Remembrance by Lee, Ching Wah

Mr. Ching Wah Lee 12/2/76

SABIRA: This is Thurs., Dec. 2, and this is Ching Wah Lee. Mr. Lee, what do you recall about meeting Samuel Lewis?

LEE: I recall him as a very able and a very earnest young man; I met him about 25 years ago. Later on I met him again when he entered my class at the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Modern Design. And he took two courses from me: one is on Oriental ceramics and the other is on Oriental sculpture. To my surprise he took my ceramics classes four times, because he claimed that each time that he got something new that he learned from it, and with the sculpture class he contributed a great deal because the average members of the class did not know much; he added from his own experience. And there was one time when I made a mistake; I said that the Persian is one branch of Mohammedanism and the rest of Arabia has the other one, and I think I made a mistake in saying that now. There is the one that does not adhere to the descendant from the blood line, and he immediately corrected me and said, "No, it is the other way around.

SABIRA: Did he stand up in his chair and correct you, or how did he do it?

LEE: Yes, something like that, yes.

SABIRA: We have stories from other professors where he would be in a classroom situation and he would stand bolt upright in his chair and he would say, "No it isn't so," or something, but go ahead—

LEE: Then one time when he was talking about his experience, you know, in the Far East he mentioned he was in Siam and they were all using forks for dinner, and he was the only one that used the chop sticks. And he said, "Shame on you people, you should have preferred the chopsticks, and so he proceeded to demonstrate to, these young Thai about how easy it is to use the chopsticks.

SABIRA: This must have been his trip in 1956?

LEE: Yes, around that time, and he also described his experience in Indo-China which at that time was a part of Vietnam, and it is practically the equivalent of southern Vietnam today.

SABIRA: Was that Vietnam?

LEE: Yes. Oh, he was also in Cho Chin in India. Now there is a Jewish colony there, and many of the temples are very sumptuous, well-built with tile floors and everything and that was an eye-opener to me too to realize that there was a strong Jewish colony there. He came into my studio many times and one time he bought some plates and bowls which I had gathered from China Town's oldest restaurant, one of the oldest restaurants being founded shortly after the gold-rush days, the name of the restaurant is Hang Fah Low (sp?) which means the pavilion of almond blossoms. He managed to pick up all those with cracks and nicks and so forth because they were the cheapest, and then he used them in serving his students.

SABIRA: Later on he did that too, he would go to the can places and he would pick up the dented cans—

LEE: Oh yeah.

SABIRA: And one person said that they thought that because he had been rejected all of his life, that he always had an affinity for something that was cracked and broken. Would you agree with that?

LEE: I had never thought of that but it is perfectly possibly, yes.

SABIRA: He was so sensitive because all of his life he was rejected—

LEE: Yes, that's right—

SABIRA: and put down, and never appreciated and never accepted—really until 1956, until he went to the Orient and he was accepted by everyone.

LEE: Actually, he had a very fine mind.

SABIRA: Oh he was extremely brilliant. What else do you remember, Mr. Lee?

LEE: That's all.

SABIRA: That's all?

LEE: Yes.

SABIRA: That's that time, when you saw him throughout the years, in between and you saw him—

LEE: Yes.

SABIRA: And you saw him in the classrooms and then, when was the last time that you saw him?

LEE: The last time that I saw him he came in here with a group of his followers.

SABIRA: Do you remember any changes that occurred in Sam after he came back from the Orient, for the first time?

LEE: No, just that he was more enthusiastic about the Orient. Of course he was always interested in Oriental religion. He belonged to the Sufi, and that takes in all creeds, the best of each.

SABIRA: He was a Murshid in the Sufi Order, which is about as high as you can get; it would be like Bishop or something, perhaps, if there was such an analogy. When you become a Murshid you have reached the highest echelon in the Sufi Order, that's what he had achieved, and he achieved this before, no, I guess it was 1960—

LEE: Before he went to the Orient—

SABIRA: Right. So he came—so in between 1956 and the time he came in with his students, which would have been around 1968 or '70, what occurred?

LEE: More likely '71 or '72.

SABIRA: he died in '71.

LEE: Oh '71 then.

SABIRA: So it would have been before.

LEE: Yes, about '71 then.

SABIRA: He started having disciples or students around 1968, or '67, so what happened within that 10 year interim that you remember, between '56 and—‘68

LEE: I didn't see him very often, but when he appeared at my class—and let's see—that's all.

SABIRA: He never collected any art, did he?

LEE: No, he is not an art collector.

SABIRA: Did that ever—did you wonder about that?

