Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Chinoiserie, Velvet Paintings and the Olympic Girl: the Art of Wylog Fong

When the 1984 Olympics came to Los Angeles, the Natural History Museum planned a retrospect on the Los Angeles 1932 Summer Olympics. 

Recently I came across their 1984 poster and the name "Wylog Fong" below a vintage image reproduced from the museum's collection and used on the poster.  Stopped in my tracks and a bit shocked that a Chinese person had a bold contribution in the 1932 games - I mined the internet for an explanation:

Fong was commissioned for the July, 1932 cover of the magazine Game & Gossip published out of Los Angeles.  It is unknown whether the expensive, specialized magazine (35 cents in the middle of the Great Depression with an emphasis on golfing and high fashion) survived into the following year.  (A magazine of the same name returned in 1946 based in Monterey, Calif.)

Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, 
Natural History Museum of LA County

His concept of a physically fit female athlete is idealized with her well-coifed, auburn waves; rouged, high cheekbones; elegant, tapered fingers; and long, shapely limbs.  She is clearly the first at the finish line, and in the momentum she bursts beyond the allotted page boundaries.  In the background, the male pole vaulter gets secondary attention before the crowds of spectators inside the Memorial Coliseum at Exposition Park.

Asian American Olympians

It was 1932 that China sent its first teams.  There was fervor among the Japanese American community rooting for the Japan athletes.  In 1948 home-grown Asian American contenders representing the United States made their historical marks: competitive divers Vicki Manalo Draves and Sammy Lee.

Vicki Taylor, Double Olympic Gold Medalist, 1948 London Games

San Francisco-born, Filipino-English Victoria Manalo registered in the Games as Vicki Taylor, using her mother's maiden name, to deemphasize her Asian heritage.  She was the first Asian American representing the U.S. to win Olympic gold - twice at the same games.

Image courtesy of Crescenta Valley Historical Society

Sammy Lee, Olympic Gold Medalist, 1948 and 1952

Vicki's friend, Sammy Lee, was the first Asian American man to win Olympic medals.  He was born in Fresno, and as a child he moved with his family to L.A.  His inspiration to compete in a future Olympiad was spawned by the 1932 arrival of the games to his city.  As a Korean American, his path to success required overcoming the municipal practices of racially segregated public swimming pools.

Image courtesy of thesammyleestory.com

Wy Lock or Wylog Fong (1894-1974)

A studious blogger, Alex Jay, had already pulled together a great deal of what is little known on the life of Fong.  Alex' 2013 blogpost in the blog Chinese American Eyes consolidates census data and art references:

The 1900 census listed 6-year old Lock Fong, along with his father, mother and many siblings.  Lock was born in San Francisco.  In the next census he was listed as Way Lock Fong and no longer had a mother.  By the 1920 census he was recorded in Portland, Oregon, as Wy Lok Fong, and his profession was landscape artist.

Throughout the 1920s he was active in Portland while living in Chinatown - he had studied at the Portland Art Association's school; he exhibited at the Museum of Art in 1922.  He was using the name Wylog Fong.


By the 1920s he settled into the signature Wylog Fong.  He produced Oriental, kitschy illustrations that were reproduced as prints by the West Coast Engraving Company of Portland.  Today these prints circulate for sale on the internet.  In example, below are Nuie Jai (Little Girl) and Num Jai (Little Boy).  The phonetic titles provide a clue to Chinese dialect he spoke, Toishan Cantonese, which was the prevalent dialect of the American Chinese speaker in those years.

Circa 1924 prints image courtesy of Worthpoint.com

Velvet Paintings

Wy Log Fong received an entry in Asian American Art:  a History, 1850-1970, compiled by Gordon Chang, Mark Johnson and Paul Karlstrom (Stanford General Books, 2008).  The scholarly entry suggested that Fong may have been the first artist in the U.S. to use velvet as a medium.  Below is a 1928 velvet piece found on the internet.

1928 Velvet Painting image courtesy of Worthpoint.com

Wylog Fong in Los Angeles

Fong lived in several American Chinatowns (San Francisco to Portland to L.A.) but his creative pursuits allowed him to achieve semblances of recognition and acceptance on the outside.

After departing Portland, Fong may have divided time between San Francisco and L.A. and eventually settled in L.A. in the 1950s until his death in 1974.  Two pieces of information shed a bit more light on Fong's many decades of living in Los Angeles:  he studied at the Art Students League, and he worked as a sidewalk pastel portrait painter in Chinatown.

Importantly, his contribution in the issue of Game & Gossip included a credit mentioned in the interior of the magazine:

WYLOG FONG, who drew this charming July cover, is  a young Chinese artist, born in romantic San Francisco Chinatown.  He takes his artistic cue from the color stylist [Stanton] Macdonald Wright, grand llama of the Art Students league.

It is conceivable that Fong worked on the sidewalks of Christina Sterling's tourist destination, China City, sometime between the years 1938 and 1949 - the dates of the year China City opened until an arson fire destroyed it.

Herman Schultheis Collection, L.A. Photographers Collection
Los Angeles Public Library