the first Chinese-owned bank in the United States.[17] On the corner of Kearny and Clay, it was for a time the only bank to provide the Chinese community with financial resources to rebuild Chinatown.[2] A year later, Canton Bank of San Francisco was the principal bank for more than 100,000 Chinese in the United States and Mexico. The largest individual stockholder was Mendocino's Look Poong-San,[1] who is his brother, also known in the U.S. as Lee Eli, who became a wealthy banker in China.[5][6][18]

According to the San Francisco Chronicle,[19] Look Tin Eli was able in 1908 to persuade the chief of police to allow fireworks permit for Chinese New Year festivities, gaining support from the white merchants as well. The reconstruction of the post-quake Chinatown was thus completed in 1908, a year ahead of the rest of the City of San Francisco.[20]: 92–94 

"Greater San Francisco may well be proud of its new Chinatown... for it is the one distinguishing mark which proclaims her different from any other great city in the whole civilized world. And the Chinese residents of the city are certainly deserving of unstinted praise for the pluck and courage they have shown in the rehabilitation of their particular quarter, which the united press of San Francisco declared could never be resuscitated." --Look Tin Eli (1910)[15]

In 1910, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce sent him, along with Ng Poon Chew from the Chinese Six Companies, to Washington DC to object, after the fact and to no avail, to the relocation of the immigration station from the shed on pier 40 in San Francisco to Angel Island.[21]

In October 1914, as president of the Canton Bank, he hosted 300 guests in a grand "red egg feast", expanding the custom traditionally reserved for male babies, to celebrate the one-month birthday of his new granddaughter,[9]: 57  with the governor of the Federal Reserve Bank among those bringing congratulations.[22]

In 1915, in response to Pacific Mail Steamship Company withdrawing service to the Orient, a group of Chinese-American businessmen organized the China Mail Steamship Company (中國郵船公司), the first Chinese-owned steamship company in the United States, and elected Look Tin Eli as its founding president.[23][24]


  1. ^ a b Chinn, Thomas W. (1989), Bridging the Pacific, Chinese Historical Society of America, pp. 51–55, ISBN 978-0-9614198-3-7.
  2. ^ a b c d "Chinatown Rising: In celebration of community, 1906-2006..." (PDF). Chinese Historical Society of America. 2006. p. 3 and see p.10 (last page) for a short biography of Look Tin Eli (aka Luk Tin-Sun).
  3. ^ a b c d e "Return Certificate Case File of Chinese Departing -- Look Tin Eli (12017/11150)". National Archives Catalog. see files 26-28. February 1910. Retrieved 14 April 2019. From file 28: 'Look Tin Sing is my childhood name.' (signed) Look Tin Eli{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  4. ^ a b c d Cooper Kelley, Anne; Hee-Chorley, Lorraine (2 September 2017). "Discovering family ties at the Chinese temple in Mendocino". Ukiah Daily Journal.
  5. ^ a b c Bear, Dorothy; Houghton, David (1990–1991). The Chinese of the Mendocino coast (Mendocino Historical Review, Volume XV). Mendocino, CA: Mendocino Historical Research. p. 10 has the Look family tree and p.11 has some pictures and clippings.
  6. ^ a b c Baumgardner III, Frank H (2010). Yanks in the Redwoods: carving out a life in Northern California. New York: Algora Publishing. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-87586-802-8.
  7. ^ a b Schwartz, Karen. "The photographs that revealed a family hero". America: promised land. history.com. Retrieved 3 April 2019.
  8. ^ "Look Tin Sing: An Important Case Argued in the Circuit Court Yesterday". UCR California Digital Newspaper Collection. Daily Alta California,Volume 37, Number 12586, 28 September 1884. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  9. ^ a b Jorae, Wendy Rouse (2009). The children of Chinatown: growing up Chinese-American in San Francisco, 1850-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-3313-1. Note: Look Tin Sing and Look Tin Eli are mentioned independently with no interrelations
  10. ^ McClain, Charles J. (1994). In search of equality: the Chinese struggle against discrimination in 19th-century America. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 336 note 43 and pp.345-346 note 18. ISBN 0-520-08337-7.
  11. ^ a b Nackenoff, Carol; Novkov, Julie (2021). American by birth: Wong Kim Ark and the battle for citizenship. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 9780700631933.
  12. ^ "In re Look Tin Sing (Ruling)" (PDF). libraryweb.uchastings.edu. Federal Reporter 21 F. 905, Circuit Court, D. California, September 29, 1884. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  13. ^ Scanland, J.M. (July 1905). The Russo-Chinese Bank (San Francisco). Detroit, Michigan: The Business Man's Magazine and Book-Keeper. pp. 236–245 (see p.243 for a photo of Tin Eli with his Chinese name 陸潤卿 ).
  14. ^ Ngai, Mae (April 17, 2006). "How Chinatown rose from the ashes". The New York Times. Retrieved March 23, 2011.
  15. ^ a b Look Tin Eli (1910). Our New Oriental City: Veritable fairy palaces filled with the choicest treasures of the Orient. San Francisco: The Metropolis of the West. pp. 90–93.
  16. ^ Choy, Philip P (2012). San Francisco Chinatown: a guide to its history & architecture. San Francisco: City Lights. pp. 43–46, 111–115. ISBN 978-0-87286-540-2.
  17. ^ "Minority Banking Timeline: 1907, Canton Bank". Partnership for Progress. U.S. Federal Reserve System.
  18. ^ Hee-Chorley, Lorraine (2009), Chinese in Mendocino County, Images of America, Arcadia Publishing, p. 76, ISBN 978-0-7385-5913-1.
  19. ^ Hartlaub, Peter (October 3, 2015). "How San Francisco's Chinatown rose from ashes, after decades of struggle". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 8 April 2019. ..."It is part of the Chinese religion to set off fireworks as the old year closes and the new year comes in," Eli told The Chronicle. "On this ground alone I think we could demand our permits, for our treaty rights allow us to worship in our way in freedom and peace."...
  20. ^ Pan, Erica Y.Z. (1995). The Impact of the 1906 Earthquake on San Francisco's Chinatown (American University Studies: Ser. 9, Vol. 173 ed.). Peter Lang. ISBN 0-8204-2607-5.
  21. ^ Lai, H.M. "Island of Immortals: Chinese immigrants and the Angel Island immigration station" (PDF). himmarklai.org. p. 4. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  22. ^ "Bank president entertains". No. v.13, p.327. Coast Banker. 1914.
  23. ^ Tate, E. Mowbray (1986). Transpacific Steam. Ch 5: China Mail Steamship Company. Rosemont Publishing. pp. 71–74. ISBN 0-8453-4792-6.
  24. ^ Barde, Robert Eric (2008). Immigration at the Golden Gate: passenger ships, exclusion, and Angel Island. Ch.7: "The life and death of the China Mail". Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. ISBN 978-0-313-34782-5.