LEE: No, I hadn't, but think he was more interested in the cracked pieces than in the art—

SABIRA: Did he seem to know to have a knowledge of art though, when he was here?

LEE: Yes, he does, of course he took my courses on the history of Chinese porcelain and he can identify each piece that we had discussed in class—

SABIRA: You mean, before he took the course, he knew that already?

LEE: No, no, after the course—

SABIRA: That's what he learned in the classroom? And what year was that when he took the class?

LEE: I think that must be before he went to the Orient.

SABIRA: He mentioned in his diaries that he went there with more than the average knowledge of Oriental art and Oriental culture because he wanted to go that way. He studied the Noh drama, he studied the Tea Ceremony, he studied like with you and became well oriented in everything before he took a step out of America, which is very rare—

LEE: Yes.

SABIRA: Most people don't do that. How did he look when he came in here? What was his personality like, his personal—

LEE: I think a little more change from the bizarre, yes.

SABIRA: Was he crazy?

LEE: I wouldn't say he was crazy—

SABIRA: How did he act when he was in here?

LEE: He was sometimes unkempt, and—

SABIRA: In what way that you remember?

LEE: No, it was so long ago—

SABIRA: What do you remember, when you say "unkempt."

LEE: The tie never straight and so forth.

SABIRA: Did that disturb you because everything is so perfect here.

LEE: No, it doesn't disturb me at all. It was less so than when I first met him. I remember he was at the funeral of the daughter of a good friend of mine, an aviatress who died in an accident, and he was the presiding member of the Sufi.

SABIRA: We interviewed the Postmaster, is he related to you?

LEE: No.

SABIRA: He just happens to have the same last name.

LEE: Yes.

SABIRA: He was also a good friend of Sam's. Did you ever go to Sam's house, apartment?

LEE: No.

SABIRA: or meet his family, or, you didn't do that?

LEE: No.

SABIRA: Did you go out to meals with him?

LEE: No.

SABIRA: He loved Chinese food, `the real Chinese food.

LEE: Yes.

 SABIRA: Did he ever talk to you about Buddhism or religions?

LEE: Yes, when we had our study on sculpture, of course, we mentioned the different types of Buddhas, Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism, and how different they are from each other.

SABIRA: Did he have anything to say about the different kinds of Buddhas, Buddhism—you see he was a Zenshi, he had been ordained in several different Buddhist sects, and he studied with various Buddhist leaders—

LEE: He studied more with the Japanese—

SABIRA: Right. But Nyogen Senzaki, Shaku Soyen, I believe—different Buddhist, very famous Buddhist teachers, he studied—So you never had any discussions on Buddhism per se?

LEE: No, I don't recall any. (excuse me)

SABIRA: Did you find him particularly erudite or brilliant, and could you comment on that a little bit?

LEE: He spoke so knowingly of the different philosophies that he was just an Oriental, that's all, but we never talked long on any one subject, we would just flitter here and there, you see, and it seems that where we meet next time and talk more about it, but we never got around to it, to talking about—

SABIRA: He used to go out to Mr. Shibata's Gallery also. Do you know the Shibatas?

LEE: Yes, Ishuro Shibata.

SABIRA: Right. We have talked to them. I was out there at his studio.

LE: Oh yes, there is no phase of Oriental art and philosophy that he didn't enter into.

SABIRA: Yes, there was nothing he wasn't fascinated with, his total life was just learning.

LEE: Yes, he was like a child, always eager to learn.

SABIRA: He was going to college, to school, to college until he died. He just kept taking—it wasn't just your courses, he kept taking courses after courses with all these different professors, and we have a lot of adventures on that. How would you sum him up, Mr. Lee.

LEE: I would say he had a full life, and great satisfaction especially in the latter part of his life.

SABIRA: Did he talk to you about how he was finally accepted when he became 70 years old?

LEE: We know he was accepted, I don't know how he was finally accepted, yes.

SABIRA: What do you know about his later years?

LEE: He was quite happy.

SABIRA: Did he tell you that?

LEE: No, I just felt it.

SABIRA: You just—yes, Samuel Lewis' teacher who was Hazrat Inayat Khan, was the most famous—what do you call it?—Vina player in India.

LEE: Is that right?

SABIRA: Yes, before he came to America in 1910. I wonder if Sam had mentioned anything about—was this Vina here when he was here?

LEE: Yes, it was here. Yes.

SABIRA: Had he mentioned anything about that?

LEE: No, not a single mention.

SABIRA: The teacher, the person who brought Sufism to America was this famous Tansen, they called him, the Vina player, and he came here to spread his music and eventually left the Sufi Message instead, but I was just curious when you said that was a Vina; I had never seen one. Okay.